TECHNICAL EDUCATION AS A SURE PATH TO FULFILING NIGERIA’S HISTORIC ROLE IN AFRICA
It gladdens my heart to be in lkorodu, at the 27th convocation ceremonies of the Lagos State Polytechnic. I must therefore thank most sincerely the rector, staff and students of this great institution for the kind invitation to deliver this year’s convocation lecture. I am overwhelmed by the warm reception accorded me and my team by the staff and students of this great citadel.
It has been part of the academic culture from time immemorial to invite distinguished personalities to deliver convocation lectures. The aim has always been to prepare the graduating students for the future that awaits them and to avail the academic staff and indeed the staff and administrators the benefit of the wisdom of the speaker on varying subjects. I must commend Lagos State Polytechnic for maintaining this tradition since its inception.
In recent memory, it was the lot of the late Prof. Abubakar Momoh in 2016 to deliver the 24th Convocation Lecture of this school. Professor Abayomi S. Fasina followed in 2017 with the 25th lecture. It was our party chairman, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, who performed the noble task of delivering the 26th lecture in 2018 and it is in his big shoes I am stepping into today. It is my sincere hope that this tradition will be continued with the invitation of great minds and intellects from whose founts we will be able to drink to our fill.
I have been asked to speak on the interesting subject of ‘Infrastructure! Deficit and Technological Development in Nigeria: The Role of Technical Education’. Simply put, it should sound like how we can use technical education to accelerate technological development in Nigeria. We might as well title this as the role of technical education in a nation that is historically destined to be the beacon of hope for Africa and the black race.
Sometime in 2014, the McKinsey Global Institute did an in-depth study on Nigeria’s infrastructure need and concluded in its report that we need to invest $31 billion annually over a period of 10 years, in order to bridge the yawning infrastructure deficit in the nation. Arguing in similar vein, Umar Gambo Jibrin, the Executive Secretary, Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA), while delivering a keynote address at the 2019 Charles Mbanefo lecture, stated that we need to invest $30 trillion in infrastructure in the next three decades.
These are not overstatements. The deficits are evident in virtually every aspects of life — agriculture, food and beverages, transportation, power, water, sports, recreation, hospitality, building and construction, textile, medicine and healthcare, education, mining and extraction etc. The cost is very important no doubt, but talking about money amounts to missing the point entirely.
The first issue about infrastructure is the knowledge base. Knowledge and skills must come first. Technology belongs to those who know it, not those who have it. You may buy any piece of technology but it is not yours if you still have to depend on the manufacturer for its operation and maintenance. After all, technology has been described as an integral part of the culture of a people by Edwards Tylor, the British anthropologist who describes culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” This will be put more succinctly by Carroll W Pursell, Jr when he wrote that “Technology therefore is an expression of our culture, encoded with our dreams, purposes, environment, insight and limitations”.
Every country is a reflection of the depth and deficiencies of its knowledge and skills as seen in the built-up environment, quality of life of the people and their pieces of technology and other tools of living.
We might not be manufacturing cars, planes, submarines or nuclear bombs. These are too evident. But it is enervating to think that it is very difficult to get good artisans in masonry, carpentry, tiling, painting, sewing, shoe cobbling or even farming, yes, farming!
THE GLORY OF THE PAST
The above scenario has not always been so. Technology was not strange to the people of West Africa before their contact with Europeans, first through slavery, and later colonialism. Leo Frobenius the German ethnologist and anthropologist who excavated Ori Olokun in Ile-Ife was so puzzled about the sublime quality of the art and technology of the bronze cast that he concluded it must have come from some earlier civilisation far superior to the people of Ife.
Walter Rodney in his epochal book, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa ‘was able also to argue that there was not much difference in blacksmithing between West Africa and Europe as at the 14th Century. It is fairly well established, of course, that development is best reflected in the capability to use iron – from automobiles, through weapons of war to industrial machinery. The Industrial Revolution which began in England in the mid-18th Century gave (Western) Europe a quantum leap which widened the technological gap between them and the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, historians of science in non-Western world have established the depth of science in Africa, particularly in West Africa. Scholars like Gloria Thomas-Emeagwali, Molefi Asante, Abayomi Sofowora, Bala Achi and several others have through their research affirmed advanced form of technology in precolonial West Africa in diverse areas like medicine, metallurgy, sculpture, astronomy, physics, mathematics, food processing, textile technology, ship building, civil engineering, among others.
It has been well established for instance that treating head injuries, surgery and performing caesarean section had been practiced in West and East Africa before Hippocrates. The Europeans were also confounded when they saw road construction being undertaken in Ile Ife with some form of alloy.
It has also been established that the Yoruba had advanced form of textile engineering in cotton usage, colour production, design and symmetry in dressmaking unmatched in any European society before colonialism.
Sure, they had no cars or airplanes then, but these didn’t come up either in Europe until the late 19th Century. They were able to adapt their knowledge and skills to meet the exigencies of their time.
WHERE, WHEN AND HOW WE MISSED IT
What then happened that we lost that rich and ennobling tradition and we now look so blank and bland in the great technological march? The answer is not farfetched. Colonialism disarticulated the socio-political-economy of the societies it met; it delinked and disarticulated the ancient educational system as well and threw us in the maelstrom of human development. The worst impact of colonialism, however, is that ‘it violently disrupted the system of transmitting knowledge and skills and replaced it with abstract knowledge that does not address the existential needs of the man in the society. The education the colonial government brought, for a long time, did not address the problems and challenges of the people the way our forefathers did.
It then happens that by the time we got into the technology business, we are neither Western nor traditional. Whereas, for knowledge to benefit a people, it must come from their own culture. Even when it is borrowed from other cultures, it has to be domesticated and be in the language the people speak and understand, for it to be well taught, well received, well understood and put into use.
But we cannot put all the blame on colonialism since there has been the intervention of time. Though political scientists still argue that colonialism has remained in different forms like neo-colonialism and neo-neo-colonialism, we ought to have addressed this challenge since formal independence.
THE CHALLENGE OF TECHNICAL EDUCATION
It is however never too late. The time to begin is now. The challenge we should be addressing is how do we now use modern (technical) education to rise to the challenge of modern life in a way that stimulates other African nations and usher in an era of unprecedented development in the country? This is our historic mission and we must not fail.
‘Technical education is the basis of development and wealth creation in any society. No aspect of modern life can be undertaken without technical education. It will surprise many to know that a lot of the household products we use in this country are imported from China, India and Indonesia cottage industries owned and run by entrepreneurs with technical education. This is what technical education should drive here.
Polytechnics were established in Nigeria to provide technical and vocational skills at the middle level of manpower. They are to develop the real nation builders in all vocations, literally the ‘bolt and nut’ of development.
In the United Kingdom from where our own polytechnics sprang forth, they emerged post World War II as part of post-war reconstruction and resettlement, particularly on what to do with soldiers returning from war. The polytechnics were being established to absorb them and train and equip them to be positively engaged and productive, instead of constituting a menace to society. Graduates of the schools constitute the army for post war reconstruction and the builders of modern Britain.
When the need for the polytechnics ceased, beginning from 1965, the government deliberately started converting them into degree awarding universities, though still providing relevant technical, vocational and applied knowledge education.
The polytechnic system began in Nigeria when the Federal Government in 1963 upgraded the Yaba Technical Institute to a polytechnic and renamed it Yaba Technical College, kick starting the emergence of polytechnics in the country. Since then, there have been 28 federal polytechnics, 43 state polytechnics and 52 private polytechnics, bringing the number to 123. Even with this seemingly huge number, there is still dearth of technical and vocational skills in the country.
RETHINKING THE POLYTECHNIC SYSTEM
The time has come to rethink seriously the polytechnic system in Nigeria. In doing this, there must first be mission redefinition. According to the Federal Polytechnics Act of 1979, the polytechnics were established:
a) to provide full or part-time courses of instruction/training;
I. in technology, applied science, commerce and management, and
ii. In such other fields of applied learning relevant to the need of the development of Nigeria in areas of industrial and agricultural production and distribution and for research in the development and adaptation of techniques as the Council may from time to time determine;
b) To arrange conferences, seminars and study groups relating to the fields of learning specified in paragraph (a) above; and
c) To perform such other functions as in the opinion of the Council may serve to promote the objectives of the polytechnic.
How many polytechnics can really claim to be operating strictly within this mission statement, especially of a (i) above? Commercial and non-technical courses compete favourably with technical and vocational courses. As a perceptive observer wittily puts it, ‘while universities are gravitating towards the technical, the polytechnics are gravitating towards the theoretical’
Overwhelmingly, graduates, including of universities, are acquiring bland certificates that do not equip the holders with life sustaining skills, even as they roam the streets looking for jobs and turned down by employers who consider them as unemployable.
Also, polytechnics complain that their graduates are discriminated against by employers. This is self-indicting. Employers, besides the public sector, are rational actors. They want well trained productive graduates that will add value to their enterprise. The test of quality therefore is in the field, what the employee has to offer. Ordinarily, graduates of polytechnics should have advantage over university graduates in the private sector because they are supposed to have received technical and vocational training. But we find out most of the time that their knowledge and skills are obsolete and even for the promising ones among them, they have to be trained and retrained to be able to fit into a workplace. This is where the schools fail their graduates and is the basis of rejection. What the polytechnics should do is to prepare their students for a competitive job market with indisputable and unignorable job skills. Employers would find them irresistible.
UNLIMITED OPPORTUNITIES FOR TECHNICAL EDUCATION
Interestingly, there are too many yawning technical needs in the country waiting for polytechnic graduates to fill. The technical education being provided by polytechnics should address primarily the challenge of improved agricultural production. Real farmers must emerge who know how to farm competitively and derive maximum yield on a given investment per hectare of land within the parameters of best global practices.
This should also include improved healthcare. It will surprise many that Yaba Technical Institute was training healthcare practitioners before the advent of University College Hospital in lbadan and they were reputed to be as good as any doctor, pharmacist, etc. The polytechnics should be training healthcare givers on basic health challenges and they should be as good and competent as doctors and pharmacists, on non-complicated matters requiring referrals.
Needs also exists in improved building and landscaping techniques. Our environment is ugly and we are in constant danger of building collapse because the technical knowledge of building is missing. Certified technical knowledge should be a prerequisite for any person aspiring to be a builder. This is the rule in some of our neighbouring countries where it is compulsory to receive technical education before being certified as competent to engage in any aspect of construction. Roofing has been a major issue for us in the past century. There should be knowledge and technical ability on affordable houses, using purely locally sourced construction and roofing materials.
The beauty of the built-up environment in the developed world is largely due to landscape engineering and this is what separates the civilised from the uncivilised environment. Save for the few beautiful houses, our environment is a chaos, total bedlam! The space from the road to the house, the setback, must be cultivated and it requires a specific specialised technical knowledge to do that. I hope polytechnics will start offering landscaping as a vocational course in the environmental sciences.
It is perplexing that we continue to import wood products. We need technical knowhow and widespread application on wood preservation.
It is most regrettable that the indigenous technology for producing dyes for the textile industry is almost lost as we now import colours, even for making adire. Polytechnic graduates should be able to revive the indigenous dye industry an d supply all the colours for our textile industry.
Regrettably, Nigeria has become a huge cemetery for vehicles of II sorts. Paradoxically, we have the taste for the most modern automobiles even when we don’t manufacture any. And then, we have the highest vehicle obsolescence rate in the world. These include motorcycles, cars, trucks, tractors and industrial machinery. We should be able to recycle them with necessary. But more importantly, we should be able to produce and source parts for them and maintain them for optimal use. There are countries in Africa where Peugeot cars of the 1970s vintage still ply their roads because they are well maintained. The tractors are virtually made to last forever, if we can get replacement parts and maintain them very well. Why then do the corpses of tractors litter our farms and local government secretariats?
All these and more are unlimited opportunities for jobs, relevance and professional engagements for our teeming polytechnic graduates, but only if they receive the needed training and empowerment along those lines.
I will suggest even further as the polytechnics restructure and start preparing their students for taking greater responsibilities in building our nation, that they, working with government and corporate organisations, set up a system of entrepreneurship and tooling for them.
Let me end on an optimistic note. The horizon is bright. The challenges of modernity will force us to either shape up or ship out. Since self-preservation is the first law of nature, chances are good that we will take the former and fulfil our historical role of being the light and hope of the continent and the black race.
I congratulate the Lagos State Polytechnic on its 27th convocation ceremonies. I congratulate also the graduating students, their parents, families, friends and well-wishers for the momentous achievement of their graduation. The significance of these ceremonies is that they have been found worthy in learning and character and are expected to bring excellence along with them to their next port of call.
Whatever you might have studied in the school is just a starting point. What is more important is what you make of it. The education you have received is to cultivate your intellect and programme it to move from the known to the unknown in problem solving and self-reliance as a member of a society. The path to riches and wealth creation is by finding a need in society and meeting it. It is in the process that you are rewarded based on how successful you are in meeting the needs and the value you have created.
Avoid at all cost from threading the self-destructive paths of unearned wealth and the blackhole of criminality. Do not be idle. Find something respectable and lawful to do. Be productive. Draw strength and inspiration from your God-given endowment and inner resources. The world cannot wait for your manifestation. Be the best and bring glory to country, school, family and yourself.
Once again, I thank LASPOTECH for the privilege of this address and wish you giant strides and greater heights.
I thank you all for your kind attention.