Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
Minister of Science and Technology , Dr Ogbonnaya Onu is not given to granting frequent interviews, but when speaks, he speaks from the heart .
In this interview, the former governor of Abia State and national chairman of the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party spoke on happenings in his ministry. He also shared his thoughts on a range of national issues.
How do you feel being part of this government that promised in 2015 that it’s going to address insecurity in the country, but rather than achieving that the situation is arguably worsening?
Incidentally, I was the National Chairman of All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), although many people don’t like to mention that. I was also the national leader of that party and by extension, the leader of opposition in the country. We had three states – Zamfara, Yobe and Borno that no other political party ever won governorship election in any of the elections we conducted since the Fourth Republic. So, I know the politics, the geography, the feelings and so on of the people in the Northeast, particularly those two states. People may forget that before this administration came into being, many local government areas in Borno State were under the control of Boko Haram. They even hoisted their flag on Nigerian soil, something that had not happened before. In Yobe, it was terrible. I don’t want to mention names, but there is a very prominent politician that his house was like their Defence Headquarters. So, it was a very serious problem. Now, the president made this promise and at times, people forget that it’s not just the president alone. The APC made a promise and because the president was the flag bearer, he also adopted that. That is why all of us are supporting the president. For insurgents to take over your territory is not a palatable thing and also fighting insurgency has never been easy. I think the mistake is that we see that as normal confrontation, but this is a very unusual war. You can see America with all the sophistication in terms of technology they have, look at the problem they have been having in Afghanistan for a very long time. Even the then Soviet Union wanted to have misunderstanding and problems there. So, insurgency is not easy to curtail. Yes, we have a lot of security challenges now, but I want to assure that with the efforts that the president is making, all those things, by the grace of God will be taken care of.
Are you saying that those who say this government has not kept its word in so many areas, like economy, corruption fight and security are peddling falsehood?
I am not here to say this person is correct, this person is not correct. I think the facts are there for all to see. Take, for example, the economy, by the time this administration came into being, all the indices pointed to a recession. If you look at the indices starting from the later part of 2014, everything was declining. If you sold crude oil at $146 or $100 a barrel and then you start selling at $40, $30, $26, and that is the only source of revenue since this nation became independent in 1960, and we have been depending on just crude oil and natural gas; we were the largest importer of rice in the world. We couldn’t even feed ourselves. So, I want to assure you that if it is not this administration as people fail to recognise, we would have been in very serious problem. Look at this problem in Venezuela; Nigerians should not think that without APC, we would not have even descended to that level because Venezuela has the largest reserve of crude oil in the world. But just because our mode of development was similar to their own, you can see the very serious problem that they have in their country. For administration to manage the economy despite the sharp drop in revenue, we have never had revenue jump beyond $70 per barrel, compared with what it was before and with this level, we are able to maintain services, we are building roads, we are building railways. Yes, the economy could have been better, but don’t forget that it is easier to destroy than to build and the process of building takes time. But the most important thing is what is the commitment. You can see that the president is committed to making sure that this economy is revived. Look at the efforts we have put in the Ministry of Science and Technology. I want anybody to come and say that these efforts have been there before.
How long do you think Nigerians need to wait to see APC actualize its promises ? Where do you place your stand that this administration has rescued the economy and the warning of governors recently that the country may slip into recession again?
That’s the view of the Governors Forum. But I believe that you also listened to the Governor of Central Bank who also said that he doesn’t share that view. So, people are free to hold that view and it depends on who is doing the investigation. The most important thing really is that the country is moving towards diversifying our economy because so long as we depend on only one product for the source of our revenue, so long as we want to be importing everything from outside into Nigeria, so long as we don’t produce, then we are definitely going to have serious problems. We have the vision that we have to start producing locally and we have to start patronizing locally manufactured products. We must find a way to diversify the economy so that we don’t rely entirely on just crude oil and natural gas. It is the vision that is important and these things take time. You can’t achieve these things overnight.
The APC in the Southeast which you led met two weeks ago and demanded that a key position should be zoned to the region . But the leadership of the party seems not to be in agreement with your demand. What do you do if at the end of the day your demand is not met ?
We can’t be pessimistic. I want us to be optimistic. The APC in the Southeast, in 2015, 2019 general elections, we can see significant improvement in 2019 over the performance in 2015. For positions in the National Assembly, party discipline is very important. I have been a National Chairman of the second largest political party and it is important that you have discipline. I believe very strongly that the party respects the views of the people from the Southeast and will do everything to accommodate the interest of the Southeast. Don’t forget that the president has made a firm promise that his administration in the second term will be more inclusive. I was elected as the Chairman of the Contact Committee and we are talking to people and I believe that this matter will be resolved.
In the next couple of days, this administration will be winding up. You’ve been in it for three and a half years. Are you satisfied with what your ministry, the Science and Tech has done?
I’m very satisfied. I feel very happy with the achievements that we have had so far. It’s the first term of the president anyway and Nigerians have given him a second term which inauguration will take place on the 29th of May.
There are claims in some quarters that much attention has not been given to the ministry in terms of funding. How true are such claims?
Our nation in the past didn’t pay sufficient attention to science technology and innovation considering the role this can play in nation building. One would say, at some time, the nation itself didn’t even know what to do with the Science and Tech Ministry. You remember after its establishment, there was a time it had to be fused with another ministry, then later it was scrapped completely . After some time, it was reconstituted. When it was reconstituted, many of the parastatals and agencies that used to be under the ministry had to be distributed to other ministries. A classical example is the science, technology and innovation policy, which for 30 long years, the body that policy put in place – the National Research and Innovation Council – that should drive it, never met for one day. It was during the Presidency of Muhammadu Buhari that the National Research and Innovation Council, of which the president is the chairman with as many as 15 ministers, met for the first time and we’ve been meeting since then.
In the past, the attention paid to the ministry was really very bad. This administration, as everybody is aware, came in at a time when the revenue from oil, which is the major source of our revenue was in very sharp decline. It went as low as $28 per barrel, whereas, at sometimes, it was as high as $146 per barrel. Because of that sharp drop in the price of crude oil in the international market, we entered into a recession and luckily, we came out of it. I believe that if we hadn’t gone into a recession, if we had all the resources, the funding of the ministry would have been much better than what it was. But the funding we received, though not adequate, is an improvement over what used to come to the ministry in the past.
Was it because of the poor funding that your earlier plan to set up a Technology Bank could not come to fruition?
To have a science and technology bank, you need a lot of money and that bank would have done and will still do a lot for the nation because we have seen and I’m so excited about it. During our Science and Technology Expo , you recall that this is one of the things we brought about . And since I became Minister, we have held it every year. The first two years was in Abuja at the Eagle Square . Early this year, we moved it to Enugu at the Okpara Square because we decided to move it round.
Are there plans to use science and tech to drive industries which are currently comatose?
We have worked very hard in that area and we’ve been very successful and I feel very happy. For example, in the past, the textile industry used to be the second largest employer of labour after government itself. That’s the record that we have. But you know after sometime, the textile mills packed up because the farmers could no longer even produce the cotton. There were definitely some other problems, but the farmers could not produce cotton because it was not profitable to do so. There was a whole war that attacked cotton. Farmers now decided that we will use our lands to produce other crops to make money, as against losing money to cotton. But the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology is working with others. We now have developed cotton and this is very important because one, it has helped solve the problems of the old worms. The old worms can no longer attack this. Secondly, it has improved on the yield that you get from the cotton seeds. These cotton seeds are now being distributed to the farmers and hopefully, this will help to revive the cotton farms and when you now produce the cotton that will now feed into our textile mills and that will revive the textile mills; that is how the textile industries will come back to life. Leather is very important because there is hardly any machine that you can open that you are not going to have a leather product. Virtually all the things that you use, whether in your cars, whether in your homes, whether in your schools, the laboratories, even wearing apparel, you will require leather. So, leather is very important. As a matter of fact, all the countries that have industrialised, they normally start with leather and textile because these two areas, the technology that you require is not very sophisticated.
So, when the cost of labour is really low, there is that advantage and you can do very well. if you can produce both the textile and leather, then you can grow your technology and become more sophisticated and branch off naturally into other areas.
The weakness of the industrialisation programme in the past is that this was not recognised and that is why the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology has worked very hard in these areas.
How frustrated are you that your plans to generate as much employment as possible using science and technology seem not be working more than three years after?
Just recently, I was at Bokos in Plateau State and one of the things I went to do was to commission skills acquisition centre established in Bokos. We presented certificates to those who had completed their training. We picked just a few because of time and presented them with certificates. The Centre Director I’m sure will do the rest. The Leather Science and Technology Institute in Zaria, they have been doing a lot of training and the training has passed from short to long term. Our Nigeria Building and Road Research Institute (NIGRI) has done a lot of training. I was in Lagos to commission the training of artisans because you find that when you put up buildings in Nigeria, you get to a level of near completion when you start doing finishing, very often, you need to bring people from outside the country and we are saying this is not acceptable. We have people who are unemployed. We must make sure we give them those skills.
Then our National Board for Technology Incubation in about 33 states of the federation, that is one agency we have, whereby there are 17 of them under the supervision of the ministry. All the others transfer their recent research results that are worthy of commercialisation to this particular agency and this agency now develops entrepreneurs because the essence is to help create micro, small and medium enterprises and that is what is being done, teaching them, depending on the environment. If you go to the riverine areas, how to produce smokeless fish to dry it in a manner that it can be exported to other parts of the world. In areas where you have cassava, I was in Nkalagu; there is the FIRO, Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi which established a cassava processing factory that will produce many products from cassava, one of which is cassava flour, which you can use to produce so many things, in making bread. You can also get starch from it. Virtually all our agencies, NASENI and all of them are all doing skills acquisition. So, our own approach is to transfer technology, to give skills to our people and once you acquire that skill, it’s for life. So I believe that with proper funding, we can work towards making sure that every Nigerian who wants to work has the skills needed to produce. I tell you frankly, something that many people tend to forget is that, yes the very large corporations hire thousands of people but the bulk of the job that you have created in any nation will come out of the micro, small and medium enterprises because, very often, you can have millions of those and that’s what the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology can create millions of them so that even if they hire two, three or four, assuming you have five million of such enterprises and each hires three persons, you are looking at 10 to 15 million people being hired. That is how you create jobs. That is how you fight and defeat extreme poverty. That is how you create wealth for the individuals and also for the nation.
What are actually the key things that whenever you remember, you feel happy that you achieved in the last three years?
We have achieved so many things. The very first and I think the most important really is that we have helped to create the awareness in Nigerians that science technology and innovation is very important for nation building. Today, you have people discussing science technology and innovation everywhere, whether on television, on the radio, newspapers, more than it has ever happened before. Part of it is our effort to get young people to show interest in science technology and innovation, so that they can dream dreams. We want our children in the primary and secondary schools to be exposed so that they can dream of things they want to accomplish. You want to be a medical doctor, you want to be an engineer, you want to be an architect, we start preparing them. You want to own your enterprise. The second one is that we have been able to improve the creativity, inventiveness, innovation in our country. All over the world, you measure creativity by the number of patents that any nation produces. On becoming Minister of Science and Technology, I brought all the Director Generals and Chief Executive Officers of our agencies and I said to them, yes you do a lot of researches though we are limited by funds. But your research findings are only used for workers, staff to get themselves promoted. So, I said that is good. But the nation is not benefitting as much as it should by only doing that. You will do that, but I want a situation where any research finding that is worthy of commercialisation, the first thing is to protect that intellectual property. Just like you own a piece of land, if you don’t have the certificate of occupancy and you want to dispose that land, many people who are interested may not want to buy because investing in it can be risky. The following day or a month or a year after the purchase, someone can come and lay claim. For intellectual property, if you patent it, then you have exclusive right to it. We encourage patenting not just in Nigeria alone but in many other countries. To show you the progress we have made, in 2015 when I became minister, we have an agency called NOTAP – National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion. That office, they do so many things. But one of the things they are supposed to do is to encourage Nigerians to protect their intellectual property because if you want to patent your intellectual property, you need a patent lawyer, for example, that will help you draft and all of that and it costs money. Some of them may not have money to do this, so NOTAP will take over. For 2015, I had just one month plus as minister, there were 10 months plus that I wasn’t minister, but for the whole year, only six patents passed through NOTAP. I’m not saying six patents in the country but six passed through NOTAP. In the following year, the first few years of my being minister, the number more than doubled from six to 16 patents which passed through NOTAP in 2016. For 2017, the number more than tripled. So, it moved from 16 to 50 in 2017 and for last year, the number increased from 50 to 58. So, you can see steady increase. The world is paying attention because they know something is happening. If we were able to produce only six before and now we have 58, then there is some remarkable progress going on. There are many remarkable achievements, but the third one is the policy framework that we have developed for the nation.