‘Harsh environment, nepotism stifling engineering practice’
Joseph Akinteye is the Vice President, Nigerian Society of Engineers. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, he spoke on the challenges of engineering practice in Nigeria and the government’s non-challant attitude towards its development.
Engineers have continued to allege that their practice is being hampered by lack of government patronage. What do you think is responsible?
The engineering profession has actually come of age and I will cite a few examples to buttress my point.
The first one that came to my mind was that of Shehu Saleh Balami who invented and launched a solid-fuel rocket in Kaduna in 2008; The INYE 1 and II tablet that was invented by Saheed Adepoju and designed to run on Android back then in 2010. His tablet is a seven-inch resistive touch tablet which is Wi-Fi-enabled and has an inbuilt SIM; a brilliant engineer, Brino Gilbert, invented the Counter Collision Gadget which is a device that has the capability of preventing a collision in locomotive vehicles, either on land, air or at sea; Ndubuisi Ekekwe, a Nigerian engineer was able to create the first microchip processors which support thread-level speculation. His invention was acquired by Sun Microsystem and is actively being used today in Sun Microsystem’s throughput computing technology.
The microchip could be embedded in robots to perform minimally invasive surgeries; Cyprian Emeka Uzoh developed a novel method of making electroplated interconnection structures on integrated circuit chips. Uzoh is a celebrated Computer scientist with tens of inventions patented under his name. IBM even uses his galvanoplasty technology as the main method of cabling devices using electric fields and metal mods to polish metals with low pressures; Dr. Otu Oviemo Ovadje came up with a method of transfusing blood in a safe and non-infec ous manner. It also works without electricity. I could go on and on.
However, you could then ask why we didn’t seem to have even more of these success stories. By way of an answer, I would point to the harsh contemporary Nigerian socio-political environment that is fraught with nepotistic tendencies, celebration of mediocrity, corruption, influence peddling to mention a few, a situation which not only stifle but also does little or nothing to encourage these success stories. A look at our various research institutes would reveal many innovations and breakthroughs that are gathering dust in their archives.
How can it be addressed?
There is a saying that charity begins at home. Until policy makers begin to look inward for solutions to the many socioeconomic problems bedeviling the nation, I am afraid we would not be able to break out of the quagmire of underdevelopment. The question that readily come to mind is: why is Nigeria not leveraging her local talents to shed the toga of underdevelopment? The answers are there for all to see. Nigerian engineers are made to be jack of all trades as they are expected to know all. As such, a civil engineer can be employed to do the work of an electrical engineer, chemical engineer, mechanical engineer etc. at the same time instead of seeking the services of engineering professionals in these other areas of engineering.
So, I will say round pegs in round holes is a good way to start. Another way in which the impact of local engineering talent can be addressed is by tackling the pervasive corruption in the system. By doing away with the 50per cent rule for instance whereby more than 50 per cent of the total cost of a project is given to some corrupt government officials and politicians before actually embarking on a project and in most cases, since the remaining part of the money will not be enough to do the job, the project may not be carried out and if it is carried out at all, it is usually sub-standard or abandoned. Yet another way is for the Nigerian Society of Engineers to be proactive by taking steps to weed out quacks from the profession as well as issues of identity theft, among others.
Many people say Nigeria engineers don’t have the expertise and experience to do some of these jobs. Is that true?
As I mentioned earlier, Nigerian engineers are as well trained as any engineer in any parts of the world. In fact, many of the so-called foreign engineers were trained by Nigerians. Similarly, the quantum and depth of the various inventions and breakthroughs as enunciated in my examples above are testimonies to the potential of the Nigerian engineer when unleashed.
So, in my opinion, the poor perception of the engineering profession has to do with the political leadership in the country who would put aside their parochial and selfish political considerations and be visionary enough to consciously work towards the technological advancement of the country. Part of these measures would be to patronise local talents in the execution of infrastructural projects in the country. In this regard, I must commend the present leadership of the country for seizing the bull by the horns and promulgating Executive Order No. 5, which is designed to ensure that indigenous firms are given preferences in the award of contracts.
Globally engineering education is technologically driven. Do you think the curriculum of tertiary schools should be reviewed?
In the UNESCO report of 2010, engineering is defined as the field or discipline, practice, profession and act that relates to the development, acquisition and application of technical, scientific and mathematical knowledge about the understanding, design, development, invention, innovation and use of materials, machines, structures, systems and processes for specific purposes. However, in the Nigerian situation, what we see is a culture of neglect of engineering education by successive government over the years. This has invariably led the country into an avoidable recession.
In this connection, I find the work of Azubuike et al., (2019) highly instructive in this regard as they put the problem succinctly. According to them, Nigeria has various bodies which have been charged with the regulation of engineering education directly or indirectly. These are National University Commission (NUC), National Board for Technical Education (NBTE), and Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN). Their functions involve the evaluation of engineering education programmes being run in our tertiary institutions.
Data required for the evaluation ranges from academic content information, philosophies and objectives of program, curriculum content, admission into programmes, academic regulations, evaluation of students’ work, etc. However, it is saddening that the operation of a single curriculum that would facilitate a one-stop evaluation process is now being discarded in favour of a Benchmark Minimum Academic Standards (BMAS) for each programme beneath which universities must not go in offering degrees by the National Universities Commission (NUC) in its bulletin published in 2016. In fact, the leadership of the Commission, while defending this shift said it done in order to allow for flexibility, creativity and different interpretations and adaptation to local conditions.
Apart from lack of a uniform curriculum, we also have the problem of disparate entry qualifications as well as the moderate academic quality of entrants into engineering programmes. It should be borne in mind that the engineering profession is a highly technical profession that should ordinarily attract the best minds. So, all hands should be on deck to arrest the slide in engineering education so as not witness further decline in infrastructure and facilities. We should bear in mind that any advancement recorded in a society is directly proportional to the quality of engineering education. It is probably to underscore the importance attached to the profession that engineering students have the longest training period of any profession (10 years) in Nigeria.
I also wish to sound a note of warning to the effect that the quest for sustainable national development and growth as envisaged is dependent on the extent to which engineering education is revamped and transformed to compete globally. Engineering education should not be time-programmed activity as it should a 24/7 affair. Students be granted unhindered access to the studios, laboratories and workshops at odd hours to enable them have full time in projects. Yet another problem with the idea of specialization at the termination of engineering education program is of great concern. This is because the length of time within the walls of higher institutions is hardly enough for expertise to develop fully and unfortunately this is obtains in most institutions running engineering programmes in Nigeria today.
In what ways do you think engineering education can be improved to make our engineers competitive?
I must say that the number one problem of engineering education is funding. This in terms of revamping and upgrading available training facilities as well as provision of up-to-date ones at our higher institutions of learning as well as attractive remuneration for our lecturers to incentivise them and stem the problem off brain drain. This, of course, calls for proactive and visionary political leadership in the country. On the part of students, they should be more committed to their studies.
In this wise, permit me to make reference to the position of Akingbagbohun when he submitted that students in tertiary institutions need to begin to see themselves more as potential engineering ambassadors and prepare for the challenges of participating in the socioeconomic activities in the country. Similarly, they need to tone down on activism, should constantly update themselves in terms of studying relevant journals and publications and should think out of the box. Similarly, there is nothing wrong n students getting acquainted with engineering economics and management accounting as well to aid them in the analysis of engineering decisions.
Local infrastructure has been in disarray owing to poor maintenance. How can we revive the nation’s infrastructure? What is the role of engineering in this?
If you would recall what I said earlier, I made mention of the fact that Nigeria lacks the requisite and visionary leadership that will chart the nation’s path to greatness. This is in addition to the problem of political interference, which borders on political patronage to undeserving elements or the wrong designation or assignment of engineers based on narrow or selfish political considerations. Of course, challenges could also border on lack of conducive environment for the engineering profession to thrive.
The average Nigerian believes that any worthwhile engineering project should and would be better handled by expatriates. So, back to your question, we would be doing ourselves a world of good if only we would appreciate what we have and take concrete steps to promote local content. Once again, the present leadership seems to realise and is taking concrete steps to arrest this neglect.
What do you consider the missing link in the local content law? And how can we ensure better implementation on the part of the society, government and the public.
I am very happy with the provisions of the Executive Order 5 and believe this Order marks a turning in the way we do things in Nigeria. I believe that this Order coupled with a faithful implementation of the provisions of COREN Amendment Act 2018 will go a long a way in restoring the lost glory of the engineering profession in Nigeria.
This is because both pieces of legislation not only recognises the abundant local talents the country is endowed with but has also given a tremendous advantage to local engineering firms, to compete favorably with all these multinationals operating in Nigeria.
Similarly, Government must rejig its public Procurement Act to encourage and promote patronage of indigenous firms and products. It should also devote more energy to brokering partnerships through benchmarking with foreign industrial concerns to promote technological transfer and linkages. In terms of what the NSE could do as a professional body, I am of the opinion that both NSE/COREN should liaise with government to ensure that only certified engineers head engineering-oriented agencies so as to drive home the message of local content. Finally, The NSE must ensure the training and retraining of its members to keep abreast of new developments in their respective specialties/fields. It should also embark on aggressive advocacy to sensitise the public, policy makers and industrialists on the pivotal role engineering and technology plays in national development.
How equipped are engineers for the implementation of the law?
At the NSE, we are always proactive, always on our toes and alert for new developments and opportunities. One of my learned colleagues has described the Order as signpost to the beginning. This is because the Order itself was a culmination of efforts of engineers from years past to get government to accord the engineering profession its rightful place and protection it needs to take off. For instance, what stops Nigerian engineers from taking on jobs in the West African sub-region as they have competitive advantage. So, as for question, Nigerian engineers are poised to take advantage of this Order and even that of Executive Order 7 of 2019 (Road Infrastructure Development and Refurbishment Investment Tax Credit Scheme) which is yet another Executive Order capable of pushing a lot of business the way of Nigerian engineering professionals.
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