A first encounter with Engr. Edet James Amana will hardly reveal that he is 80 years old. The indefatigable Nigerian combines the wisdom of his age with intellectual prowess of his academic pursuit to excel in all facets of life. As he turns 80 on December 11, Amana speaks with Funke Olaode about his life, career, state of the nation and his new book. Excerpts:
You’ll be 80 on December 11. How has life treated you so far?
Life has been very good to me. Not that I have not had challenges but challenge in life can often been stepping stones to greater achievement. In my case, the challenges which I have had in my life have been a stepping stone for me to reach the next level of my existence. I remember the main challenge was in 1966 when I had an encounter with soldiers during the Nigerian civil war. They (the soldiers) shot me and I lost of blood. In fact, they wanted to blow me up with (a) grenade but somehow providence intervened and stopped them from blowing me up.
Considering the scenario you have painted did you ever think you would live up to 80?
To be frank with you, I don’t think I ever sat down and thought about how old I would want to be. But one of the things that have helped me to live a healthy lifestyle was the injury that I sustained when I was shot by the soldiers. The injuries required me to do a lot of exercise which became a routine for me. Also, I had to mind what I eat because during my hospitalization I took a lot of antibiotic which had a negative effect on my body. So I understand if I have to live a long life I have to refrain from something that would subject me to taking medications for a long time. Being conscious of my diet, exercise and of course, the grace of God has helped me this far.
What were the factors that shaped your life while you were growing up?
It was my family background, particularly my parents. My father was a teacher and a preacher; and my mother was a very homely person. The Christian family background in which I grew up had characterized my life. My father being a teacher inculcated knowledge as an integral part of our living which has remained my primary strong point.
As a child what were your dreams?
My dream was always to excel in whatever I undertake to do. Later or quite early in my life even from primary school level of my education I always strived to excel and to add value to people’s lives. I remember in my early days at school, I was very friendly with teachers because they could use my talent to add value to the environment. I was very good at drawing and painting and the teachers engaged me to draw things on the board or on the wall which they used as teaching aids. When I look back, those little things were the early indicators of the way my life would run. So, adding value became part of my life.
You have plans to launch a book on December 12. What is it all about?
It is a book called, ‘Sojourn of Providence, Sir Edet Amana at 80’. It will be launched on Wednesday, December 12 in Lagos. The book is about me. It is a biography ( a compendium) written by people around me: my family members, members of my church – Methodist church – where I have spent most of my time in worship, friends from social circle, business life, etc. All the proceeds (realised from the launch) will go into funding Edet Amana Foundation, founded to cater for the less privileged in the society. Over the years, we have been doing a lot of philanthropy; giving scholarships to funding educational facilities, empowerment of widows, health. For the past seven years we have organized an annual medical outreach. So we are bringing all the philanthropic activities together under the foundation.
You were born a year before World War II broke out in 1939. What was it like living in the shadow of that war?
It wasn’t a pleasant experience for those who grew up after that war. Though the war was far away in foreign lands but because Nigeria was a colony of Britain, the country was officially at war. So the organs of production were all focused on the war effort. There was a lot of scarcity in this country. As a little child growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I found out that my father couldn’t get tyre for his bicycle. There was a lot of hardship as many institutions were closed down; the schools were shut down and many able-bodied men were sent to the war front in Burma. But I was fortunate because my father could have been one of those that were sent out. After the schools were closed down, he began trading in palm oil products. That again affected my background because it affected my thinking and action.
During your early years Nigeria entered a golden era but it didn’t last long. How and where did the nation get it wrong?
Initially, the country was doing well but after the independence in 1960 things went wrong. I believe the turning point in the country was the civil war because before the war Nigeria was a true federation of states and the states had autonomy to operate in many areas of their requirements. But during the war the country became a unitary in terms of governance as power is concentrated at the centre. That is an ambiguity which hasn’t helped us as a nation. Also, discovery of oil hasn’t helped either because being the only source of revenue has become the greatest problem. You know the mentality of getting rich without working because they know that at the end of the month they will get the monthly allocation from the centre. All the programmes such as self-sustenance that helped the regional system were abandoned and the effect is what we are experiencing today.
At what stage did you develop passion for engineering that you studied up to PhD level at the Imperial College, London?
Being an engineer comes to me naturally. I never thought of doing any other thing because right from my childhood I was called ‘engineer’. I was fixing all kinds of things. If things weren’t broken I always found a way of making them better – because I was also good at Mathematics and sciences. I had this additional gift and ability to draw. All this really helped to tailor my career to the profession of my dream. In fact, I was an all-round student. I graduated with a first class at the Imperial College. I was top of the first class in the honour’s list in 1964. Owing to my outstanding performance and the quality of my degree, I was exempted from studying for a master’s programme. I went straight to do a doctorate.
Your generation had the best of education. Are you not worried about the falling state of education in Nigeria today?
Yes, I am worried. I am not only worried but I am also proactive about what needs to be done to change the present trend in the poor education standard in this country. I believe the overall nature of things in the country affect a lot of things including education because in those days especially in the 1950s, we didn’t hear of students having to pay to pass examinations. We didn’t hear of people having to buy result for admission as everything was done purely on merit. Now, that merit has been eroded. Nevertheless, we still have some brilliant students who are making the nation proud both nationally and internationally but on average we can say the standard has fallen. And the way forward is to entrench excellence in every area. This excellence I am talking about is a mindset – an attitude. That attitudinal change I am talking about is not restricted to students alone but involves teachers and even the government. You know I had the privilege of being a pro-chancellor of a university and one of the things I did as the pro-chancellor of Wesley University was to see how we can change the approach and attitude of looking at education as something that must be funded by either the government or by the proprietor. The state and federal universities are being funded by governments while private universities are being funded by the proprietors. For me, there are many people who can actually fund education. Again, the products of education should focus on the market, and that market must be able to support education in such a way that it is suitable for the market. In other words, education provider should look at the needs of the society. Again, people should continue to train their minds. For instance, students who study medicine and come out to do something else can still do well because they have trained their minds to succeed in whatever they apply their minds to do and this is what education is all about. Those who drive the policies must appreciate this and put in place structures that will make it work.
Looking at your profession – engineering –, do you think progress in terms of advancement has been achieved as Nigeria is often bedevilled with building collapses and other failed projects which have led to loss of lives and other resources?
Honestly, I am very worried. Well, everything revolves around attitudinal change I have been talking about. This country has a regulatory body which states what should be done when carrying out certain projects. Do you know that only few people keep to this regulation? Surprisingly, property investors don’t observe regulations and don’t engage professionals and a proper contractor who will drive the project. For instance, a building comprises of several components; the foundation and structure before you go into other things that make it functional. Now, if a building is designed by an engineer who has got the training he will know that a bungalow built on marshy ground will have problems. But quite often people don’t want to engage an engineer with this general impression that it is just a bungalow and they do it their own way. If a bungalow collapses, the catastrophe may not be pronounced but a skyscraper will have a lot of effects because when it collapses it falls on the people below and it causes a huge catastrophe. It is sad because it causes loss of human lives. The owner of the property also incurs a huge loss because the investment is gone. I think the authority must address these issues from the four angles mentioned earlier: for a building, you must engage the right professionals. The regulatory authority must certify and be involved that the design is done properly. The right contractor and supervisor must be engaged to be able to understand the design. And of course, the investor or property owner must know that by getting the right people involved in their projects they are maximizing return on their investments.
You tried to dabble into politics at a stage before you beat a retreat. What do you think about the current state of the nation?
Well, I didn’t dabble into politics. I was involved in politics. I have always been in politics. But for some time now I have not sought political office or aspired for any office. To me, politics is very important and we should all take an interest in how we are governed. I was in politics during the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the 1970s when President Obasanjo handed over power to President Shehu Shagari. In fact, I was nominated as minister of works but my business, Amana Consortium (a firm of engineers) which I founded in 1972 was young and was doing very well. I didn’t see how I could leave that to take up a ministerial appointment. In the mid-1990s, I had a strong feeling to get more active in mainstream politics by running for office – which I did. I ran for the Senate in 1998 and won under the United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP) but Abacha’s death put an end to that episode. And when Gen. Abdulsalami came with the transition programme, I got interested to govern the country under the All People’s Party. The party was doing well but it got entangled in the Nigerian way.
As the 2019 elections approach what is your wish for Nigeria?
My wish for Nigeria is that we should really have a government which can really focus on good of the people and the country. And to do that, there must be a lot of changes and to do that we must do something about the structure of the country as the current political structure we are running is unitary as we are not practicing federalism. Again, there is the need for us as a nation to sit down and deliberate about restructuring. This shouldn’t be a party affair alone but for the whole nation.
Then there is the need to address the attitudinal situation which must start with our leaders who point the way to assure that action is aligned to bring about the required change.
At 80, what have you stopped doing or what do you plan to do?
Well, the age 80 is just a number and I don’t think it has changed the way I look at my life. Every day I wake up with new ideas and I pray to God to sustain me to keep adding value to mankind – just like I did when I was 50 or 60. Although the energy may not be there like when I was much younger but when you have passion doing something that energy will come.
For me, I keep aspiring for new ideas because as human aspiration ends the day we stop breathing. At 80, my life has run smoothly and I thank God for taking me thus far.
QUOTE: I am not only worried but I am also proactive about what needs to be done to change the present trend in the poor education standard in this country. I believe the overall nature of things in the country affect a lot of things including education because in those days especially in the 1950s, we didn’t hear of students having to pay to pass examinations. We didn’t hear of people having to buy result for admission as everything was done purely on merit