Innovation for Nation Building – How Professionals Can Lead the Re-Imagination of a New Nigeria.


Innovation for Nation Building – How Professionals Can Lead the Re-Imagination of a New Nigeria.

Innovation is about breaking new grounds, conquering new territories and mastering new arts. It is about breaking eggs and yes, making omelets.  

Being a professional is something I take very seriously. You see, I was raised in this tradition by a father so dedicated to his pioneering trade as a Health and Safety professional that he and others organized the first of such bodies dedicated to the professionalization of his life passion, by forming the Nigeria Institute of Safety Professionals (now ISPON) to which he was later appointed a Fellow. He was a man so dedicated to his calling, that he wrote books to teach the future generation many of which I co-edited, and the last which he finished just a week before he passed on in 2016. It is for this reason that I dedicate this speech to such a giant, Dr. B.F. Oluwagbemi, FNISP, CMIOSH, MSM. Those are the exact accolades he would have loved me to give him as the true professional he was. May his soul rest in perfect peace. 

As a professional engineer qualified in both Nigeria and the United States, the focus of my life has been productive innovation leveraging technology. The subject as such of the subject of our discussion today is Innovation and the Professional. How do we leverage the professional in the work of innovation for nation building? How is the professional better suited for nation building than say his counterparts, the industrialists or the trader? Who is a Professional after all? How does  he or she differ from a trader or an industrialist?  

According to the Encyclopedia, “A professional is any person who earns their living from a specialized occupational activity. The term also describes the standards of education and training that prepare members of the profession with the particular knowledge and skills necessary to perform their specific role within that profession. In addition, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct, enshrining rigorous ethical, moral & public interest obligations” 

It is thus clear that a professional has an exceptional obligation in promoting public interest, and in particularly advancing nation building. You cannot build a nation without dedicated professionals. The United States of America was built by dedicated professionals – of lawyers, engineers, accountants and scientists. So were China, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia. We cannot imagine a United States rising without the dedication of the likes of Thomas Edison, or the great contributions of Bessemer to the industrialization of Europe.  

In this context, we must ask ourselves what nation building is. Turning again to the Encyclopedia, this is defined thus: “Nation-building is constructing or structuring a national identity. Nation building aims at the unification of the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run. Nation builders are those members of a state who take the initiative to develop the national community.” 

In imbibing these definitions, the fate of our country Nigeria as she sets to celebrate her 59th anniversary in a few days thus comes to mind. Are we on the path of nation building? Are we constructing for ourselves and our children a viable future of unification and economic viability? Indeed, our history is replete with Professionals who emerged as National Heroes. Herbert Macaulay comes to 

mind, as does Drs. Adadevoh and Akinluyi. These are men and women who distinguished themselves in their professional lives as much as their national contribution.  

One cannot but agree that as the biggest black Nation on earth, with the largest economy in Africa, Nigeria is definitely set apart in the comity of nations, full of potential and destined for greatness. Our manifest destiny thus is greatness, and building that future must be deliberate if our race, and Africa especially will harness the fruits of our inherent greatness for the benefit of mankind. 

I remarked recently aloud to anyone that cared to listen that: “If you’re African, especially Nigerian (because in the long run, very few African countries are viable), and you’re in your 30s and 40s you are the equivalent of someone born in the US in 1800. You have a country to build. Quit complaining, get to work!” 

I mean every word of it! 

Nigeria is a country both blessed by a population boom and doomed by it. If you believe the data being bandied around, we are almost 200 million people with 90 million of us living in desperate poverty. Multidimensional poverty, one new study calls it.   

Underpinning Nigeria’s poverty is unemployment. With 5 million people joining the labor force every year, let us remember that even the United States in a great year with an economy 25 times the size of Nigeria barely produces 2.5 million jobs a year, we continue to struggle to provide work for the teeming population we produce. We push twice that number of new people seeking work every year, even as we already had a sitting pool of 23 million unemployed people as of 2015. Hence, in 2019 we are looking at 39-45 million idle people! And we know what they say about idle hands. 

Why then are we surprised with high incidences of poverty and crime? These are just consequences of unemployment. And creating jobs is like making eggs as many of you in here who are entrepreneurs know. It is not a fancy process. It is messy. It requires breaking things. It requires innovation.  

Innovation is one of the few ways for us to create jobs, avoid penury and the impact of UPC.  Hence for professionals to truly have impact, drive innovation and these economic transformations, they must lead innovatively.  

There was a country…. This country had a life expectancy of 45 years, 10% of roads paved indicating over 90% out of school ratio, infant mortality was 200 of 1000 live births, 5% of population had indoor plumbing, corruption at local, state and federal levels were rife. Indeed citizens spent 52% of their Income on food. This country is not Nigeria; it was the post-Civil war United States in the 1870s that then went on to experience the longest period of expansion and emergence as a global superpower in the 100 years following.  

That American century was made possible by innovators like Mr. Singer whose sewing machines democratized fashion, or Eastman Kodak that spawned various industries from photography to advertisement. Indeed, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Rockefeller, J.P Morgan and Amadeo Giannini who each went on to found Ford Motor Company, Edison Electric Later General Electric, US Steel, Standard Oil, JP Morgan & Co Investment Bank and Bank of America – all companies that led innovation in their sectors, leveraging professionals like yourselves – and most continue to exist today as giants of innovation and industry!  

The Nigerian Century Is Possible.  

In the United States I just described, companies did not wait for Infrastructure from the Government to make a difference. Just like Aliko Dangote will do today, the E.I Singer & Co even built rail to its factory at one point to ease shipment. In Europe, it built Power Plants in Russia, as did Carnegie when he needed to build his massive foundations. Bridges, roads, power stations and even dams were part of the course for these innovator entrepreneurs.  

But there can be no Andrew Carnegie without Professionals like Bessemer, whose patents he purchased as the fledgling steel industry set to take off in the New World. Thousands of professionals helped Carnegie standardize processes. In reading his autobiography, the Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie said, and I quote: “My visits to Britain gave me excellent opportunities to renew and make acquaintance with those prominent in the iron and steel business–Bessemer in the front, Sir Lothian Bell, Sir Bernard Samuelson, Sir Windsor Richards, Edward Martin, Bingley, Evans, and the whole host of captains in that industry. My election to the council, and finally to the presidency of the British Iron and Steel Institute soon followed, I was the first president who was not a British subject.” 

So even that great wealthy man, second only in history to Rockefeller was himself a professional just like you! He also was a nation builder, building that scrappy, innovative America from the poor image of her!  

There is no doubt that innovation in 2019 is very different from that of 1819. Today, we can bet that innovation will be driven by concepts like big data, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing to increase productivity, cutting edge technologies in Internet technology from encryption to Bitcoin to even crypto currency and its Bitcoin application. Nigeria cannot escape this reality, we must either innovate our way to prosperity but we prepared to collapse under the weight of unrest.  

According to Authors, Christensen & Ejomo in their book, the Prosperity Paradox,  “…for transformative development to happen, innovators must first imagine a different world, one that is filled with possibilities that many others can’t begin to imagine”.

 Innovation in the era of Big Data.

Some argue if we are in the age of date or simply the age of Innovation. I posit that we have always been innovating and data has always been with us. Human beings have always innovated around data, it was always the form and magnitude of the data that changed. From the agricultural revolution to the three-age material revolutions of stone, bronze and iron ages, to the more recent evolution of modern man in the middle ages to industrial and computer revolution – human history and development has always been driven by data and innovation. 

Interestingly, the recent evolution of data and innovation, despite Africa’s early state left the Sub-Sahara African communities behind undoubtedly, always ensuring no matter how long, that in the end run – Africans become subjugated in their own land and space to foreign ethos, ideas and some time governance.  

{Delve into the History of Data Driven Human Innovation • Writing, missing it led to SLAVERY • Printing, missing it led to COLONIALISM • Computing, missing it led to BRAIN DRAIN • Big Data (Cloud), what will missing it result in?} 

If Nigeria as a nation must lead the black nation out of always being in pace, the responsibility thus lies on no other set of people but those of you in this room. We must dedicate ourselves to the craft of innovation through data. 

How can Nigerian Professionals drive innovation? 

In this era of 140 characters, and short attention span, the special responsibility on the professionals in this room cannot be overemphasized. In what ways can we as professionals ensure our country and indeed our race does not become enslaved in the era of big data? 

  • We must help re-imagine education. Education for what? Targets? Export of Labour? Jobs? Employment and entrepreneurship?  
  • Develop Innovation for our own peculiarities leveraging Standards. We must develop standards and create national occupational standards instead of just copycatting.  {Introduce concept as Chairman NCCF, and NCDMB, Collaboration is possible}. 
  • Encourage asking questions, even in our own workplaces and mentees. {Story of Twitter and busy airports}. 
  • Develop a paradigm for discovery and making consumers of nonconsumers; challenges are actually opportunities. M & E product for example. Ford & horse manure. Big Ideas require nation builders that build a community of not just risk takers, but people willing to build on successive successes and solve big problems because of delayed gratification. Challenges of planting our food, developing our own textile, refining our own crude oil and making our own consumer products while building the transportation and logistics infrastructure to distribute them cannot be solved by small thinking. 
  • Demonstrate Ethos of leadership – Character, Courage, Capacity and Competence 

Be Courageous. 

To this end, I ask you to do one courageous thing. To build this country as a viable nation that we’ve been called to do, and to innovate we must first understand we must be sustainable. And as I always tell my associates, ‘Politics Precedes Policy, and Policy Precedes Programs’. As a country we will be programmed for failure even as professionals, if we don’t fix our body polity.  

Hence, I have a big question about innovation and sustainability, for which you all here are being charged as faithful professionals of the Federal Republic. Is our government- local, state or federal sustainable?  

Well, I won’t answer that without falling back on Data since we live in the age of data. In 2018, we budgeted 8 trillion, we earned revenue of less than 3 trillion and spent 5 trillion. Of the 3 trillion we earned, we spent 2.2 trillion on salaries and balance on debt repayment. We borrowed to build infrastructure and meet our international obligations basically. And this was in a saner clime by the way. Since 1999, we’ve never had a balanced budget or one executed up to 50%. Year in year out, we keep lying to ourselves- preparing fancy budgets that mean nothing! When a survey was done, only 9 states were deemed viable, even as a lot of states cannot even meet their salary obligations. Local Governments have since become a joke, no one even reckons with them any longer! This is dangerous.  

At the heart of our problem are unsustainable behavior, and refusal to innovate. And all across our government are professionals, members of bodies you represent who should otherwise stand in the gap: tell the truth per the public service ethos of professionals, while leading innovation to get us out of the logjam. Yet, here we are! 

Subsidy for Infrastructure, Subsidy for Consumption instead of Production, Subsidy for Educated Illiteracy in our Universities while we make poor kids pay for primary education and leave children behind – yet we insist on pittance as dictated tuition in our federal universities while we pay $9000 for our wards in Ghana? 

As a country, we must realize there is no pain without gain. We can’t make omelets if we don’t break eggs. We the professionals must be data driven, by telling truth to power and our principals in the government or in the private sector. 

As Union Leader advisors, we must show them that subsidizing consumption while we fritter away almost 1 trillion Naira annually subsidizing the way of living in Benin Republic, Niger and Cameroon on petrol subsidy while our road crumbles is voodoo accounting and not savings.

As engineers, we must communicate to decision makers that Kaduna-Abuja Rail built with Chinese Loans, 36 Energizing University Projects built with green bonds, 24 Strategic Roads now being constructed with Sukuk bonds and many other projects against which we have borrowed to build no matter how great must be run commercially to ensure we can pay back those debts without bankrupting the future generation.  

We must design and implement a framework for rapid concessioning of our infrastructure, because investments are good and not a swear word. Our lawyers 

must be creative as professionals instead of perpetually throwing stumbling blocks on the path of progress that will unchain our country from fiscal irresponsibility.  

Indeed, whereas we are able to fix the spending side of our balance sheet we must also have the courage to fix the buying side. The current public procurement system is designed for another clime, for another system. The World Bank system doesn’t hold elections every four years and doesn’t have two major political parties. A procurement system designed for the World Bank cannot Work in Nigeria.  

We must have the courage to look at the data since we passed the current procurement act no matter how laudable in 2004 and note the mountain of failed or elongated Projects that was awarded to lowest bidders and we must innovate our ways out of the logjam.  

We must design a Nigerian system for the Nigerian clime to ensure that when governments budget, it doesn’t take eighteen months to spend! If we want to develop and grow this economy, we can’t afford the current procurement system and our procurement and buying professionals must have the courage to say so!  

Lastly, it is great if we get to rationalize our spending by cutting wasteful subsidies for consumption and redirecting them to production and building a great country while optimizing spends by fashioning a more innovative procurement system, but it won’t be enough because there is no rational way to distribute scarcity.  

To this end, we must realize as professionals that our nation continues to be shortchanged in tax revenue. We collect only about 6-7% of our GDP in taxes, even as we are far behind the sub-Sahara average of 12.5% and global average of 17.5%.  

Developed nations even do 25-35%. The more taxes countries collect, the more they can spend on social services to enhance standard of living for us. Our national budget of $20bn, which hardly performs $12bn, is a joke. Even the City of New York does more than that; talk less of the biggest black nation on earth.  

As such we must aside from enhancing personal income tax net leveraging identity managing focus on bringing sectors that have hitherto been outside the tax net into it. We must realize that we can’t keep pumping money into agriculture, if we don’t tax farmers. Everyone must pay up. Traders and Artisans, existing in the black economy must also be formalized to ensure everyone pays their share.  

Tax Professionals and lawyers, in the room must lead the charge to innovate ways around ensuring the vast real estate assets in the land which continue to be 

outside the bounds of taxation are captured. Our LGAs and states must enforce property tax laws even in rural areas so we can spend that money on basic education so we can cure our children of ignorance and lifetime of penury. Real estate transactions must be subject to strict system of titles that is linked to paying requisite taxes without which courts must reject their legality, ensuring everyone have incentives to pay up.  

If we all don’t pay our fair share then we have no moral basis to demand great services. Great people who pay great attention to contributing their fair share build great nations. That cannot be zero and a few cannot be burdened.  


 I will end with a bold statement, made by none other, but yours sincerely a few weeks ago, “Nigeria as a nation is destined to be great. The impending and inevitable greatness of the black race is explicably tied to the rise of Nigeria” 

Does that statement scare you? Well you should not. I wouldn’t accept to discuss this all-important topic with an otherwise less important group than the group of distinguished eggheads that have graced this occasion.  

No doubt, in our minds we must as Africans and truly, exceptional citizens of this exceptional country called Nigeria, a nation of Professionals. Dedicated ones who are but artisans in the great sophistry of building a country that knows no limits, that fears no challenges, that remains so resolute echoing the words of our national pledge: 

I pledge to Nigeria my country, to be faithful, loyal and HONEST. To serve Nigeria as professionals with all my strength, to defend her unity and uphold honor & glory. So help us God!  

Thank you and God Bless You All, God Bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria and all those who dwell therein. 

This speech was delivered by By Engr. Michael Oluwagbemi, PE, PMP at the 35th Annual General Assembly and Award of the Association of Professional Bodies of Nigeria  (APBN), 2019.

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