By Okon Willie Nna-Etuk
Knowledge exists in forms and at levels. What is knowledge to one person may be a mystery to another person. Also what is knowledge today may have been a mystery yesterday and some of the mysteries today may become knowledge tomorrow.
Sometimes knowledge comes as ideas and intuition initially, then through careful observation and analysis of occurrences, studies are made and recorded and conclusions and inferences drawn.
To me, knowledge exists in forms and at levels. For example, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geography, Economics, Law, History and many others are forms of knowledge. While these forms of knowledge exist, people are able to attain them differently according to individual capabilities, opportunities, and endowment. Different biologists, chemists and physicists may know and understand their specializations in varying degrees. There is the ordinary level and there is the advanced level. While some men study a particular field at first degree level, others go up to master’s degree level, yet others make it to doctorate degree level. Then there are the professors and research fellows.
One thing has always kept me thinking about these forms and levels of knowledge when it comes to Nigeria, and that is the ability to apply and translate theoretical knowledge to real life situation. Our lawyers, medical doctors, accountants, surveyors, and a few other professionals can always compete and hold their own out against their counterparts from the white world, but not so, not quite so with our engineers.
Why is engineering in Nigeria so different? Is engineering not within the pale of the ordinary as the other forms of knowledge are? Does it take more than the ordinary to attain the level of competency for a Nigerian to conceive, design and build engineering works like the whites do? I am not kidding. Is any thing the matter?
I am yet to see a bridge- the type across River Niger wholly conceived, designed, and built by Nigerian engineers. Our airports, wharfs, dockyards, expressways, flyovers, power stations, and numerous engineering works are designed and built by white engineers. I am yet to see automobile engines–I mean the Completely Knocked Down (CKD) parts, not the assembling, conceived, designed, and built by Nigerian engineers.
In the 70’s, Federal Government brought in the Asians to teach us science; the Indians were all over in our secondary schools teaching science subjects. We sent out many young men on crash programmes to Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Russia, UK, Germany, among others to study science and technology. What are the results today? Any impact?
I ask again: why is engineering breakthrough eluding us? Could it be that it is harder than medicine, law, and all the other branches of knowledge? Is it outside, or beyond, the pale of the ordinary?
I am not referring to the wonders of sending flying objects as heavy as an aircraft carrying 200 men to the skies 40,000 feet above sea level, or of launching spacecraft to the outer space, or of building submarine, or of floating large vessels carrying containers on the sea, or of sending a mission to International Space Station, or of building nuclear stations, or of any such wonders of high-tech.
Why can’t our engineers design and build 3KVA capacity electricity generating machines for our homes, 1.6-litre automobile engines to power small cars to ply our roads, small machines to assist our farmers in processing farm produce, among others? The small generators in our homes are still being imported. The machines our mothers use in the local oil mills to process palm oil and crack palm kernels are still being imported, the small electric alternators for our cars, the small submersible pumps for our water boreholes, the grinders in our kitchens, and very many ‘small’ machines and tools used in our workshops are all being produced by white engineers!
How did Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, India, and these Asian countries do it to wrench themselves free from the stranglehold of the Western powers? Must we commission a study to find out what is wrong with us? Where are our engineers?
I do not think our engineers are to blame entirely for the appalling situation obtainable in the country. Government is to blame also, indeed, largely so, for what obtains in the engineering industry in Nigeria. It is obvious government encourages the training of lawyers and medical doctors more than it does for the training of engineers. Beginning from the award of bursary and scholarship, research grants, and provision of learning facilities to sponsorship of overseas courses and workshops, government appears to favour the training of lawyers and medical doctors over engineers.
During the Nigerian Civil war, when Biafra was cut off from supplies coming in from abroad as the seaports fell to Federal troops, brilliant engineering and science students and teachers from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, put their ingenuity to work and were able to produce armaments to shore up the military supplies in their enclave. They were able also to refine petrol and diesel for their needs. How they did it was a surprise, but that ingenuity was not retained and encouraged after the war.
A tour of our university and polytechnic engineering departments will confirm that the government has not done enough to produce the engineers that we need for our technological take-off. Contracts for construction jobs are still largely being awarded to foreign companies. How would our engineers learn when they are not being challenged and encouraged by government to build our roads, bridges, dams, power stations, and such other engineering works across the land?
Government has a duty to encourage our brilliant engineers to overcome the challenges they face. Engineering is not metaphysical; like other fields of study and human endeavours, it lies within the gamut of the physical and applied sciences. It remains for government to provide the enabling environment. The Asian tigers were not known before the World WarII; the post WWII conditions threw up challenges which they deployed strategies to overcome.
Governments in Nigeria at all levels should assist our engineers to take up the many engineering problems staring us in the face and do us proud to become, after the fashion of Asian Tigers, the percussor of African Lions!
Nna-Etuk, a renowned accountant, writes from Uyo