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PRODA: Giant research institute lies desolate

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PRODA: Giant research institute lies desolate

Nigeria’s development hopes hinged on prostrate institute

 

It is heart-breaking that despite the rhetoric of successive governments in Nigeria to invest in education, especially science and research, such promises end up unfulfilled. KENNETH OFOMA writes on the deplorable state of research institutes in the country, particularly the Project Development Institute, Enugu

 

One of the foremost science and engineering research institutes in Nigeria, the Project Development Institute (PRODA) Enugu is on the brink of collapse due to maladministration and poor funding.

 

The state of infrastructure at the institute could best be described as a giant lying in ruins, and largely decapitated and unable to fulfil not even one of its mandates.

 

Investigation has revealed that the much-talked about local production of pencil in the country, as promised by the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, two years ago, may remain a mirage if nothing is done to revive PRODA, which is saddled with the responsibility of delivering that promise.

 

The institute, formerly known as the Research and Production Department of the old Eastern Region, which served as the brain box for the manufacture of famous ‘flying Ogbunigwe’ (flying bomb) by the defunct Republic of Biafra, during the civil war, was later on converted to PRODA at the end of the civil war in 1971 by the Federal Government.

The institute, which had as its pioneer Director General and Chief Executive Officer, the late Prof. Gordian Ezekwe, a renowned scientist, who later became Minister of Science and Technology, is currently a shadow of old itself and on the verge of losing its core mandate of man power development in the area of research and development (R&D).

 

Although at present, there is nationwide industrial action by the labour unions under the research and allied institutes in the country, which started on November 14, but investigation revealed that PRODA had long before the general strike been crippled by internal strife and maladministration resulting in partial shutdown of production.

But concerning the general strike embarked by the Joint Research and Allied Institutes Sector Unions (JORAISU) comprising Academic Staff Union of Research Institutes (ASURI), Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN) and Non-Academic Union of Research Institutions (NASURI) among others; the labour unions are demanding adequate funding of research and allied institutions and Colleges of Agriculture and Forestry; fast tracking the enactment of the National Research and Innovation Act; correcting the disparity in the salary of staff in research and allied institutions and universities; and a separate salary structure for researchers in R&D institutions and immediate intervention in their terrific impoverishment.

 

Other demands are, removal of the disparity in retirement age of research directors in research and allied institutions and professors in the universities; enactment of establishment Act for R&D institutions that have none; provision of budget line for research in the approved budget of R&D institutions in Nigeria; intervention over lack of resolve to checkmate illegal encroachment by Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) into Federal Colleges of Agriculture; ensuring that appointment of executive directors of research institutions is not politicised, and compelling the need to sustain the Committee of Directors for Research institutes (CODRI).

 

However, aside the general strike, PRODA has been saddled with multifarious maladies which had crippled its operations for long. Some union leaders, who spoke with our correspondent on condition of anonymity for the fear of victimisation, blamed the management of the institute led by the Director General and Chief Executive, Dr. Charles Agulena, for most of the peculiar challenges facing PRODA.

 

For instance, the unions (ASURI, ASCSN and NASURI) blamed the inactions and lackadaisical attitude of PRODA management for the con- tinued theft and cannibalisation of PRODA equipment and facilities although the management had hired a security outfit to provide security.

 

They therefore called for termination of all security contracts and replacement with either police or the Nigeria Security Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC).

 

Other petitions, position papers and memos presented to management or the parent ministry (Science and Technology) on different occasions, contain plethora of allegations and suggestions for the reversal of the downward slide of the institute.

 

The unions regret that despite being one of the oldest research institutes in the country, PRODA, is currently the worst in terms of infrastructural development and the only without an outlet. Currently there is no steady power supply to the institute for close  to two years hence little or no work was going on before the nationwide industrial action.

 

The mandate

 

The motto of PRODA, upon which its mandate (research and development) is based, is “industrialisation through self-reliance”.

According to Decree No.5 of 1977 and modified in 1992, the mandate states that: the design, development and pilot plant production of primary power equipment, employing solid and liquid fuels, gas, steam, etc, as working fluids, to include (i) steam raising equipment and accessories; (ii) mechanical power transmission elements, speed converters and variations, couplings, system brakes, etc; (iii) electrical power transmission elements, switch gears and accessories.

Others are, establish and operate a power equipment test laboratory; transfer power equipment production technology to private sector industries, and render consultancy and extension services to such and other industries; collaborate with higher institutions, government agencies and international organisations in the execution of its programmes and projects; establish and operate a mechanical/ electrical training school for graduate and other trainees for practical work attachment in its work; and undertake any other activities in connection with all or any of its functions.

Based on the structure and organogram of the outfit, the execution and fulfilment of these mandates has been entrusted in the hands of a Governing Board that reports to the minister, and overseas a PRODA management committee headed by a Director General/CEO, and comprising heads of departments – Engineering Research Development and Production (ERDP), Materials Energy and Technology (MET), Electrical Power and Electronics Development (EPED), Ceramics Production (CPD), Admin and Finance (A&F) and Industrial Promotion and Information Dept. (IPID).

Various divisions make up the different departments but the divisional heads take no part in the PRODA management deliberations. The unions in PRODA are unanimous that the institute has failed in all respects in delivering on its mandate; and has indeed fallen short of the expectations of the nation.

For those familiar with the renowned exploits of the institute in the days of the yore, they have already concerned PRODA to the moribund status of other dead industries that used to be the pride of the Eastern Region.

Such industries include but not limited to: Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO), Enugu; Niger Steel Company (NIGERSTEEL), Emene, Enugu; Nigergas, Emene Enugu; and Nigeria Cement Company (Nigercem) Nkalagu, Ebonyi State.

 

Fond memories

PRODA was a household name from the ‘70s through to the early ‘90s on the strength of its technological achievements. Research efforts were adjudged people-oriented and the achievements include; the PRODA Foundry/Metallurgy unit which played a key role in components production for auto parts, IC engine parts, industrial plants, etc, and built a strong client base for quality materials-related jobs and services; PRODA low-cost vehicle made the headlines in the ‘90s.

 

All the component parts were locally sourced or produced with the existing facilities; and the ceramics production department impacted significantly in the production of burnt bricks used in the development of new settlements during the expansion of Enugu and Owerri; household pottery in millions of homes; and refractory bricks used for furnace linings in various industries.

 

Other exploits include; the engineering department developed numerous agro-processing machines, including oil palm, cassava, soya beans, maize etc; developed technological advances in the energy sector with the production of smokeless briquettes from Nigeria Coal Corporation and electric motors; production of ethanol from molasses over 20 years ago (the plant has still not been commissioned despite the colossal amount appropriated for the project); the PRODA Pencil project, which was said to have guzzled over N300 million and is no closer to realisation since its initiation in 2006 (many believe PRODA has missed the mark through incompetence and funds misappropriation); the coal carbonisation, embarked upon over 30 years ago, was designed to explore the potential of Nigerian coal for miscellaneous industrial and energy uses (the project has left a trail of profligate spending and shattered dreams, though not declared dead yet).

 

The list is actually endless, including the fact that PRODA was once the go-to establishment for glass blowing projects and jobs, which has been affected by the “right-sizing” exercise of 2007 that deprived PRODA of all the technical staff of that unit. Investigations reveal that the last 10 to 15 years have seen successive PRODA management and the supervising ministry, Ministry of Science and Technology, engage in actions that have contributed to the reverses suffered by the institute.

 

For instance, it was alleged that annual budgets for capital projects have only been exercises in futility as implementation over the years hardly ever gets up to 25 per cent even as the same items got repeated in the next budget. Tenders, when cash backed, were said to have been faulty. Management was alleged to have shown scant regard for the technical requirements that would get the institute rolling.

 

Expenditures were not authorised unless some personal benefits accrue to the approving authority. Funds have usually been guzzled up by per diems on local trips and fares and estacodes for foreign trips, where management enjoy the privilege, as well as the favours granted the authorities in FMST.

 

Project funding is said to be selective and staff training is a mirage. In 2007 there was a right-sizing of staff in the guise of re-engineering the institute for better performance. It was alleged that 90 per cent of those laid off were technical/ research orientation.

There was an element of witch-hunting in some of the lay-offs.

 

The institute lost very experienced personnel in that exercise. New members of staff were employed to satisfy the whims and caprices of those in government and management, and grossly failing to address the technical manpower shortcomings of the institute. In fact, administrative staff members were more than technical staff, which is an anomaly in a research institute like PRODA.

 

Staff welfare is said to be low, leading to flawed promotion exercises, denied promotions, denied advancements, zero training and retraining, improper or un-implemented beneficial government circulars viz.

 

28 days in lieu of accommodation and transport allowances, and pension deductions at variance with terms of government directives, and zero quality control laboratories or equipment. To cover up the bad situation, unions were never invited during oversight visits by ministers and National Assembly members.

 

Some of the labour leaders noted that paucity of funding is no longer a big issue in the institute as the current Minister of Science and Technology has assisted enough, but the challenge is maladministration and misappropriation of resources by the management. Efforts to get the reaction of the Director General of PRODA, Agulena, proved abortive as he did not respondent to calls and text messages sent to him.

 

However, a top management official, who pleaded anonymity because he was not authorised to speak with the press, dismissed the allegations against the management, saying that what was happening in PRODA was not peculiar but a general problem of other research institutions. While blaming the workers for “failing to understand”, he fingered paucity of funds as the major challenge facing PRODA.

 

He, however, said that management would not join issues with the labour unions since they had already reported the matter to Abuja. As a result of the observed challenges and anomalies facing the institute, voices from within and outside of the institute have called for help and urgent steps to salvage it.

 

There is a clarion call for bodies like Ohanaeze Ndigbo to step in and initiate a revival and rebirth process through a coordinated pressure on the Federal Government to take the right course. There is also a call for the Federal Government to probe the transactions involved in the PRODA Pencil, Coal Carbonisation and Biofuel (ethanol) projects.

It is also suggested that in line with modern global best practices, there must be a proper assessment of the equipment/material needs of the institute to enable it effectively carry out its mandate and generate revenue.

 

There is a serious call for restructuring of the management model as the current structure is an obstacle to the achievement of the mandate of the institute. Efforts must of necessity be made to redress the technical/research staff to administrative staff ratio, which stands at a ridiculous 40 per cent to 60 per cent in favour of admin. The need to have PRODA outlet in each geo-political zone of the country, it is stressed, must be addressed.

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