It’s Insulting To Query Competence Of Nigerian Engineers – Kashim Alli
In this interview, the president of the Council of Registered Engineers in Nigeria (COREN), Engr. Kashim Ali, tackles some of the most pressing issues facing the profession. He also speaks on politics and nation building.
Is COREN living up to its responsibility as a regulator?
Well, I don’t want to be a judge in my own case. So, I would rather have people who interact with us pass judgment on us. But to the best of my knowledge, we are doing the best we can and I think we are adding value. For instance, one of our mandates is to determine the skills and training required for somebody to become an engineer. I think we are doing that well. We have a kind of testimonial to show for it. We have accredited programmes in some universities and we have developed a benchmark, minimum academic standard for engineering programmes in Nigeria. We have also subjected this to international evaluation and the results were outstanding. If we did that and we got that kind of acclamation, I think we are doing well there.
Have Nigerian universities adopted those standards?
Yes, they have to.
They have no choice because the truth is, if we set any process, they have to comply because that is what we will use to judge them and any university that doesn’t comply does not get accredited, and if you don’t get accredited your students have no chance of practicing engineering after graduation.
So, they have adopted the standards?
On November 1, the House of Representatives passed a Bill for an Act to Amend the Engineers (Registration, etc.) Act, Cap, E11, Law of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, what is the new amendment about and what impact would it have the profession in the country?
Again, even that came about as a result of our interaction with the National Assembly in the course of their oversight function here. They recognized that we are doing quite a bit but we didn’t have all the enablers in terms of resources and even enforcement capacity. So, the law really is to strengthen COREN to make it able to enforce its regulations more effectively and also to have resources to do that. That’s basically what the law is about. So, the effect of it is that if we are able to do enforcement it will minimize some untoward things that happen in the industry. Also, if we had the resources that, again, can be easily done.
Two key words you just used were; enforcement and resources. When you talk about enforcement what does it mean?
There is a lot of quackery in engineering obviously because of the attraction. The quackery cuts across levels. From small jobs to the highest jobs, you have a lot of quackery. There are existing laws that seem to curtail it but where people really get involved in quackery at high levels, it is difficult to deal with them. Even when we determine that an individual is a quack and he couldn’t do the job, we don’t have the mechanism to deal with them. We have to first report them to the police. Usually because they are big fry, they are able to wriggle their way out. Sometimes we have had cases that were reported and have not even gone to court 10 years after they were reported. And always the report we get is, “we are investigating, we are investigating”, ten years on. So now what we are asking them is, if you are a quack and you dabbled into engineering, we have a tribunal that is instituted by the chief justice of Nigeria on the basis on which we try or prosecute offenders who are engineering personnel. But the law does include trying those who are not engineering personnel and those people do the havoc. Now, we want to see if the law can be done in a way such that it can also rein them in and try them in our tribunal.
Now, the enforcement is for you to be the ones to handle the prosecution of those who have been involved in quackery and for them not to be handed over to the security. Is that the enforcement you want?
When it comes to engineering, who is a quack?
A quack is anybody who is not trained to practice engineering. Or who is not even certified by COREN because COREN determines the training required in the practice of engineering. What you get from the university is not enough until COREN certifies it. When you graduate from an unaccredited programme, if you practice engineering, you are a quack.
Without being certified by COREN?
Yes. So, if you are a craftsman, you are not certified or you are technologist or technician or engineer and you are not licensed by COREN, you are a quack if you practice engineering.
We have heard many cases of building collapse. Is there any mechanism you use to determine if those involved are your members? Are some of them COREN members?
None? (Why don’t I believe you?)
COREN and the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE) have investigated every building collapse that has taken place in Nigeria, and we know the individuals involved. All of them are quacks. The one that got close to engineering was the… I am not a lawyer so I don’t know whether what I would say now would be a sub judice because it is in court. Even that one, the engineers who claimed to be involved in the work were not engineers in that field. Again, that is also quackery, because your license is for you to practice in a certain area. When you dabble into something else where you have no competence, you are a quack.
Which one was that, was it the one in Lekki?
No, the one in Synagogue. That was the only one where engineers were involved. But they were not even structural engineers. They had no business being there and the information we got was that they were not involved. But they are driven by faith to accept what is happening somehow.
Why does the public prefer quacks to trained engineers?
The truth is, you know at a point in our life when people were getting free money, a lot of free money. Sometimes when people get such free money they are in a hurry in the same manner they got the money to get some things done. Sometimes they go to registered engineers and they think that the procedures are a bit lengthy. Somebody else comes along and tells them he’s an expert and can do it for a very small amount. The property owner thinks he’s cutting cost; but he’s penny wise….
Must a structural engineer be involved in every building?
No, it is not for every building. The structural engineer is a high level practitioner who does not dabble into small things. Any building that will have load-bearing elements, for example, multiple floors, columns, slabs and so on. You will also need electrical and mechanical engineers.
COREN has been at the forefront of local content but foreigners are still getting most of the big construction jobs. Is there a competence issue?
Well, you see, in engineering, that’s where the phrase, practice makes perfect really reigns. A fresh graduate will be as green as anybody can be; he needs to train under a qualified engineer for a while before he qualifies himself to become an engineer with the rights and privileges of an engineer. If for instance, somebody has not had that opportunity he would be as green for as long as he lives and has no such opportunity.
So, over the years, we have had misplacement of our priorities as a nation. We have not really bothered to learn from other nations in areas that are critical to our development. When you invite foreigners to work, you are inviting him to do two assignments – to help you train you and to also do the job with you and make money. So, because of that kind of relationship, you are able to get training and with time, you will get enough for you now not to need such partnership. That’s what countries that are serious with their development do. Most of the north African countries that’s what they have done over the years and today they have developed immense capacity that they don’t need any help. And that’s why they are able to do a few things and call the bluff of anybody. You cannot go to Egypt, Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia and see any foreigner working on infrastructure for them. Unfortunately, we have refused to catch up. The truth is, with concession, it is always capital intensive. You will need equipment. Even to lease equipment is expensive. For our banking system that charges about 20-something percent interest rate, there is no way… how much is the overhead you are getting on the job you are getting? So, there is no way you can meet up. But the foreigners that are here, are comfortable because they don’t take their money from here. The money they take from banks here are for local expenses that will not affect their profit. They get their major capital from their home countries where they get support of their government. So, if you even want to compete with them, you cannot go anywhere. But there is light at the end of the tunnel now. The present administration is doing something, for instance in the oil and gas sector, there is a partnership between NCGMB and BOI. Where NCGMB puts $200 million in BOI and BOI is supposed to administer this fund to those who have jobs in the oil and gas sector. So if anybody is a practitioner in the oil and gas sector has a contract for instance, he wants to manufacture, he can go to BOI under that platform and get a loan at the maximum of 8 per cent interest rate and for even locals they could get about 5 per cent. So, with that they are able to a large extent, compete with people from other climes in the oil and gas sector. Also, there is a new policy guideline now on procurement of project/programmes in the science and engineering sector, which emphasizes local content. Today, the narrative is changing and we are hoping that the government will complete the action by raising an executive order and eventually expanding the Nigerian content act to cover all sectors.
But the executive order is not yet out?
It’s not yet out. They signed it about a few months now, about three months ago.
How much is the country losing through capital flight?
There are various accounts. But the losses in terms of what is lost to corruption should be in excess of $1billion. I recall in 2010, it was about $400 million just losses in engineering related jobs. It was about $400 million.
Now I don’t have the accurate figure but I do know because of what has happened since 2010 and now, the kind of activities that took place, I think it should have doubled in the minimum.
From your personal experience, do you think that B.Sc. holder engineers are better than HND holders?
The truth is, it is not a question of which one is better than the other. In the engineering family, we have a structure: the lead engineer is B.Sc; followed by the technologist HND; followed by the technician who is (OND). And followed by the craftsman who has City and Guilds. So, that is the structure of a typical engineering team.
How does the public know the difference?
The public has no business dabbling into it. Because the public is the one creating the tension. We sit in council with technicians and craftsmen and we have no issues. The leaders of technologists and leaders of engineers are all members of council of COREN. We work together to develop policies on how to move engineering forward, how to get engineers, technologist, technicians, and craftsmen better. So, we don’t have that quarrel. Outsiders orchestrate the quarrel.
Can a technologist or a technician become the president of COREN?
Yes, if he is voted for.
Has there been such precedent?
It has not happened yet. Because the truth is the engineer is the team leader. We are in the process of development; so it is like we are in a war front and you really need a team leader. But we will get to a point when maybe we have attained what other people have attained, it won’t be anything to have anyone of them voted.
You were re-elected as chairman of COREN for another term of three years in 2016, what do you think played to your advantage in your re-election bid?
Well, I think it is Providence. I was not looking forward to it. I wasn’t even thinking about it. Because I have been in Council before, I had some ideas that I thought we needed to work on. We needed to really make the world and Nigerians know that we are not inferior. For me, that was a concern. Because it was a bit irritating for me to hear comments about competency…I had cause to do this in National Assembly one time when some people were asking questions about the competency of Nigerian engineers. And I put it back to them. I asked them of their competency also. We have brilliant people who have been criminals and we will always have them. But for those who have commitment, the competency is there. Our training is not as bad as people are made to believe. Two years ago, we had a high-level policy forum in Nigeria with UNESCO participating. In fact, funding came from far away Malaysia for the course significance. We had countries like Sudan, Kenyan, Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana and which other country, they came. And when they went round, they asked them to come to Nigeria for guidance. So, we are doing well in that. People should stop looking down on us because we have respect outside.
You talked about Providence being one of the reasons you were been re-elected for a second term.
Yes. The other thing, I think the programmes I came in with were quite helpful. My colleagues thought that look, I was the once driving it and I was driving it with so much action and vigor, so we need to pursue them. Because we started a relation with Asia and Pacific countries and we succeeded and we are moving out to the world. I have had to introduce Nigerian engineering designs to South American countries at that forum we were invited to also present to North America. We had an opportunity in June to talk to the whole world. Now they are asking us to come they want to have a closer look at us and see whether we measure up to standard.
So these are the things, I think that excited my colleagues, and they thought I should go for a second term.
What are the most difficult challenges you have faced as COREN president?
I think most of the challenges we have are external. Like I said earlier, I am highly irritated when I hear comments passed on us without basis. In fact, some of them and majority of them are out of ignorance and lack of understanding of what we do. Often, people take collapse of buildings as basis for judging COREN and we are not builders. In fact, there was a case of a bungalow that collapsed, an old bungalow that was built in maybe the 50s in Lagos Island. And somebody called me to ask what COREN was going to do about it! We are happy that the Lagos State government is helping us in the prosecution of the culprits. So that should send a message… there will also be prosecution of those in Synagogue to send a warning to others who would want to try any of such thing in future.
What are some of the experiences that shaped your career?
Well, I got into engineering even by accident. I was not looking forward to becoming an engineer.
What did you want to be?
I wasn’t so sure. One thing I wanted was medicine. As a young person, I wanted to be a doctor. But I had the misfortune of visiting a senior friend, a relation, who was studying Medicine and by chance we went into their anatomy lab. When I saw a cadaver, I could not eat the whole day. The following day it was still a challenge for me. In fact, that my senior friend also left Medicine. A brilliant guy, but he couldn’t handle it. He had to leave medicine. He even had First Class in Pharmacy. At a point, I wanted to be a driver, too. My granddad was a transporter. I just loved the way the drivers were, so I wanted to be a driver. I also wanted to be in the Air Force, but again I didn’t plan the Air Force thing. But it came to me by cause of certain circumstance and I fell in love. I saw some people from our place, two people, one of them became Chief of Air Staff; the other was killed in a coup unfortunately. I loved the flying suit. So, I wanted to be in the Air Force. In fact, I went for that one. I was in the Air Force base for some time. It was because of my blood group, there was a wrong reading, and they said I was AS, that I couldn’t fly jet. That’s why I could not join the Air force. So, I had confusion as to what I wanted but after running round, I recall in my school we used to have a career counseling, I used to be good in English Literature. In fact, I won a prize in English Literature in my school. But, I was told to drop it and take Additional Mathematics in its place. I went all round and eventually I came back to Engineering.
So what were some of the experiences that shaped your career?
Looking at infrastructure is an exciting experience for me. I started with roads as a civil engineer; we were doing roads in the Ministry. I was involved with rural roads in the states and the experience was so profound. You will come to work on a road and the beneficiaries are so grateful and they raise you above where you really are. You know, they make you look like you are a hero. Meanwhile, all you have done is a simple assignment. That gave me a lot of joy. I have also been involved in water and they same thing. In fact, that one was more profound, because people see water as life and indeed it is life because it consists of 75 per cent of human body. I realize that engineering has the capacity to eliminate poverty. Because when you provide basic infrastructure you will reduce health bills by as much as 70 – 80 per cent. If local communities have clean water, they have access roads both major and subsidiary roads to their farms, they will be healthier. They would not be exposed to all the vagaries of the environment like mosquitoes’ bite and everything and they will be able to provide for themselves. With that they would work harder and the economy will benefit from it. So they thought that I could also affect the economy of my nation help to convince me to continue with my practice.
Have you ever considered going into politics?
Yes, in fact I am a politician now. I even contested! I wanted to be in an elective office. I did it deliberately, very consciously. When I was president of the Nigeria Society of Engineers, I had cause to go round the whole country, meeting with governors, meeting with all kinds of officials. And I recognized the vacuum that existed in governance. Around that time, China was just going through its revolution, and I noticed that what motivated China was that within their hierarchy of governance, from number one to nine, they were all engineers. They did not come in as engineers, they came in from different platforms, from trade unions, chambers of commerce, all kinds of places, outright politicians won elections they were number one to nine. But because they were all engineers, it was easy for them to get a lot of work done. So the transformation of China that was so rapid was because of that. They do acknowledge that. I could not see that in our own system. In fact, I had cause to engage a governor because I knew his state had a lot of resources. I tried to use the scenario in Dubai, any country, any society, any group, the people who makes the difference success and failure don’t consist more than five per cent. People with clear ideas that are implementable make the difference, so I told him with his resource he could do a lot of things and transform his state. At least starting from the state capital, turn it into a modern city that could compete effectively with Abuja. By the time I explained how it could be done, I saw his excitement, but I also saw in his cabinet he didn’t have any engineer. There was not even one in the structure except for the ones in the Ministry of Works, who even had a commissioner that was not an engineer who did not understand them. So, I have been advocating since then that engineers should go into politics because if they go into politics, they can make a difference. So, to practice it, I decided to also try and I will continue to try.
Are you going to try again in 2019?
I don’t know. I am not so clear in my head yet. Because there is a lot of confusion in Nigeria, you know politics in Nigeria there is a whole lot of confusion. So I need to have an understanding of what is happening whether I will continue or not. The important thing is that whether I contest or not, I like the fact that my opinion counts now. Because when things are happening around my place, I get consulted, they talk to me. Even that one is good enough.
What will you say about what is happening in your home state, Kogi?
It very painful to me because I am fan of Abubakar Audu. I recall following him on a campaign trail when we came to a very bad road. He said, ‘Engineer what do you think it would cost to fix this road?’ I gave him an estimate, because I have been taking mental notes on the journey. And he said if he became governor, he would fix it: That’s the Lokoja/Ajaokuta road. He fixed it. And today, it has made life easy for everybody, those who are going to Kogi East, those who are going to the East, and so on. So, I love people who have those kinds of tendencies. I have done papers to almost all governors, including the current one…
Governor Yahaya Bello?
Yes, I sent him a paper, a small paper on what I think he could do to make a change. They acknowledged, but I think they can do a lot more. Kogi has so much potential. It is sad that we are at the stage we are.
You think he is not consulting enough?
I think so. If he was, we would not be in the state that we are. Kogi cannot be as backward as it is today.
The friction between Bello and (Senator) Dino Melaye, do you think it is just politics or in the interest of the people?
It is not in the interest of the people, unfortunately. It is quiet distractive and I wish that they could come together because there is an issue with power. Power does intoxicate. Whoever says power doesn’t intoxicate is not being truthful. Even seeking power is arrogance because there are millions of people and you want to be their leader, why? If you’re not arrogant, why do you want to be the leader of others? What makes you better than them that you want to be their leader? So that’s arrogance. You don’t take that away from anyone who seeks power. So you must give it to him that he has a right to arrogance. So if he does have that, in dealing with him you must also mellow your language so that you don’t instigate him. Because when people are instigated sometimes they would do things that they would normally not do. I’m not happy with it and I have talked to a couple of people who know them to stop giving the state negative publicity.
What keeps you awake at night?
The fear of failure keeps me awake. If I have an assignment to do and I have trouble in getting around it, it keeps me awake. Even now, I have not been sleeping well as COREN president because I want Nigerian engineers to be recognised internationally.