Dr. Ogbonaya Onu is Minister of Science and Technology and a leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). In this interview with Group Politics Editor, Taiwo Adisa, he speaks of a 17-year science and technology agenda of the government, encompassing the short, medium and long-term outlooks in the sector. He also speaks of the reforms he has brought to bear on the sector in nearly four years of his supervision, among other issues. Excerpts:
You will be rounding off your tenure as Minister of Science and Technology in about a week. We know you are not new to that sector. How would you describe your beat this time round?
I’m so happy that within the past three years plus, we have made very important contributions to the development of the nation. Whether it is one week or two weeks left depends on Mr. President.
When you were brought in as Minister of Science and Technology, you did have some vision for the sector. Would you say that you have achieved some of your targets?
Oh yes, we’ve achieved a lot. We have made very significant achievements and we are in the process of transforming the nation in a way that it has never happened before.
But a lot of people would say that the impact of technology development is not felt really under this government. So, in which of the areas are the achievements you recorded?
I don’t think anybody would say so. If you look at where we started from, this is a ministry that was established in 1980 by the late former President (Sheu) Shagari – may his soul rest in peace. After some time, it appeared as if the nation didn’t know what to do with the ministry. Sometime, it was merged with another ministry and sometime, it was scrapped completely. At a time, it was reconstituted, with many of the agencies under the ministry distributed to other ministries.
Then, the Science Technology Innovation Policy for the nation for 30 years didn’t have the lead organ; I mean the National Research and Innovation Council that would lead the implementation of that policy. For 30 years, that body didn’t meet for one day. It took the coming into office of President Muhammadu Buhari for that body to meet for the first time after 30 years, on January 7, 2016. That body has the president as chairman, to show you how important it is, and it has up to 15 ministers as members.
Though, after the first meeting, it is the vice president who has been standing in for Mr. President, we’ve held so many meetings and we have achieved a lot.
If you look at the area of policy, we decided that it’s important for Nigerians to know that science technology and innovation are key to nation building. There is the National Economic Recovery and Growth Plan of this administration which is the very first developmental plan that recognises science technology and innovation as being at the centre of all economic activities.
We now decided that we ought to find a way to help the nation diversify its economy, so that we don’t continue to be depending on one commodity for revenue and then, we couldn’t continue to be importing things that we had in the country.
We put in place the science technology and innovation roadmap for a period of 13 years, from 2017 to 2030, so that we could have short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. That roadmap is key; because it allocates responsibilities to various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). It’s from us, but it involves all the MDAs of the Federal Government. We got all our universities, polytechnics, state governments and the organised private sector involved. So, it’s a document that was prepared really by Nigerians for Nigerians.
We also have national strategy for promoting competitiveness in raw materials production for the country. We have a very unfortunate situation whereby raw materials that we even have here locally are imported by people from outside. At times, the value addition is very little and can be done here. So, we said ‘no, we need to reduce importation from outside and start using our own raw materials.’ You can’t believe it, in five years, we will be saving as high as N3.6 trillion for the nation, plus the new jobs and all that.
We also have the National Leather Policy, the first of its kind in Nigeria, which will help us to make sure that we efficiently utilise the leather resource that we have in the country. It will organise all the stakeholders involved in the leather industry to make sure that we promote the contribution of leather to the economy of the nation.
Then, we have the revolutionary Executive Order 5 aimed at helping us to build capacity in the country. For example, we have four refineries in the country and none of them is functioning efficiently. If you go to other countries, refineries older than ours are still working. The first one was built in the 1960s. So, this is about 50 or more years. If you want to build a new refinery too, you still need to use foreign expertise and this is unfortunate.
Looking at our capital city in Abuja here, you can see the problem that we have in the country. The time Abuja was built was about the same Brazil built Brasilia. But in Brazil, they took a decision that they would understudy the people building Brasilia so that after that, they would be in a position to build their own. This Executive Order 5 will help us to have the capability to do things of this nature, so that we will no longer be relying on outsiders, because right now, if you want to build a dam, you must bring people from outside. If you want to build railway, there must be people from outside. If you want to build an airport, there must be people from outside. This is really the issue.
You said you have the short-term, medium-term plans for the science and technology policy. What are the signposts you have designed that will guarantee the nation that we are moving ahead?
The question now is ‘how do we make sure we no longer rely on commodities?’ We need to base our economy on knowledge that is innovation driven, because if you rely on commodities, any time there is a sharp drop in the commodities, you enter a recession. All the recessions we have had are results of mono-product economy that we have been running for decades. Once there is a sharp drop, we are in trouble. That is the real goal for this roadmap.
Then, the short, medium and the long-term will depend on the sector, because you know all sectors are not the same.
Is that policy linked to some of the existing structures that are under your ministry like you do have the National Business Technology Incubation Centres (NBTIC) which have been there for some years? I think they started functioning well at a point, but at a point, all of them fizzled out. We don’t really get to see what they do now in the economy. Is the new policy incorporating these kinds of agencies?
If you take that document, you will see the assignments given to each and every one of all the 17 agencies under the supervision of our ministry, because it’s so important. For example, the NBTIC you mentioned is key; NBTIC, as an agency, stands on its own, because all the other agencies bring in all the research findings to the NBTIC. The aim is to create new entrepreneurs like micro, medium and small enterprises. That is the aim of the NBTIC and they are working very hard.
In other climes, the universities lead the nation, particularly in terms of technology. In our clime, it’s like the society is leading the nation.
What challenges are you giving the universities in the implementation of this kind of policy?
We are working very closely with the universities. It’s very important, because if you look at our own agencies, for example, the space agency, we have many of our centres established in the universities and this is very important, because of that relationship. It’s very useful to us working with the universities.
Are you saying that by 2030, the turnaround that will be seen in terms of the contribution of technology to the economy would be so massive to the extent that we won’t need to import much items from abroad?
We can’t put a date, because it takes a long time really to do this transformation. If you take China for example, last December, they celebrated 40 years of reforms. It has taken China 40 years of continuous reforms and these reforms are just technology acquisition and development.
So, it’s a process that takes extremely long time. We are hoping that by 2030, we should be in a position to have been very close to having a knowledge-based economy.
What is your ministry’s position on innovations? There are lots of Nigerians who have pockets of innovations; they are not based in the universities and they are not linked to particular institutions. How do you fish them out and what do you do with them?
We do encourage them and we have so many programmes. For instance, if we hear of any Nigeria even in the informal sector who has invented anything, we normally go out, invite and encourage them, depending on what the person needs. We have a programme that is a presidential award, where we now move from one zone or state to another. We look at all the innovations going on and then pick the best. We give presidential awards. We’ve been doing it every year and it’s not limited to those in the universities.
If you look at all the major creativities in the world; even Bill Gates was in the university. He left the university to start his business. So, we recognise that. Ford Motors, for example in the US, would do his work, come back to his garage and keep working.
So, we are very careful to make sure that we recognise any sign of innovation and we encourage such. Our budget is relatively low, but that is not an issue we allow to disturb us. The much we can do, we always try to do.
The last general election took place in February and as one of the leaders of the All Progressives Congress (APC), you’ve been consistent with your political focus over the years. Would you say that you are impressed with the turnout of results, particularly from the South-East?
The South-East APC could have done much better than it did, but don’t forget that our performance in 2019 is far better than what happened in 2015 and we are hoping that by 2023, the APC will do very well in the South-East.
We have started the process of engaging the people; the stakeholders, explaining to them the need to embrace APC and we are very confident that the South-East will embrace APC by 2023.
So, are they receptive to your calls?
I will say so. At least, from all the discussions that I have been having, some of the reservations they had in the South-East, maybe they say government has not done this and that for the region, gradually, they are coming to the realisation that government is also interested in developing the South-East in terms of infrastructural projects and Mr. President has promised that the second term will be more inclusive.
We believe very strongly that all these will help to make the South-East a fertile ground for the APC in the next general election.
One of the issues that cropped up before the elections is this issue of 2023. The people of the South-West claimed that voting for Buhari would bring power back to the area, and you and others from the South-East claimed that power would go to South-East, if the people voted for Buhari. Are you worried by words coming out of the North after the election to the effect that power would neither go to the West nor East; that the North would retain power in 2023?
I have always believed that Nigeria is a great nation. That’s why in all the positions I have held, I have tried to do the very best for my nation, because your country is the greatest asset you have. If you leave Nigeria now, nobody would know you as an individual; they would only know the country you came from.
We have men and women with very high moral standing who will be interested in the unity of Nigeria, who will want to ensure that there is justice, fairness and equity. If you look at the nation, all the geopolitical zones minus the South-East have produced president or the equivalent exercising executive authority at the federal level.
So, I am very confident that at the right time, all these great men and women in the nation will come to the realisation that it is good to allow the South-East to produce somebody that is acceptable to the whole nation.
Are you ready to engage the leaders of the South-East to think along with you in galvanising support for the APC in the zone, because it looks like the vice presidential candidature of Mr. Peter Obi in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) drew the zone towards the opposition party in 2019?
As I said, the process has already started. If you look at the law of incremental steps, you look at the performance in 2015; 2019, for APC in the South-East, is far better than 2015. So, I am very hopeful that 2023 will even be far better than 2019. APC will do well in the South-East in 2023 and also do well in the country.
Are you sure that the Presidency will go to the South-East, going by what we are hearing?
As I said before, there are so many Nigerians who are thinking for the best of the nation; who are interested in the unity of the nation and they are interested in making sure that there is justice, fairness and equity. All those men and women collectively will help to say that since the South-East has not produced president and all the others have, why not allow them to do so?
You are a member of the Federal Executive Council (FEC). In recent times, there has been upsurge in criminality; kidnapping, killings and all that. Are members of the council worried at these developments? Do you discuss them at the FEC level at all?
There is something I will like Nigerians to know; the president is someone who loves Nigeria. If you look at all the positions he held in the past; he commanded three out of four divisions in the Army. He was military governor, minister, military Head of State and he has always shown the love for the nation.
I remember when some people from another country decided to come into Nigeria; it was unacceptable to him, because that fell within the area he was commanding. He had to fight and drive them out of Nigeria. So, he has always shown love for the nation and offered very selfless service. You can see he is so worried. Look at when some states could not pay salaries, upon the assistance that the Federal Government gave. He said he was wondering whether the governors went to bed and slept at night.
So, I’m sure that what is happening may even deny him some sleep. What is important is that he is committed, determined and working very hard. He just came back from the UK. Under 48 hours, he met twice with the security chiefs. That shows concern and he has given them marching orders; ‘I want you to go and make sure that every Nigerian goes to bed at night, sleeps well, wakes up to have the feeling that he or she is secure in Nigeria.’ So, that shows you the commitment.
One of the other things that have happened in recent weeks and since the beginning of the year is this collapse of power systems. We have had six this year alone. Though power is not under your purview, engineers are responsible. Is your ministry worried that the nation is consistently experiencing this system collapse. Do we have enough engineers or we need to import more?
We need to produce a lot of engineers. The world is always watching countries to know how many engineers they produce, scientist engineers in particular. When China started producing engineers and scientists more than the United States, everybody knew that something new was happening. So, we need far more, and that’s why it worries us that even the relatively few ones we have, not all of them are gainfully employed and we are working hard. The president is committed and he wants to make sure that every Nigerian who wants to work finds work to do.
As Minister of Science and Technology, I’m very concerned and we are working hard to see how we can ensure that all Nigerians who want to work can find work to do, especially for those with science background and other professionals, because that is the essence of this Executive Order 5.
With respect to the power problem, I’m sure you know that power is partly privatised. The transmission is public and the generation and distribution is private. The minister is working very hard to make sure that the power problems are solved. I believe when you meet him, you will ask him and he will give you more explanations.
The quota of expatriates that come into the country, particularly when it has to do with engineering works, is also an issue. Recently, I saw a video clip of the Malaysian President where he was complaining that the problem he has with China is that when you borrow money from China, it will be the one to do the engineering works; China will provide labourers and all that. I’ve also seen the projects that China is handling for Nigeria – the railway projects, power plants in Zungeru, etc., where they bring both the skilled and unskilled labour from China. What is your ministry doing to checkmate this?
The Executive Order 5 is a revolutionary document. In addition to what I said it’s supposed to achieve, it’s also to help us in this particular area. There is going to be a database of Nigerian professionals in Nigeria and in the Diaspora. So, before you allow a foreigner to come in, it will be a situation where you don’t have an equivalent. In that case, there will be a programme to make sure that by the end of that project, you have trained enough Nigerians here to take over. Then, for projects that we don’t have the competence, because there are still some areas that we don’t have competence where foreign professionals come in to execute that project in Nigeria, we are supposed to understudy them, so that by the time they leave, we should have enough people to take over. These are things that the Executive Order 5 will help us solve.
Do you hope to still contest the Presidency of Nigeria one day?
This is something that I wouldn’t really want to give an answer to. But you know I’ve run for president in the past. In 1999, there would have been three of us, if you remember, when there were only three parties. It’s just that my party then, the All Peoples Party (APP) had an alliance with the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and instead of APP being the senior partner, because we had nine states then, AD had six and then our nine states at that time were in three geopolitical zones. The six from AD were in one and we had wider spread. But instead of the senior partner then to produce the presidential candidate, it was given to AD.
So, you can see, in the past, I ran. But for future, we allow that one to wait until the appropriate time.