‘Nigeria needs local content to develop construction industry’

Oreoluwa Fadayomi

Oreoluwa Fadayomi

Oreoluwa Fadayomi is the 18th president of Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers (NIStructE). In this interview with The Guardian’s BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, he spoke on the danger of government’s neglect of Nigerian engineers. He also stressed the need for local content in building construction in time of recession, in order to cut down prices and check frequent cases of building collapse

Despite alarming rates of building collapse in Nigeria, there are growing concerns that more of incidents building collapse would occur because of the rising cost of building materials and likelihood for people to cut corners. Do you share such views?
Yes. It is true that when the cost of building materials is on the increase it may affect the quality of the building because of its effects on budget. Take for instance, cement is now N2, 500 per bag, maybe it was budgeted at N1,500. You may also need government approvals, mortgage and bank loans to get the building actually started.

In between, when you do your first costing and all these processes, there may be price fluctuations and you may find out that what you budgeted is not going to do it. You may have also envisaged that by the time you have finished the construction you will let to ABCD. You are bound to find a way of completing the project and in so doing, you cannot just tell the person, sorry, I cannot do this level of this number of flats, go and redesign. If it is not a matter of redesigning to suit the present realities, you may say I don’t need an engineer to supervise the projects so that you can make some savings and keep playing some kind of games and the other. At the end of the day what do you get? An unfit building.

When you also look at youproducts, ceramics, tiles, sanitary wares, finishing products like; marbles, granites and all that, they are imported from Italy and other countries. Where do you get the money to import them? Or you have them imported and they are at the ports and before you cleared them, there is a policy summersault banning the importation of these materials. The developer, whose livelihood is to put up building and has committed himself by entering into one form of agreement or the other has a duty to fulfil and will find a way to cut corners.

What measures can professional bodies like structural engineers take to mitigate that?
It takes everybody, but for structural engineers, one of the key things is enlightenment. We need to let the public know; including government that whatever it is, we should not be pennywise pound foolish.Therefore if you think that you are making savings by cutting corners and thereby putting up unsafe structures at the end of the day when it comes down, you lose everything. Secondly, we need to let our policy makers know that we need in this recession period is what we called local content. The use of our locally available resources to get whatever we need to do. Most of the materials we need in finishing are available in this country. We have marbles, granites, Gypsum and even iron ore. We have all of these things. So we need to drum it to everybody’s hear so that manufacturers can spring up again. As for what we can do as individuals, structural engineers or institution, we need to make people know that this policy is the way to go. It will assist Nigerian to bring up local content in us and apply them in our building construction so that the prices can drop.

Are there specific roles for government on this?
Government can do a lot in the area of ease of doing business. Julius Berger got in here through their government backing and support. Julius Berger was a small company but become one of the biggest because they got their government backing. What do I mean by backing? Not because they gave them money, not that. That is what is also happening to the Chinese companies. All these Chinese companies that come here, their government made sure that facilities are available to them through back up. If it comes to equipment for instance, they made all of these easy for their people. Our government needs to make things easy for the Nigeria firms to have easy access to some of all these things not necessarily giving them all the money that is needed.

We are not saying begin to spoon feed anybody but we need to guide them with facilities that will enable them come up with their best in anything that they do. So there is a lot government can do. You know that Julius Berger is here and the Chinese are coming but I keep asking, when last do we do a bridge or a rail in this country? It has been a long time. Now that the Chinese are coming to do our rails, what are the conditions that will make it possible for Nigeria engineers to be able to do another rail not only maintaining it when they go by virtue of our policy? The government don’t encourage them or involved them when contracts are signed.

Is it too much to have a Nigerian Julius Berger? How many companies had the government through its policies assisted to emerge at that level? It is not that the policies are not there but there is no will to execute them. Some days ago, when they were talking about the Abuja Airport runway, Senate President said to the Minister of state for aviation to come back next week but when you are coming make sure that you consult with Nigerian Society of Engineers and have their opinions before you come. That is a statement. But there have been such policies in the past that nobody enforced. If you look at it, the whole thing is being railroad. It has been signed, sealed and delivered. They have started the process before all of these things. There is no going back. It is all rhetoric. Now somebody just said get the opinions of Nigerian society of engineers. By the time they are doing all the technical reports, who do they consulted? There is so many policies of government in the past that if they had followed we will not be where we are today.

Don’t you think checking the menace requires inter disciplinary or collaborative approach among various professionals in the built environment?
Yes, no man is an island. The Institution of Structural Engineers alone does not make the building industry. There are other professionals. There are engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and estate surveyors and valuers. The only thing that stands the structure man out is that any mistake from his end can kill but that is neither here or there. For instance, the quantity surveyor, if he does not do his job well as far as building plan is concern and he underestimates because part of his work is that he is able to tell us what we need per square metres for a building, the square metres translate to the number of blocks, if he underestimates, then the cost of the project will be undervalued and by the time this is realised it could pose a problem. Even if he over valued the cost of materials, there could also be a problem because it can even kill the project.

There are growing concerns over the quality of works by Nigerian engineers.  What measure should be taken against engineers or firms who do shoddy jobs in the country; both in road construction and all other construction works?
I think, we need to correct this misconception that most of these failures and shoddy jobs are direct or even indirect responsibilities of Nigeria engineers. We all know that everybody who calls himself an engineer at times is not. So there is a misconception that whosever that is in the site is an engineer. A lot of them are not engineers. So we need to confirm who are these engineers. If there are engineers, I am not trying to say engineers don’t make mistakes.

Thank God so far, I am yet to hear any of these things happening to our institution. That is not to say, it cannot happen but if it does, we have measures to deal with them. We called them and investigate and where we found them liable, depending on the degree of their liabilities, they can even be strike off our register. COREN is involved in this regard, because COREN is the regulating body. Before you even become our member, you have to be a member of COREN. However, one of the challenges we have is that there is no will on the part of government to prosecute or bring to book some of those brought to them. Although I am aware that Lagos state is doing something especially to the synagogue building now.

What are your reactions to complaints about the neglect of Nigerian engineers in a sector where they ought to be in charge? What do you consider as reasons for that?
A nation that neglects its engineers can never develop. Forget about the colloquial use of the word, I will engineer this or that. If an engineer is not involved in decision making in all of these being developed, we are not going anywhere. If an engineer that is in charge of implementation does not know his left from his right, we are not going anywhere. Most of the issues that we are talking about had to do with leadership.

If you have a visionless leader, then the nation finds itself at the bottom of development. How long does it take Malaysia to rise from the same platform where it was with Nigeria? How long does it take United Arab Emirate (UAE) to develop its arid desert? Even Gadaffi, as bad as we think, Gadaffi did a lot in the desert country called Libya. If you don’t involve engineers, set goals for them, we will not go anywhere. We don’t want a situation where we have a government, which is greedy and selfish. It’s like giving fish to people which is what we are doing now, bringing in the Chinese or the Germans to come and do all these so called development, it cannot help us. Look at what is happening to our refineries and the gas plants, there was a time when they want to do some works on the international airport and they have to be looking for the drawings abroad because there have not been any Nigerian contents on it.

Nigerians have not been involved. It is not to say Nigerians cannot do it. Even out there, Americans have Nigerians heading some of their units. All over the world, Nigerians are making waves but they are not given the opportunity in their own country by their own government. This is due to the selfishness of the politicians. We need to go back to Gowon’s day, when the road networks that are fading now were constructed. Nigerian construction consultants were in charge and they were given the right to source for the right technical partners that would work with them. So by your training, if you know that you are deficiency and you lack a little bit of competency, then you go to China or the United States of America or Germany, to seek for the best partnership. So that by the time the expatriates are gone, like they have all gone, you will be on your own and you can change the system. These are some of the things we have failed to do.

What is your association doing to check it as well as make your members compete favourably with their foreign counterparts?
We know that going solo will not help because knowledge is not resident in one individual. Therefore we are encouraging ourselves to form bigger organisation; multifaceted one, so that if you talk of economy, we are there. We are encouraging ourselves to form a larger organisation and possibly seek partnership with experienced foreign concerns that we can work with. But no matter how hard you tried to do that, if the politicians do not have the will to make use of our service, what are we going to do. Like it happened in the past, they took ideas from you, give them the proposals and they fly out, bring someone-else to do it for them and you are thrown to the background. At the same time because we don’t want what I described to happen, we also need to work on government to ensure that policy that will lift this nation is put in place. Once we have a structure, even if one government goes, the next one will continue.

In this article:
Oreoluwa Fadayomi
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