Aliyu: The Car Designer Should Design For Us By Tunji Ajibade

The Federal Government announced new bosses for some of its agencies recently. Jelani Aliyu was one of them. He was appointed as the Director-General of National Automotive Design and Development Council. At the time the news came, I took note that one TV station made Aliyu the headline, followed by the names of other appointees. There was another station that neither led with Aliyu’s name, nor mentioned him before it stopped halfway on a list of 23 appointees. It must be that journalists on that stable had never heard about Aliyu. I had, and I had written about him several times in the past (December 11, 2009 – “Jelani Aliyu: The poet laureate of automobile design” – Daily Trust).

Why should anyone take note of Aliyu among other Federal Government’s appointees? He has made us proud out there. It’s the reason that matters to me the most. I’ve always been a fan of any Nigerian who puts Nigeria on the lips of the world. It’s because when a Nigerian wins, I win. I know the joy this gives to any national. I had been a recipient of congratulatory messages expressing joy for being the Nigerian on the shortlists of a continental fiction prize on two different occasions. That time, I knew what it meant to Nigerians when one of their compatriots made them proud. This is one reason in the journalistic line I celebrate individuals who place Nigeria on the international map. Aliyu had written Nigeria on everyone’s lips when, as Lead Exterior Designer, he led a team in the United States to design the Chevrolet Volt for General Motors in 2007. This car is considered an American Revolution, one of the hottest concepts in the automotive design line.

Aliyu is from Sokoto State. He gained admission into Federal Government College, Sokoto, in 1978, and he graduated as the best student in Technical Drawing. He drew a lot, designed his own cars, and even built scale models of them. He got admission into the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to study Architecture. But he was soon to realise that the curriculum did not support his future plans. He took a look at the academic programmes of other institutions in Nigeria, and he concluded that only Birnin Kebbi Polytechnic had the study criteria that he needed, going forward. He got an associate degree in Architecture from the school in 1988, with an award as Best All-Round Student. While he was in the polytechnic, he conducted research into home design and construction. He was in search of materials most suitable for the Nigerian environment and climate. After he graduated, he worked for some time at the Ministry of Works, Sokoto.

In 1990, Aliyu was in Detroit, Michigan, United States, where he enrolled at the College for Creative Studies. This was sponsored by the Sokoto State Scholarship Board. He had always wanted to study Automobile Design, so the College in Detroit was the fulfilment of a dream. Here, creativity was a focus, practical sessions to develop new designs and provide solutions were emphasised. In 1994, Aliyu got a degree in automobile design. That was the same year he began his career with the design staff of General Motors. He worked on the Buick Rendezvous and was the lead exterior designer of the Pontiac G6. He also worked on the Astra with General Motors’ Opel Division. With the design of the Chevrolet Volt in 2007, Aliyu shot into prominence more than ever before. The Chevrolet Volt, a battery-powered, extended range passenger vehicle had been described as GM’s “most technologically advanced vehicle.” Aliyu has received several awards for his inventions. In January 2014, the United States Environmental Protection Agency voted the Chevrolet Volt as the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the market.

What will Aliyu be doing as the Director-General of the NADDC? This part is of utmost interest to me. Reason? Many of us have always been concerned about how square pegs are placed in round holes in this country. The Sports minister, Solomon Dalung, said lately that sport federations were populated by individuals who had no clue as to what they were to do. As a result, Dalung said, there shall be no government appointments into any of the federations when it was time to reconstitute them. That’s one piece of good news. Another is the placement of the right person as the head of our NADDC. Why should this be important? It is because we have talked about the Nigerian car for decades. We still don’t have one that the man on the street can proudly point to. This is a source of concern to many of us who don’t just want to be consumers of fine things, but fine things made in Nigeria by Nigerians.

What tasks does Aliyu have as the Director-General of the NADDC? The National Automotive Council and the Centre for Automotive Design and Development were merged to form the National Automotive Design and Development Council in 2014. So, the core mandate of NADDC became the development and implementation of a national automotive policy. It has other functions as well. Back in 2013, the Federal Government approved the implementation of the National Automotive Industry Development Plan. The focal point of the plan is economic development through employment creation, GDP contribution, economic linkages, development of the small, medium and micro-enterprises (SME) in the sector, skills development as well as innovation and technology transfer. In order to ensure competitiveness and increased productivity, the NAIDP has several key elements. They include provision and development of industrial infrastructure, skills development, development and adoption of standards, investment promotion and market development. As for the National Automotive Design and Development Policy, its thrust is to ensure the survival, growth and development of the Nigerian automotive industry using local human and material resources. For me, this is where I think Aliyu has a contribution to make.

I have heard about some Nigerians in the Diaspora who reject appointments that Nigeria offers them. Aliyu shouldn’t go in this direction. Nevertheless, he needs to tread carefully. I will state my reasons. First, there are many ways in which Aliyu could utilise his experience and contact to impact our automotive industry. He is known and he enjoys the trust of those who matter in the industry out there. Yes, government agencies in Nigeria have a reputation for constituting themselves into a stumbling block to brilliant minds sent into them to make their marks. But some have made the marks in spite of this barrier. A former DG of NAFDAC, Prof. Dora Akunyili, was one. Prof. Attahiru Jega, a former chairman of INEC is another. I urge Aliyu to emulate Jega. Why? Jega was keenly aware of the intrigues in the institution he was to head. He however looked at the statutory responsibilities of INEC, identified what he could do within the ambit of the law, and he pursued those very items until he achieved success. Jega is one man that everyone now applauds.

I don’t subscribe to people rejecting a position when they are given, when there is that just little they could come in to do that would make a difference in the lives of Nigerians. If all Nigerians with brilliant minds are given the opportunity to make contributions and they walk away, who will then develop this nation? The fact that wrong persons are in positions where the need to make a difference is urgent is one reason this nation is where it is. How can we have a nation that we can proudly call ours if we shy away from getting in to fight the good fight as Jega did?

My view is that every nation has its challenges. We know ours. The Nigerian that we should all honour is the one who tells himself that he will fold his sleeves, get into the murky water, and do his best to come up with a gold nugget. That’s what honour is about. I want Aliyu to come home and take up this job. He should identify two or three issues he wants to focus on, work on them to achieve his desired results, while he avoids known pitfalls. With the fact that it’s President Muhammadu Buhari whose stance is well-known that has made this offer, I think Aliyu has the right condition ever in which he could put in his best.

Punch