Oke: Engineering Will Sustain Businesses, Infrastructures in Nigeria

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The President, Association for Consulting Engineering In Nigeria, Fatai Ajibade Oke, in this interview with Raheem Akingbolu, speaks on the need for repositioning of the engineering profession to bridge the gap in the infrastructural deficit for a robust economy in Nigeria.

Can you please speak on ACEN and its relationship with FIDIC?

ACEN is the registered body of registered consulting engineers in Nigeria. I won’t say all of us because some people are not yet part of ACEN. ACEN started in 1971 that was why last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of ACEN but it was not incorporated until 1972. From 1972 to 1979 members were attending the FIDIC activities as observers and finally in 1979 they joined FIDIC and I think you know that FIDIC is called the International Federation of Consulting Engineers. Actually it is called the Federation of International Engineers Consultant. FIDIC itself had interest in ACEN. ACEN had quite a lot of interest in its members. That is why we do some training and what we want to do is to make sure that ACEN is the ultimate business choice for consulting engineering in Nigeria. We want to have strong membership and we are already on the path to that now. We want to give our members equal opportunities and make sure that they are technically up there, so they must be competent and they must have integrity. We want our members to give clients maximum value for their investment. Unfortunately that is a job which we have to double up on. Double up on the fact that the perception of an average person in this country is that when you get a consultant it is an additional cost which shouldn’t be. We tell you the best way to achieve your aim. We tell you the best way to ensure that whatever you are looking for, you get the maximum value for it. If you don’t follow us, in the long run, the problem will wait for you. So, ACEN is a body of consulting engineers and we have over the years built up a reputation for ourselves and we have made it a little bit tough for people to come in because we just don’t want to have anybody joining us so if you are part of us, we must be able to say this guy that is wearing the ACEN lapel or the FIDIC lapel is somebody that can be trusted on the job. So that in a nutshell is ACEN.

Before you became a member and after you became a member of FIDIC, what will you say are the major achievements that you can point to?

Let me say that we have been able to join FIDIC right from the inception of ACEN because FIDIC is international, FIDIC is worldwide, in fact the conditions of service of FIDIC is the standard we use, even now in Nigeria and one of the things we do is that we train people on the condition of service. We train people on the FIDIC ways of doing things now. That’s why even before we joined, we have been attending as observers but at that time we can say that is more or less the formative stage of ACEN. So, ACEN joined with her forefathers/ forerunners and became immediately active. We joined FIDIC, hitting the ground running. So, the benefit is that we belong to a world class of people that show that when you are a member of ACEN, you are a member of FIDIC and you are accepted anywhere in the world as somebody that can be trusted in consulting engineering. FIDIC has gone into a stage where every government in the world recognises FIDIC and they also try as much as possible to influence their members’ associations, so that every member of the association also is recognised by the government. We are getting to that stage in Nigeria. So FIDIC has given us a background of reliability of what we think is good for the profession; engineering in general, consulting engineering in particular.

Can you link this to the infrastructure deficit in Nigeria. Why do you think this has persisted over the years despite all the effort?

Let me tell you one thing, the infrastructure we got at independence was peanuts. Let me give you one example, we were using narrow gauge then and that time other societies were using the wider gauge. We were using the steam boiler rim engines then, whereas at that time other societies had gone past diesel, they were already using electricity. Today we have gone into diesel and we shall soon go into electric engines and the road we even have now is standard gauge though there are wider gauges than that and the wider the gauges are, the better.

The infrastructure gap in this country is so high that we have to catch up and the whole world is always moving forward on infrastructure. In other countries, as they are getting ‘A’ in one line, they are expanding it to another. We inherited low infrastructure, not only low, our roads at that time were so narrow such that when a vehicle wants to meet another vehicle, one side of the vehicle will be in the bush and the other will be on the road. But now, even our highways are wide enough. We are now having expressways. So, these are things that we continue to develop and we can never hit all the infrastructure. Then we also have maintenance problems. Some of the times when we allow things to degenerate to a very bad extent, to correct them becomes an issue. I have a background in maintenance engineering, I was a chief engineer for nine years so I know that for you not to have a crisis at hand, you must be on top of checking what the machines need. So we must have good maintenance and if we do that we will not need to go back to what we have done, we need to move forward. And then, use our people, use our men, use Nigerians. Anybody from outside cannot solve our problem for us, we have to solve our problems by ourselves.

Having highlighted some of the challenges, what are you doing to tackle those challenges?

What we have been doing silently is to get all the professionals in the big industries to cooperate with each other and we have involved them in our functions. We have also taken part in their functions as well. So we need to bring ourselves together and collaborate with all professional bodies be it architects, quantity surveyors, estate surveyors, town planners, etc. We will work together and by the time we are strong, we will be in the position to tell the government what we think is wrong. We are doing advocacy, we are training people even in government, we are training our own people also, we are training people generally to make sure that what we call infrastructure, people understand it and stay by it. In fact we had a very good contract with ICRC, that is the Infrastructural Constitutional Regulatory body and in 2019 it came to give our members some lectures, but unfortunately in 2020 we couldn’t continue because of COVID, but we are picking it up now. So, we will train our people on how to interpret concessions, we train our people on how to advise and once we get to that level of advice and people listen, then we will be in the position to actually pick up.

Tell us about this 28th edition of the FIDIC infrastructure conference, the aims and objectives, the purpose of the conference.

Like every conference of FIDIC, like every AGM of ACEN, like every business, the aim is to educate. Educate, sharpen the blade. We are trying to sharpen all our people in Africa this time. We have about twenty two different sessions and all talking about different things even up to the effect of covid on infrastructure development and it has always been the aim of all our conferences; that people know the technicality then the entrepreneurship that are required to make sure that they are useful for the society and for the world at large. So this 28th edition is the third time we are hosting it in Nigeria. We hosted it in 1998 and in 2004 and we are hosting it again. This year’s edition will be a physical and virtual event, so it is a hybrid event. We are also getting the government involved so that the government will be part of it. What we do and our perspectives can help shape the way they think, so we want to open up and make sure that whatever we are talking about and everything we are thinking of is for the betterment of Africa in general, Nigeria in particular. This year’s edition is the 3rd in the series.  

For your association to be hosting it the third time, it means you are like major players in bringing that conference to reality. How has that journey been from the very first edition to this 28th edition of the conference?

Our Alumnus are the backbone of FIDIC Africa. They didn’t call it FIDIC Africa at that time, they called it GAMA. GAMA is the Group of Africa Member Association of FIDIC so we call it FIDIC Africa. We have a very strong presence in GAMA and we were part of the leadership of those who formed GAMA. I can tell you that the first female chairman of GAMA was our past president Doyin Adetiba and she is the mother of Kemi Adetiba. She was our own first female president in 2006/2007 and she became the first female chairman because the president belongs only to FIDIC while other members are chairman. Consequently, we have chairmen in other continents. She was the first and so far the only woman chairman of FIDIC Africa. It started with about five or so member countries and right now we have about 18 countries but we want to expand it because it is mainly the anglophone countries that are members. We have only about two to three francophones so we want to expand to francophones countries. We don’t have member representation in Benin republic and Cameroon and they are so close to us. We have in Ghana of course.

As a major stakeholder of Infrastructure in Nigeria, how can ACEN collaborate with the government to help solve the problem of infrastructure?

Well, collaboration with the government is going on. It has not gotten to where it should be but we are collaborating. You recall, during the twenty one story building collapse, an ACEN member, our immediate past president, was engaged by the  government to lead the investigation. Our members work in collaboration with the Lagos State government on all the building collapse cases, so they get us involved in such things. When the issue of the bridge came up, we were the first to examine it and verified that there was no cause for alarm. All these things are collaboration. I can tell you that Lagos state government is collaborating seriously with FIDIC very strongly and I am very proud because gone are the days when we thought that it was only the entertainers that were the main interest but the government is now engaging more with the technical experts. We collaborate at the level of investigations, consultation on projects and discussion on issues. Governors and  ministers now attend our conferences. In fact, we are cooperating further than that because we are also involved in providing information to the legislative unit of government, so our collaboration is in several directions and levels. However, we are not where we want to be yet. Recall the Order Five of President Muhammed Buhari, which says that anything that is below a certain bridge category should be domiciled in this country. It is right but it is still not yet fully followed and even if it is fully followed, it is still not a law. So, we are advocating for things like these to become law as well. Even the upcoming conference is part of advocacy.

You seem to lay more emphasis on state level. Does it mean your operations are mostly recognised in states?

The recognition is far more at the Federal level. It is the states that are just coming on board. The reason why Lagos state is collaborating with us is because they are our host. The first two conferences were in Abuja. However, we have done so many projects in Lagos and the collaboration is quite encouraging so we have promised that we will sing the song of the state and of course of some Federal ministries. We have regular engagements with the Federal Ministry of Resources, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Renovation.

How much money do you think is needed to bridge that infrastructure gap?

About Ten to Eleven trillion dollars because we have so many things to do and that’s why I always say that Nigerian Engineers don’t have any reason to be poor because if they are really being used for infrastructure development and they place themselves in the right position for the development of infrastructures a lot can be achieved for our infrastructure. I will give you an example of myself, I have four children and two of them are in the medical line while two are Engineers. For the Engineers, one of them is working in the bank while the other one is into supply chain management. Nobody wants to be an engineer because it is seen as a poor man’s job, which shouldn’t be. That gap is there but it is not something we can fill in the short term.

So Public Private Partnership has been identified as one of the ways to address infrastructure gap. Is ACEN in support of this, and are they embracing this also? 

We fully support this, but not as it is done now. As it is done now, there is no proper monitoring. The person to monitor must be an engineer but most of the time that is not the case, so we have this issue to deal with. Now, recall I told you that we are in touch with ICRC. We have had two different training sessions like the basic and the intermediate training sessions but we couldn’t hold the advanced training session because of the covid pandemic in 2020. Part of what things like these do for us is enable us to interpret, advise and make sure that people follow the right rulings on PPP. Apart from that, we have the ultimate aim of making sure that our members grow large enough to be able to handle PPP. We should be able to handle it. We are interested in PPP but we are not interested in the way it is done now.

In terms of your objective as a body, where do you see yourself in five years from now?

I see us with large companies. The current largest member company will be the smallest by then. I see us  having large companies, I see us collaborating with other professional bodies in Nigeria, I see us doing things that we have had to ask external parties to do for us. I see us changing the perception so that people will know that Nigerian engineers, consulting engineers, ACEN members are the right set of people.

Can you briefly speak about your professional trajectory over the years?

I am a fellow of the Nigeria Society of Engineers, I left University of Lagos in 1972, I worked at that time for Dunlop Nigeria industries as their engineer and I rose up to become the chief engineer which was the end of my professional career in Engineering there before i now moved into the office as the sales director. That was where I retired and since I cannot forget my base, I came back to engineering and I started first by doing some little generator maintenance and then I ended up going into consultancy. I was the executive secretary in 2007/2008 then I became the honorary secretary in 2008. That was when I joined ACEN as a member. I have been treasurer for three times now, I was the editor of the magazine for six years. Then I organized the AGM generally. They decided to make me the vice president and once you are the vice president, you become the president automatically. I thank them for making me the vice president.