Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu was elected the first Governor of old Abia State and his Fellow Governors elected him as the first Nigerian to be Chairman of the then Conference of Nigerian Governors. He is a resolute believer in Nigeria’s unity and in 1999, he emerged as the first Presidential Flagbearer of the then All Peoples Party (APP) which was later known as the All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP. Dr. Onu demonstrated rare political discipline and consistency, by remaining one of the very few founding leaders of the opposition ANPP who remained in the party since its inception in 1998 until it merged into a new political party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) in July 2013. Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu is presently the Minister of Science and Technology in this interview with Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Mr Oma Dje-bah and Abuja Bureau Chief Augustine Osayande, he speaks on Achiement of President Mohammadu Buhari, international relations, and other political issues
This administration will be one year in office and, science and technology is the key in the effort of President Muhammadu Buhari’s to achieve change. What have your ministry put in place to drive these innovations and change agenda.
We have done a number of things to increase the awareness of Nigerians about the importance and relevant of science and technology to the nation’s building. We are very happy that more Nigerians are aware and today whether through the television stations, radio and newspapers, people now know more science, technology and engineering innovations. Also, we have tried to make sure that all good ideas become products in the market place. That is, we have strengthened the linkage between research and industry because we want our research to be driven by the need of the industry; things that would help us as a nation to progress. For too long we have been a consumer nation, we produce very little even things we used to export before we now import. For example, we used to export rice, but we got to a level that we were importing about N1 billion worth of rice a day. There were so many mismatches, we export wood and bring in toothpicks, we export cocoa and bring in chocolate, and we export crude oil and bring in refine petroleum products. So, to all these we said “no, there must be a stop to them and the correct thing is to ensure we commercialize the first lining” .And the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) we signed with NASCO Food Limited is a clear example where Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO), one of the agencies in the ministry did research on high-nutrient biscuit and if it were in the past that would just lie in the laboratory. But now, NASCO Food Limited enters into an agreement to produce it in commercial quantities so that Nigerians would have access to it and we would be able to export and improve our foreign exchange earnings.
We have also tried to strengthen the linkage between our universities and research institutes because that is very important in facilitating the process of innovations. We enter into agreement with the University of Abuja and we are in the process of extending it to other universities. The major organ to drive science and technology in the country is the National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC), of which the President is the Chairman, with as many as 15 ministers as members, the organized private sector represented by Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and the National Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mine and Agriculture (NACCIMA). That organ met for the first time on January 7, 2016. So, for about 30 years after the National policy on science, technology and innovation was put in place, it was during Presidency of Muhammadu Buhari tenure that this very important organ met for the first time. So we are moving in all directions and we are encouraging people who have good ideas, give them hope, assure them of government support and let them continue with their process of innovation and the nation will give them the support they never had in the past.
We are also making sure that we protect intellectual properties, that all good ideas are protected through patent because that is the only way investors can easily come in and we want a situation where our good engineers, good scientists make a lots of money and are successful. They don’t need to be corrupt to buy good houses, cars and send their children to school and also have money for other expenses. They can do that from their brain. If Bill Gates can be the richest man in the world for many years through his brain, why can’t our own people? And it is when this happens that more people will come into science, engineering and technology.
Is the ministry working to give the NRIC legislative backing?
Yes, we are working on it, there is a technical advisory committee handling that. Actually today before this interview, I just came out from the 6th meeting of the committee. So we are preparing a draft bill that will go to the National Assembly after it has been processed at the executive level. There is a process it must go through before it gets there and we are very happy to do that because there is also a National Research and Innovation Fund associated with the NRIC. So this draft bill will take care of that fund and the fund is needed for the appropriate funding of researches and innovations in Nigeria.
One of the key visions of your ministry is to prepare young Nigerians to be among leaders of science and technology in the world. A young Nigerian, Chinedu Echeruo, founded HopStop.com and sold it to Apple for $1 billion. How is your ministry partnering with young Nigerians professionals for their contributions?
We are very proud of Nigerians everywhere in the world. Nigerians are about the best in the world and most people know. We want to make sure that any Nigerian, whether at home and abroad, takes a look at the future of science and technology.
Recently you were quoted as saying that the federal government is committed to building the capacities and competencies of indigenous people. How is your ministry going about this?
In terms of human capital, there are so many things we have done and we intend to do more. We are encouraging Nigerians to pursue carriers in science, engineering and technology. We are doing that already and we are going to encourage the Academy of Science, Academy of Engineering and we would support them financially. No matter how small, it would be a worthy start because these are very important Academies that have the best brains in the country in these areas and once we encourage them, it would have a multiplier effect in utilizing science and technology in nation-building. Also, we want to make sure that all the people in the country who have good ideas are tapped.
Human capital development is very important and there is nothing that should not be done to make sure we start producing what we need in the country. It pains me that if we want to build a very good road, we have to look for foreigners, long bridges, we look for foreigners; airport, we look for foreigners and sea port we look for foreigners. We can’t continue that way. We have good engineers, good scientists and we must encourage them. Even if they fail initially, we can’t give up on them, we keep using them until we get the best and once you get the best among them, encourage them and others will grow. No nation is built by foreigners. Any great nation is built by citizens of that country.
That brings me to the foreign taste we have; we can’t continue because we can even fund it. We were able to fund it when one barrel of crude oil was sold over $100 per barrel, but now it is not possible so we must come back, think more of Nigeria and our local products. We must start thinking of how we can use our local materials to produce what we want.
What is the government doing to ensure proper funding of researches and innovations?
I just spoke about the National Research and Innovation Council which will also have National Research and Innovation fund. In the 2015 budget which we have been operating on until the signing of the 2016 budget, as many as four agencies had zero allocation. But the mistakes of the past are being corrected now and it will take time. But once we continue in that direction we are going the future is bright.
France recently indicated interest in helping Nigeria to develop space science technology, especially in security services, how is the ministry tapping into this?
Yes we have good relationships with many countries, China, France, Japan and others with respect to space science-based technology and we have been working closely with them. Space is a very huge access and we still have one of the largest economies. Even though our GDP is declining, we have the largest concentration of black people in the world and we cannot afford to be excluded from space science technology. So Nigeria must realise that space science technology is very important in agriculture, medicine, education, environment and security. These are very vital areas where we can deploy space science and technology.
One of the missions of your ministry is to facilitate the development of science and technology for socio-economic development of the country how are you and your team working to actualise this?
Although I have answered the question partly but you find that our nation has been a mono-productive economy. So we want to use science and technology to diversify the economy. Whether it is agriculture, solid minerals, health, environment and education, we need science and technology to diversify our economy into manufacturing so that we start producing instead of only consuming and make sure that we add value to our agricultural produce because if we are able to add value to what we produce in the country, we can create lots of jobs for our youth, our GDP will rise and we will move many people out of poverty. If we add value to solid minerals that is the only time we can create high network jobs in that sector and the revenue that would come from it would be significant. But if we continue exporting all these things in their raw state we would not make money. So diversification of the economy is critical to our survival as a nation.
To achieve all these, will it not be good to create technology hubs in the country?
We have that plan, even in this year’s budget, there is provision for it although we call it technology village. We want to start with one but what is ideal is to have it in all the zones and if possible in all the states because that would help us to accommodate the interest of those in the informal sector. We lack many of the things they need to really do research and innovation work. So we have it in the plan and don’t forget when I was a governor, that is, over 20 years ago, I started technology village but it is just that our tenure was cut short and those who came after me did not continue with it. But that is how all nations are developed whether Japan, China, India, you must have a way to encourage local people. It is Nigerians that would develop Nigeria. This has to be clear to everybody.
With your experience as a former governor, are there plans for the ministry to partner with states government?
Yes. Currently, we are partnering with them, our National Board for Technology Incubation is working closely with the states and even annually we have National Council for Science and Technology summit where we invite all commissioners from the various states to meet with the minister. We also bring in other stakeholders from the universities and private sector for the meeting.
Recently you said we would start producing pencils, where are we on that?
When I said that, some people started making certain comments. I just laughed. Someone came and I said just go into the market and look at all the pencils, you will never find any one made in Nigeria. And I thought that pencil we use in primary school and it is also used by artists, architects, why can’t we make that pencil? Pencil represents the problem we have in this country, because take a pencil and open it up whether it is the graphite, the wood, the rubber, we have all these things available in Nigeria. That is why I said this one is so simple and yet it represents the problem we have is that we import things into the country we have the raw materials to produce.
As chairman of ANPP, you were very instrumental to the merger of ACN, ANPP and CPC. What was the vision that propelled that decision?
I was both the national chairman of ANPP as well as the national leader of the party by virtue of the constitution of the party that makes the National Chairman also the head of the party. It is not like that in many other political parties but the vision that propelled the merger is contained in the book “From Opposition To Government”. I will just mention it briefly. I felt that there can’t be democracy without opposition and we need strong opposition in order to have effective democracy. What I saw in the country was that gradually the opposition was being weakened and knowing the history of our past when we had NPN, UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP. We also had NAP but NAP was very young then. The other four parties, that is, NPP, GNPP, UPN and PRP came together because they all control one state or the other but when it came to the point of who was going to present the Presidential candidates, the whole alliance collapsed. So, it was glaring to me that if we were ever going to confront and defeat the then ruling party (PDP) all opposition political parties should come together… But you know it is not an easy thing. Luckily, by the grace of almighty God, we were able to come together to form the Party but every other information concerning the merger is contained in that book.
What was the push factor behind the merger?
I wasn’t even the National Chairman of ANPP when in 2004 I was invited by the then Governor of Lagos State to speak to the Lagos State House of Assembly on merger.Before then, I spoke to the ANPP caucus in the National Assembly comprising about 26 senators and 92 members of House of Representatives about it. It was very clear to me that if parties controlling state governments could come together, give up their identity, then that sacrifice will make many people who are dissatisfied with the ruling party join. This was the vision and that was how it happened because if the people from the PDP hadn’t come, it would not have been possible to defeat PDP. PDP would have had more number of people. The truth is that if politicians could make sacrifices like we did — I was the National Chairman and I gave it up. That is not important, what is important is for the nation to have a bright future, then people will know that we are very serious. You must be a very serious person to take such a decision and stand by it. Besides that, for 15 years I was in opposition, I never changed my position. And my case was a peculiar one because I was in opposition both at the state and at the national levels. If you are in opposition at the national level and you are controlling at the state, you will not feel the heat as much as somebody who has been a governor before to be in opposition at both levels. It was a very difficult thing to do what some of us did.
Many had thought the merger won’t sail through but it did. However, immediately after the election victory, there was internal crisis in the party, how are the leaders of the party managing the crisis?
What happened is a historical event that has never happened before in Nigeria, or anywhere in Africa. And if you trace all the crises in Africa, they go back to this succession. Hardly can you see any country in Africa, whether is Burundi, Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Cote d’lvoire, Egypt or Libya, all had succession crises. It is always somebody in power trying to use whatever means to keep himself or herself in power. So this thing that was done in Nigeria is a major contribution to world peace because gradually, it is showing people have an alternative. That you don’t need to go to war. Just give up something; make a sacrifice, come together and then you will win election.
You know in Kenya, they were able to win as a result of alliance or coalition but after that they also had problem – that normally happens. So this thing that happens is a very historical event that has tremendous implication for world peace. As you can see, the first effort we make didn’t work. That was why when I wrote letters, I decided to first build trust because I felt that those who were coming together didn’t trust one another and I said ‘look if we start interacting at certain levels, we would build trust because if you trust somebody and if the person says something you will believe him or her’. When the party won election, there was really no crisis. Don’t forget, we were coming from opposition position. There is a way you behave when you are in opposition, but when suddenly you are now the governing party, you will have to change the role. It is not easy but people don’t see all these things but I see them. So it is that tradition that usually gives people impression that there is crisis, there is no crisis. Most people are very happy even though one or two things, such as they have not gotten appointment or the other but at least the happiness that the party they voted for won election is still there. The people that voted for this party now believe that they had foresight. Don’t forget that many people did not give APC a chance. Even many people believed it would not be registered, but it was registered. Then they said APC would never produce a presidential candidate, but APC did. They said APC would not win election and APC won election. So, at every point, the hand of God was with APC and by God’s grace, it will remain so. What you see after election was not crisis as such, it was transition from opposition party to governing party
How is the party working to ensure smooth working relationship between the legislatures and the executives, especially the presidency?
The party is doing a lot in that respect. We are bringing the leaders together from time to time and I believe that with time, you will see that the relationship will continue to be cordial.
As a stakeholder in this government, what would you say are the major achievements of President Mohammadu Buhari after one year in office?
President Mohammadu Buhari has achieved so much, but for me the most important is that he has stabilised the polity. So, all that impunity we used to see before in government — arrogance of power — we don’t see them anymore. If any person wants to take any decision, the person has to be careful to make sure that he doesn’t run foul of the law. That is a very important achievement. Also, before he came in, almost daily, we were losing villages and towns to the insurgents. Even they mounted their flags and took control of as many as 14 councils, collecting taxes. But, the President under one year, has changed all that and our brothers and sisters who were displaced are now going back home.
Even the Chibok girls, we have got back two of them and by God’s grace, we will get all of them because the President has promised to do everything humanly possible to get all of them. I will also use this opportunity to salute the bravery of our Armed Forces. Before the President came, our image in the world was not very good. A clear example is just when we needed to buy weapons for our Armed Forces, we couldn’t get the weapons even with cash. Remember what happened in South Africa. But today, we are like the toast of the world. All important nations want our President to visit them and so many presidents of very important countries are visiting Nigeria. So, our image has gone very high and this is very important. I will also mention the area of election, the President has tried to make sure that elections are free and fair and it is important for democracy that anybody who is elected should owe his or her election to the will of the people. Not one or two persons or small group sitting somewhere to determine who stays where or not. So, the President has done so much even in the area of stabilising the economy. I am sure Nigerians are aware of what is happening in many countries now. Even in countries that are oil-rich, I don’t want to name any country, if you want certain commodities, they call them essentials, now people have to queue up to buy. Don’t also forget that by the time the President came in, People were already predicting that the nation was sliding into recession. The crude oil was sold above $100 per barrel two years ago, it even hit $143 per barrel at one time. But in Buhari’s regime, it came to as low as $26 per barrel. If we didn’t have a man like him, the situation would have been terrible. So, you can see in all areas whether stabilising the polity, moving toward economic reform, the President has tried because the damage was very extensive and it will take time to reverse all that. You can see now people trust their government which was something lacking before. If Nigerians didn’t trust the President, this strike would have shown that and the effect of the strike would have been massive. Nigerians trust the President and they said ‘let’s give him a chance, he must have taken this decision in the interest of the nation’. So, there are so many benefits.
You were part of the delegation that went to China recently, what were the takeaway and how are you people building on it?
We achieved a lot in China. I was there in January and I was able to get the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology to agree to enter into a government- to-government relationship with us which in the second visit with the President we were able to sign the agreement. Also, I requested for scholarship for our people because in our space center, we have engineers that want to further their studies and also there are special skills and luckily when we went in April, the Chinese President offered us as many as 700 scholarships and 1000 training positions. But the President achieved a lot because he went alongside with many businessmen and they were well received by the Chinese business community. So many agreements were signed and we would see a lot of investment coming into the country very soon. Even many of the public infrastructural projects, there are counterpart funding and a bulk of the money is coming from China and we would put up part of it. So, it was a very successful visit and the President visited one of their space centers, he also visited one of their technology parks. It was quiet successful.