Prof Hilary Inyang says he has the wherewithal to clean up the Niger Delta, halt erosion in the country and help drive Nigeria’s science and technological growth initiative.
Hilary Inyang, a distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering & Science, and incumbent Vice-Chancellor, Botswana International University of Science and Technology, BIUST, says a permanent solution to the environmental crisis in the Niger Delta region is possible but that the sincerity and political will to do it is lacking from the Nigerian government.
Mr. Inyang was one of the recent recipients of the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award for his contributions to the development of “contaminant containment emission models and systems” for reducing environmental and human risks using starch from cassava in dust control.
Currently, the Chairman of the Africa Science Plans, a council of experts mandated to implement an agenda for African development through science and technology, Mr. Inyang was one of 10 environental scientists honoured by the U.S. government for their technical contributions to science development in the country.
In this exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Inyang, who has published and co-published more than 260 science research articles, said the permanent solution to the environmental crisis in the Niger Delta region is possible with sincerity of purpose and commitment by all.
You seems to have done so much in a short time. How did you do that?
I would say my story has been a strange combination of things. I was lucky with the opportunity to have gone to the University of Calabar very early without really completing secondary school as a Shell scholar, to study Geology.
On completion, I had another Federal Government scholarship to travel to the United States. On arrival, I got the U.S. government’s scholarship to further my studies. Before I even finish my Ph.D two years later in 1988, I was given an Assistant Professorship, which gave me a leg up at the University of Wisconsin. Indeed, I tried to work very hard. But working hard was not good enough. A lot of people work so hard, but don’t get that far, without some luck. That is why I said I was very lucky to have gone to school early. In a sense, I am a product of many people’s sufferings and sacrifices.
Your background in engineering, environment and technology is very interesting, particularly with your interest in the study of dust as a way to combat environmental threats to human health. What was the special attraction going into this field?
Under-developed and developing countries either lack infrastructure, or are trying to develop infrastructure. So, there are a lot of environmental exposures associated with those activities. People who either construct buildings or till the ground for agricultural purposes generate a lot of dust and other contaminants. Droughts also generate dust in parts of Northern Nigeria. In the southern part, heavy rains can cause floods.
In a sense, contaminants have always been generated in many countries. It’s just that in Nigeria these contaminants are not always controlled as much as they are in the technologically advanced countries. So, the magnitude of the problem is magnified here because of the inadequacy of control measures.
The significance of control in a country like Nigeria is that we have very high population, and in some places very high population densities.
When one has environmental exposures, one is likely to have very large population of people impacted upon, as would be different from the circumstance of, say Burkina Faso or Mauritania, with comparatively low populations. So, risk factors are higher in Nigeria than in many other countries.
In my view, I was looking for things I would do to help people in Africa, so that the impacts of what I do would reach the common people. It was natural for me to attempt to deal with the issues of the environment.
Talking about environmental exposures, those through the air routes are the most ubiquitous, because everybody breathes air, and contaminants travel very fast with air than any other medium.
So, this is why I was interested in studying dust, because it was a very severe problem in African countries, especially Nigeria.
So, I started doing things that would control dust in our environment, as least fugitive dusts; not those from the deserts, which are very difficult to control and need very large sums of money to build vegetation zones and other things. Nigeria is thinking about that to stem desertification. But, I concentrated on fugitive dusts, emitted from road ways that are not surfaced; farmlands, open parking lots and open areas, like markets and so forth.
This is why I targeted the local crop, cassava, to take out polymers using science and technology. Polymer is a common available materials to address the problem.
How do you use cassava to fight the problem of dust in the environment?
Wherever there is dust, there is a lot of evaporation of water from the ground, which makes the soil break into tiny particles. Some of these particles are very light, and easily carried by the wind. That is why it is that when it is windy, there is so much dust in the wind. The action of automobile tyres also causes dust to rise into the air and travel over very long distances.
What this means is that we had to look for things that would not evaporate too quickly. If one spreads water on the soil in the dry season, one sees that the soil gets dry very quickly, because of the heat. That only happens because water is very light. So, if one gets a liquid that would not easily evaporate, what one wants is increase in retention time for that liquid to stay without evaporating. We had to look for chemicals and materials that would not dissolve in water to do so using some complex mathematical formulae.
I thought about my time in Africa as a kid and the fact that I used to see the old women throw away the water from the cassava they used in making Garri. They would grate the cassava and put it in water, the water would turn milky in colour, which they would throw it away. The water they throw away contains some starch, which contains some polymers. I needed to study the chemistry of the polymers, which are extracted and subjected to some high level scientific tests in my laboratories in the U.S. But, the equipment are not available in Nigeria.
At the end of tests, polymers are generated and used to do some more tests. What we found out was that with the polymers in certain concentration, the liquid does not readily evaporate from soil, as does pure water.
Of course, the chemistry had to be found out, which is a complicated chemistry and physics movement of fluids in compacted soil.
Nigeria is one of the countries known to be facing a lot of environmental issues, apart from the dust. Don’t you think your expertise in these issues would have gone a long way to help the country find solutions to them?
Well Nigeria may not actually miss me much, because I am so sure that Nigeria is really ready to solve most the problems you are talking about. Nigeria does not seem to need somebody with my high level technical expertise. There are many others Nigeria needs a lot more than I am needed, for example, technicians.
The best structure in the technical hierarchy of any country is that which has pyramidal distribution of expertise, which has a whole lot of technical expertise at the basal level and higher levels of technologists and a few PhDs at the top.
When I say a few, I mean relative to the others. Every country needs a lot of the middle level technical man power to man many things. Yes, occasionally you need somebody of my status and expertise. But one needs a lot more of the others. People of my caliber would be in the area of coordination of these things. But, for now nobody has asked me to do that.
I have helped out in a number of other areas, by often volunteering my services.
For instance, the Ministry of Niger Delta could have taken a lot more help from me in solving the Niger Delta problem. Don’t allow anyone deceive you that there are no solutions. We have solutions for those issues. We have developed those systems for others, but nobody in Nigeria is serious enough to engage us at the level that is needed to address these problems.
The Niger Delta problem is not intractable. Nigeria is not the only country that has crude oil. There are massive environmental devastations in Siberia, and systems have been done to control the oil spillages. We have the capacity to do the same in Nigeria.
I am the one who helped the Federal Government of Nigeria establish and name the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, NOSDRA, starting with my work with the then Obasanjo administration in 1999. I developed the fundamental documents that were later developed into an Act of the National Assembly. I was the Chairman of a NOSDRA event three years ago on oil spill in Abuja.
I wrote Nigeria’s oil spill management manual, which we completed under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, about two years ago. If Obasanjo had listened to my suggestion several years ago, by now the problem of the Niger Delta could have been solved permanently.
Those things are still there. But, what I mean by engagement is a determined effort to engage us to solve the problem on a permanent basis without looking at some of us as contractors, and making it seem as if we are begging to help them in their effort to solve the problem.
What suggestion did you say you gave to Obasanjo about solving the Niger Delta problem that you said was ignored?
I was the person who initiated an effort with Admiral John Stacy of the United Kingdom to try to take the Nigerian National Oil Spill Control mechanism, the technical requirements that would deal with the oil spill problem in the Niger Delta. I engaged the Obasanjo administration on the proposal. Unfortunately, Obasanjo kept it till he left office a few months after.
So, those things have not really materialized. Since the present administration came in, I have made several efforts to deal with NOSDRA. They even invited me to give a lecture on how things should be done there, but really nothing goes beyond that.
Similarly, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs invited me to come and show the scheme. We have done all that, but, again, nothing has gone beyond that. We have even compiled the catalogue of all the oil spills impacted sites, about 500 of them in the Niger Delta region; devised a means for screening some, and looking at the ones that are the most dangerous, and actually developed the cost of each one, the parameters, the concentrations that would be reduced at each site as well as the work plan for each of them. What is stopping the Federal Government from implementing them?
So, let nobody go to the media and say all these things as a politician, that solving the Niger Delta problem is impossible.
The system is there to deal with that problem. The problem is that no one wants to have the political weight to try to do something meaningful. When they do put it in the media, it is an issue they make it open to all contractors. I am not a contractor. If the Federal Government wants to solve the problem, it should look for me and get me, just as Botswana has done, and United States did.
For years, I was the Chair of the engineering committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency science Board for which I got lots of recognition, national awards and commendations from the Federal Government in the U.S.
So, one is satisfied that the U.S. has recognized my expertise and engaged me to solve their problem. I am a product of the patronage of the U.S. I have to be loyal to the U.S., even as I am also loyal to Nigeria my country, which nourished me, especially at the very beginning.
So, I keep my gratitude in saying this. But we could do more than I did to merit that National Merit award to me. There are a lot more than we could do to improve the situation in this country, if there was seriousness and sincerity of purpose and the political will to do so.
Why would you say the National Merit Award was conferred on you by the Federal Government if you say not much has been done to recognize and acknowledge your expertise?
My citation was a reasonable summary of what I achieved to deserve the recognition, which was taking leadership in research in the U.S. and finding ways of applying that research to Nigerian problems.
Without attempting to sound esoteric (because I am afraid if I give you details now, I would be going too deep into science) I have been a leader worldwide in my areas of specialty in engineering science and environment, particularly in devising mathematical calculations for how contaminants leave materials.
I have written a number of textbooks on these. I was thematic editor of the UN Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems in that area of science. Through some of the works I did, I published and co-published more than 260 research articles distributed all over the world, and in some sense controlled the instruments of communications science worldwide by serving as Editor-in-Chief of the editorial board of 29 referral science journals. Perhaps, that is what the Federal Government saw and decided to confer on me the Nigerian National Merit Award.
The award is important to me particularly, because it is the first time, since my secondary school and College days here, that I have been awarded in a ceremony attended by my people. Many others were usually outside Nigeria where I am often the only one there.
Despite the award, you seem to still suggest that the Federal Government has not done enough to promote science and technology in the country. What’s the way forward?
Science and technology is the deciding factor in the difference between countries. How countries do well for their citizens is determined by their level of their science and technology development.
The average life expectancy in this part of the world is 49 years to about 54 years maximum, while that of a Japanese is about 80 years; U.S. 78 to 80 years. It is not that God does not love Africans, who, by the way, go to church more than anyone else. It is just that circumstances have made their life expectancy so low.
These circumstances have to do with emotional and physical stress, diet, environmental exposures and genetic pre-disposition of the people.
However, there are areas we can intervene. Any country worth its salt has to deal with about five important things that define it: regulations, policies, technical guidance systems, market incentives for private sector to do well and enforcement, without which there would be mayhem.
Nigeria’s regulation systems are as good as those of the U.S. The policy system come from the regulations, which are mere legalese. One cannot use regulations to do so much. One needs to be a lawyer to interpret them. Nigeria has developed a lot of good policies. If these are true, what is then the deciding factor? Technical guidance systems.
These are what make the difference and the determinants of the wealth, health and the strengths of countries. This is why I am saying that if a country does not have the technological engine to drive the economy; developing National Development Plans, strategic vision this and vision that is all a farce.
These visions have to be strengthened through several intervention mechanisms and processes, which have not been developed and implemented in Nigeria.
I have been an advocate for some of them for a long time. I am very pleased that at last the Federal Government appears to be beginning to do this,
For example, Nigeria has now developed TETFUND (Tertiary Trust Fund), which is a fund for university researchers to develop proposals, get money to implement their ideas. It is only in countries, where the government, the private sector and the non-governmental organisations, NGOs, can device mechanisms to extract the intellect of Nigerians to develop their society than those things would possibly work.
The government has to now go ahead and not limit that to Federally funded universities, because intellects can also come from researchers from private universities or sector.
I used to co-Chair some of the panels of the U.S. Small Business innovative research programmes. A lot of the technological advancements of the U.S. come from the products and deliverables from the small business innovative research programme.
Even the ones revered as scientific giants in 1961, Albert Einstein, got some of the ideas he developed from that programme as a mecahnic in his workshop. So, innovation cannot be restricted to the preserve of Federal universities-based researchers.
Again, if one glorified these run-by-night politicians, some of whom only trade in mayhem all across the country, to the exclusion of those who really have the ideas to change the country, that cannot make Nigeria a technologically productive country.
Every university graduate today would want to be a rap artiste, a politician, enlist in cult groups to be able to run errands for politicians who want to steal votes during elections. So, government has to show occasionally the utility of science and technology to a country like Nigeria, so that things would work well. We cannot just have a system where everyone wants to be a quasi-politician. Who would produce for the country? If these Asian countries called the Asian Tigres had that kind of system, they would never have moved as fast as they are today, if the emphasis was on politics of trouble and divisiveness, graft, unfairness and hate.
So, Nigeria has to rededicate itself to honouring and providing more opportunities for intellectual growth. The 1960s was the era of African political independence. This needs to be the era of African political renaissance. Without that, Nigeria would be left behind.
I assumed the leadership of the Chair of the implementation committee on African Science Plans, and I was co-Chair of the African Science and Technology Agenda presented at the Rio+20 event at the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was selected by the UN to go and make the presentation at its headquarters in New York.
So, I am committed to help change Africa as a pan-African. So, if it does not work in Nigeria, I am ready to migrate to another, as I have demonstrated in my movement to Botswana.
For me what I have always wanted was to use science and technology to improve the lives of under-privileged people worldwide. That is why I had to move from the lofty position as the first African to hold the positions I held in the U.S. to do those expeditions to what seems as strange places.
Pomp and pageantry are of little significance to me. I did not go into science and technology to be rich. I have been in that position in the U.S. to make all the money I would have wanted. But, it did not take me long to decide to leave and go to Botswana for five years, after which I cannot guarantee I would not find myself in some rural places in China, Brazil or any other place around the world.
But you were the VC of the African University of Science and Technology, AUST, Abuja, which is the equivalent of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology, BIUST, where you moved to. What’s the difference?
At the risk of annoying anybody, I had made up my mind that I had done what I wanted to do at the University of North Carolina, which was my sixth university. Like I said, I had started very early as a young assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin before going to the University of Massachusetts, struggled and established a major centre that the State was very happy about. Then, I went to the University of North Carolina to establish the global institute, which became very famous, and got so many people, including some of my former students, who are now Presidents of universities. Deans all over America, and many of them in Africa, are my former students. So, I had done what I intended to do in the University of North Carolina. So, I wanted to leave, because I had no more things to do that excited me. I am not driven by money. I must be excited by what I am doing. I have no such interest. I could have been a billionaire as member of so many important Boards in the United States. I was headed to China to head their engineering institution, but Botswana people convinced me to come to their country, because there was a national initiative to use science and technology to advance their country under their Economic Diversification Plan.
The Botswana Presidency and a former President Mohai, who is the Chancellor of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology, where I am today the Vice-Chancellor, tried everything and finally I agreed that I would be there for five years to help and build science and technology systems there. My vision was to take that on across all of southern Africa where there are very stable political atmosphere. Within this period, I can use that as a base for changing Africa. I am determined to do that. I have already started. The government is giving me a lot of support, moneywise and morally. I am going to take as many as 200 people from Nigeria. My team is coming to Nigeria this week to hold meetings with the Petroleum Trust Development Fund, PTDF; Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others, to try to help Nigeria.
Then coming to the question, why Botswana and not Nigeria. The circumstances at AUST were not such that I could have done what I am doing now at Botswana.
I don’t want to say more. I don’t think AUST was prepared to take what I am doing now in Botswana. One has to have some level of trust that the person would be allowed to do what he knows how to do and not be subsumed in another system not consistent with his vision and dream. I am not a robot. Even if you pay me $2trillion, I will resign when that happens.
Are you saying that undue political interference in your mandate made you to leave AUST to Botswana?
I don’t want to talk about who did what, because we were all Diasporans who returned home to help our country in whatever small way we could.
The summary of what I have to say is that it was not possible for me to operate the way I know how to operate.
As the VC of AUST, I must be able to structure the place I am heading; bring the personnel I think help do what I want done, and perhaps drive the entire process. I have been in higher education for a long time. I was born to be a researcher and scientist. So, I cannot subsume that to any other circumstance that would hold me back. I am in a hurry to change systems and places, and I cannot be held back to fight matters that are not in line with my dreams.
I have found an enabling circumstance in Botswana. That is why I am there to do what I have to do for some time.I am on a mission to change the developing world. It affects me awhen I read about the fact that I cannot do in my country what others are begging me to do in their country. This is why I spend some time with people in the rural areas in Brazil, and what I have seen I could not have stood aside and watch.
Talking about your plan to come to Nigeria to take as many as 200 professionals abroad, would you not be aiding and abetting brain drain in the country?
I am going to do it. It is not brain drain. I usually do what I say I would do. I am taking them to train them and send them back to Nigeria. Right now, I am recalling everybody Botswana sent overseas for training. I was one of the highest paid VCs in Africa when I was at the AUST. That did not stop me from resigning and staying jobless for six months. I am driven not by money or patronage, but my convictions.
What’s the education system in Botswana like when compared with the situation in Nigeria where the students have had to stay for more than five months at home as a result of the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU?
That makes me very sad, because Nigeria has not been able to get its acts together. And people like to blame the Presidency. Its nothing to do with just the Presidency. The Presidency did not tell some university professors to try to abuse their authorities; he did not tell a professor to sell handouts and say if students don’t buy, they don’t pass their exams. It is the corruption that has come into the Nigerian society; the insincerity of purpose of our leaders; lack of respect for professionalism, and all that, that have mitigated against the growth of the country.
Though lack of leadership is just one factor, but that is not restricted to any particular jurisdiction. It is across the board. But, now I see that the government is trying to make amends and get things going. For instance the creation of the Tertiary Education Fund is a step in the right direction and a big accomplishment of the current administration.
There are many things that have gone wrong at many levels. What about the issue of delay in the issuance of transcripts? What has the president got to do with that? Any self-respecting VC should be able to issue transcripts of students who studied in their institutions immediately. This is a big shame. If I were the President, I will sack a VC who is not able to get transcripts issued immediately.
Does it not matter that it could be as a result of the poor funding situation in the universities?
It has nothing to do with poor funding. If that is so, why can’t they resign. Why can’t the VCs dispense with the security guards that they have, or reduce the size of their big lodgings, if it were poor funding?
How does the Nigerian National Merit award to you make you feel, despite your reservations about the way things are going in the system?
Let me correct that impression. I am not saying that the government must recognize me. I have several of such awards elsewhere all over the world. I am very very grateful for the award. But, let me say that when I say I am dissatisfied about the state of affairs in the country, I did not attribute that to government, because Nigerians tend to think as if government is some external entities. Government comes from the people, which in general society are constantly being isolated, taken and put in government. Government is a representation of the people. The thing has to do with integrity when they are faced with resources they never had; the decision not to take that money and pretend to be Popes, when they were no Popes before. And now that they have been appointed into government, they have suddenly become Popes. They want sirens blown for their every movement. They don’t spend time to analyse the problems of the country and seek effaceable solutions. Now they have become just political patrons, like everybody else. That is the problem of the country.
So, I don’t have a problem not being recognized. I have been recognized enough all over the world. Nigeria just gave me essentially the medal of technology. In the U.S., I have received all lot of awards, and internationally as well.
So, I have taken my fair share of awards.
My primary interest now is that with the confidence that the government and the Governing Board of the medal have in me, they haven’t engaged me enough to try to change the country. That is the question now. It is not a question of recognition. It is question of engagement in the things I have before you. The things I have in the Niger Delta ministry, one would be shocked what I have that would have addressed the oil contamination problem in the Niger Delta region a long time ago. One would be surprised to see the thing sitting in the Ministry of Environment that would have addressed the issue of erosion if I have to do the way Botswana is asking me to do there, or the way Africa is asking me to do as the Chairman of the Africa Science Plans. These are not problems that cannot be solved. Some of them are downright easy third world technical problems that pale in comparison to those things in U.S. in terms of complexity.
What’s your blueprint for handling the environmental and technology issues in the country?
As I said earlier, I am a pan-African. So, as I speak, I will drag some examples from elsewhere. At the level of government, the way of evaluation should not be limited to just what the government brings to the community. Government here does not mean Federal Government alone, because there is a tendency to heap every problem on the Federal Government as if the Local Government Chairman who decides to escape with the people’s revenue allocation to share with political patrons is not as culpable. They are even more culpable, because they are closer to the people.The public should recognize that these can be changed, and that change would not come from the centre alone, but from the people. When someone shows up during elections with a bag of salt or garri to vote for him, they simply say we do not want these. Tell us what you would do for us. Let’s send our best person to the office, and not someone who come in a big car, and looks and not act the responsibilities of the office.
Please don’t worship leaders just like that. There is nothing so big in being a leader. A leader should be the servant of the people, and not the Pope or ruler of the people..
Again, the President should not accept ministerial nominations from anybody. He should pick only the people he thinks can help him realise his vision of change for the country. Governors and political party chieftains should not be involved in the selection of ministers and other public office holders. Ministerial postings should be on the basis of competence and professionalism. The people would be happy if someone comes to change their circumstance. They would not care if the person comes from their place.