In this interview with select journalists, the director-general of the National Metallurgical Development Centre (NMDC), Jos, Plateau State, Prof. Linus Asuquo takes a look at the development of Nigeria’s steel sector, urged the government to take more seriously the revamping of the Ajaokuta Steel Company and took a swipe at those who hold the view that the steel company is obsolete.
Can you run through your experience, since you took over as director-general of the National Metallurgical Development Centre (NMDC)?
Upon assumption, the NMDC was like an abandoned place and it was moribund. Its infrastructure – infrastructural, capacity and institutional building – was a challenge to me.
There was a need to renovate some of the buildings to make the centre conducive for research and development, as that is what it is known for. Another thing was getting familiar with the staff security-wise because, at the time, there were cases of theft weekly. We had to beef up the security of the place by contacting security agencies. They were ready to cooperate with me. Since then, the incidence of theft has reduced significantly.
Also, there was the need to restructure for effective management of the place. I had to reduce the departments from nine to seven and ensure the right people were at the right places. That move has yielded dividends.
After settling down with effective management we had a roadmap for where we were going. But power was a challenge and without power, there would be no meaningful research. I had to source an alternative power (solar) which we had to install in all the laboratories for effective analysis. Now we have power 24 hours a day, all week and people can do their work as much as they want to, when they want to.
In terms of analysis of Nigeria’s mineral sector, what has the agency done?
Let us start with the exploration of the over 44 solid minerals we have in 500 locations across the nation. Therefore, the NMDC has to work on mineral processing and, then, in the metal sector we have to know the minerals we have in the country and their composition.
It was a challenge for us to get the laboratories ready. Given that this place was established back in 1973 to act as a research lab for the then steel plant, the belief at the time I resumed was that the equipment was obsolete and had to be replaced with state-of-the-art ones for meaningful research. We did just that. Presently, the NMDC has some – even though they are insufficient, given their capital-intensive nature – and we use them to carry out analyses.
Talking about analysis, we have the metallurgical department for structure analysis, given the incidence of building collapse around the country (which is due to non-analysis of the materials used for construction). Most of the rods imported are made from melted scrap metal [which are not fit for the things we use them for over here]. Who is analysing materials for our buildings? It is also the work of the NMDC. We are to analyse materials – even though we have the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) – whether they are fit for building or not. This has been a challenge to NMDC.
Talking about steel, the Ajaokuta Steel Plant has been dormant for years. The raw material it will need is iron ore and the renewal materials are coal and others which need to be analysed and processed. When we are done, we now inform our end users if these are fit or not.
Nigeria has a very high concentration of iron ore at Itakpe, meant for the Delta Steel Company because it has about 250 million tonnes of iron reserves. We have another deposit in Agbaja which is 3 billion tonnes and would take so many years. Yet, research has not been done on it to find out its suitability.
What about coal, what research has been done to improve its production?
For coal, a lot of work has been done at NMDC. Unfortunately, even though we have abundant coal like the Enugu coal they are not prime ‘coke’ coal – which is not 100 per coal – but by our research, we can blend the Lafiya-Obi coal with the imported coal to form our ‘coke’. That would reduce the cost of production and save the nation’s foreign exchange. We have also worked sufficiently on our coal.
What about the management of the capacity of the state-of-the-art equipment procured by the centre?
Like I said we need human-capacity building. We have done enough for our people. For research and development, we need to train and retrain. We have done that locally and outside the country.
We have sent some of our staff to Japan, Australia and South Africa for training. The essence of that is for research and development to be productive. If you lack training, you cannot go forward. Some people came in last week from United Kingdom, UK, to train our staff on [how to use] the new equipment we acquired. The scanning electroscope and the lap polishing machines are some of them. That is an example of human capacity-building. If we train just 10 people that would be enough to train others in this place.
We want to thank the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development who, through MinDiver, renovate seven buildings in the centre. Given our funds’ paucity, we would not have been able to do that without the help of the ministry.
We have made progress, from 0.1 to 0.5 but that is still very inadequate if we are to go forward in this country with research and development. That should be our priority if we want to develop as a country. If we want to diversify our economy we cannot do so without meaningful research and development. A lot of research has to be done for us to move forward.
Now that your activities have got the attention of the Federal Government and some new tools are being acquired, what should Nigeria expect from the centre and the steel sector?
If we have adequate funding and pay attention to what we are doing, we can expect to lead the development in the sector in the country.
I have said severally that we should not toy with the Ajaokuta Steel Company because a lot of politics has been played with it over the years while we spend billions of naira importing metals into this country.
Consider the railways we are constructing. If we have Ajaokuta Steel Company working I don’t think we would be importing all these metals. We would have preserved our economy and created jobs with our steel, skills’ acquisition and the benefits would be enormous. If we are just doing research and development without a functional Ajaokuta Steel Company then we are just paying lip service. There must be a political will to say ‘this is our priority’. Now politicians are talking about Ajaokuta Steel Company but, after that, that will be all.
Do you share the view of some Nigerians that the Ajaokuta Steel Company is outdated?
People who say Ajaokuta Steel Company is obsolete are uninformed.
[Let us look at an example] Russia and India cannot do without a blast furnace. I was in India in 2000, India was producing 100 million tonnes of steel [and they were using the blast furnace]. People just sit down and criticize, saying it is outdated. What methods can you use to produce iron and steel, besides the blast furnace? A lot of people are saying they no longer use coal. Russia and China use coal. Everybody wants to be an engineer.
Anyone who has seen the amount of money spent on the Ajaokuta Steel Company will not want that place to be scrapped; it would be suicidal, a colossal waste.
Even if it is outdated you can modernise it into sections; from the blast furnace, steel production, produce pellets and rods, generate power and distribute to many states.