Nigerian youths capable of putting country on path to progress, changing ugly narrative — Omotowa

Of course, climate change has given everyone enormous concerns. It may be arguable that since the world has seen periods in history where temperatures have risen without the world coming to an end, a rise above 1.5 degree may also come and go.

Former Managing Director of Nigeria LNG Limited, and Vice President of Shell Global, Babs Omotowa bestrode the sector like a colossus, leaving behind him indelible marks and groundbreaking achievements. In this interview with AZEEZ OLORUNLOMERU, he speaks on climate, science and development issues; mass migration of Nigerians and how government can stem the tide; and the place of Nigerian youths in changing the ugly narratives about the country, among other issues.

In recent times, there have been global concerns about environmental issues, how they affect populations and may affect our future. Are these concerns unfounded? Is there a possibility that the dooms day scenarios might not come to pass, the same way the millennium bug never happened?
Of course, climate change has given everyone enormous concerns. It may be arguable that since the world has seen periods in history where temperatures have risen without the world coming to an end, a rise above 1.5 degree may also come and go. However, one major difference with previous occurrences is that the world population will be several times more at nearly 10 billion by 2050 and thus putting huge pressure on earth’s resources, including water.

There is no doubt that emission levels are leading to rising temperatures and we are already seeing its effect in drying lakes and rivers, ferocious hurricanes, flooding and record level temperatures in many countries, and with devastating effect on people. What we cannot afford, therefore, is to bury our head like the ostrich or play Russian Roulette with this, as while it may not lead to the end of the world, its effect on the lives of billions of people will be severe.
Can the world stop the race to annihilation, especially as the US and China have pledged cooperation on temperature? Will there also be a clamp down on Artificial Intelligence in terms of limits?
Progress has been very slow since 2015 when the world came together in Paris to agree to work together towards reducing emissions. For example, emission levels are much higher now than anticipated then and even the $100bn agreed to enable developing countries move on the transition journey has not been met. Also, USA under Donald Trump had pulled out of the agreement and are only now rejoining the efforts. It is clearly excruciating the efforts to get basic pledges made and even when made there have been little implementation and hardly any consequences. The current projection is that we may be heading to a 2.4 degree world at current rates (as against 1.5-degree target) and as such we need to move faster, go deeper and invest trillions of dollars, much more than the recent token pledge of USA and China.

Of course, this is not an easy transition, especially for developing countries who currently have low energy per capita and also have high poverty levels especially as several of them also significantly depend on revenue from fossil fuels. However, the youths of the world give me hope as they are becoming more vociferous and their push will play a key part in stopping the race to annihilation, especially as it is their future that is being put at risk.

On AI, it continues to push the envelope with huge benefits to mankind including increasing capacities, driving efficiencies, lowering costs, etc. However, there are ethical concerns about just how far AI can go and that at some point it may displace humans and start to improve itself, outthink and subordinate humans. These are dilemmas that we will have to work through but I have no doubt that AI will continue to positively transform our way of life.

Do you foresee a war or military conflict between China and America, especially as America no longer command knee jerk loyalty of Western Allies?
One can never say never, especially with continued tension points such as the South China Sea and North Korea, which could easily spark confrontation. However, after the recent experience of America in Iraq and Afghanistan, in terms of the human and financial costs, the appetite for military conflict will be less even amongst the hawks. In addition, China has developed significant sophisticated military capabilities such as hypersonic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile, which will deter any direct attacks.

But even more important is that both countries have significant financial and economic interests in each other, which make direct military conflict less likely. Instead, there may be more of diplomatic and surreptitious strategies to retain or attain global leadership, and as such we may continue to see more of ‘cold’ wars rather than ‘hot’ wars.
Do you see any sort of caps or guidelines for growth of AI, similar to cloning and stem cell research?
The only scenario I can see for some sort of cap on AI’s development is if it reaches a point that AI threatens humanity by developing self-generating capabilities and evolves a ‘mind’ of its own. However, I believe AI is still at its early stages and it has huge upside potential in helping humanity solve some of our big challenges like climate change and poverty that we don’t yet have a roadmap on. AI may be the route to figure these out and provide effective solutions. So, the same way that the industrial revolution and its technological advancement from the 18th century was not capped, and has provided significant value to the world, I expect that AI is likely to go the same way.

It feels right for First and Second World countries to be concerned about the impending developments, what should concern a Third World country like Nigeria that is struggling with basic technology?
A good analogy on why we should be concerned with AI developments is telecommunications where over several decades in the past, we struggled with basic analogue phone systems. However, through our adoption of digital mobile telephoning, following the liberalisation policies of 2001, we leapfrogged to join the leading nations of the world and today, over 85% of Nigerians have access to telephoning, which has positively impacted the lives of citizens. It then subsequently enabled the transformation of many sectors like the banking and entertainment sectors, and today the service industry is a major contributor to our GDP.

Thus, AI development is actually a unique opportunity for us to leapfrog our current basic levels, improve productivity and solve many of our challenges. The other advantage for us is that we have a youth population that has excellent capacities in this area and in many of our digital incubation hubs and ecosystems, several accelerator projects and new start-ups are already on the way, creating employment and wealth. So, this is actually an opportunity that we need to seize as a nation and create the enabling environment to make Nigeria a global AI hub.

Migration and mass movement of people has been an ongoing phenomenon in Nigeria, particularly people living around the Lake Chad region. What policy or programme must government put in place to address this challenge?
The mass migration is a combination of the effect of climate change on the livelihood of people, which has increased poverty in the region, as well as the failure of government over the years to proactively address the issues. Take for examples the failure of the concept of River Basin Authorities (Chad Basin, Upper Niger Basin, Hadejia, and the like, to improve agricultural and rural development. Many of these exist more in name only, than in delivering their mandate. A Northeast Development Commission was recently put in place and one wonders if this will not be another NDDC in the making.

In addition, our population having grown from 45 million in 1960 to 200 million today, puts pressure on resources and infrastructure. Our high growth rate and low education levels simply complicates the issues. These challenges are upon us now and they require long-term solutions that are worked upon consistently, not start and stop. This is part of where the challenge lies, as since the 1970s, we have hardly had robust long-term planning that gets followed through irrespective of the party at the helm of government. We need to change that.
In addition, we have pulverized the governance capabilities at the local levels. Our Local Council Authorities hardly function, yet most of the causative issues of migration evolve at the local levels. Without strengthening the abilities of LGAs to function as they should, these problems will remain and grow, as many of the central government’s effort is more of putting plaster over the wound. Local Council autonomy should be the norm and enshrined in law, and citizens should exercise their duties to vote in credible persons to lead at LGA levels.

2050 has been set as end for use of fossil fuel in the US and other countries. What do you see as future of Nigeria?
To be clear, the ambition is on “Net-Zero” rather than “Zero.” This does not mean that there will be no fossil fuels in the energy mix, but that where there are, the carbon elements will either be captured (CCS) or that there are offsets for the carbon, such as forestation, which absorbs a lot of Co2. For us in Nigeria, our hydrocarbon resource is still quite strategic for our economy; as it provides most of our forex and substantial part of our revenue and electricity. In addition, our emissions’ contribution to global warming is relatively small compared with the likes of USA and China.

Thus, our huge gas reserves must continue to be part of our energy mix well beyond 2050. We should end flaring quickly due to its emissions, but aggressively explore for gas to meet our domestic energy needs and grow NLNG to 12 Trains, especially as oil will, with time, become less attractive to export. Gas is a cleaner fuel as it emits 40 per cent less Co2 and as such should continue to be part of our transition and international financial institutions would need to have a strategy that recognises this. However, we are also fortunate to have other sources of alternative energy including hydro, solar and wind, and we must take advantage of the opportunity to develop those. This requires clear framework, fiscal and incentives and our legislators need to pass an Energy Industry Bill sooner than later.

In addition, we do have a unique opportunity, with our huge landmass to grow forestation (to absorb Co2) across the country including even in the arid areas of the north. Many countries in Middle East have done this with technology and better agricultural practices, and we should learn and replicate.

Given the promise Nigeria had in the early years, especially after gaining Independence, what do you think has slowed its progress?
Some point at the amalgamation of southern and northern protectorate as being where the problem began. Some argue that starting democracy without having reached an appreciable GDP level is what has slowed our progress. With the benefit of hindsight, one can easily find contributory factors in each and every era of the past.
However, every generation inherits both the successes and the failures of the previous generations and it behooves on them to improve and set a better course, especially as each is also dealt a different reality. For example, the fast-paced digital interconnected world we are in today is different from the 1960s, and our population is also over 300 per cent that of 1970s.

So, I like to look forward and would rather flip the question as, when will the solution come? Singapore points to their Lee Kuan Yew moment and Dubai points to their Sheikh al-Maktoum moment. When would we have the Nigeria moment? When a visionary and bold leader will emerge, one who is able to enroll the country on the roadmap and pull the country through this phase of development? This is what we all should focus on and work towards and not looking for whodunnit, as even if we, for example, identify that it was because government fell into the hands of youths in the 1970s, as when the problem began, what would we do with it now?

As managing director of NLNG, you built six science laboratories in six Nigerian universities. Did you wish you could do more?
Of course, yes. Quality education is key to a country’s development and our intervention with the universities was aimed at improving teaching and research facilities in engineering as bedrock for societal progress. We started with one university in each geographical zone and I am pleased that my successor followed up on the initiative by expanding to other universities. Leadership is a continuum and hopefully the initiative will continue until at least one university in each state is covered, and also that the initiative gets expanded beyond the brick-and-mortar elements, to also include the human aspects.

In most developed countries, the partnership between academia and industry has been key in unlocking breakthrough research that has enabled the countries develop. This is an area we need to see more collaboration between major private companies and universities in Nigeria and I am glad we were able to make some progress. The government should consider using incentives, similar to the Infrastructure Tax Credit, to encourage private sector investment into specific aspects of universities’ research and innovation capacities.

What was the experience like in terms of delivery and capacity of the universities to manage and improve on them, talking about sustainability?
Our strategy was for the universities to decide on the equipment types and buildings appropriate for their specific needs. Each university then executed the agreed scope and we were pleased with the results, which reconfirmed that they had the capacity to execute.
Many of those universities are several decades old such as the University of Ibadan that is over 70 years. They have grown their campuses over the years and with such pedigree, I am confident that they can sustain and improve on the facilities that we built.

It is true that funding of universities has been a challenge and resulting in perennial strikes by lecturers over the years. This is quite disheartening, especially with the negative effects directly on students and indirectly on the nation. Our intervention was never intended as a silver bullet to solve the entire problem of tertiary education in Nigeria, as it certainly could not be, but rather it was a contribution in a specific area.

The solution requires collaboration between government, universities, private sector, philanthropists and alumni groups to improve the current situation. Sole reliance on government is not sustainable and for example universities should focus on generating revenue through patents on breakthrough research and wealthier Nigerians and private sectors should endow the universities.

How do you tie-in AI, climate issues, with the current curricula in universities, especially as NUC doesn’t seem to have any focus or alignment between the world of learning and the world of work?
The education system in Nigeria, which was inherited from the colonial British, is built on the overt, written, taught and assessed curriculum, which encourages memorisation and regurgitation. This historical approach has always had its limitation and drawbacks, especially in the practical application to real life work and in the quality of research.

The evolution of digital and AI, as well as the challenges of climate change have only further exposed these limitations. But Nigeria is not unique in being caught in this dilemma, and many western countries are still working to adapt. I do not know what specifically NUC may or may not be doing on this, but clearly this is a very important topic for them and the government to be proactive on, as future generation will be confronted with a different reality and challenge that they need to be prepared and equipped rightly for, if they are to stand a better chance in a world that would be more globally competitive, fast paced and disruptive. We cannot afford to fail them.
How do you address the issues you identified?
It’s all about leadership. Firstly, is the need to bring together our brightest eggheads in each area (digital/AI, Climate Change, etc.) to evolve a long-term plan inclusive of a roadmap to getting us to top quartile in each area and on the development of our people with the right skills. We have the brains and expertise across the globe in each area and need to bring them together to develop robust plans that build on any existing work and learn from other countries.

But a plan is not worth the paper it is written on if it is not implemented and thus need for visionary and bold leadership to not only appoint right czars to lead the execution, but also enroll stakeholders, provide resources, drive accountability and ensure the right legal backing and codification are instituted so that any change in administration in the future will not be their peril.

You seem to have faith in the capacity of the Nigerian youth. Do you see the current generation being able to change Nigeria’s negative perception and ugly narratives?
Over the years, Nigerian youths have always been at the forefront of challenging status quo, pioneering new frontiers and moving the country to the next level; from Azikiwe and Awolowo who started agitating for Nigeria’s independence in their 30s, to young military officers that took the reins of government in the 70s and moved infrastructure development forward, to the young generation that redefined banking sector and transformed it to top quartile levels, Nigerian youths have always played a key part in our narrative.

The current young generation is not an exception and is already demonstrating far bigger reach in terms of talents, taking the global stage by storm in areas like digital, entrepreneurial and entertainment, in an impressive manner. Some like Paystack grew a company from scratch and sold for $200million and others have grown companies that are now valued over a billion dollars. Our young talented musicians are occupying the top spot on the global billboards and are winning Grammys. These youth are providing a new narrative to the world already, different from the historical negative narrative.
It is easy to dismiss this ‘sorosoke and slaying’ generation as being full of poorly educated, swashbuckling, arrogant, irresponsible, and disposed to crime like yahoo, 419 and drugs. But they also have amongst them some outstanding talents who are breaking new frontiers like 39-year-old Wally Adeyemo who became an Assistant Secretary in the USA, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Olugbenga Agboola in their 30s who founded Flutterwave, and the 40-year-old Abdulrasheed Bawa who became EFCC Chairman.

The generation has connectivity and access to huge information and global best practices at their fingertip, beyond what the previous generation could imagine. This equips and allows them to quickly organize and fund themselves on a cause, and be a force to reckon with in demanding accountability from leaders as seen with EndSARS. They have global awareness but would still need mentoring to come to their potential and be a positive movement.

So, whilst majority of the generation may still taint, their population contains outstanding talents, and the digital tools at their disposal provides them ability to tackle issues and demand greater accountability from their leaders, all of which provides them a better chance to change our narrative.

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