Where were you born and how was your early life?
I was born in Ile Ife to Canon and Mrs. Emmanuel Ajibola. I grew up in the church yard until I had a stint with my father’s friend in Ibadan before I finished my primary school.
I attended Christ School, Ado Ekiti from 1960 to 1964. I returned to the school in 1965 for higher school certificate and completed it in 1966. In 1967, I proceeded to the United Kingdom where I attended the University of London, now North-East London Polytechnic. I graduated in 1970 with a degree in civil engineering and got a job at the Urban District Council of Basildon in Essex, UK. It was a new town at the time that was meant to be a satellite to London. The idea was to get people move out of London to get a better life.
I was indentured to work as pupil engineer for two years under strict training of engineer mentors. That was one of the foundations of my successful career as an engineer. The terms of the agreements were adhered to properly. They trained me in designing the office and they also took me to the site to get the experience. I became a full-fledged engineer thereafter.
Why did you accept to be a pupil engineer when you could have applied for a job elsewhere?
It is very important to note that such an opportunity made the difference in my life. I was a theoretical engineer but mentored in its real practice. I was able to find an expression in the profession due to the concerted mentorship from which I profited. After the training, I was employed as engineering assistant in the same organisation. But in December 1973, I decided to return home.
Why going through all the trouble of pupil engineering when you had the plan to return home soon?
During my undergraduate days, I was privileged to partake in a scholarship scheme organised by the Western Region government at the time. I was lucky to get the scholarship and I enjoyed it in my second and third year in the university. This triggered the urge in me to return home and serve the nation that gave me the opportunity. I was not under pressure from anyone or organisation to move back to Nigeria, I made the decision. Unfortunately, there was no job for me when I returned to Nigeria.
Did you return to the UK to reclaim the job you left?
I was lucky to get into a firm of consulting professionals, Ete Aro and Partners in Ibadan, which was set up a few years earlier. I was excited about the gentlemen that set up the organisation. I felt they were reading my mind because that would be the place for me to complement what they were doing.
They appreciated my inner feeling and took me in. I delivered the best of my knowledge and experience while I was with them. The relationship is still cordial. The founders were selfless and committed to the profession.
Thereafter, I set up a firm with some colleagues I had known. We established Integrated Builders. As time went on, we found out that the potential we were locking together in one organisation without the financial back-up and government recognition was militating against solid progress. We decided to disengage in a way that the firm would operate on its own and the construction aspect would also be on its own. That was how two firms were established and still existing.
I am the Chief Executive Officer of one of the companies, Intecon Partnership Consulting Civil/Structural Engineers. It has been running since 1976 and we have seen several phases of development in Nigeria. We have passed through various stages of government policies; some favoured the profession and some did not.
Were you disappointed that you did not get a job when you returned home or would you say that it encouraged you to establish your own firm?
Initially, I was very disappointed. But the job I later got was compensating. It inspired me to be where I am today. The administrators in the Western Region were knowledgeable and considerate. It was because of the prudent management of the resources of the region that they could not just employ everybody anyhow. They were working out their processes to add more staff. It was a good and bad period for me.
At the time you travelled abroad to study engineering, many of your peers chose law and medicine. What inspired your choice?
When I was about to leave secondary school, my father consulted with my science teacher to decide my future profession. During a holiday, he took me to the teacher and asked him what he thought was my best subject and possible future career. The teacher asked me in return what I aspired to be in the future and I told him that I would like to be an air force pilot or surveyor. In both, my fancy for navigation reflected as we were taught in Mathematics. It was my first imagination of how to apply my knowledge in real time.
The teacher said from what he had seen of me in all the years he had known me as a pupil, I would be great as an engineer. He asked if I did not mind doing it and I said I would not mind. He also advised my father to send me to the UK to study and gain sound foundation.
Mind you, I did not want to go because I wanted to be with my friends in Nigeria. Fortunately for me, my parents could afford sending me abroad. I left finally but I was not enjoying my stay initially. So my father influenced my choice based on advice from an expert.
As for medicine and law, I have friends who studied them abroad but I never wanted to be a medical doctor or a lawyer.
Did you influence your children’s career too?
Interestingly, I can say that mine is a family of engineers. I have five boys and all of them are in engineering related professions. Four of them are actually into full time engineering. This is not because I influenced them directly. I might have done that indirectly.
You studied engineering many years ago in an age when there was no computer in many parts of the world. Today, engineers use computer to design. How did you align with the digital age of engineering?
In 1978, I went back to the UK to study at Birmingham University to update my knowledge when computer was going global. There, I was introduced to digital system. In those days, we had main frame and cabinet computers.
Did you meet your wife before leaving Nigeria to study abroad?
We met in the UK at a party organised for a senior friend who was returning to Nigeria. She came to the party with a lady. The lady noticed my closeness to her and encouraged the friendship. She was studying to become a certified secretary. At the end of the party, I dropped her at the railway station to know what type of person she was. I found out that she was a level-headed person and intelligent.
We reconnected through letters. I was staying in Basildon, Essex but she stayed at Brighton. Eventually, we met again and we took it from there. She was not a wayward girl.
Over the years, she has been a wonderful partner and a loving wife. She has been a great influence on my success, an inspiration to me and the children and above all, a wonderful wife. When things were rough, she exhibited prudence and understanding. When I first went into business and things were not doing well, she did not nag. I couldn’t have loved to marry someone else. My profession takes a lot of my time and if one does not have an understanding woman, it might cause a lot of hard time. She understands and manages the situation. She is prayerful too.
Where did you marry?
We came to Nigeria to get married but we had been in a determined relationship since our days in London.
Based on the challenges of engineering you have highlighted, what future does the profession have in Nigeria?
I am concerned about its future in Nigeria. I think it is important to determine the point of intersection between politics and engineering early enough so that we don’t lose the opportunity of solid development as a nation.
If you want to develop this country and remain powerful, we need to mobilise our engineering potential. We need to let our professional engineers express themselves in infrastructural development. That profession is synonymous with solution. The air conditioner gives solution to the problem of heat. Vehicle brings solution to the problem of transportation. The God-given oil is drying up but the power of engineering can lift us to a height we desire.
If you are talking of industrialisation, it will not be sustainable if you are bringing foreigners to plant factories in your country. You need to involve your own people. We do not need to relegate our own people. Nigerians are doing well in engineering but all they need is to be encouraged by the government.
How would you describe government support for indigenous engineers?
In those days, the policy was a good one for engineering practice because both the engineers in the ministry and those who were outside were able to work together to ensure that the companies took part in infrastructural development.
Before then, most of the engineering firms were established by British entrepreneurs. But since Nigerians began to establish engineering firms, they were recognised by the government.
Soon after the Civil War, there was indigenisation decree which enabled Nigerians to be the chief operators of companies that were participating in Nigeria’s economy at that time. Some Nigerians inherited companies from foreigners while some established their own.
Ibadan was the home of engineering consultancies in Nigeria and the engineers were doing well. They worked everywhere in Nigeria and helped in the infrastructural development of the country.
Some of the achievements of indigenous engineers at the time include the NET building in Lagos, which was designed by Obi Obembe and Associates, part of the Tafawa Balewa Square which was designed by Ete Aro and Partners where I served as resident engineer and several other projects in Abuja.
There was a boom in engineering consultancy until sometimes ago when foreign influence destroyed the indigenisation policy of the Federal Government. The idea of globalisation means that you cannot protect professionals in your own country. Some of the firms died.
When President Muhammadu Buhari managed the Petroleum Trust Fund, he engaged Nigerian professionals to initiate, manage and deliver several projects. The unassailable cost of construction in Nigeria was tamed with the system the Nigerian engineers acted with integrity. The projects were well supervised and a few companies also picked up.
The profession is in its low period now . This is the time we have the highest rate of infrastructure development because we are rushing to bridge infrastructural gap created over the years.
One would have thought that this would have been a period of boom for engineering practice in Nigeria and indeed, all professions. You need to spend yourself out of recession with massive infrastructural development that will engage people and boost commercial activities.
The issue of lack of fund occasioned by the sharp drop in oil price, insecurity and militant activities in the Niger Delta have led to reduction in the capacity of the economy. Foreign countries through their companies in Nigeria are taking over the few infrastructural developments in the country because they offer soft payment plan to government.
China is currently responsible for building most of the infrastructure going on now. This perhaps could be because their terms appeared to be the best in term of repayment plan. As a nation, we are inclined to taking loans from them to develop our infrastructure. The loans were tied to engaging these foreign companies. We didn’t have to commit ourselves to an extent that our own engineers will be redundant. Probably, experts in negotiating such agreement were not included in the negotiation.
If we employ a company to build Abuja/Kaduna rail line, the company must produce drawing, specification, costing and so on in the negotiation. I doubt if those processes are subjected to any strict professional due process. I may be wrong but what we would have loved to see is a drawing produced in English so that any engineer will understand it. Engineering is universal, there is nothing to hide. If people had not travelled to China to practise engineering, will their indigenous engineers know what they know today? There is an opportunity for Nigerian consultants to be engaged alongside these foreign engineers so that they can learn from them just like I went through training after leaving school. We need to reconsider our stand in Nigeria.
Satellite areas in Nigeria seem to lack good planning and basic facilities like roads and potable water supply. Don’t you think government is shying away from its responsibilities of decongesting the main cities that were developed more than 50 years ago?
I have heard of satellite towns in Abuja because it is in its initial plan. Right now, the government is busy putting legal structures in place to make the satellite towns function. Without this initiative, Abuja present structures will soon degenerate because of pressure on them. Satellite areas are meant to relieve the main city.
In Ibadan, Oyo State, I do not know of any structured satellite town planning as of today. I am not a town planner so I may not be completely right. But it is not just by declaration that the satellite towns come to life, there must be concerted planning. If a place is going to function as a satellite area, the link there must be easy in term of transportation to link the main city. There must be long-term planning and if it has not started now, there is a concern in that area.
This Interview was first published in The PUNCH.