A Passion for Science and Technology
Posted: 15/Feb/2018

With a Fellowship of the Nigerian Society of Engineers in 2017, one of Alfred Okoigun’s focus in 2018 is the resuscitation of the Arco Nigerian Excellence in Science and Technology Award (NEST), which took place in London in 2001. A collaboration with the Nigerian Academy of Engineering backed with a Foundation will help translate engineering innovations into viable Nigerian tailored projects. Nduka Nwosu reports

When Alfred Okoigun told the gathering of some of Nigeria’s finest brains at the last conference of the Nigerian Society of Engineers that the honour bestowed on him as a fellow of the august body, came as a surprise, many knew it was the humble Okoigun that was speaking.

Reason? Both Okoigun and the three other recipients: Elder Nathaniel C. U. Okoro, Ernest Azudialu-Obiejesi and James Abiodun Olotu have long distinguished themselves in ways the society has been proud of while they worked tirelessly and quietly to advance the course of the engineering profession in the country. Okoigun’s track record as a patron of the profession has long been documented right from the humble beginnings of Arco Plc when he took the bold step to sponsor the first international seminar on gas re-injection in the country in 1981 just one year after Arco came into existence, down to the sponsorship of young engineering students home and abroad.

The 1981 seminar was updated in 1986 when another gas seminar on liquefied natural gas was chaired by Pius Okigbo with a position paper forwarded to the federal government. A few weeks later, the government announced the establishment of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Company-NLNG and the eminent economist Okigbo was named its first chairman. While not laying claim to being the catalyst to this development, Okoigun’s altruism has always been for the good and progress of the fatherland. Having travelled widely and conducted business with many multinationals, Okoigun’s advocacy for transparency, due process and academic excellence leading to the acquisition of the right skills, became a signature tune with which he conducted business. Skill acquisition, Okoigun has always advocated, is Nigeria’s next destination and the oil and gas sector must take the lead. Malaysia for him is a huge reference point for the country. In his public discourses he has always cited Malaysia as an oil and gas producing country that has taken a commanding height in the sector as a result of relentless training of personnel in the various aspects of the operations of the industry.

No one should be in doubt that Okoigun has been a worthy ambassador of the engineering profession, which was why the engineering society was too happy to associate its fellowship with him. He for decades remained a shining role model to the students of the Petroleum Training Institute many of whom gained job placements and scholarships for higher studies under his Foundation. He has also sponsored Nigerian technocrats and journalists to different corporate institutions across the globe just to appreciate how these countries were making waves in the oil and gas related businesses

Under the auspices of the Petroleum Training Institute Old Boys Association, Arco Petrochemical Engineering Company Limited spearheaded a Workshop in the Institute on Adaptive Research declared open by the late military Vice President, Vice-Admiral Augustus Aikhomu. In 1981 while Arco was still in the cradle, it sponsored 13 students of the Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun to Italy for training in instrumentation and control at the Nuovo Pignone engineering installations. It also provided training attachment programmes for best graduating engineering students. While along with late Chief Festus Feyide, who served as Secretary-General of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC he was made a fellow of the institute, the University of Lagos Engineering Students Association declared him a role model for his unique contributions in the development of young engineering students. The crisis in the Niger Delta interrupted such scholarship programmes but now that peace has returned to the area, Arco he promises, will revive the scheme to help build a new generation keen on turning around the country with unique engineering skills.

The story has been told and re-told on how an excursion to Shell Petroleum Development sites in Warri, undertaken by Form Three students of Government College Ughelli in the 1970s became the turning point in Okoigun’s life. An encounter with young graduate trainees of Yaba College of Technology and Auchi Polytechnic of the oil giant, fired his desire to be a part of them. An entry to the PTI became the turning point and fulfillment to his upward climb. At this point everything looked assured as he was admitted to study engineering. Then Federal Commissioner for Mines and Power, Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno, told them they were indeed a privileged set that should make the utmost use of the opportunities open to in the oil sector.

This was the beginning of Okoigun’s journey climbing through the bumpy terrains of the top echelon of the oil sector. Now that he is there more as a player than a spectator, his private pains and deeply inflicted injuries buried in the deep sands of time and space, seem like they did not happen. Nonetheless, they defined the tough skin he acquired as indeed every sailor needs in navigating the wide sea in good and bad seasons.
As the saying goes, among the tribesmen of Western Samoa, from the direction of the wind, you can tell a story from the beginning.

Okoigun’s dream was not to slip his mooring working for the NNPC even as a good captain of a ship when he arrives at a port with handsome and precious metals. The job was juicy and promising, the dream of any young man at the time. An earlier exposure to Snap Progetti of ENI during an industrial attachment fired him on. So when the NNPC job came in 1978 he was only familiarizing with the environment, manning stores and saw the nitty gritty involved in maintenance engineering and the needed equipment, where to get them and who to partner with. It was a big deal but there were mountains to climb and he was not in the league of the faint hearted to chicken out when the sea became turbulent.

At 25, bubbling with great vision Okoigun incorporated Arco Petrochemical Engineering Company Limited in 1980. The rest is history for a multi-billion private limited company that kick started with just N3000 now a PLC. with massive investments spanning other areas of human interest.

What was amazing was that less than one year as a limited liability company, Arco hosted this international conference on gas-re-injection, and along the way was sponsoring both engineers, journalists and technocrats to other oil producing countries to see how they have used this single resource to affect development and accelerate growth. While the business grew its corporate social responsibility grew. Now it wants to pursue on a larger scale with the Nigerian Academy of Engineering the promotion of research and translation of engineering innovations into viable projects.

Okoigun had in the past established the Nigerian Excellence in Science and Technology Awards (NEST) in recognition of many deserving Nigerians who have distinguished themselves locally and abroad through research and invention in science and technology. According to the committee, a potential recipient must have impacted positively on society through his knowledge, innovation or service. His contribution must come through a research institution, professional body or government or private agency and is expected to have broken known international records thus adding a new dimension to an existing system. Recipients included famed professor of Robotics Bath Nnaji whose award was for developing the product known as Modeler System (MS), currently used in the aviation industry for designing aircraft surfaces and computer chassis.

He was followed by Henrietta Ukwu who has done extensive research on the HIV/AIDS pandemic leading to an invaluable drug discovery known as the Crixivan which reduces the viral load of AIDS patients to un-detectable levels. The last gold recipient Dr. Oviemo Ovadje was hailed for the invention of an instrument Eatset, a life-saving machine used in transfusing blood in-situ with no risk of infection.

That is the essential Alfred Okoigun, always inventing new ideas and collaborating with great minds such as the late Gamaliel Onosode to move civilisation to the next level.

Sometime in 2016 and in the second week of January 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari granted Okoigun audience as a distinguished Nigerian who has done so much to promote a noble cause in diverse ways. His assurance is that the passion he has for science and technology education and profession can only intensify. Even now beyond science and technology, Okoigun has joined other well-meaning Nigerians quietly working with their combined resources to ensure the standard of education in the country is restored to its lost glory and to a global level of acceptance using his alma mater-Government College Ughelli where the old boys have collectively raised over half a billion naira to re-build the institution modelled after British aristocratic institutions such as Eton College London.

As far as education counts especially in the future growth and development of the polity, Okoigun remains a role model.

For Okoigun, it is not yet morning on creation day, Chinua Achebe’s title of his 15 essays. There is much exploration of new ideas that will help bring our country to the status of an industrialised economy and Okoigun remains a catalyst for fast forwarding development in the oil and gas sector to new heights. The sky will remain the limit as long as long as the beautiful ones are not yet born.
By: Alfred Okoigun