Engineering a better Nigeria: Professionalism, the engineering craft, and the greatness of a nation, By Sam Amadi [1]

A text of a keynote lecture by Dr. Sam Amadi, former Chairman and Chief Executive of Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission and now Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Though and Chair of The Leadership Center (TLC) on January 21, 2022, at the Pre-Investiture Colloquium of the Nigerian Society of Engineers at the International Conference Centre, Abuja

I am greatly delighted and honored to be asked to present the keynote lecture on the occasion of the pre-investiture colloquium of the 33rd President of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE). I am more delighted because the incoming president of, probably, the most reputable professional association in Nigeria, the NSE, is a personal friend, someone who as a senior engineer at the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) was exemplary in the kind of competence and character that should characterise the engineering professional and embody the regulatory craft. All of us who worked with Engr.

Tasiu Wudil attest to his uncommon commitment to precision, clarity, and thoroughness. NERC achieved many of its mandates under my leadership largely because we had an Engr. Wudil who was painstaking and unrelenting in seeking solutions to problems. Once again, congratulations to Engr. Wudil for the honor to lead the NSE and congrats to the NSE for the good fortune of having an extremely competent and virtuous engineer at its helms at this critical stage of national development.

I deliberately chose the theme of professionalism in nation building as the focus of my lecture to underline the moral direction of nation building in the runup to and post 2023. In this lecture, I will relate professionalism to the engineering craft and use these metaphors to reflect on the crisis of nationhood and how we can find our ways out of what looks like an incubus. I will be reflective and discursive but as much as possible remain practical and pragmatic, especially in providing solutions or recommendations on the general approach in finding solutions to the crisis of nationhood and development in Nigeria. My main focus is how we can ‘engineer’ a better Nigeria.

What is Professionalism and How Does it Matter?
The modern age is an age of specialisation. This means we have many professions and professionals. Almost all aspects of human life are now professionalised. It is difficult to engage meaningfully in any activity today without running into one professional barrier or the others. These professional barriers are erected by custodians of the profession to control entry and practice in the sphere of activity. So, we are in the age of the profession. How do we define a profession and professionalism? Of course, we know the professions. Everyone knows that engineering is a profession; that lawyering is a profession; and the medical practice is a profession, to mention just the most notable. But what are the features of a profession to distinguish it from a non-profession?

The first thing to note is that professions are composed of professionals. Professionals are roughly defined as persons who have marketable skills which they trade, and which achieve some public ends. Professionals usually possess two critical virtues or qualities which stand them out: knowledge and expertise. When these professionals organise themselves into an association to promote the effective and profitable use of their knowledge and expertise, it becomes a profession. This is a market-place definition of professions. But scholars have tried to refine this definition. In that process, we have different perspectives on professions. We have the taxonomy approach, the functionalist and the neo-Weberian approach. Each approach focuses on one critical aspect of the professional life. Whereas the functionalists focus mostly on knowledge and expertise, the Neo-Weberians focus on power and control. The professions do not just exercise expertise and knowledge. They are also devices to promote dominant and particularistic socio-economic and political interests.

The Australian Council of Professions in 2013 defines a profession as “as a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public, as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research and learning at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others”. We will use this as our working definition. It provides all the elements of the profession: knowledge and expertise and application of knowledge for public good. Again, it is a ‘disciplined group’ that ‘holds itself out’ as special and ‘are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills’.

From this definition, there is an exclusivity about professions and professionals. First, members of a profession have a high-level knowledge that is derived from excessive training and research such that the public acknowledges them as special people. This acknowledgment takes the form of certification and licensing. This grants the professional an ‘excusive legal right’ to practise the profession. Again, they employ their expertise and knowledge in the service that is vital to society. Because members of professions are highly skilled, they have autonomy in exercising their skills. Ultimately, their practice is regulated so as to make them a ‘disciplined’ group.

The defining ethical marks of a profession are summed up as ‘professionalism’. The Australian Council of Professions goes further to state that “It is inherent in the definition of a profession that a code of ethics governs the activities of each profession. Such code requires behaviour and practice beyond the personal moral obligations of an individual. They define and demand high standards of behaviour in respect of the services provided to public and in dealing with professional colleagues. Often, these codes are enforced by the profession and accepted by the community”. This definition echoes Eliot Freidson in page 12 of his book, Professionalism, The Third Logic, that “Professionalism may be said to exist when an organised occupation gains the power to determine who is qualified to perform a defined set of tasks, to prevent all others from performing that work, and to control the criteria by which to evaluate performance”. This definition relates more to the regulatory function of professionalism. Professionalism is a functional device to define and control the practice of a body of knowledge.

But I am more interested in professionalism as virtues in the exercise of knowledge. Here, I go with George Beaton. In his views, “Professionalism is not only a skill set in a given occupation. It is an ineffable something that a person exudes in manners, dress, speech and standards of practice that is palpably powerful; standards like honesty, due diligence, perseverance, willingness to listen and learn, creative thinking within framework of training and other qualities most people would be hard put to describe but which they expect in the professionals with whom they engage. Another word for these standards is ‘virtues’ and the hard-to-describe something exuded is ‘trustworthiness’, the sum total of these virtues”.

This is a comprehensive anthology of professionalism as the software of the professions. We can state confidently that where a profession does not inculcate these virtues or impose and define professional excellence by these virtues, then the profession has lost or is about losing its profession-ness. It is no longer fit to be called a profession. It should be thrown away as a fakery.

The foremost expression of these virtues, this ineffable something that is called ‘trustworthiness’, is the duty of care. A professional owes to his or her clients and to the public who comes in contact with his or her work or services a duty to employ diligence to ensure that he or she does not do any harm in the pursuit of good. He or she guarantees to the client and the public that he or she has the requisite high skills to solve the problem and would employ all diligence and honesty to solve such problem or provide such relief. This translates to a duty of care and upmost good faith that is part of every profession’s code and a core ingredient in proving professional negligence.

The guarantee of competence and character implicit in the duty of care and arising from these virtues is so important that, at least in a formal sense, it constitutes the legal basis for decertifying and barring a person from practising a profession. Once these qualities are lacking in a professional, the person stands rejected by the profession and loses that acceptance by the public that he or she is a person of high expertise and character. This is the meaning of claiming professionalism. If a profession does not diligently police the practice of its members to guarantee that they exude such high competence, diligence and honesty comprised in the duty of care, it ceases to be a proper profession. Therefore, at the heart of professionalism is the unrelenting commitment to the honest and diligent application of knowledge and high expertise at the behest of clients and society.

It is reported that in the previous era, engineers who designed and constructed bridges were required to sleep under them for days to guarantee their solidity. If those bridges do not collapse after those many days, they are then commissioned, and the engineer is let off his responsibility to client and society. In this case, the engineer guaranteed his high competence with his blood. It is said that the engineer has ‘skin in the game’. The engineer has incentives to be diligence and honest in constructing the bridge knowing that he would be the first possible casualty of a sordid job.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the engineer turned futures trader and the Dean’s Professor in the Science of Uncertainties at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, laments, in his book, Antifragility; How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand (Allen Lane 2012), that those who impact on society today do not have their skins in the game. As he sees it, one of the problems of modern life is that people suffer nothing for outsourcing harm to others, whether as advisors, designers, planners, or executors of projects that impact on the lives of those who depend on them. If we can ensure that people who offer advisories or manage projects have the same level of commitment as the engineers of old, we will be able to guarantee a safe and habitable environment. We will not have the level of environmental hazards and criminal chaos we see in unlivable cities across the world. This chaos is a result of a loss of professionalism.

TO be continued

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