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‘Development suffering for lack of confidence on local professionals’

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Okoroma

GEORGE CHUKWULEWA OKOROMA is the President, Association for Consulting Engineering in Nigeria (ACEN). The engineer, who is at the helm of affairs at Gambeta Groupe Limited in this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, spoke on the challenges of engineering profession in Nigeria among other issues.

Engineering practice in Nigeria has been hampered by lack of government patronage. What do you think is responsible? How can it be addressed?
Since the end of the Civil War, it has been the dreams of our founding fathers to create a pull of independent professionals with the highest technical skills and intellectual competence to provide the springboard to improve the quality of lives of the Nigerian people by providing services in an environmentally friendly manner which would enhance the nation’s technology, productivity and also stimulate economic activities in all zones of the federation.

It is disheartening to note, that despite the lofty ideas that birthed engineering as a profession, and consulting engineering as the business of designing, construction, and management of infrastructural projects in Nigeria, this profession has suffered low patronage from her own government and people.

Today, indigenous engineering firms compete rather unfavourably for jobs and contracts with foreign engineers and consulting firms in our own country. In bidding for contracts, our people and government seem to give foreign consultants much preference and treat the ideas of the indigenous engineers and engineering firms with inferiority.

The cause of this is aptly Nigerians unrepentant penchant for foreign-made goods and imported services. Our people believe that anything that comes from outside the country or done by white men is superior.

This show of lack of trust and confidence in the professional competencies of Nigerian engineers have impeded the development of the engineering profession in Nigeria. If our government and people cannot trust us their own to execute projects according to standard, who will?
On the flip side, we have been encouraging and advocating that our engineers and Consulting Firms must, through the knowledge acquired from their training, develop skills and competencies required to deliver successful projects; if given opportunities to be involved in project planning, design, and execution. But again, such skills and competencies cannot be developed when not challenged progressively; certainly, Nigerians would never know how much we can perform until they give us the chance to work.

Addressing this situation calls for a paradigm shift in the mentality of our people to believe that indigenous engineers have the skills and competencies too. We have the training, the exposure, and the capacity.

The Nigerian Government in an attempt to address this situation enacted the Nigerian Content Development Act in 2010. The Content Development Act which focused on the development of indigenous capabilities in the oil and gas industry had however not adequately addressed or closed the gap of lack of government patronage.

It is however heart-warming, to acknowledge the promulgation of the Presidential Executive Order 5 in 2018 by our dear President Muhammadu Buhari. This Executive Order aimed at promoting and involving local content in the planning and execution of projects, in contracts and science, engineering, and technology, should be able to adequately address this patronage issue. Our concern as Consulting Engineers, however, is the sincerity in the implementation of this Order by Ministries, Departments, and Agencies, multinational and multilateral organizations in Nigeria.

It is important to emphasize here that; Nigeria is a nation rich not only in natural resources but also in human and engineering competencies. Nobody would patronize us if our people and government do not patronize us.

Globally construction industry is going digital, do you think the curriculum of tertiary institutions in Nigeria should be revised to grow the educational system?
The engineering curriculum used by most institutions of higher learning in Nigeria is as old as the red rope that hung on the window of Rehab when the wall of Jericho fell.

It is appalling that in an era of Artificial Intelligence, drone surveillance and 3D technology, our schools still teach cathode and diode, pulleys and lever, rotor and battery. There is no better time than now to overhaul the engineering curriculum used by most tertiary institutions in Nigeria and develop a new one that is at par with international standard.

No nation develops without engineering. Development calls for huge investments. And if engineering is development, we must invest massively in engineering in terms of education and practical exposures in order for us to stand tall in the comity of nations.

There is a huge gulf already between the engineering curriculum used in our tertiary institutions today and those used outside the country. The Nigerian University Commission must arise and develop a novel blueprint for engineering tutelage and the Nigerian government must, as a matter of urgency provide the tools and financing needed to drive this process.

What ways can engineering education be improved to make up coming graduates competitive?
Number one, our curriculum needs to be changed. Pick a copy of a five years engineering curriculum of a Nigerian university and compare it with that of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and you would see the huge gulf.

We are far behind. Don’t you feel worried on a yearly basis when not even one out of the over seven scores of universities that we have in Nigeria ranks among the first 50 in the world?
Number two; there must be huge investment in engineering development in Nigeria. How many percent of our yearly national budget goes to education? How many percent goes to engineering development? It is meager.

Without conscious efforts to invest in engineering in terms of recruiting the best and qualified lecturers and professors to teach our students, and without furnishing our labs and research centers with state of the art equipment for practical, we would always take the backbench in engineering matters all over the world.

Finally, our Vice Chancellors, Provosts and Deans of faculties must provide avenues for cross-cultural exchange and field exchange experience for our students. They must create a balance between learning and practical exposure and conscientize efforts to up the competencies of our students to compete favourably with their peers in other parts of the world.

In time past, most of the engineering consultancy jobs have been awarded to foreign firms, do you think government policy, local content act has reversed the trend?
As I have mentioned earlier, the Nigerian government’s promulgation of the Presidential Executive Order 5 in 2018 to encourage indigenous engineering consultants as key players in the infrastructural development of our nation is a noble step. It is my hope and prayer that the process of implementation of this Order will be internalized in all Ministries, Department, and Agencies of government, international, and private organizations across the length and breadth of our nation.

Consulting Engineering Firms who are duly registered with the Association for Consulting Engineering in Nigeria (ACEN), should be considered and must be at the forefront in the conception, design, planning, execution, and management of infrastructural projects in Nigeria.

What are the challenges militating the practice of engineering in Nigeria? 
First, there is the issue of cumbersome prequalification and entry requirements.

Second, there is the issue of unfavourable business climate and poor support from the government.

Third, there is also the issue of weak institutional capacity. Our schools of higher learning as I said before lack, the tools, and financing needed to deliver requisite practical exposure and lectures on modern technological advancements and its applications to enable our young graduates to catch up and compete favourably with their counterparts in other nations of the world.

Coupled with dilapidated infrastructure and epileptic power supply, the standard of education in Nigeria is not of top-grade level and our research and development institutions lack the capacity to support indigenous SMEs in the production of skilled manpower and the generation of thriving innovative initiatives that have competitive market value.

How has the COVID 19 impacted on your members, and engineering contracts? 
The novel coronavirus has not left a single industry untouched. One of the sectors that have been impacted severely is the engineering sector. The impact has been felt at all layers of the sector starting from the halting of all ongoing construction projects to the closure of engineering businesses.

The surge of COVID-19 poses a huge negative economic impact on us. Currently, some engineering firms are downsizing to stay afloat and many are completely closed till further notice.

There is no large-scale engineering construction project going on in the country at the moment that requires consultancy services.

Most of the projects that are currently ongoing are support services geared towards helping the government in setting up isolation and testing centers for COVID-19. Although we have written to the Federal Government of Nigeria volunteering some of our members to support the fight on COVID-19 pandemic on pro bono bases, we look forward to opportunities and privileges where we can serve our skills and competencies as Consulting Engineers in helping in the fight against this global health emergency.

What will be the effect of coronavirus pandemic contracts?
At the moment, it is obvious to everyone that there is a grand halt on all business activities all over the world and in Nigeria as a nation. Award of contracts has reduced drastically. Neither MDAs nor private investors are thinking of construction projects. Consulting firms right now are devising innovative ways to keep their firms operational in this trying time. It is hard on us now as consulting engineers. This is a global situation and we are hopeful it would come to an end soon.


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