How IEEE Can Help the Engineers in Nigeria

The IEEE Nigeria GOLD chair shares his ideas

6 February 2009

Nigeria is a country blessed with many resources. We have oil and gas and mineral resources including talc, iron ore, bitumen, and coal. And, of course, we have our citizens, more than 146 million of them. The 48-year-old nation has developed a diverse economy with strong involvement in agriculture, banking, commerce, mining, oil and gas, solid minerals, and tourism. And with more than 53 universities and other post-secondary learning institutions and thousands of primary and secondary schools, Nigeria’s educational sector is no doubt one of Africa’s largest.

It would be expected that Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, would have by now produced a crop of engineers who can compete head-to-head with their counterparts in other countries. But that has not happened. We do have great scientists and leading world technologists, like Philip Emeagwali, the math whiz who came up with the formula for allowing a large number of computers to communicate simultaneously, and Anthony Okon Nyong, a corecipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. But they are not products of Nigeria’s educational system, which is large but has many problems. University curricula cover outdated technologies and are taught by inexperienced lecturers who are more concerned with making ends meet than with conducting research that could improve the nation’s technological development and enhance their institution’s academic standards. The odds are definitely not in favor of Nigeria producing proficient engineers in the 21st century in reasonable numbers.

Is there a role for the IEEE Nigeria Section to play in developing the country’s technical capabilities? Let me share a story I heard a long time ago. A man was walking in the woods when a ripe mango fell and hit his head. If this man was a good Nigerian, he’d bless God for giving him bit of food, wipe the mango clean, and bite off a big chunk. However, according to the story, the man picked up the mango and wondered what caused it to fall to the ground instead of flying up or remaining on the stem. Then he thought: There must be a force that pulled it down to the ground. This is how the theory of gravity was developed!

What we should take away from this story is that Nigerian engineers, even with the limitations imposed by the current educational system, can still make a difference in the 21st century. People with limited knowledge but good perceptions have developed several technologies. Helping to develop African engineers in the 21st century is a task that the IEEE Nigeria Section in particular—and IEEE as a whole—must take on.

During an IEEE GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) webinar, “The 21st-Century Engineer,” given in June by GOLD member Adrian Pais, a research scientist with LinkNet Zambia, I asked this question: “What can IEEE do to create a balance and improve the quality of engineers in Africa? There seems to be a big difference between engineers from most African nations and their counterparts in the Western world—which can be largely attributed to poor education and communications infrastructure.” Pais answered that IEEE has huge resources waiting to be tapped and that the IEEE Nigeria Section should apply those resources to improve Nigeria’s educational system. We discussed financial resources. And he suggested that we seek ideas from world-renowned professionals, capitalizing on lessons learned in improving education around the world. He pointed to projects he has carried out in Zambia, including designing a master’s degree engineering curriculum for the University of Zambia.

I acted on Pais’s suggestion during a recent trip to Philadelphia and Tulsa, Okla. I met with top IEEE senior members and Fellows, who agreed to deliver lectures and seminars to Nigeria via video conferencing. One of them was 1999 IEEE President Kenneth Laker of the University of Pennsylvania.

Nigerian engineers can make a huge difference in the area of ethics, which is one of six key values Pais covered in his lecture. There is a striking lack of ethics in Nigerian business circles. The ethical decay is eating away at the fabric of society.

It is not uncommon for projects to be poorly executed even when vast amounts of money are spent. Unfortunately, engineers are often involved in conspiracies—which goes against the tenets of their profession.

According to an article on the Nigeria-Direct Web site, corruption, with its bribery, graft, fraud, and nepotism, has been one of Nigeria’s major challenges during its existence. Deep-seated corruption is the primary reason behind the country’s difficulties in developing. The article points out that Transparency International, an independent organization that monitors corruption globally, ranks Nigeria among the five most corrupt nations in the world, “an inglorious record that has stunted growth in all areas of endeavor in the country.”

I believe the Nigerian 21st-century engineer who behaves ethically can create a massive turnaround in the nation’s economic development. The IEEE Nigeria Section must do all it can to create a spirit of honesty and excellence among its members. They, in turn, can influence other engineers—which ultimately would lead to ethical behavior. The results could be mind-boggling. Contracts would be executed to specifications, better roads would be built and maintained, and the unethical culture would be no more. So many other positive outcomes would likely follow that Nigeria could finally be able to develop properly.

Prince Ikenna Ibe is the IEEE Nigeria Gold Chair. He is the principal consultant of Prince Ibe Ventures, a network solutions company.

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