Patronage of foreign contractors has led to rising unemployment- Engr Olorunfemi Isaacs

Nigerian Engineers are desirous of deepening partnerships with stakeholders across the broad spectrum in the country, says President, Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), Engr. ADEMOLA OLORUNFEMI in an interview with CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM. He bared his mind on critical issues in technology and infrastructure as well as professional practice

From its inception 57 years ago, Nigerian engineers have occupied enviable position and made some landmark strides, but foreign experts seem to hold sway in some aspect of your professional practice in the country. Why is it so?

Government (at all levels in Nigeria) normally chooses to patronise foreign contractors and service providers instead of indigenous professionals because of lack of adequate policy framework to protect the indigenous engineering personnel. This has resulted in a very slow pace of capacity building and rising level of unemployment in the country. The irony of this development/trend is the fact that these neglected indigenous professionals would, in turn, be employed by the foreign contracting companies to do the same job in the end.

In light of this unfortunate development, NSE has taken several steps in the past to address this anomaly through advocacy but we are not getting the adequate government support needed to address this issue, which is strongly inimical to our industrial growth and development. However, we are not relenting on our commitment to strengthen our advocacy efforts in this direction. For instance, we have presented our position paper and recommendations on moving the economy forward from our perspectives to the President-elect, Gen. Muhammad Buhari (rtd). I have also recently set up another committee to further review this paper and synthesize it, after taking in additional submissions from our 15 fellowship E-Groups on different aspects of the economy, with a view of producing a stronger viewpoint.

The preference for foreign contractors, goods and services has to be tackled and discouraged.   Government must encourage indigenous consultants and contractors to grow. All the foreign contractors currently patronised by our government did not start big, and no external person will develop our country for us. We need laws that will ensure that contracts below a particular threshold be awarded to indigenous engineering companies. Then, contracts above this threshold could only be given to foreign companies with local partnerships and these partners must not just be nominal partners.

NSE has been collaborating, influencing and providing quality advice to the various arms of the government, industry, commerce, the academia and the society. Which areas have your members made notable achievements? Can you mention some of them?

As you have rightly pointed out, top on the agenda of the NSE is to sufficiently partner our government and the relevant institutions for the sole purpose of bringing about advancement to improve the lot of our citizenry. This takes various forms, a classical example being influencing of government policies. We are motivated to do this with deep patriotism because we are aware that the dominant world economies have attained their current state essentially for their dedication to, and appreciation of, the practice of engineering.

I can tell you that the idea of establishing current National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) was initiated by us. The Agency is charged with development and implementation of National Policy on Science and Engineering Infrastructure accordingly.

I can tell you that the spiral effect of this singular advice has led to the emergence of our space technology institutions, Remote Sensing Agency and many other institutions that have either directly or indirectly enhanced our technological and economic development.

The precursor to the Nigerian (Oil and Gas) Content Development Law of 2010 is NSE’s Nigerian Content Committee, which is a standing committee set up by the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) in 2006 to undertake studies and propagate the totality of composite value added or created in the Nigerian economy, through the utilization of Nigerian human and material resources for the provision of goods and services to all facets of our industrial and social life, without compromising quality, health, safety and environmental standards. The Law is therefore framed within the context of growth of Nigerian entrepreneurship and domestication of assets in line with Nigeria’s strategic developmental goals.

The establishment of the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board (NCDMB) in April 22, 2010, by President Goodluck Jonathan with the mandate to seek to increase indigenous participation in the Oil and Gas industry, build local capacity and competences and create linkages to other sectors of the national economy to boost industry contributions to the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is part of the outcome of the initiative of Nigerian Engineers.
We have continued to push for an all encompassing replication of the content development in other sectors; this includes patronage of made in Nigeria products. We have two major electricity transformers manufacturing companies, fully licensed and in full operation in Nigeria; namely: Danelec FZE and Elsewedy Electric Company Limited, both, in their combined capacity, have continually strived to proffer logical and practical solutions to the challenges of economic development, especially in the electricity generation and distribution sector.

Their solution model has been based largely on driving down capital flight, through utilization of about 90 per cent of Nigerian content in both personnel and material resources in their production processes.

There are many other indigenous companies in Nigeria that are bringing effect to Nigerian Content in other sectors of the economy. We have the Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited which is a wholly owned Nigerian company established in 2007. It is also worthy of note that 90 per cent Nigerian content in both materials and personnel is achieved at Innoson.

Omatek Computers, on the one hand, has transformed from the computer training outfit it used to be to a computer manufacturer of note. In 2008, it recorded a major feat by beating competition from 42 other countries to become the Best System Builder in East, West and Central Africa (EWCA), a feat that has not been matched till date. Zinox is another credible example of what can be achieved locally, given the right operating environment. As responsible citizens, the promotion of indigenous companies is a task that must be undertaken by all. These are just few examples of some successful initiatives geared towards development of our economy.

Finally, NSE has partnered and collaborated with many MDAs to actualize their mandate. We have worked with Government in different capacities such as providing Bills on National Road Fund, Federal Road Authority, Nigeria Railway Reform, Nigerian Metallurgical Industry, Nigeria Water Resources, and Nigerian Electricity Management Services Authority, to name a few, for passage into law for establishment of Agencies by the National Assembly so as to put structures in place that will enhance international best practices. NSE was also instrumental and robustly involved in the development of the National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan (NIIMP), and many others.

Engineers are making meaningful contribution to the advancement of technology worldwide. What efforts are Nigeria engineers making in ensuring the country adopts alternative energy or green technology?

In the area of alternative energy or green technology, the NSE has organized several workshops on conservation of our environment. We still need firm government policies in this area to encourage more indigenous research in alternative energy and again effect a behavioral change in our people’s approach to tree cutting.

Electricity, on the other hand, defines the effectiveness of the Society itself and must be derived from various alternate sources – not just through hydrocarbon and/or water (hydropower) alone. Other available sources of Coal and even nuclear possibilities in the medium term should be seriously considered in view of its high efficiency as well as its relevance to Nigeria as regional power.

Renewable energy sources of Solar, Biomass & Wind should be explored, particularly, in the rural areas where its use must be encouraged as an urgent national policy. There is an also an urgent need to do a nationwide energy audit and look at the possibility of decentralizing power distribution.

As the 29th President of the Society, what has been NSE contribution towards sustainable national development? What are the challenges militating against your profession?

In talking about the contribution of NSE towards sustainable national development, it is important to remind us of the recently concluded World Engineering Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure, hosted in Nigeria by the NSE, where solutions were proffered to the sustenance of national development in Nigeria and Africa at large.

At the 2014 National Conference convened by the Federal Government (at which we were represented), NSE also made key presentations on possible solutions to the engineering and technological challenges besetting the nation.

Some of the challenges militating against the development of engineering profession and practice in Nigeria, as proffered, include: government preference for foreign contractors/consultants over the indigenous professionals; influx of foreign low and middle manpower that abound in the country; failure of both Federal and State governments to appoint engineering personnel as Ministers or Heads of engineering based MDAs, such as Federal Ministries of Works, Power, Agricultures, Water Resources, Communication, Transport, Aviation, Environment, among others. Non-payment of fees for indigenous Consultants as well as non-payment to Contractors for jobs running into billions is also a big challenge. Unnecessary delays are just as bad if cost overruns are to be avoided.

Initially, Nigeria was almost on the same footing with countries such as Singapore, China and South Africa, but these nations waded through their under-development. What action plans could ensure Nigeria attain sustainable development?

For Nigeria to attain sustainable development like Singapore, China and other Asian Tiger economies, we need to put engineering and technology forward with the right policies. Any nation that puts engineering and technology at the back seat will certainly be backward. Government, at all levels, must realize this so that the attainment of sustainable development by Nigeria does not remain a mirage.

The case of South Africa is a bit different. They were ostracized and were forced to operate in a closed economy, which enforced them to be self-sufficient in many areas. They ended up developing excess capacities on many fronts, which proved very useful when the economy started to open up in the early nineties when they started to do business with the outside world. Thus they were able to immediately export products, services & skills to other countries on the continent that are short on these as evidenced by what we saw here within the first decade of their present democracy (1994 – 2004). This was when Nigeria actually witnessed an unprecedented level of South African inward flow of investments including, MTN, Standard Bank (Stanbic), Multicoice, Sasoil, among others with each of these respective companies operating a continental growth strategy within Africa and elsewhere, with strong backing from their home government.

And this brings us to the need for strategic planning on a global front as a part of our overall national growth strategy. Nigerian embassies abound all over the world without any key strategy that seeks to improve Engineering & Technology partnerships and/or relations that should benefit us. Some of our Ambassadors are not quite aware that they have key economic-relations responsibilities that should key into our overall strategy for growth, globally. There are probably no key strategic briefings that should guide operational direction for our envoys. We therefore lack global private-sector Engineering players that have stretched a leg into the African infrastructural territory, particularly, on the West African coast.

Inadequate infrastructure in Nigeria and major sectors of national life has been a source of concern to all Nigerians and particularly to the engineers. What should the Federal Government do with regards to infrastructural development in the country? Are you in support of the call for engineering infrastructure emergency plan?

Infrastructure as an output of engineering activity is crucial to the enhancement of conducive living conditions of citizens. It therefore means that power installations, roads, bridges, water supply schemes, communication, airports and railways amongst others are all key aspects that must be built to achieve economic advancement of Nigeria.

A glance at the World Bank fact-sheet on Sub-Saharan countries infrastructure indicates, the cost of redressing Africa’s infrastructure deficit is estimated at $38 billion of investment per year, and a further $37 billion per year in operations and maintenance; an overall price tag of $75 billion, therefore the total required spending translates into 12 percent of Africa’s GDP while there is currently a funding gap of $35 billion per year.

Way back home, Nigeria needs about $2.4trillion within the next 30 years to bridge our infrastructure gap. We need to take decisive action in order to join the league of mega economies. This is an urgent step we need to take collectively to effectively tackle the incidence of poverty.

Nigerian Engineers are desirous of deepening partnerships with stakeholders across the broad spectrum in the country. As part of its effort, NSE recently inaugurated a high level Expert Group on the development of the maiden Infrastructure Report Card for the country, with a timeline of 12 months for its delivery. The infrastructure ranking report will enable our policy makers to identify national infrastructure deficits in realistic evidence based manner and also enable them to develop holistic remedial measures to close necessary gaps.

It must be said, however, that ranking the existing aspects of infrastructure is not a one-off activity and so, will be on-going. The Score Card, when completed, will be compared with the demography of various localities to identify the infrastructure gaps in all sectors of the economy. This will help government to prioritize its infrastructure plan and financing. Without this Score Card in place you cannot call for any engineering infrastructure emergency plan.

Therefore, concerned with the increasing infrastructure deficits in Nigeria, and in Africa in general, in November, 2014, NSE secured the approval of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) and hosted the World Engineering Conference with the theme “Development of Sustainable Infrastructure in Africa” which provided a platform to share experiences in tackling the challenges.

We have a plan to discuss the implementation of the National Infrastructure Master Plan (NIIMP) in the 2015 National Engineering Conference. The Conference with the theme ‘National Integrated Infrastructure Master Plan (NIIMP) 2015: Strategies for Implementation’ is scheduled to hold in Akure, Ondo State from November 16-20, 2015.  Over 5, 000 delegates and dignitaries from all works of life within and outside Nigeria are expected to be in attendance. The Conference theme was carefully chosen on the heels of the World Engineering Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure, which witnessed tremendous participation worldwide.

Indeed, if there is one fundamental impediment standing between Nigeria’s continued inclusive economic growth, it is the excruciating shortage of infrastructure with its attendant impact on productivity and economic growth. The lack of modern infrastructure is a binding constraint and major challenge to Nigeria’s economic development and indeed constitutes a major impediment to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other vital objectives such as revitalizing agriculture. Nigeria’s infrastructure needs are enormous from power to intercity & interstate roads, bridges, rural roads, railways and harbors to irrigation systems, ICT, clean water, sewage, sanitation/waste management and basic social infrastructure such as health, education, banking and commercial services.

Based on the foregoing, government needs to step up its policies geared towards expanding our infrastructure base. It is gladdening that various policies have been put in place both at the various level of government. For example it is appropriate that we have the Infrastructure Development Bank as well as the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) which has a strategic goal to accelerate investment in national infrastructure through private sector funding by assisting the federal government and its Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) to implement and establish effective Public Private Partnership’s (PPP) procurement.  Efforts must be made to attract venture capital firms, while both government and stakeholders must ensure the strengthening of our financial institutions to enable their active role in our dream to actualize infrastructure development. Government must ensure consistent policies aimed at creating conducive environment for investment in the sector.

As earlier mentioned, NSE, years back, advised the Federal Government to establish the current National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) is an Agency under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. The Agency is charged with development and implementation of National Policy on Science and Engineering Infrastructure accordingly.

NASENI as envisioned by the NSE albeit became a victim of government policy summersaults and neglect. That, notwithstanding, we have recorded a major technological leap through its significant production outlets in the electronic and automotive segments, respectively. President Goodluck Jonathan has shown practical interest in the affairs of NASENI as the Chairman of the Board. We therefore implore the President-elect to sustain this interest in NASENI.

What efforts are you making to ensure that the government White Paper on the Report of Presidential Committee on Strategic Plans for Engineering Development and Control in Nigeria is enacted into law? How can Federal government enforce or facilitate this new plan?

The government White Paper was issued by the Obasanjo administration in 2006 and since then, and up till now, we have been advocating for the enactment of the White Paper into law under the appropriate existing laws such as the COREN Act.


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