Prof. Peter Onwualu is the 12th President of the Nigerian Academy of Engineering. He spoke with The Guardian on a wide range of issues affecting the engineering profession and how public private partnership arrangement can help revive the moribund Ajaokuta steel mill.
How can incessant building collapse be checked decisively in the country?
What happens in most cases is that the engineers design structures during implementation and construction. But it is possible that some homeowners employ the unqualified that claim they can supervise the project to specifications only to start cutting corners to cut cost. The major reason is the use of unqualified engineers who are not eligible to construct.
One way to control these incidences is to make sure the codes and standards are enforced, which is primarily the duty of government. The standards are there but the challenges in Nigeria make it difficult to enforce them. What we do is to ensure the standards are enforced.
Most of the fellows are people who have reached the peak of their career. Some have retired and they are on their own. The academy is a collection or group of people mostly in the engineering department with wealth of experience that could be useful in planning and implementation in the country.
How can the engineering profession help government to formulate a policy that will help grow the country?
Basically, the Academy is a think tank and we are not necessarily involved in policy implementation. But because the Academy is made of people with experience, the basic thing we do is to put ourselves into technical committees. We have 15 technical committees on oil and gas, power, agriculture, health and education. Each of these committees is made up of 10 to 15 fellows and they are all experts in their sector. For example, the committees on water meet often and analyse the challenges of water. They look at government policies on water development and distribution and come up with policies and plans that can help improve government policies. We also did our analysis on Ajaokuta steel plant and how it can be revived for the development of the country.
Bureaucracy has been one of the problems government encounter in discharging its duties. How can the engineering profession help the government in implementing policy papers?
The first thing is to present and follow up depending on the ministry. For instance, the present Minister of Science and Technology, incidentally is a fellow of the Academy and we have direct contact with him, including sending white papers. We also do follow up so as to give him first hand information about developments in engineering profession and how it would transform the country. We also analyse the issues of road and send it to the ministry and then follow up. We do write at times and publish the advocacy to mount pressure not only directly but also through other groups. For example, the Academy is the apex body of the engineers, but we also have a younger society, COREN and the other societies for technicians. These are the people we call the engineering family.
There has been agitation for government to appoint people with experience to head some ministries for effective performance. How can this be achieved?
We are usually at the forefront of advocating that engineers should be appointed to engineering-related parastatals like power, transportation and water resources; these are core engineering professions. But as humans, you may still appoint engineers in those fields and they may end up not performing. This is where COREN comes in as a monitoring body, which sanctions engineers for not performing as professionals. However, we cannot do anything if they are not engineers.
We also encourage ministers and appointees by recognising them. At our last dinner, we gave awards to a number of engineering companies and encouraged others to do well. Where there are cases of malpractices, we can walk to the Nigeria Society of Engineers and Council for the Regulation of Engineers to withdraw license for practice in extreme case and of course, this has to be investigated and proven through our society.
Quackery has been a problem to organisations, societies and in this case the engineering profession. As a president, how can quackery be reduced?
The first thing is to make sure the engineering training is right. As an Academy, we look into the curriculum from time to time, and work with committees of Deans of Engineering in Nigerian universities and advise them on how to make sure that the curriculum is up to date and the training follows the right direction.
The National Universities Commission (NUC) has given the guideline for the curriculum and training of engineers. At the same time, COREN has its own guidelines too. So, to eradicate quacks, one needs to deal with certification by ensuring that everyone in the engineering profession is qualified. We also work with COREN engineering monitoring group that monitors the situation, and we make it known to the public not to employ unqualified people.
Earlier, you mentioned Ajaokuta and education. What is the problem associated with these two important sectors?
It is a very complicated situation because the project has been there for quite sometime and a particular organisation was involved at the initial stage. Then, they ran into problems with a foreign partner, which actually caused stalling in the process. Since then government has invited a lot of people to revaluate the mill but unfortunately, just like any other time, after you revaluate and you realise the cost, its becomes higher compared to starting afresh. So, the government has been at a crossroad over the years and there has been money involved. The suggestion we gave was that government should remove itself from running industries. That is because you don’t run industry through civil servants; for effective results government should use the public-private-partnership model.