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When engineers go unethical

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Opinion

Sen. Effiong Bob

By Sam Akpe

A few years ago, Effiong Bob walked into the hallowed chamber of the Senate clutching about half a dozen bills. That was unprecedented in the history of Nigerian legislature. All the bills were listed in the Order Paper for First Reading, and were taken; same day. When passed into law, one of them granted full operational autonomy to the Federal Inland Revenue Service.

As a senator, Bob’s voice on the floor of the Senate was not so loud. But at the Committee level — which is the engine room of legislative business — he was a master of the game. Those who should know, know that the Senate in plenary is a Senate on exhibition, the Senate in Committee Room is Senate in its workshop. It is at the Committee level that the worth of individual senators are measured and graded.

As Chairman, Senate Committee on Finance, and later, Chairman, Senate Services Committee, Bob noiselessly discharged his functions with amazing speed and accuracy. He pursued each task with messianic commitment. So, when he was invited by the Nigerian Institution of Mechanical Engineers some weeks back to present a keynote address at their annual event, he took the ball straight into their court.

Speaking on: Impact of Legislation on Engineering Practice: The Mechanical Engineers Experience, Bob said the theme of the presentation, aligned completely with the dominant issues of the season; especially in a country where impunity seems to run riot almost everywhere and in everything.

Without any doubt, he said the relevance of engineering and engineers to our everyday existence cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Despite their failings and excuses, we cannot forget to applaud their little successes.

He was right. A close look at the environment will always reveal that the major infrastructural creations around us — things that contribute to make life worth living — are products of engineering ingenuity. Some engineers create, others maintain. I can only imagine how boring and drab life would be without engineers.

Bob stated that the formal regulation of engineering is crucial because it is the law that separates the practice of engineering from other natural sciences. The law provides guidance, spells out controls and gives impetus to the practice. The legal frameworks ensure public safety.

He defined legislation in engineering as the process of enacting and applying laws to ensure qualification, safety and quality compliance, application and use of engineering outcomes. It also means the protocols of how ethics and legal frameworks are used to ensure quality delivery and public safety in the profession.

The former senator told the attentive audience that legislation in engineering practice is meant to prevent certain problems and behaviours observed in the application of science in the public interest, in a bid to protect life and welfare of the people; because it would be against the run of play for a practicing engineer to endanger public safety.

By implication, the law places a high responsibility on the engineer to uphold sound ethical standards in his operation, as system failure would most likely attract legal action, particularly if such failure creates liabilities by causing harm to the public or incurring other unintended costs, as a result of unprofessional or ethical breach.

Bob stated, “It is one of the reasons a practitioner must be registered for proper identification, regulation, monitoring, training and discipline. He is expected to practice professionally and within the ambits of the regulations governing the practice. Legislation confers both moral and legal authorities on practitioners of the profession. It also comes with expectations and punitive measures.

“Let it be made clear that any person who calls himself a professional in any aspect of human endeavour, if what he practises is not governed or regulated by law or is not known to any existing law, that person must be engaging in an act that is inimical to the interest and safety of society. The reason is because he cannot be justifiably held accountable if anything goes wrong because where there is no law, you can’t talk about breaking the law.”

What he meant here was that an unregulated space is likely to be governed by impunity. Regulation generates sanctions. Every human endeavour requires the knowledge of the laws governing the discharge of that responsibility and the rights of others within the environment of practice.

Truly, since an engineer deals with a wide range of activities that involve lives and the environment, he must be guided, and in fact, arrested by the law, if misguided. The law is there to control and give impetus to the practice. Bob went ahead to cite specific existing laws that are intended to guide engineering practice in Nigeria.

He observed that without legislation, engineering practice would be subject to infiltration and severe abuse by unqualified persons. Of course, even with legislation, the practice is richly infiltrated by various grades of persons who have not received the requisite training that qualifies them to practice.

Referring to Sections 6 and 7 of the Engineers (Registration, Etc) Act, 1992, he said it clearly specifies who should be registered as engineer as well as titles to be used. Section 7 stipulates that a registered engineer shall use the abbreviation “Engr;” an engineering technologist shall use “Engr Tech;” and a technician shall use “Tech;” while a registered engineering craftsman shall use his full title with his trade in bracket under his name.

Declared Bob, “But there are lots of people who go about with the prefix Engr, yet have not received professional training from relevant institutions and definitely not certified by the appropriate body to practice as prescribed in Section 6 of the Act.”

He said these persons go about executing projects and, in most cases, create image problems for the profession through ethical and criminal failures. But again, even some certified practitioners also flout the codes and bring the profession into disrepute.

This is where the relevance of legislation comes in, to preserve the profession from quacks. But though the relevant statutes are there, it is the duty of the Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) to ensure that they are enforced for the sake of the profession and the safety of the society.

It was revealed that different aspects of engineering legislation deal with different activity areas. Without tort, for instance, impunity would have a field day especially in our clime where the propensity for substandard deliveries is high. The law assigns blames and penalties.

In addition, contract law defines the rules of engagement between engineers, business partners and clients. Product liability law talks about quality. There is also the intellectual property protection law; and the safety legislation codes and regulations.

If legislation provides checks and balances, Bob questioned: “We have had several cases of collapsed structures in our society including buildings, roads and bridges; and these are structures that a number of professional engineers must have or are supposed to have been involved in building.

“Let’s look inward. Can COREN honestly absolve itself from blame or complicity in the collapse of these structures since its members were involved or are supposed to have been involved in the building of such structures?

“How come that in spite of the uproar that greets each incident with accompanying casualties, it still happens again and again? Does it mean that the regulatory authorities are not doing much to whip members into line or deal with quacks to act as deterrent?

“This is an area that should be focused on. The body has a responsibility to save the profession from this embarrassing situation which in some cases has claimed lives. There is an urgent need therefore, for strict enforcement of legislations governing the practice of engineering if professional integrity is to be maintained.”

COREN, don’t pretend you did not hear, please.

Akpe; a journalist, lives in Abuja

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