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‘Firms, engineers should not be spared for doing shoddy jobs’

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The 19th President of NIStructE, Atumoyjo.

The Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers (NISTRUCT) has been in the forefront of efforts to mitigate building collapse which caused over 175 deaths in 2015. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, the 19th President of NIStructE, EDDY ATUMONYOGO, outlines some measures initiated to address the menace as well as other programmes that the institute will pursue during his tenure.

Building collapse seems to have come to stay in Nigeria. What do you think is fueling the menace?

We will never accept that building collapse has come to stay in Nigeria. We will continue to fight the monster, in conjunction with other professionals in the built environment, until we achieve zero collapse in the country. Building collapse has persisted in Nigeria because the system has not allowed best practices in the industry to flourish.

The building process covers planning, design, construction and maintenance, and each of these components must be right to prevent a collapse. At the moment, buildings are designed by all manner of people both qualified and unqualified, and the approving authorities are not adequately staffed to competently vet structural drawings and monitor the construction process.

Construction of buildings is presently an all- comers affair, and when you add to the mix, the substandard building materials flooding the market, it becomes obvious why building collapse is prevalent in this clime.

What roles should structural engineers play to reduce the incidence?

The question should have been, ‘What roles have Structural Engineers been allowed to play to reduce the incidence of collapse?

As Structural Engineers, we have been trained to design safe structures, and as an Institution, before we register anyone as a Structural Engineer, you must pass a Seven-hour, open book competency test, in addition to professional review interview, to ensure that you can be trusted to design safe structures. We are about the only division within the Nigerian Society of Engineers that conducts the Seven -hour examination because we realise that any mistake in our works will lead to loss of lives.

At the moment there is no law in Nigerian statutes that ensures that building structures are designed by Structural Engineers, vetted and registered by the Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers. Our role has been limited to ensuring that our members design and supervise safe structures while advocating best practices to regulatory agencies, approving authorities and the building public.

What type of interdisciplinary or collaborative approach is required in the built environment to check menace of building collapse?

In developed countries, where human lives are highly valued and the safety of structures of prime importance, the practice has always been to use the services of structural engineers for structural engineering projects. 

Unless professionals in the built environment in Nigeria are compelled to practice only in their areas of core competence, structural failures and collapses will continue to remain our problems. There has to be clear segmentation of the roles of the different professionals in the industry based on their training, experience and specialization.

Just like you do not expect a general medical practitioner to perform brain surgery successfully, buildings above two floors and all buildings on poor soil must be designed by structural engineers, vetted and registered by the Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers. If anybody wants to venture into such segment of practice, they should come for competency test with our institution, either through the Seven- hour open book examination or the matured route interview.

Professionals in the built environment must reach this consensus, the regulators must buy into it and it must be backed by law, before we can defeat this menace called building collapse.

Are there specific roles for government on this?

Government has major roles to play to stem this evil tide, from promulgating the enabling laws, strengthening the approving agencies, monitoring construction activities and working with the professional institutions. At the moment, even our regulatory agency, the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) does not have powers to prosecute offenders.

Thankfully, the COREN act is under review at the National Assembly, and we sincerely hope that COREN will have powers to prosecute like the EFCC. Governments at all levels must staff their approving agencies with competent structural engineers or outsource vetting of structural engineering drawings and construction supervision to registered structural engineering firms, as is the practice in most developed countries.

This will ensure that quacks and unprofessional engineers do not get their drawings approved, and building construction meet laid down quality assurance goals. They must also take preventive measures by subjecting distressed buildings to integrity tests as being done in Lagos state presently.

There are growing concerns over the quality of works by Nigeria engineers.  What measures should be taken against engineers or firms who do shoddy jobs in the country?

I cannot speak for all engineers in the country, but I dare say that we have the best crop of engineers as members of the Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers.

Some of our members have their works in the Guinness book of Records. The jobs that projected them are not government jobs but jobs in the private sector. Nigeria ranks high in Corruption Index, and the procurement process in the country is also fraught with corruption that the cream of our professionals just stay clear of government jobs, and those that venture into it are put to the grind.

What is the pedigree and antecedents of the firms that do shoddy works? To attract the best and brightest in engineering, the government must collaborate with professional institutions, such as ours, because with peer review every firm will be put at their level.

Who are the owners of these firms that do shoddy work? Some of them are proxy companies of those that award such jobs, as revealed recently by EFCC investigations, so they cannot prosecute themselves. Every contract has conditions of engagement with stiff penalties for non-performance, ranging from revocation of contract to refund of payments.

Engineers and firms that underperform on jobs should face the consequences enshrined in the conditions of engagement. And if it leads to loss of life and investment, they should be prosecuted for criminal offence.

The Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria has powers to sanction erring engineers.

How will you react to the recent executive order by President Buhari on local content on engineering, sciences and Technology?

It is a great step in the right direction. And we commend the President. It is a measure of patriotism. Around the world, governments and non-governmental agencies have been promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] education. There have even been local efforts at promoting such, which seemed highly hypocritical because those with such education in Nigeria are being denied opportunities to unleash their creative abilities.

A situation whereby bureaucrats, in conjunction with the politicians, craft policies and legislations that regulate opportunities out of the reach of their citizens cannot be said to be healthy for the economy. We are carefully watching the implementation.

It is the implementation that will prove whether there has been a change in attitude of those in authority. There was a time a Nigerian Minister of Works called for a meeting of consultants and contractors working for the ministry, and all you could see was a sea of non-Nigerian heads.

If we had continued down that part, the time would have come when Nigeria will be importing engineers from neighbouring West African countries because the best of our engineers with great experience are now in their fifties and sixties, and they would have retired without passing on the requisite on the job training to younger engineers for lack of jobs.

Many of them are idling away in their offices presently. Any implementation that will not involve the professional institutions will be like pouring water on the rock.

What advise do you have for your colleagues in the engineering profession, who seemed to be the most beneficiaries?

We will wait to see who the beneficiaries will be. As I said earlier, there is a crop of highly experienced and knowledgeable engineers in Nigeria, who have been in actual practice, and are ready to contribute to the growth of this nation, but adverse policies and politicking have pushed them to the fringes.

If the government can extend a hand of fellowship to the professional institutions, such as ours, instead of leaving everything entirely in the hands of the bureaucrats, the nation will derive maximum benefit. Our engineers are ready and our code of conduct and disciplinary measures for non-compliance will constrain them to do the right thing for the nation. And of course, in every profession, there are the men and the boys.

The boys go for anything that will put food on their table and the men guard their names jealously. My advice to all engineers is a well-known wisdom nugget, ‘a good name is better than great riches’.

Your investiture as the 19th president of Nistruct takes place this week. What will be your focus?

It was Napoleon Hill who said, “if you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way. And that is exactly what we are going to be doing; small things in a great way. Permit me to mention about three issues we will be pursuing with vigour during our tenure, namely: strengthen the branches of the Institution.

We have members across the length and breadth of this nation, and we are currently classifying them according to their geographical locations. We want to devolve some of the functions that take place at the national office, like training and membership examinations to branch and regional offices. We want to support the branches with technical materials to strengthen their monthly technical sessions.

Secondly, we want to ramp up advocacy for best practices in the built environment. If you do not speak up, nobody will speak for you. We will take our enlightenment campaign to every building planning approving authority, stressing the fact that structural drawings must be prepared by structural engineers to avoid collapse.

The third thing is to intensify the training of our members to maintain their competence level and expose them to new technologies and innovations that emerge in our industry. We believe these three steps will create awareness for our works, create opportunities for our members and ensure they can compete with their counterparts from anywhere in the world.


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