Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu is the Minister for Science and Technology and a former chairman of one of the legacy parties that coalesced into the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). He speaks with Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA, on the innovations being pioneered by his ministry. He also declared that the APC was set to receive more high profile defectors to its fold in the South-East, ahead of a final takeover of the zone in 2019. Excerpts:
AT one point in history, Nigeria and some Asian countries were at the same level of technological advancement, but, somehow, Nigeria slipped behind. Was that the reason for the technology expo your ministry organised recently?
The nation is behind many countries that were at the same level with us at independence. One country that we can use as example is South Korea. 50 years ago, both countries depended on commodities. Then for us it was agricultural produce. The same for South Korea. But because we didn’t pay attention to technology and South Korea did, for example now, they spend about 4.2 per cent of their GDP on research and innovation. Whereas we spend 0.22 per cent by World Bank data.
Then because of the attention that South Korea paid to science and technology, today they export goods like ships, vehicles, telephones and so on, but we still export commodities, that is, crude oil and natural gas. They have moved away from commodities. The sad thing about commodities is that you don’t determine the price. When there is a sharp drop you are affected. So now we are in recession but South Korea is not in recession because they have moved away from resource based to knowledge based.
On the technology and innovation expo, we organised it to bring together all researchers in the country, in research institutes, the federal ministry of science and tech or in other research institutes. Researchers from universities, polytechnics, industrial labs and those from the organized private sector and the informal sector.
We were able to bring all those together and brought investors they can cooperate for the purpose of commercializing. Researchers can also find a way to cooperate with those working on similar projects. They can also procure locally made equipment for the work they are doing.
We organised it to let Nigerians know that many of the things we import into the country, we don’t have any business doing so. That we can produce them at home. And when we do so, the benefits are enormous. You can create new jobs, grow your economy, reduce poverty and strengthen the currency. Producing locally, you don’t have put pressure on looking for foreign exchange. That’s the reason for the expo; to commercialise research findings.
Did any of the investors offer to fund any of the inventions?
I wouldn’t know.
Where did the investors come from?
We invited MAN, NASEMMA, and many other organisations and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group. There are people who invest. Without the investors, the expo will not be complete.
As minister, what did you identify as major reason that made Nigeria do shy away from focusing on science and technology when its peers were doing so in the 1960s?
I think when you make money the easy way, you will always think it will continue, because, as Nigerians, we stayed in our houses and offices and money is put in our accounts. It’s amazing because even the petroleum industry is not diversified. We import petroleum products. I think that is the reason. But we just have to break away from that and understand that what we did when the price of crude oil was high, we can no longer do so now.
We must rely on what we can do as a nation. We should be able to produce many of the things we use. It is very important. Look at food security which is our priority in the ministry for now, there was a time we had enough rice and we exported. People forget this. But you need to make sure whatever you do, you accompany it with research to make your effort sustainable and make you competitive. Otherwise after some time, you need to start importing.
How satisfied are you with the outcome of the expo?
I feel very happy that Nigerians now know that we are a very creative people. I had to ride in the wooden car not because I didn’t realise that if we use wood and if there is fire or any impact, it’s a serious problem. But it was done by someone who doesn’t have the level of education that we have. And yet he thought of using the engine of a motorcycle, and because we don’t have metal sheets, he used wood. Very well polished and all the curvature he glided very well. It shows creativity, it shows the Nigerian spirit. It shows that what we thought cannot be done can be done.
That was why I decided to ride in that car. Maybe other Nigerians also seeing that will also think, we didn’t know we can do this o. The Nigerian spirit is a very strong one.
At the expo, you promised to make sure the inventions become a reality. Are there some of the projects you have lined up towards commercialisation?
There is very little the ministry can do directly. Just this year, we went round the country and we identified 56 inventors from every geopolitical zone. We acknowledged their contributions and supported them financially. The least got a million and the highest, N10 million. But we are working on institutionalising the National Research and Innovation Council and along with that is the National Research and Innovation Fund. For 30 years that the Science Technology and Innovation policy has been in existence, they have never held a single meeting. But during the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, the first meeting held last year, and we were able to hold three meetings last year. This year we have held another meeting. With that council in place, the fund will become a reality and that fund is the very important because all nations that pay attention to science and technology don’t fund their only through the budget. They use extra budgetary means to fund their projects.
We need this fund, because one of the constraints is usually funding. If we had that type of funding, it will be more helpful. Part of the fund is the science and technology bank. To solve the problem that we have because we don’t have enough venture capitalists. We have very few of them. Venture capitalists are very important because they are the people who can take the risk involved in commercializing research findings.
We are working to put this fund in place. In the meantime, all these innovations and inventions that have got to the level of commercialisation, we are going to use NOTAP, the National Office on Technology Acquisition and Promotion, to help them in protecting their intellectual property through patent. Because usually you need money to apply for patent and you need lawyers. And some of them may not have the money. There are many other things we can do for them.
A number of young inventors were at the expo. One of them exhibited an electronic ballot collation box which is line with one of National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI) projects, the Electronic Voting Machine. Would the Ministry make this available to INEC?
Why not? We will. One of the greatest legacies a government can leave for the people is free and fair election. And during the last election, if there had been no card reader, I believe it would have been difficult to have the sort of result that we had. The outcome possibly may have been different. Technology is very important in giving us free and fair elections. Once you have free and fair elections, it will introduce internal democracy in the political parties. I was National chairman and leader of a one time second largest political party, if you know that the votes will count, you are going to bring the best candidate that will win election. Also, when any person is elected, he knows the election is dependent on the will of the people, if you want to be re-elected, you have to do things in the interest of the people. That will help us to have good governance. For that reason, I put pressure on NASENI and it is working hard. We are still fine-tuning what was presented to Nigerians. It is when we take it to the level that we are completely satisfied, then we take it to INEC.
You have about two years to go as a government. These are lofty plans. Previous governments may have had these kinds of plan. But once another government comes, everything is set aside. That is why this country apparently has not done well technologically. Do you have plans to institutionalise these arrangements, such that even if the Buhari administration is not in power, Nigeria can continue with the ideas?
I think we have to be fair to this administration. The previous administration didn’t have these plans. We have the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy in 1986 and the leading organ to manage science and technology in the country never met for 30 years. So you can see we are doing something completely different. The science and tech expo, the format has never happened in the country.
If we had funding we would have carried the workshops live(on television) for people to see what happened there. And the format wasn’t what people used to do in the past. On Commercialising research finding, I will be one and half years in office next month. We are doing that with NASCO and May and Baker. We are doing things that other administrations have not done. We are working hard to institutionalise the council and the fund so we can be in a position to fund science and technology relatively better than it is being done now.
Some of your agencies and institutions are not well-funded. Some of the DGs have practically nothing to work with. Also some innovators refuse to showcase their discoveries. How far can you go in sensitising them to know that their research discoveries are not meant for the shelves?
Thank you for the questions, but I want to assure you that I told all our agencies that every research finding that can be commercialised must be commercialised. It’s a new policy. I don’t think anybody would keep his research findings. But I also taught in the university when I was much younger. If somebody is doing research and is he is using it to write a paper, then most likely he will not release it to the public. But in the research institutes, that will not happen because it’s a public place.
If you don’t take research findings into the market place you will not be helping the economy, creating jobs, fighting poverty and strengthening our economy. It’s a directive which all agencies under the ministry are adhering to and I am happy with the results.
The Federal Government is looking into the areas of modular refineries and that requires a lot of technology. The local people in the coastal areas have been running these refineries given their limited knowledge. Is the ministry looking at the possibility of synchronising the efforts of the local communities with research findings?
Why not? One of our research institutes is for chemical technology. We are interested in working to upgrade existing technology to produce productivity.
You are a man of two parts. Many Nigerian know you more as a politician. Today you are in the ruling party. Your party promised change to Nigerians. And I am sure the feedback you are getting is not good music to the ears. Most Nigerians say the change they asked for is not what they are getting. How do you react to that?
The promise the president made is in the manifesto of the party. He is working completely with the support of the party. And he has delivered on these promises. He promised to deliver on security, particularly the North East and that has been achieved. And there is improvement. And let Nigerians not forget that Abuja was under attack. And who knows what would have happened with respect to security and insecurity.
He also promised to fight corruption and he’s doing that with every vigour. Then we must appreciate the fact that corruption has gone so deep into our system. We have corruption even in our schools, offices, even on the roads. If you are fighting corruption, you don’t expect to see the result almost immediately. It will take time. These problems were created a long time ago.
As far as I am concerned, the only weakness that the APC may have shown was that at the time we took over, that we didn’t emphasise the depth of decay in the society. If we had highlighted the problems we were confronting, I know Nigerians would have appreciated us more. But I know they will with time.
If Nigerians have been told the level of decay, I don’t think people will be blaming us for the hardship. But the hardship arose because for 50 years, we depended on commodities. We started with agricultural products and then moved to petroleum products. Still commodities and we ended with a mono product economy. And the price of crude oil crashed from over $100 to less than $30. And that’s the only source of revenue. What do you expect any administration to do. If it is not the effectiveness of the president, what is happening in Venezuela would have been a childsplay to what would have happened in Nigeria.
Venezuela has largest crude oil reserve in the world. They allowed themselves to depend entirely on crude oil just as we did. Today you have to go to neighbouring countries to buy food. And the questions Nigerians should ask is that with the level of mismanagement by the previous administration, what would have happened to our economy.
I accept there is hardship. It worries us. We are very concerned, exceptionally concerned. And we are doing everything humanly possible to make sure that we are get out of this problem.
Look at food and our roads. Take, for instance the Onitsha- Enugu road. This a is a Trans-Africa highway. But people were already farming on one side of the road. And we had all the money.
Is it the railway system that we repaired? Is it hospitals that we built up? Is it our airport? Look at the Abuja Airport, for 30 years the airport was not even maintained. Report everything that I’ve said. Let anybody come and challenge me. Our people now send their children to neighbouring African countries. Is it during this administration that these things started? And do you think these things can be corrected overnight? It can’t. It will take time and a lot of resources. And we came in at a time when the revenue to the nation is very low. But one thing is that it is important that as Nigerians, we keep talking about these things. The president is not just determined to take Nigeria out of recession, but to change the direction that we have been going because if we continue with the idea of depending on crude oil. Once the price is high, we will get out of recession, but we will get back. Look at South Korea, with the collapse of petroleum price, they are not in recession. So if you see this Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, it’s hinged on science and technology. And once we start investing, we will change and become knowledge economy and employ our people. Is it this administration that made engineers and scientists not to have jobs? Even though their number is very small, but no jobs. They were there and we are trying to rectify all these things. And we were earning over $100 a barrel on crude for a long time.
A former governor of Ebonyi State recently joined APC. He is one of the high flying catches your party has made in that region, should Nigerians prepare to see a final takeover of the South-East by APC ahead 2019?
Yes. Quite a number of people joined APC from the PDP in the South-East. We are still working to have more come in to the party. We believe very strongly that the party will do very well in the next general election in the South-East.
Some agencies under your ministry were reported to have discovered cure for epilepsy, and sickle cell. When can we commercialise these?
We are working on epilepsy and we have good results, but you have to test these drugs over a long period of time, to make sure the results that you have can be duplicated and that it is safe. Those who have tried it have got good results. But we want to follow all the known rules. For sickle cell, anemia, what is impressive with the work we have done is that we approached it from another angle, not from the point of view of a drug, but as a nutrition. The drug works when there is crisis but nutrition works all the time. It’s a part of the food. It’s a part of your nutrition. They are things that are common. They are our Nigerian agric products. It ensures you don’t enter into crisis. We are doing a lot in the area and when we develop it to a level that is internationally acceptable, then we will bring it out