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‘Engineers’ recognition key to solving Nigeria’s problems’

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Babajide

Dr. Kehinde Bababjide Osifala is the new president, Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers (NISTRUCTE) and lecturer at Yaba College of Technology. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, he spoke on the challenges of engineering practice and the need for the government to patronise them to tackle national developmental challenges.

What are the major challenges bedeviling the practice of structural engineering in Nigeria?
First are patronage and recognition. People don’t get to know exactly who is a structural engineer. Not all engineers are civil engineers. Not all civil engineers are structural engineers. But by training, all structural engineers are civil engineers. If you can get that distinction defined very clearly, some of the problems we have now will be a thing of the past. Civil engineering is a very broad field and we have different arms. We have, environmental, water resources, foundation engineering and a lot of branches like that in engineering. So, the problem we have right now is that once you are an engineer in the built environment, you feel sometimes that you can just practice any field. That is wrong. That is one of the things I look forward to correcting before I leave the office. There is a lot of ignorance and we need to educate people on the role of structural engineers in society.

How will you manage these challenges?
We are going to focus on two major areas during my tenure. The two areas are capacity building, training, and retraining of our engineers. When structural engineers are well trained and skilled, they know what to look out for when they go to site, they know the weak areas and weak points. That will reduce building collapse. Advocacy is another area that we want to invest our time and energy on. Everybody must know who a structural engineer is. When you have issues with your buildings, you should know what to do. Who do you get to? Who will give you the best professional advice? When you have challenges you want to build a house, who do you go to? Yes, you must go to an architect but after the architect, who does the design for you? It is a structural engineer. Who manages it for you? It is a structural engineer. Many people are pennywise but pounds foolish. They will say, if I bring engineer now, they will be charging me a lot, it is just because they are not aware of the implication of having quacks do their designs and supervisions for them. When I talk about advocacy, we are going to do a lot of interviews, jingles, radio programmes and others. We are going to get people to be aware because when you know what happened to your building, you can raise the alarm before it comes down, you can meet the right people to seek advice before it collapses. We also need to talk to those in government to enlighten them, the approving offices, the ministries and local councils on those things that are expected of them. How do we groom the young engineers, if they are not engaged, because you cannot gain experience without practicing and having exposure. These are things I want to bring to the fore. So my advocacy is in two areas, advocacy through dialogue with institutions, building ethics into our profession. Apart from that, we will have advocacy through knowledge sharing in newspapers, articles, and others.

Structural engineers have been blamed for collapse of the building. How true is this? What are you doing to reduce the incidents?
You can’t just blame structural engineers when he is not involved in a building and it collapses. To date, we have not had our members involved in any structural collapse and no member of ours has been indicted for any structural collapse because the process of our membership is rigorous. Apart from that, we organise seminars, training, technical sessions for our members to enlighten them on what to look for and on what to do at the construction site. We try to enforce discipline on them, we sell ethics to them, we make it part of them because if you are corrupt, you may not be a good structural engineer. If you are not yourself, the developers will corrupt you. They will give you mouth-watering offers to compromise your standards. But once you are principled, you just tell them that the lives of people are more important. So ethics are important in our profession. You cannot blame structural engineers for all the buildings collapses. If you do not consult structural engineers, if you don’t involve them to design or invite them to supervise your building, then you can’t blame them. That is what we want to prevent. We want people to know who we are so that they can freely come to our institute, consult structural engineers on whatever problem they have, patronise them and then see what they would do. At the end of the day, you will see that you made a lot of savings than just going to a draughtman and he loads your building with reinforcements.

What key roles do you expect structural engineers to play in resolving some of the nation’s problems?
Firstly, structural engineers must be recognised. We must recognised that this is a discipline for some people and they should be given the necessary assistance to do their best, and solve problems. That will remove quackery from the practice of engineering. That is one of the important things that the government itself must recognise structural engineering as a specialised profession and accord it that rightful position. Once that is done, you will see that building collapses will be minimized. They will also give you suggestions on how to regulate the practice of structural engineering. So the bucks start with regulatory bodies, to recognise structural engineering and of course give them the rightful place in the scheme of things. For approval, give them authority to get designs and supervise buildings, give them authority to design, remove quackery, debar those who are quacks in the profession. With that, a lot of problems will be solved.

Many experts in the built environment have raised concerns about the quality of engineering graduates. What is your institution doing to changes this narrative?
We shall change the narrative through capacity building. It is one thing to finish from universities and polytechnics, but postgraduate training that you received will make the difference. How to use the codes is not usually taught. You can be introduced to the codes in the university but the use and interpretation of the codes come only in training. That is why we are hammering on training and retraining. We are not going to be training engineers alone, we are going to organise courses for technicians and artisans in the built environment so that iron bender will know why he is doing some things and why he could not do some things.

Engineers have suffered neglect in Nigeria’s development. What implications do you think these hold for the engineering profession?
If you don’t patronise your engineers it has grievous implications. If you patronise them, you are exposing them to experience. There will be challenges during these exposures. But if you don’t do that and you are importing engineers from other countries like China to the detriment of your local engineers, at the end of the day, you will have deficits. When those people go back to their country, who maintains what has been built. So whatever be the case Nigeria engineers must be carried along in all projects. They should partner with Nigerians. The foreign engineers are gaining experience by doing these jobs, that is the bitter truth. Some of them are brought here to gain experience. So why don’t you patronise our own engineers, let them have these experiences. Let them share experiences with these foreigners. Our government should not discriminate against Nigerian engineers, let us work in collaboration with the foreigners. If the government said tomorrow that it is only Nigerian engineers that will handle projects, the country will not collapse. It will be rough initially but we shall get over it and stand on our own. It is not in our interest to import foreigners to handle projects, because it will pose some security challenges as some projects are supposed to be manned by Nigerians. These people have pictures of all these and they can undermine us at any time. Local content is important and it should reflect on our engineering contracts that we are awarding.

What do you consider as the missing link in the implementation of Nigeria’s infrastructure?
Unfortunately, our problem is the lack of maintenance culture. It is not that there are no engineers to do this, but those who design the project once it is completed that is the end. Nobody looks at that project or allocate money to maintain the project. That is one weakness we have. We do not maintain our infrastructure and the decay is very rapid. So if we can develop that culture. I think we shall be better for it

Do you think we have sufficient engineers in the policy space?
When you look at our population you may say we don’t have enough.

How can this be addressed?

Let us patronise the little that we have.

What is your institution doing to curb foreign invasion into your practice?
That is where advocacy comes in. We will use subtle methods to approach the powers that be to patronise Nigeria engineers. We are going to invest in advocacy. There is a lot of assumptions in the past. They have assumed too much in the past. This is the time for those in authority to know much of our engineers.


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