I must sincerely thank the Council for the Registration of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) for the kind invitation to be at the 24th Engineering Assembly and to chair the opening ceremony.
Engineering is the oldest profession if we consider that the very act of creation by God was supreme engineering. From the structure of the atom, to the complexity of the human body and the perfect order of the galactic bodies, it is engineering at its sublime best. Indeed, engineering has drawn its greatest inspiration from nature and the best of engineering still mimics nature. The best helicopter does not even approach one-tenth of the elegance and efficiency of the dragonfly.
Engineering is at the root of development and so no nation can be more developed than its engineering capabilities. Nothing reflects more poignantly the level of engineering of a people more than their built environment – civil engineering! These are the houses, office complexes, factories, skyscrapers, roads, bridges, landscape, bunkers and so on. We can then say that it is engineers that have built this country and they are the ones who have failed to engineer its development.
The theme of this Assembly is coming from the background of crude oil extraction and its export being the pillar of our nation’s economy. Since oil is vulnerable to the vagaries of international supply and demand and the consequent price fluctuation, our economy too is vulnerable to price fluctuation. When price is high, we are fine, but when price is low, we are in trouble. A few years back, oil went past $140 per barrel and we had to create excess crude account to keep the excess we could not handle at the time. But some smart Alecs know how to handle it better than the rest of us. However, at least 17 states and the Federal Government since then have been in a financial strait since oil price crashed to $48 and still going down.
The interesting thing about our monoculture economy is that while we sell crude oil abroad, we import refined petroleum. Basically then, we produce what we don’t consume and consume what we don’t produce. This is a vicious cycle in which we get the least value from a resource on which we have a comparative advantage of nearness to source and available market for its processed goods. It is comforting however that our refineries are up and running now and we will reduce our dependency on imported fuel.
Before we even proceed to how engineering can take us from a monoculture economy to a multi-culture one, it is apposite to begin from how much of our engineering has impacted even the oil industry. Besides that we have universities and tertiary institutions that churn out graduates in geology, petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and other core professionals relevant to the oil industry, what level of our engineering is deployed to oil exploration, extraction, processing and transportation? I am not talking here about the number of welders employed by the oil companies.
According to a report earlier this year, about $10 billion will be added to the Nigerian economy in the oil and gas sector within one year and thousands of jobs will be created, if we can meet up with the local content act. But the question still remains: do we have the technical and man power capability for this?
There are other possibilities still in the extractive industry, especially solid minerals. It has been said that Nigeria has the largest bitumen deposit in the world, in the Ondo State axis. However, we still rely on bitumen from Trinidad for road construction and other uses. The gold deposit in Osun is on an industrial scale and compares to others found in South Africa and United States, yet, it has been lying fallow and we have been running from pillars to post looking for those with the right engineering to come and exploit it for us.
But there are other areas of the economy still where engineering could have made much impact. The area that should command primacy is agriculture. There is no denying that for a very long time post-independence, we have relied on imported food. A visit to any of our markets will reveal that apart from yam, corn, beans, vegetables and palm oil, most other food items, especially rice, wheat and vegetable oil, are imported. Last year, the government admitted that its annual food import bill had dropped from $7 billion it was spending in 2009 to $4.35 billion. This is still a humongous amount.
Yet, agriculture, apart from providing food security, is the foundation for industrialisation since it provides the raw materials for industries. Agriculture is still an area where we rely largely on crude implements and farming practices. The productivity we can bring to farming is still about one tenth of the potentials if we deploy the right technology in implements, farming methods, food processing and farming inputs.
Civil engineering is one other area where we can develop the economy. It is regrettable that apart from sand, building plans and cement, virtually other materials used in the building industry are imported. I am aware that a few indigenous companies produce some materials for the building industry, but the share volume of other materials, even measuring tapes, doors and locks imported from Euro-Asia is simply alarming. This is an area where we could have added significantly to the economy and create thousands of jobs if we can at least produce 50 per cent of the materials being imported currently.
Information and communications technology (ICT) is the fastest growing industry and another area to develop our economy with engineering. Our telephony is driven largely by Euro-American and Japanese engineering.
The Chinese and Koreans too are coming up. Again, if we can produce half of the computers and mobile telephones consumed in this country, the impact of this on the economy is better imagined.
Medicine is an area where technology could have aided our economy. According to the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), not less than $500 million is spent by Nigerians annually on foreign medical trips. We see Nigerian technology in our hospitals in crudely made drip stands, beds and gurneys, but we are still far from the engineering of critical lifesaving equipment, health improving devices and medical procedures. The design and manufacture of these gadgets would have created jobs and contributed something significant to the economy.
Not the least is in the area of security. President Muhammadu Buhari last week charged the Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria (DICON) to start manufacturing arms and ammunition. This should be strange coming from the president since we know that DICON has been established since 1964. Nevertheless, this 51-year old institution has been famous for its Union-DICON salt, rather than guns and military hardware. It should be worrisome that we rely on foreign technology for protection and defence. At least, our ancestors could make bows and arrows, spears and charms while the local blacksmiths still make some crude guns for hunters. But then, as the eminent scholar of dependency, Johan Galtung, wrote, you can only manufacture tanks when you have manufactured a tractor.
Permit me to ask: where is the Nigerian engineering in electronics and household products? Every year, hundreds of thousands of televisions, refrigerators, microwave ovens, wall clocks, wrist watches and myriads of other gadgets are brought into the country with zero engineering inputs from Nigeria. In 1972, Prof Makanjuola of Agriculture Engineering Department of Obafemi Awolowo University invented the yam pounding machine. For the reason of lack of local support, a Japanese firm took his invention and has been selling the machine to Nigeria and other parts of the world where pounded yam is enjoyed.
Lastly, where is our engineering in the automobile industry? What has happened since Prof Ayodele Awojobi made his famous contraption? There is a motor mechanic in every nook and cranny of our cities and villages, yet, there is no made in Nigeria car. Of course, we had assembly plants that used to assemble Volkswagen, Peugeot, Leyland and Steyr vehicles. Recently, Nissan has joined the fray but Steyr and Leyland have since shut down. Even if we don’t have a wholly indigenous vehicle manufacturer, at least we should be able to do what the United States did to the Japanese brands manufactured on its soil.
The deployment of engineering in economic development is limitless.
There are other rarefied areas in aviation, shipping and space exploration. It is my sincere hope that our engineers will critically engage these areas at this assembly, not just to lament but to critically engage the issues and come up with solutions and a realistic and implementable plan of action. There should also be provision performance review and evaluation at subsequent Assemblies.
No matter how far we are lagging behind, the right thing to do is to begin the journey to greatness by taking the first step. Once again, I thank you for the privilege to be here and chair this opening ceremony.