Home Engineers in Society BEYOND TECHNOLOGY: Integrity, Ethical and Probity issues in Public Infrastructure Development

BEYOND TECHNOLOGY: Integrity, Ethical and Probity issues in Public Infrastructure Development

(A Speech delivered by Engr Titi Omo-Ettu, FAEng, FNSE at the First Sina Egberongbe Memorial Lecture of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, Abeokuta Branch).

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

Our subject matter is someone who I know very well, someone who should always be talked of in the present, and not in the past.

When I came here on an evangelical mission in 1998 preaching the sermon of how the (then) new phenomenon of The Internet would ‘ultimately change the way we would work, live, play and pray’, which was my selling point at the time, he was one of the most senior practicing engineers in Abeokuta and I knew then that he had been Chairman of the Nigerian Society of Engineers Abeokuta Branch several years before then, from 1985 to 1990. We hit it off as mutual favourites and I referred to him as “My Distinguished Uncle” while he called me “Mr Internet”. I knew him as the then District Governor (1998/1999) of the foremost public and philanthropic service association, LIONS International. I was later to learn that he was also an Islamic scholar and philanthropist. Of course, he was a distinguished mechanical engineer and Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers. Beyond all that, he is one of those Nigerians whose names are on my personal HONOURS LIST of men and women of INTEGRITY. As I prepared for this lecture, I did a count on that list and I found that 69% of the men and women on that list are engineers, dead and living. So if the subject of discussion is about INTEGRITY and the audience is one that sees engineering as a virtue, one can only count himself privileged to have been given the podium to say a thing or two about the subject and about our subject matter.

Ladies and gentlemen, I consider this a rare privilege to address a tribute in honour of Engr (Chief) Lion Alhaji Sina Egberongbe of blessed memory, and to speak in the same breath, on the subject of integrity, ethical and probity issues, in public infrastructure development.

I ventured into maintenance of public infrastructure early in my professional life, and what lured me to public service was the obvious public knowledge that our public telephone system were, without a doubt, not good enough, and I felt there must be work to do if I pitched my professional tent with Posts and Telecommunications department, as it was then. I was lucky the Director of Telecommunications to whom I reported with a letter of posting from the Public Service Commission was not sure where he would post me, and as he asked for advice from one of his assistants on where I could be posted, I quickly expressed my interest in working anywhere that would include Apapa area in Lagos.

Eventually I was posted to Mainland District of Lagos Territory where, again, I was lucky to influence my further posting to the location of my choice. I eventually invited the attention of my supervisors to the RAT at the Randle junction in Apapa. That provided a good ground for learning a few things about the services we offered and the engineering we practiced. I left Apapa for Ibadan after a stay of six months to continue my Engineers’ pupilage training.

My interest in Apapa area and the work of the P & T Department was influenced by my experience seeing P & T technicians battling faults and challenges at the Randle junction almost every day, while I had four annual vacation job experiences with Flour Mills Nigeria Ltd at Warehouse Road from my first year in the University in 1969 till my graduation in 1973. Randle junction, by the way, was just a stone throw away from the premises of Flour Mills Nigeria at the time. My reading was that if those guys were coming to the same place for four years and it did not seem they found answers to the technical challenges they had, then I sure would like to know what the challenges were! So, I was curious about what challenges they were battling all those years. Pursuing this curiosity gave me the opportunity to frame my desires as an engineer and told very heavily on my career. For this reason, I have fond memories of my time at Mainland District of the then P & T.

Recall that I had earlier mentioned two key words in this discussion. INTEGRITY, which I will return to later, and RAT, which is not the rat that eats our yams, but a Ready Access Terminal, which was the engineering solution that the engineers and technicians, by their actions turned into a junk of wires so badly that at the end of the day, they could no longer understand, and thus failed to put the phones in good working order. They unfortunately became rats that ate the earnings of their customers, if you get what I mean.

I eventually found out that the people who offered public services appeared limited in efficiency and effectiveness because they did not care about ‘what was right, fair, just or good about what they chose to do’ to make their customers happy. What I have just mentioned, that is ‘the concern about what is right, fair, just and good about what we ought to do’ – not just about what is generally acceptable or expedient, is the definition of work ETHICS, and that is where I find it apropos to kick off this discussion.

I had earlier talked above, about a personal Honours List. I update it each time I come across someone who, in my opinion, had acted with honesty, integrity and transparency, exercising powers responsibly, and striving to earn and sustain public trust. I have updated this Honour’s List for the past ten years. Acting with honesty and transparency, exercising powers responsibly and striving to earn and sustain public trust is what I call INTEGRITY, and that is a quality I can attest the late Engr. (Chief) Lion Alhaji Sina Egberongbe possessed abundantly.

These days there are private investments in utilities such as roads, water, even airports and universities; our concern in this short discussion is one in which those infrastructure of roads, water, sewage, hospitals, schools and the one we call ‘infrastructure of infrastructures’, telecommunications, are funded by tax payers. When the projects are successful, they improve the quality of life of citizens and drive the country’s economic progress. When they fail, however, the consequences can be far-reaching because, not only do the populace suffer, but there is usually a consequential increase in crime, agitations, and sometime unrest that can bring down a government.
The process of constructing these utilities is a complex interplay of various competences, but engineering competence is the most important of these competences, and it is the best known and appreciated. Managing such public infrastructure addresses the responsibilities for eliminating wasteful spending, selecting the right projects, allocating the right resources to ensure on-time and on-budget completion, and coping with changes all along. The point to recognise here is that success or failure does not rest only with engineering competence and availability of appropriate technology.

Now let us talk about TECHNOLOGY.

The oldest, most popular application of technology is the GENERATION OF ELECTRICITY and the latest is THE INTERNET OF THINGS. In between these two transformational technologies, a lot has happened to give man comfort and good living using engineering.

Technology is universal and it works for everybody, everywhere. And if that is so, the question arises as to why some technology that works like magic in some climes, appears not to work as well in others. Or to put it more bluntly, why the telephone system that works in other economies do not work satisfactorily in others? The point is: for technology to serve us, we have to manage it. And the management is not only in adherence to the laws of physics and chemistry for example, but actually in relation to the decisions and indecisions of those in charge of its management. When the infrastructure is for public use, the management that is required goes beyond simple project management but a complex one that requires sound, futuristic, selfless, and sometimes, painful decisions.

For engineering projects to be delivered in adherence to the envisaged standard, ALL PUBLIC OFFICIALS who are either directly or remotely connected with the project, are expected to act ethically and with integrity. Public authorities must be ethical, responsible, and fair in their dealings with private citizens, contractors and other public authorities. Office holders, elected representatives and public servants must behave professionally and ethically too. They must not be fraudulent, accept bribes, or leak confidential information. Where all these ethical and integrity issues are not strictly observed, there is a high probability for the public infrastructure under construction to fail, be delayed, or abandoned.

For public infrastructure construction to be delivered adequately, accurately, and on time, four conditions must be met, four of which are contained in the title of my speech. These are integrity, ethical behaviour, probity, and adherence to the rule of law.

For emphasis, ladies and gentlemen, INTEGRITY means acting with honesty and transparency, exercising powers responsibly, and striving to earn and sustain public trust. PROBITY is about understanding the limits of one’s authority and powers, and acting within those limits. And ETHICS is basically about what is right, fair, just and good about what we ought to do, not about what is the case or what is most acceptable or expedient.

When any of these is lacking, corruption sets in and there lies the secret of why public infrastructures in corrupt polities do not deliver as expected to the citizens.

EFFORTS AT CURING CORRUPTION

Some have suggested we should not aim at curing corruption but we should instead only work to curb it. I disagree with that position. Nothing is unattainable and nothing is impossible. I believe corruption must be cured and possibly killed, before it kills us all.

A framework for dealing with corruption is to address how people launder the gains of corruption.

Dispensing with gains of corruption can be achieved in several ways, three of which are of interest to me here, namely;
1. Living flamboyantly with ill-gotten wealth with family members profiting from such corrupt wealth,
2. Keeping looted assets in foreign jurisdiction where nobody, especially the local authorities, but the looter has access to it, and,
3. The kleptomaniac type, in which the looted assets are laundered and kept in the hope that smart lawyers would be paid to fight anti-corruption institutions when the game appears to be up.

Building frameworks to address the above-mentioned methods of accumulation illegitimate earnings should be the beginning of curing corruption. It however does not end there.

We might have lost out in an initial effort that promised much in the past three years; however, we should not be discouraged. We only need to set our minds at it and ensure we continue to fight corruption in all its ramifications and manifestations.

May the good gentle soul of Engr Chief Lion Alhaji Sina Egberongbe rest in the Almighty.

Thank you and God bless.

Titi Omo-Ettu
Abeokuta

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