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AGENCY FOR BUILDING MATERIALS QUALITY: MATTERS ARISING

By NBF News
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Adam Smith, the Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy in his immensely influential book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations did an expose on the concept of self- interest restrained by the market in the allocation of resources in any economy. Smith's postulation might not have been perfect but today we can see the near triumph of his ideas as country after country embrace the market as the more efficient system of allocating scarce resources. Both within and outside the circles of economics and economists, the once revered big government with huge recurrent budget is viewed with suspicion.

Increasingly a flatter, leaner and nimbler structure appears to be producing better results for governments and the corporate world. Duplication or multiplication of duties simply to create jobs for the boys is running out of fashion as the voters are becoming wiser and are asking for more and more from their governments. Now everywhere you go, Smith's invisible hand is having a free reign in answering the critical economics questions of what, how and for whom to produce.

It was, therefore, no surprise that the now rested Presidential Advisory committee (PAC) comprising eminent Nigerians and chaired by the highly respected Lt-Gen (rtd) T. Y. Danjuma recommended that President Jonathan should take a hard look at various agencies and parastatals of government and prune those whose functions overlap for cost effectiveness. This is good logic and in line with current global best practices. The President has already set the ball rolling by setting up an implementation committee headed by a former Head of Service and other experienced technocrats. The imperative of the foregoing is the need to cut down the cost of running government so that more resources can be available for capital projects. True, we will continue with our vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty if more resources are not freed to fund needed infrastructures that will fire activities in the real sector, generate employment and reduce social unrest.

Against the above backdrop, I was at a loss to read a news report in the Sun newspaper of August 18, 2011 that quoted one Kunle Awobodu chairman of Building Collapse Prevention Guild calling on the federal government to set up an agency that will be solely responsible for the monitoring of building materials. Mr. Awobodu's, call according to that report, is a result of the incessant incidences of building collapse in our cities. He was further quoted to say that the regulatory body -the Standards Organisation of Nigeria set up for that purpose is currently overburdened and overwhelmed perhaps by the enormity of the challenges and may not be able to rid the country of substandard building materials.

How he arrived at this is a matter of conjecture and beats one hallow. Awobodu in the report under reference demonstrated a fair grasp of the technical aspects of the building material sector though he failed to take a more holistic view of the problem for reasons best known to him. His analysis was simplistic and did not quite add up. The deduction one can make from the entire report no matter how clever he laboured to sound, is that he is asking President Jonathan to create more jobs for the boys. The paradox is that in one breath, he said that SON is overwhelmed, in another breath, he acknowledged that the same organisation has set standards which the materials seem not to comply with. One is at pains to appreciate his logic of setting up a new agency for building materials instead of calling for stricter enforcement of existing standards which he seems to be at home with. Pray that next time, he will not call for another agency for motor spare parts as more lives are lost as a result of even a higher incidence of substandard and fake products in this industry.

If we must call a spade a spade, there is more to collapsing buildings than Mr Awobodu would want the public to know. Apart from iron rods and blocks, the inputs of the architect, civil/structural engineer, building engineer, electrical engineer, quantity surveyor and the owner of the building are critical for the construction of buildings that can withstand the test of time. Ensuring that the kind of foundation done is in line with the type of soil and the specifications of the approved structural design are adhered to is important.  This, however, is a topic for another day but for now one would assume that Mr. Awobodu frustrations and vituperations on poor monitoring would have arisen from his experiences with the old SON which was not particularly spectacular in enforcing the set standards in virtually all product categories and industrial groupings.

We can therefore be charitable in joining issues with him and the group he chairs if that is so but I do not share the idea that fragmentation instead of consolidation as being suggested is the elixir as this will amount to throwing away the baby with the dirty water. It runs against time tested mode of solving problems by strengthening existing institutions to make them deliver more, better and faster as against the more expensive, energy sapping and time wasting approach of attempting to invent the wheel by setting up new institutions and structures.

Happily from what I am seeing, there appears to be a new dawn, energy and vigour at SON under the leadership of Dr Joseph Ikemefuna Odumodu. A first class graduate, Odumodu horned his leadership and managerial skills in the hugely trusted leading pharmaceutical and food company May and Baker Nigeria plc where he rose to become the first Nigerian managing director and chief executive officer for thirteen years. One of his remarkable achievements was the building of a world class WHO standard pharmaceutical plant in Ota, Ogun state which Nigerians with great ideas can put to use and develop global brands and make the work of NAFDAC easier. At many interactions with the media, Odumodu, known to confront problems frontally by those who know him acknowledged that the problems were myriad but surmountable.

His panacea is a 6-point agenda consisting of the following: compliance monitoring, capacity building, global relevance, consumer engagement, developing competiveness of locally made goods and media engagement. He says his aim is to build a reinvigorated organisation that is focused, bold, result driven and nationalistic. He has already hit the ground running by embarking on many internal reorganisations, human capacity building, roadshows to bring his message home to manufacturers, importers and consumers and the bold one, a zero tolerance campaign against substandard and fake products in all ramifications. In a recent outing in collaboration with MAN, in Ikeja, Lagos, to enlighten stakeholders of his agenda and launch the zero tolerance campaign, Odumodu assured the consumers that they now not only have voice but can be sure of redress when they fall victim to sellers of substandard goods as market help desks are being opened in major markets across the country.

The new SON, from my reading of the body language of the leadership, is adapting both the carrot and stick approach as its regulatory plank. One, its pool of well trained professionals with diverse and variegated backgrounds is always on ground to help those that want to improve their quality and safety standards. Two, the new crack team of compliance monitoring will spare no efforts to bring defaulters to book.

The laboratories in Ogba and Enugu are receiving attentions as the old practice of taking products to Ghana or Kenya is unacceptable. For Odumodu nothing short of making Nigeria a regional hub for standards and standardisation will suffice. The deliverables are consumer safety; favourable environments for national and global brands to emerge from our shore, improve sectoral input and output matrix and linkages and above all, generate mass employment for our teeming unemployed youths.

If therefore the mission of Awobodu's Building Collapse Prevention Guild is to contribute to consumers' safety, one would have expected that they should be following with keen interest the changes taking place in SON in the past six months since Dr. Odumodu assumed duty as the helmsman. His rather diplomatic style of visiting the sins of fathers on their children is suspect and smacks of a deeper motive devoid of the interest of Nigeria and consumers. Or how else can one explain his vitriolic and vicious attack on the new SON for the collapse of buildings some built more than 30 years ago?

It must be pointed out here that substandard and fake product business is very lucrative for those that are involved in it. There is no gainsaying that these nefarious activities are hurting everyone, every product category, every industry and indeed the Nigerian economy. Curbing its menace demands collaboration of government and all stakeholders. Awobodu and his group should therefore seek such collaboration with SON if they are truly passionate about the safety and wellbeing of Nigerian consumers.

Distracting Odumodu and his team from improving life through standards and contributing to Mr. President's transformation programme is devoid of patriotic zeal and makes one wonder if the report is ill-thought out or purely mercantile inspired.

Olise is a public affairs commentator.