Reminiscence: Life as Nigeria’s first female PhD holder in engineering –Olatokunbo Somolu

In this interview with Vivian Onyebukwa first published in sun newspaper, Nigeria’s first female PhD holder in Engineering, Engr Olatokunbo Simply reminisces on her journey so far.

Olatokunbo Somolu graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in Civil / Structural Engineering from University of Lagos. She also obtained a PhD in Civil Engineering from same school in 1978, thus becoming the first Nigerian woman to obtain a doctorate degree in any field of engineering. She began her career as a lecturer when she joined the services of the Yaba College of Technology in the Civil Engineering Department.

She later joined Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in 1982 as Assistant Chief Civil Engineer where she headed the Civil Engineering Unit of ETD, NNPC in 1990, Head, Special Projects in 1992 and Manager, Engineering in 1995. Always the first; in November 2003, she was appointed General Manager (Projects), and in February 2005 she became the first woman to Head the Engineering and Technology Division (ETD) of NNPC as the Group General Manager.

Her Engineering prowess can be appreciated through the major projects she supervised, which include the world class NNPC Towers Complex in Abuja, DPR offices in Kofo Abayomi, Victoria Island, the New Atlas Cove Jetty and NNPC Floating Fuel Filling Stations. Somolu has also undertaken several national assignments. She was a member of the Boards of Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) and the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA).

She was inducted into the Nigerian Women Hall of Fame in 2007 as the first Nigerian female to hold a PhD in Engineering. She voluntarily retired from NNPC in 2009 after 27 years of active and dedicated services. Retired but not tired, she is fully involved in the education sector with the establishment of schools. In 2010, she got an award for being one of the top 50 Nigerian women by the President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration to mark the country’s 50th independence anniversary.

Can you lead us into your early life?

I was born on 11th of October 1950, so I turned 70 this October 11, 2020. I was born and grew up in Lagos. I attended Anglican school, CMS, Broad Street, Lagos. From there I went to Queens College, Lagos on government scholarship, because at that time they used to give scholarship to the best 10 in the common entrance exam. From there I went on to do higher school which was also on scholarship. In my final year, I was the head girl of the school. That was one thing that I can say stood me out from that time among my peers. From higher school, I went to University of Lagos as a Mobil scholar.

How did you get the scholarship?

Mobil put up a few names of those who were interested in mathematics, and physics and who wanted to study Engineering, and I got the scholarship for the three years I was there. I did well. I came top of my Civil Engineering class. At the end of that, I graduated in 1973 and I was the first set of people to go for National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) when it started. There was a lot of resistance initially, if you remember the Ali Must Go saga. Ahmadu Ali was the Federal Minster of Education at that time. All the students revolted and resisted it. There were not too many universities at that time in 1973; it was just the main ones such as Lagos, Nsukka, Ahmadu Bello, Ife, and Ibadan. We all revolted, but on the long run, we had to go. So I went on to Sokoto to do my NYSC.

Three months into the service, the Director of the NYSC, Sokoto called me to say that University of Lagos wanted me to come back to Lagos, and I asked what for? Why am I going back to Lagos? He said they were trying to develop a postgraduate school and they had called back all the people who were top in their class. I was top in my Civil Engineering class. There were others also. I thought I would think about it. I said the little prayer that we say at that time.

Finally, I came back to Lagos, but the main attraction at that time was that, my future husband at that time, late Engineer F.A. Somolu was in Lagos. He was an Electrical Engineer and was working with National Electric Power Authority (NEPA). So I decided to go, because initially nobody wanted to go out of Lagos for NYSC anyway. I prayed about it because I never wanted to start something I would not complete.

I never applied to do Post Graduate School, but I came back and started a Masters programme. Then at the end of that one year, that was in 1974, they said that what we were studying was so vast and should therefore enter for a PhD. Again, that was another comma, because it was not part of my plan in life. To be quite honest with you, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with the Engineering. The only thing is that I wanted to work. I knew that whatever I put my hands to do, I would do it very well. I was quite a serious and disciplined person. I have always been.

I should also say that I was lucky in the sense that I was brilliant. It’s just a gift of God. I did so well and I was fortunate to have so many scholarships. When they called me back to University of Lagos, I became a university scholar. They catered for everything. I even bought a car in 1973 September when I came.

I completed the PhD quite alright in 1978, and that made me become the first to obtain PhD in that field, because at that time there was no female at that PhD level. There were a few who had done their bachelors, but nobody had done a PhD in any field of Engineering. So I would say I was the first female that got to that academic level. It was not something I had planned, it just happened. God just pushed me here and there and I did it.

So I went into lecturing at first at the College of Technology, Yaba, Lagos. I was the head of Civil Engineering department. I was there for one and half years. I rose rapidly simply because I was highly qualified.

At what point did you join NNPC?

In 1982 I crossed over to NNPC because that was the real life and was there for 27 years. We did all kinds of projects all over Nigeria. I did all manners of projects from buildings to jetties and I was all over Nigeria. The last one that I did before I retired voluntarily was floating filling station, which even from that time, they have not even built any more. The floating filling station was to sell oil to those in the creeks. You know there has been a lot of agitation by the Niger Deltans that they are marginalised, so with these stations, 12 of them, they were floating. So barges would come and put petrol in them and they would move them near the shores and sell petrol to the residents. They are still in operation today. We finished it in 2008 because I retired in 2009. I rose to the peak in NNPC to become the Group General Manager, Engineering and Technology Division of the NNPC. So I covered a wide area, got a lot of experience, and it was a good, memorable time for me. Of course I met a lot of people, did a lot of things, and got my fellowship of Nigeria Society of Engineers. Shortly after I left, I also got a fellowship of the Academy of Engineering.

How is life after retirement?

When I retired, my husband and I went into education and established schools. We started a primary school, and then later we started a small secondary school because of our love for education. I just like to see people learning and having knowledge and doing well. That was my motivation; I never went for any course in education. But when I completed my Higher School Certificate in Queens College, Yaba, that was my secondary school, I taught physics and mathematics at Our Lady of Apostles secondary school for nine months before we went to the university. Again, when I finished my PhD, I went back to lecture, so teaching has always been on my mind. It was when my husband said let’s start something that we can grow into; that’s how the idea was bought. So we just put people there. We laid the policies but we went there as often as we can to see that things were going on well. But since I retired from NNPC, I have been engaged in those schools.

Any challenges in life?

I can say that things went well from another to another and so on. But life is not without its challenges. When I was lecturing at Yaba College of Technology, it was when I had my last child Ayoola. That was in 1981. My fellow lecturers gave me a book called, “The Positive Power of Jesus Christ”, written by an American Pastor called Norman Vincent Peale. The book so attracted my attention, told me how life could be good at all times in spite of any adversity. So I had to go and look for all his other books such as, “You Can If You Think You Can”, and “Every Day Can Be A Happy Day”. The most famous one is, “The Power of Positive Thinking”. It is a masterpiece, a classic. Later on, I bought it for every member of my family when the children grew older, three of them including my husband. So I had a good family life. In NNPC, I had good working life and experience.

But in 2012, it was like something had prepared me because from that time, I started reading books. I read a lot of books including biographies, and autobiographies of people. Then I discovered that many of these so called great ones have gone through a lot of tribulation not only the famous ones like Nelson Mandela, an activist who went to prison for 27 years, came out, and all that. There are so many others who came from nothing. Of course not all the rulers are good, they turn it to something else when they get there, but at least taking the good out of it, you see that life is all about happenings. It can be good and sometimes, bad.

But the significant thing that happened in 2012 is that my last daughter, who was a little over 30 years at that time, and was preparing to get married, had a tragedy. Do you know that exactly three months to her wedding day, she died in Dana plane crash? She had never been ill. She had her first and second degrees in Boston.

It was all good times. She was a good girl. But you know, it was like something had prepared me for years, because I said if God had taken her and left me, it means that I have something that God still wants me to do. It is something significant. I tell people that life will come in different ways.

And then my husband was a very fantastic, beautiful man. He was the icing on the cake. We were married for forty and half years before he died of Leukemia. That was another thing. Our daughter died in 2012, and he died in 2015. After our daughter died, while I was going through all that I had read and learnt, but he was in a vulnerable position because of the leukemia he had, he wasn’t that strong. He just gave up. He refused to go back to UK for treatment. He was here so we got some experienced consultants from Lagos State University (LASU) who were coming to treat him, until 2015 when he passed on. So people thought I won’t be able to overcome it, but you have to keep running in life. That was what I shared with my guests on my 70th birthday. It’s all about God. It’s been a good life, but not without challenges.

Any word for young girls who would want to study Engineering?

I want to encourage younger people especially girls; I am very interested in girls, because all over the world, not just in Nigeria, they are usually vulnerable because of their gender. This career that I have chosen, a lot of people look at it as masculine probably in the olden days, but not any more, because now a lot of things are computerised; you use digital systems; you are not doing anything by sheer force. The one you do with the energy, you can still leave that exclusively for the men. However, now everything is so mechanised that even men don’t have to really carry anything as such. We still have the labourers who still do those things. But by and large, I would say that I would always encourage female to go into Engineering as long as they have the mental capability. We are all endowed in different ways. Some will have the gift of going into law, and all the arts, ICT, and so on, but at least for those who know that they have flare for mathematics and physics, the Engineering thing is very good experience for me.

Do you think women have made much impact in engineering profession?

Some of them, yes. It is still dominated by men though, but now, you have quite a number of women there. Some of them have made impacts, because looking at the Nigerian Society of Engineers now; you find a lot of women coming out to hold the positions in a branch. There is also the women wing, that is the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria. They are all just women and they go round the schools to encourage girls to become Engineers. Also, in the general body, you find a lot of women contesting for position and they are winning. Only we have not yet had a female president of Nigeria Society of Engineers in the main body. That is a hurdle we still have to cross, but there are many younger girls now coming up.

What do you think is the problem with Nigeria’s petroleum industry?

The main problem is that we are not refining. All the time I was in NNPC for the 27 years, initially we didn’t have this problem because our refineries were working, but along the way, when the refineries needed spare parts and they were not taken care of, it became a problem. Naturally, when you build any kind of system, it is not meant to last forever; it has a life span just like human beings. Even if the refineries are built to last for maybe 30 or 40 years, and some, more. You have to do regular maintenance just like our bodies. In refineries, the maintenance was not regularly done. It is that famous thing they call turnaround maintenance. It has happened even in the power industry because my husband was a top notch in the power industry.

Now that we don’t have refineries working, we cannot control the price. Marketers such as Mobil Oil, Shell, and Total imported even the petroleum that we used to take to the creeks to distribute. So that is the issue. We have the issue of poor maintenance culture in everything in this country.

What do you think the government is not doing well in the education sector?

There are a lot of things that they are not doing well in the education sector. For instance, they are not voting enough money to education. The teachers are not being well trained. Facilities are so inadequate. If you go all over, apart from private schools, most of our government schools lack basic equipment such as chairs, tables, laboratories, and so on. What I would say is that, we have to do things right. We have to train our teachers who are going to train the students. Even in our universities, the equipment there are obsolete and broken down. In most places, no equipment at all. The laboratories are not properly equipped that some of them do what is called alternative to practical. These are part of the agitations by Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). So the morale is so low. That is why at that time, I didn’t want to go into lecturing because I believed that you could never be prosperous as a lecturer. My father was a Civil Engineer and our parents did not force us to choose any career we didn’t want; we were free to do any course we wanted to. The little time I was a lecturer; I became senior lecturer, and then head of department. I discovered that my fellow lecturers were kind of a bit laid back; not so ambitious. They enjoyed what they were doing, but to me they were not like at the front part of the society. So I decided to go into industry and have industry experience.

Going into industry exposed me to a lot of things. We travelled a lot because most of those projects that we did, we were not designing them here. A lot of them we used foreign consultants so we had to visit all those countries to be able to at least understand what they were doing, not leaving them totally on their own. The idea was kind of technology transfer, but I tell you that we did not succeed with that technology transfer because there were still a lot of things that the expatriates did not let us into. So we didn’t know some of them. This is a computerised world. You need software to operate many systems. If you don’t have that software you cannot operate it. When you are in their country like Brazil, Canada, Germany, we did a lot with Julius Berger, the softwares were in their systems there. We probably know what to do to get some results, but the main software was not our own. So that is another thing that has hampered us in the country, and that’s another thing that the Nigeria Society of Engineers has been crying, that we have to make sure that we have this technology transfer. And that is why we are clamouring that Nigeria should give more jobs to Nigerian Engineers. They may not have the experience and all the softwares for the thing, but by giving them, they can invite the foreign expatriates but it will be their own chance. So they have to bring the softwares to Nigeria to do it. And that is how the idea of local content came about. You find that a lot of the work we do in Engineering, especially petroleum industry now, there is one local content policy. That local content policy came into being during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, towards the end of his regime. They compelled any foreign company to set up an office here in Nigeria and use Nigerians to do it. That started in the last decade and definitely progress is being made, but total progress is not yet achieved, because still a lot of the technological instrument that we need, the software, we still do not have them, but we are making progress. But the progress can only be seen if the government deliberately encourages its Engineers to undertake this task.

How were you able to cope with your job and home front at the same time during your career days?

I had my children before I left for the industry. I had my children when I was lecturing and it was a deliberate act. It was God, because the children came, and God enabled me I didn’t have miscarriages. I had only three children. I had my last child in 1981. By 1982, I joined NNPC as an Assistant Chief Engineer. By the time I was well grounded and having more responsibilities, my children were grown. By the time I really started travelling, my first daughter and my son were already in America. It was only my last baby, the one who died in the crash that was still in Queens College. And I made sure that if I was to travel, definitely my husband, who also used to travel a lot won’t be travelling, but that was just for a short while before the children left there. So the bulk of the time I spent all over the world, were those times that they had left home and gone into universities and working.

Even the time I was at the College of Technology lecturing, I didn’t have a social life. Something has to give way, there is no magic. I never attended any weddings or parties. People thought I was anti-social. But if you are out working from Mondays to Fridays, and it’s only Saturdays and Sundays that I had to get my families together, talk to them, cook some good food, and I was out again, it wouldn’t have worked. I would have probably ended up living my children with house help, that I never did. When they came back from school, I made sure that I had done all my lectures, I pick them and we go home. When I started working with the industry, we were closing on time. There was not so much until we got into the higher positions.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Touching lives of people. I am a motivator, whoever comes across my way, anyhow in life, I motivate them. I am an encourager. I will never take no; I believe I can. We can. We will. Let’s not just give up. Let’s keep pushing. I never look down on anybody because you don’t know where the person will be tomorrow. I live everyday as happy as I can. We have to keep faith alive. God is always there.

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