A NATION’S TECHNOPHOBIC VISION
By Tolu Ogunlesi
(first written and published in June 2008)
What shall it profit a country if its musicians amass a dozen KORAs and Grammys, or its banks overrun West Africa and Wall Street, or its soccer teams monopolize FIFA’s trophies – while its citizens continue to import light-bulbs and toothpicks from China?
How truly great is a land whose roads are devoid of locally-made automobiles, because, like the ghost workers in its civil service and the invisible power plants that dot its territory, the Made-at-Home automobile remains a ghost invention; a sheaf of mildewed sketches filed away in long-forgotten frustration.
At least twice since its inception, the NLNG-funded Nigeria Prize for Science has gone un-awarded because of the low quality of entries. One year the Judges found home-made bottles of wine among the entries.
Yet, every year thousands of people bag basic and advanced degrees in the technological sciences in our universities; their diplomas certified by Professors who own two sets of notes – yellowed, dog-eared notes for their longsuffering students; and PowerPoint 2010 files for their foreign fellowships and lecture circuits.
We talk confidently of Vision 20/2020 – taking our place in the world’s top 20 economies by the year 2020 (as a replacement for the ill-fated visions of the past), and go on to make noise about owning the world’s second-largest movie industry; failing to realise that India’s status as an emerging global power depends far less on Bollywood than on Bangalore. For while culture and the arts certainly have a role to play in positioning a country in an increasingly contested global economic space; depending solely on them without making any effort to exploit our technological capacity will be akin to seeking to win a soccer game without leaving your own goal area.
Somehow we miss the fact that what will count the most for our reputation and our economy will be what we can contribute to the global(ised) production pool – in braindrain-free human talent, and in tangible, useful, technological resource. Philip Emeagwali explains it in his “Africa must produce or perish” speech: “A $100 bar of raw iron is worth $200 when forged into drinking cups in Africa, $65,000 when forged into needles in Asia, $5 million when forged into watch springs in Europe. How can this be? European intellectual capital – the collective knowledge of its people – allows a $100 raw iron bar to command a 50,000-fold increase!”
The Asians are competing head-to-head with the West in the area of innovative technology. China is busy creating and exporting new technology. We depend on them for our power generators, our standing fans, and our affordable brand-new cars. The Indians have made history with the cheapest car in the world, the “Nano” built by Tata Motors, an Indian company that in 2008 acquired from Ford two British icons: the Jaguar and Land Rover brands. Someday, very soon, the Nano will swarm our streets and, in the hands of Nigeria’s ‘let-us-buy-now-for-tomorrow-we-may-be-gone’ masses, become the mobile equivalents of ‘I better pass my neighbor’ generators.
The same Indians are busy establishing their country as the outsourcing capital of the world, unsettling the Western IT establishment. Brazil is leading the ethanol revolution and becoming a biofuel superpower – more than half of its cars now run on ethanol. Iran, Pakistan, Korea –and even Libya – are (even though controversially) trying their hands at nuclear technology. Every country that wishes to be taken seriously is busy; creating, producing, fine-tuning.
We are also busy, but waiting; for the rest to produce so we can consume. “Relax o compatriots; Importers’ call obey!” might well be the new opening line of the Nigerian national anthem. In the long wait for the ports to discharge their treasures we remember to entertain ourselves: Speeches, Slogans, Schemes and Strategies a-plenty. Unfortunately we will not wake up in 2020 to find that we have become a superpower. We will realize too late that superpowers jettison faith in the false comforts of rhetoric; and instead stay awake and at work. We will also realize that superpowers need super-leaders; visionaries who can see beyond Abuja’s next ‘allocation’.
On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy shared, before a joint session of the United States Congress, his vision of having the United States put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” he said.
Two and half years later Kennedy was dead. But not his dream. Because, depending on the country, dreams don’t have to die when dreamers do. Ask Martin Luther King.
But not Obafemi Awolowo.
Tolu Ogunlesi (c) 2013