The story of Engr. Alfred Irabor Okoigun, who sits atop Arco Group Plc as Chairman/Group Managing Director, is a very riveting story indeed. A man destined for greatness, just after a two-year stint at the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) resigned from a very promising career to set up shop in 1980 and has never looked back ever since. 37 years down the line, the Edo-born entrepreneur has since built a business empire whose fame and fortunes has continued to attract national and global attention positively. He recently  where he earned the most coveted award reserved for special achievers by the Nigerian Academy of Engineering (NAE). Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf spoke with him. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be invested with the most coveted award of the honorary fellowship by the Nigerian Academy of Engineering? What does this means to you?

I feel truly great and honoured with this calibre of professionals, engineers, from all spheres of engineering to come together and honour me today with their highest honour. I feel really happy and excited that I was chosen by the body today.

I consider it as a very good challenge because this is to encourage me further to do more. I have looked at our society, looked at where we are now and seen our level of development and the truth is, we have refused to recognise science and technology as one of the pillars of development anywhere. Any nation that does not recognise science and technology cannot grow. And we’ve seen it. Americans have done it, the Great Britain, China and so on. What I promise is that I and the rest of my colleagues will rally round along with the Nigerian Academy of Engineering let’s look at the youths and see how we can encourage them.

Well, with this award I’m encouraged to do more for the promotion of science and technology in our country Nigeria. We’ve been a little bit before but with this award, it’s like I have to do more. And I’m truly ready to do more because without the support of science and technology, we cannot develop. I want to encourage people of goodwill to support engineering practice in Nigeria. That’s what I’ll continue to do going forward.

Engineering is my calling and l want to continue to put in my best. Let me say something. Why Nigeria has not progressed the way it should, the real truth is, we refuse to recognise science and technology. Other nations have. America have, Great Britain. Germany and the ones we call third worlds in those days, countries like Malaysia, Singapore,China, etc. Immediately they embraced science and technology, you could see the impact it has made in their economy.

Take for example, China. Where was China some 30 years ago? The country was virtually nowhere. But today, China is competing with America, why? Because of science and technology. And how did they do it? They started by encouraging the youths. There was a time there were a lot of Chinese studying in America, Great Britain and almost everywhere in top institutions. Americans hired them, which is what is happening to Nigeria today. Top brains of Nigeria go abroad but they’re not coming back, they’re staying behind. Go to any sphere in the world today, these Nigerians are doing great. But they’re not encouraged to come back.

What did China do? It encouraged his sons and daughters in the diaspora to come back by paying them at least $60-80,000 per annum as well as gave those willing to undertake research grant of $250-300,000 a year. And with this, 80% of those who were in America came back to China to help develop their economy. That’s what is responsible for the quantum leap today in China and that’s what has happened in Israel, of 8.5million people. Today, Israel is the number one in startup engineering business, next to America. So that is what science can do in the life of a country. But the thing is, those in those fields of science and technology they don’t know how to beg, they don’t know how to lobby. But in Nigeria, if you don’t beg, if you don’t lobby, you’re not going anywhere. So we have to change that concept, we just have to change. Therefore, what am I going to do moving forward, is to continue to support all worthy causes aimed at accelerating growth and development in the field of engineering practice. Of course, I’ll continue to advocate to government the development science and technology can bring. The government alone cannot do it because the population is so small. These are brains that don’t have too much time for politics. They just want to get results. We need to encourage young Nigerian engineers. At Arco we’re encouraging our youths as much as possible and we will continue to do so. I cannot give up in supporting science and technology development because this is my calling.

Do you think with the calibre of engineers we have in Nigeria, can they compete with their counterparts in the rest of the world?

I will tell you without any doubt that we have top quality of Nigerian engineers. And as we know have them performing excellently in other parts of the world well but unfortunately they are not doing so in Nigeria. And this is because of the challenges of the environment. And this is what we want to bring now. We’ll try and encourage them. In spite of all the challenges, let’s create the possibilities and opportunities where they can grow and be able to do like what their counterparts are doing in other parts of the world. They’ve the brains, knowledge but sometimes the environment can be influential.

Considering the enormous challenges confronting the engineering profession in Nigeria, what’s your advice to other stakeholders?

For example, Nigeria Academy engineering is already doing that. Arco is partnering with them. What do we want to do? We want to begin to look at some of the young engineers who are doing some tangible things who ordinarily cannot be able to bring their expertise to the open market. We want to make concerted efforts to look out for them because one thing about engineers is they don’t know how to make noise, they don’t know how to solicit or beg. They believe they’ve got the knowledge and know-how. Until you seek them, you may not know them. This is the principles all over the world. China is doing it, Americans did it many years ago. They looked for and fished out their engineers. In today’s world, China that we are talking about, if you have the PhD from university and you went to one of the top university in America, China will just give you between $60-80,000 annually and research grant of about $250-300,000 annually. You don’t solicit for it that is promotion. We are not there yet but that are the things I would like us to work on in future.

As one of the foremost engineering companies in the country today, what are your… Where do you want to see Arco in the near future?

Well the first and foremost for Arco, we are looking at the company that will outlive not only the founder. But that anybody who works with Arco, the company should outlive such a person. So that means, we are talking of the sustainability, growth. We are working on that and that is the focus.

The nation’s oil sector is in a shambles with most of the refineries in state of disrepair. Now there are plans to revive the refineries just as the Dangote Group is planning a massive intervention with the establishment of its own refinery in due course. How would this whole thing play out?

My advice to the government at this point in time is to challenge the Nigerian engineers, just challenge them. Say, look, we have been having this problem ever since. Nigeria Society of Engineers, Nigeria Academy of Engineering, give us solutions. Challenge them and I think a solution will come out. And some of us who are in the business we will rally round to them. We must believe in Nigeria, we must believe in ourselves that we can do it. We have gone round… All these foreign companies can’t do it for you. No. They simply take our money and go away. We have seen it.

But efforts are the engineers making too to make their impact felt in the system as well?

You see there was there was that kind of attitude in the past; if you are not a foreigner you are not recognised. But now things are changing. The President has just signed this law now on Executive Order on local content, on science and technology and with that, it will be another encouragement for the local experts. Before now, we’ve all been put down but I think we’re waking up.

Still talking on the local content, how would you assess the level of growth in oil and gas?

We are making some efforts. There was a time it was not there before. But now it’s there. So let’s hope, we’ll do better to make sure it works.

What’s your message to the government?

My message to the government is simple: Let’s believe in ourselves, nobody can do it for us. Let’s build our capacity. Indians have done it, the Chinese are doing it, Malaysians have done it, Koreans have done it other countries are doing it, let’s believe in ourselves. We must promote Nigeria.

You’ve led your company for over 37years now, which is a milestone in the life of any organisation. Can you tell us how it all began, your successes and failures and back to the present?

Definitely, in any event you must have challenges. But the important thing is to just to believe in where you’re going. You must have a goal. And if that goal is to build a sustainable organisation, then those challenges are not relevant. You must deal with them and that’s what we have been doing over the years.

The youths in engineering don’t seem to be challenged enough to want to do anything. What’s your advice to the youths based on your experience as someone who took the bold step to pursue a career in engineering?

What I would advice the youths is let them not be moved by the immediate luxuries. Let them believe in building their future. They should be committed to their beliefs. They should be honest in dealing with themselves and dealing with others. They should be transparent. If they can have these values, there are many avenues from which they can really come out. It’ll be challenging no doubt. But if you believe in yourself you’ll do it. Like people say, money is an issue. But from the first lecture that I gave at the Lagos Business School, the topic was, ‘Don’t fret over money.’ And that is true. Have your idea, believe in it, and push it. But when say because Mr. A made money without doing so much, because he knows ABCD contacts, and that’s the path you want to follow; it’s not sustainable.

The PIGB Act has just been harmonised by the two legislative chambers and just awaiting presidential assent. But there are wide clamour from a section of the public who don’t the president to give his assent because of what they believe are some grey areas in the policy document. Do you share such sentiments?

You see this problem has been there long time and we are almost losing track on where we are. But my advice is whatever that can add value to the people and nation in general, let’s push it. You see this whole argument has been on for sometime now that sometimes on lose track of where we are. But my advice is, whatever that can make or give benefit to the nation, to the people in general let’s push it.

This interview was first published in The Nation

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