By Omoniyi Salaudeen
Senator Robert Boroffice is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Science and Technology. In this interview, he relives the journey that culminated in Nigeria’s successful launch of NICOM Sat 1 and 2 and Sat X while he held sway as Director General of the Nigeria Space Agency and why the effort to drive the project is stalled.
Looking at the quality of science education today, would you say Nigeria is on the path of technological breakthrough?
I must say that the quality of education in Nigeria has increased, particularly at the secondary school level because there are many players coming into it. There are so many well equipped and well staffed private schools that are not owned by the government. There is nothing wrong with our school curriculum especially for science at secondary school level. But my fear is at the university level. We now have over 200 universities in the country. How is science doing in those schools? I have not visited many of them, but I have visited a few. There are some of them that one can beat his chest and say they are doing well because they have well-equipped laboratories and workshops. And I am sure of the quality of graduates they are producing. But there are also some that are just universities by name. The totality of it is that educational environment for science and technology to thrive and contribute to the development of the country is there. We only need to be more focused. Government needs to play more roles in directing and guiding the whole system so that we can have sustainable development.
Would you say that funding for Research and Development is adequate enough to enable Nigeria actualize the dream of technological breakthrough?
It depends on what you mean by technological breakthrough. If you are trying to produce the kind of research that will give you Nobel Prize Winner, I will say no because such research is time consuming and involves a lot of money. We cannot afford that luxury here now. I am not saying we should not involve in theoretical research, but more in the area of applied that will address our problems. And I think the government is trying. The problem is that those who are in charge of allocating resources do not actually appreciate the role of science. And it is all over the world. You cannot move forward without science and technology. The driving force for development is science and technology. But I think Nigeria has recently woken up with the Science and Technology Innovation (STI) policy that has been put in place. It is this policy that is actually going to drive science and technology and ultimately development. There are many countries that have adopted STI policy. South Korea has it, which is what brought a sort of revolution in their technology advancement. Brazil is going to be the fourth largest economy because of its STI policy. What is lacking in our own case is that we do not mainstream science and technology in the economic policy of Nigeria. Science and technology is one side, economic policy is on the other side. Whereas, Science and Technology Innovation policy should be part of our development policy. And that is what STI that has just been passed by the Senate intends to do. We’ve passed the bill in the Senate , but we are looking for concurrence in the House of Representatives. Once we have concurrence, it will be sent to the president for assent. It will mainstream science and technology into the economy because there is science and technology council now which is made up of about 15 ministers in different ministries. Those ministries are areas where science and technology is expected to play a major role in driving development. When these people are members of the council and Mr. President is the chairman of the council, it will make STI politically visible. And to a great extent, the political will will be there to ensure that funding of science is adequate.
But then, it is not the sole responsibility of government. If you look at developed countries, about 60 percent of the fund that goes into R&D, STI is from private sectors because they are the ultimate beneficiaries of Research and Development. But we don’t have that kind of private sector in Nigeria that can be funding science and technology. A few of them like breweries can do that. Some of these multinational companies do their R&D back home instead of funding it locally. We hope time will come when the private sector will be strong enough to contribute to R&D and innovation in Nigeria.
What policy measure would you suggest to the government to make private sector key into this area of development?
It is going to be a partnership between government and the private sector. It is not something you can legislate as such. Private sectors should actually carry out innovation, if they want to be competitive. A time will come when they will see that they need to put in more money in STI so as to be able to be competitive. It is something that will evolve gradually. R&D is expensive and gestation period is long. Unless you are putting adequate money into research, you are not likely to get results.
What I am saying is that the funding of science either in our universities or research institute is very inadequate for us to make breakthrough . For instance, the Ministry of Finance can say science and technology; we are giving you an envelope. Envelope here refers to the amount of money made available to agencies or parastatals. The ministries will now call agencies and departments and say we have so and so amount of money and we have shared it. These are your own envelopes. You can’t do R&D in an envelope. Ab initio you have determined how far it can go and what it can get. I am not saying we cannot make breakthrough , but the amount of money needed for research in theoretical area is enormous and we are always too much in a hurry to get results.
As a former Director General of Space Management agency, you pioneered the launch of Nigeria satellite. How did you do it?
One of my professors in those days said, PhD is a test of your patience. You can have your PhD in something and build on it by reading, studying and applying yourself seriously in your area of interest. For a long time, people don’t know I am not an engineer. But I have been in space. And even when I meet with engineers and we discuss, they don’t know I am not an engineer because I have full interest in space. I have read about space, I got myself involved in space. That, in fact, is the story of the success we achieved in space because of that doggedness. Of course, space is not just engineering. Space is so many things put together. In space, you have lawyers, you have historians, you have engineers, you have biologists because when you go into the space environment, there are certain biological systems that affect us. There are lots of radiations there. You want to know how it affects your DNA and how it affects the synthesis of drugs because of zero gravity. So, there are so many professions in the space, but the technology used to put it together, the rocket you send to the space is engineering. In fact, those who give the data that you need for you to go out there are the physicists, astronomers. Space is an area where you have many interests.
What’s your motivation for going into space study?
I like challenges. I have always loved challenges. I like going into difficult things. For instance, everybody runs away from genetics. At times the teachers teaching you don’t really understand what is genetics. But when I was in the university, I decided to go into genetics and did my PhD in genetics. My PhD in genetics is one of the first in that area. And I did it in the teaching hospital. I looked at genital malformation in children. And, of course, I am not a medical doctor, but I like challenges. When I came into government, I knew I had these options, I decided to go into frontiers of science and technology-information technology, biotechnology, space technology. I was instrumental to the establishment of Biotechnology agency, Information Technology Agency. In fact, Information Technology Agency (NITDA) was a centre under space when I was the DG space. Of the three agencies – Biotechnology, NITDA and Space, space is the most challenging. So, I opted for space. And we made a good success of it. We launched communication satellite and remote sensing satellite. We were able to build an agency that is one of the best in the country and the best in Africa as a whole. So, it is a matter of dedication, a matter of being willing to take challenges.
How has the space management agency fared since you left as DG?
When we launched Nigeria Sat 1, it had a life span of seven years. But it performed beyond seven years. Thereafter, we launched Nigeria Sat 2, and Nigeria Sat X which are also in the space. In the agreement we reached with our technical partners, we agreed to build two satellites. One is the one you send into the space . The other is used for teaching the students because we included technical transfer in our agreement. While they (students) are looking at the experts building the one going into the space , they also build one themselves. The one they built by themselves was to be put in the laboratory. But I insisted that the one they built themselves must also be sent to the space . And all we had to do was to add a little thing to it. So, Nigeria Sat X was built by Nigerian engineers and scientists themselves. That X means experimental. So, instead of having one satellite in the space, we have two satellites. The communication satellite, which we called NICOM Sat 1 had problem and it wasn’t our fault. It was the fault of those who built it. The fault was that the energy derived from the sun could not be stored properly in the battery within the satellite and they immediately replaced it without paying additional kobo because we had a very tight agreement. The satellite is still in the space. We were able to manage resource, we were able to draft good agreement using lawyers that are experts in that area.
Why then is it that we are no longer hearing about satellite launch?
It is not the fault of the agency. It is a matter of competition for limited resources. We envisaged it and that is why we decided we were going to start what we call AIT and DC. That is, Design Centre and Assembling and Integration Centre. We trained over 100 scientists, engineers and technologists in space. We sent some to China and some to the UK. Those who went to the UK were the ones that built Nigeria Sat X. Those who went to China worked on NICOM Sat. And the training is a continuous exercise. If we have infrastructure back home, by now, we should be building our satellites. We were on the same level with Turkey when we started. Turkey is building its own satellite now. We have not been being able to complete our ACAIT. If we had completed our own ACAIT, by now, we would have been building satellites for ourselves and other African countries. But we are handicapped because there is no funding. That would have reduced the expenses of building satellite because all we need is to get partners that will help us launch it into the space . And it will be very cheap for us. But because of the challenge of funding, it is very difficult for us to launch satellite .
What is the possibility of sustaining the structure since funding is a major problem?
What we are doing now is to complete the research centre and the Assembling Integration and Testing Centre. That is why every year we try to put money in the project. Once we finish those two important facilities, we can then begin to produce our own satellites here in Nigeria. So, it is sustainable.
Your party recently had a caucus meeting with Mr. President. Would you say that some of the differences between the stakeholders which are already in the public domain have been finally resolved?
A party is made up of people of different backgrounds, different ideas about life but bound together by a philosophy of the party. So, there is bound to be differences even when you have the same philosophy and the same ideology. You may have differences in the way of implementing it. And don’t forget, expectation is one thing, what actually happens is another thing. So, there are bound to be differences. And it is not peculiar to APC. We haven’t gone to court like PDP. So, the caucus meeting is an opportunity to speak out and express views on important issues that are germane to the development of the party. We may not have solved all the problems in that single meeting, but a number of them have been highlighted for special attention. So, it is a good thing for us. It is a good thing that it is coming this early.
There is this argument about whether the president should be given an automatic ticket for the 2019 race. What is your own take on this issue?
We are running a democracy. And in democracy, everybody is free to aspire to become president. Even I can say I want to be president. And, of course, our constitution allows it. So, we don’t believe in imposition. You may think 2019 is near; it is not that near. It is still far away politically. I think eventually, the party in a democratic manner will decide on who will run. But we have a president now and he is working hard. The question we will ask ourselves is: do we have any reason to say he should not run again based on the achievements of the party? It is not illegal or unconstitutional for other members of the party to aspire. There will be a congress and people will decide.
Regardless of who is going to fly the flag of the party, would you say the party has met the aspirations and yearnings of the Nigerianpeople and so deserves to be voted for again?
I will say yes, to the extent of the resources available to it. Don’t forget that before APC came into power, a barrel of oil was selling for as high as $114 per barrel. Immediately we came in, it came down to about $32 per barrel. And 95 percent of our revenue is from oil. You can see the difference. It means the resource is gone. Two, we had the MEND in the Niger Delta blowing oil pipelines to the extent that our production came down from 2.1 million barrel per day to 500 million a day. This combined with the drop in oil revenue makes the situation to be more challenging. All our calculations were projected on the expectation that oil would still be selling for at least $90 per barrel and we would be producing 2.1 million barrels per day. All these just changed. That the government was even able to go through that period shows a lot of tenacity on the part of the party and on the part of the leadership. Again, there were revelations of massive looting that took place and those who have stolen money were fighting back. For example, how did Maina sneak back into the civil service? It means that there are people who are aiding and abetting corruption in the civil service. So, the president and the party had a lot of problems. The treasury was almost empty when the president came in. Under that circumstance, how do you implement the free school feeding? How do you implement free health? How do you do so many things you want to do that would have been possible if your income remains the way it was? For us to stabilise and remain where we are today, APC has done very well. And as more and more of the corrupt ones are being shown the way out of the system and stolen monies recovered from the looters are channeled into development project, things will get better. The National Assembly is working very hard. We are looking at the MDAs and their internal revenue generating profile with a view to blocking leakages. We are sure that if we can block all the leakages and increase the amount of money paid by parastatals into the government treasury, we may not even need to go and borrow money. You can imagine, an institution generating about N81 billion paid only N1 billion to government . It is not right. I think we have to look at the law in some areas. I think the law that says pay 25 percent and use the rest is faulty. Now, it shouldn’t be so. If we can ensure that parastatals and the companies are paying what they should pay to government , we may not need to borrow money from outside. I believe the hard time is almost over.
Do you think the party has done well enough in exercising control on the president?
The party cannot control the president. Even in the US, the GOP has not been controlling Trump. The president was elected by Nigerians to carry out some duties. Of course, he needs the party; he must defer to the party and he must carry the party along in executing the programmes of the party. I think the party and the president are partners in progress.