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Olusegun Obasanjo: The African Scientist In A Fast Changing World



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Thank you for inviting me to join you as we celebrate the life and times of a great African – Professor Ali Al’Amin Mazrui (24 February 1933 – 12 October 2014), my friend of long-standing with whom I shared common views on the historical roots and future of the African continent.

When I heard about his passing on October 21 last year, I felt deeply grieved about losing a friend and about Africa having lost one of its scholarly giants and believers in a truly great continent. His books and his hundreds of scholarly articles explored topics relating to African politics, international political culture, political Islam and globalisation.

It is not my intention in this address to chronicle his expansive biography which I am sure you will get from the numerous writings and eulogies which adorn several internet sites, but to reflect with you on the life of a great friend and true son of Africa within the context of the work that you do in the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences. Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I remember Ali Mazrui for at least three things.

First, he was immensely soaked in the history of Africa and could extrapolate the future growth and development of the region with uncanny accuracy and positivism. Taking a long walk down in history, late Mazrui was one of the champions of the full unification of the peoples of Africa and of the transformation of the conditions of the peoples of Africa under the Pan African Movement.

He was an embodiment of courage and humanism. By humanism, I mean his philosophical and ethical stance whenever he emphasized the value and agency of human beings whether individually or collectively. To him, race, religion, region, sexuality or gender did not matter. Rather justice, peace, self-determination, the rights of women, secularism and prosperity for all are always just causes worth fighting for.

Second, he was down-to-earth and not a lover of material things, freeing his mind for wider exploration of things which affect humanity, especially his African ancestry. When he died, I was not surprised to learn that he had no house of his own in his hometown of Mombasa. Further indexing his core value of simplicity is his settling for a very simple burial, not in the US where he died but back in his village family cemetery.

The third thing I remember Professor Ali Mazrui for is being a prominent critic of the current world order, taking it to be deeply exploitative of Africa which was reflected in the television series he created: The Africans: A Triple Heritage, which was jointly produced by the BBC and the Public Broadcasting Service (WETA, Washington) in association with the Nigerian Television Authority. The intellectual finesse of Ali Mazrui, the versatility of his thinking and his grandeur approach to presenting the African continent to the rest of the world will forever remain an exemplary legacy for all.

Since my friend, Ali Mazrui, was a Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences and we are celebrating him at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, I have decided to reflect with you today on “The African Scientist in a Fast-Changing World”. Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, we are living in a world that is changing at a fast pace with push from the mighty hands of science and technology. The imprimatur of science keeps being etched deeply into the fabrics of human development.

From agriculture, through medicine to space exploration, science along with its associates – technology and engineering -, is transforming our societies for good and with some collateral ills. Science is already moving to enlarge its influence in the interdisciplinary, international, and in intercultural areas. It is the most powerful means we have for the unification of knowledge, and a main obligation of its future must be to deal with problems which cut across boundaries, whether boundaries between the sciences, boundaries between nations, or boundaries between man’s scientific and his humane concerns.

Over the last twelve months, some notable advances in science include development of autonomous (driverless) cars, 3D printing, nanotechnology in medicine and engineering, e-textiles, digital scent technology, immersive virtual reality, artificial photosynthesis, zero-energy building, vortex engines, 5G cellular communication, cryptocurrency, antimatter weaponry and nextgen stealth technology. We are also inching closer to getting a malaria vaccine.

We have just got WHO approval for a fifteen-minute test to confirm ebola instead of hours for laboratory analysis. During the last two weeks, the fast-paced world of science and technology reported the British government voting to allow a new technique involving babies created from three people. If passed by the House of Lords, the UK will become the first country in the world to offer this medical procedure, which can be used to treat mitochondrial diseases.

Other exciting things in the world of science in the last two weeks include use of biodegradable nanoparticles to kill brain cancer cells in animals and lengthen their survival and the selection of 100 astronaut candidates for the Mars One project which will land four people on Mars. New drugs to counter diabetes and hypertension ravaging Africa and the rest of the world are in different stages of development. The technology in surgery has also advanced in recent months.

Consider surgery when a patient is to get his or her diseased heart, liver or spleen removed with minimal invasion through new technologies being developed by biomedical engineers in the University of London and at Harvard. By 2050, the scenario that surgeons envisage is one where a patient with an organ failure walks into a hospital, gets a 3-D printed organ to replace it in a few hours. It may be twenty years or more before these drugs and surgical techniques become available for the masses.

However, when they do, the health of the people will be better secured than what we have today. Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, when we aggregate the efforts of the global community of scientists through the ages, the African scientist has not been a complete pushover. You will recall that some of the well-known contributions of ancient African science include one of the first intensive agricultural schemes; metallurgy, including the mining and smelting of copper, practised in Africa as far back as 4000 B.C.; and the system of hieroglyphic writing and the use of papyrus. The science of architecture also reached new heights with the pyramids.

They were amazing accomplishments both in terms of construction and the mathematical and astronomical knowledge necessary to build and situate them. Sadly today, the place of eminence of the African scientist on the global horizon is fast regressing. In a fast-changing world, we are getting far left behind. Our contribution to the science, technology and engineering scholarly literature is the least of all regions of the world. Our universities are at the bottom of global league tables of world-class universities with the region having the least number of Nobel Prize winners in science.

Even, a good number of our local problems are being solved by scientists from outside our region. Yet, we have some of the best intellectually-endowed scientists in the world. The laboratories in Asia, Europe and North America, where breakthroughs are achieved to drive our fast-changing world, are populated in part by brain-drained African scientists. As Ali Mazrui would have inquired, where lies the problem? In my view, the problem causing African scientists to underperform in a fast-changing world has at least four sides to it.

There is a severe under-investment of African governments and African private sector in science and technology infrastructure. When such investment is disaggregated by region, North America has the highest while Africa has the least. In 2010, regional averages of the percentage of GDP devoted to research and development activities in science, technology and innovation are: 2.7% for North America; 0.7% for Latin America and the Caribbean; 1.8% for Europe; 0.4% for Africa; 1.6% for Asia; and 2.2% for Oceania.

In 2012, the distribution of researchers per 1 million inhabitants shows Africa being the least served. The data are expressed in full-time equivalents (FTE), which are a measure of the actual volume of human resources devoted to research and development (R&D). This is surely a backlash from the low investment in the sector. This low level of investment translates to poor research laboratories, inconsequential grants to support meaningful and context-relevant research and unattractive welfare scheme to retain top-quality scientists.

The second dimension to the problem is the depreciating research skills of the young, up-and-coming generation of scientists. Today, many research institutes and universities in Africa are increasingly populated by poorer-quality scholars relative to what we had in the mid to the closing decades of the 20th century. I am sure members of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences who are familiar with the trend in your flagship university – Addis Ababa University – and others will find empirical support for this observation.

The third is a consternation of socio-cultural distractions of the African scientist pulling him or her away from the serious business of sciencing. The typical scientist has a retinue of family (nuclear and extended) and friends that look up to him or her for financial and other forms of support induced by poverty which pervades the land.

A land where there is scant social security to take care of the aged, unemployed and others needing state support. Many African countries suffer this lack of social security and high-level of poverty scourge. After servicing some of the needs of these dependants, the scientist has little or nothing left and far from achieving Maslow’s self-esteem to be able to concentrate to conduct first-grade science experiments.

Let us take the case of the full professor of science in Addis Ababa University earning about US$800 a month (approximately 16,000 Birr). After servicing some of the major needs of his nuclear and extended family, he has barely US$20 left. His urgent monthly preoccupation will be to run around looking for augmentation. Laboratory work and how to use his scientific training to solve urgent societal problems will be low down on the priority list.

I am giving the example of Ethiopia only because I am speaking at this event organised by the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences. The scenario I just painted is pervasive in many African countries. The fourth factor is the shrinking level of adventurism by the African scientist. Unlike the European and North American counterparts, the African scientist would appear increasingly weak in the quest to conquer the world; to explore; and to venture into novel grounds.

While there are pockets of praiseworthy efforts in this direction, such efforts are still too little. Of over 215,500 new grounds broken in science and technology in 2014, a mere 0.01% are associated in some form with African scientists. Ali Mazrui, who we are celebrating today, stopped short of calling it “intellectual timidity” in the 2002 book “Africa and other Civilizations: Conquest and Counter-Conquest, The Collected Essays of Ali A. Mazrui, Vol 2”. While this may be explained by the interplay of several factors such as poor working conditions, we cannot discount the significant impact of the spirit of adventure of the scientist.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I am not here to overly bemoan the past but to share with you what we must urgently do to salvage the situation; what we must do to ensure that African scientists stand up to be counted in the march to improve human civilisation in the 21st century and beyond through science and technology. There is the need to significantly increase investment in science, technology and innovation to a level which is at least 15% higher than current values and progressively increase by 5% every year for the next 20 years.

Implementation of this investment, without allowing corruption to creep into the equation, will translate to improvement in the quality of laboratories for research. We need to set research agenda that is relevant to contemporary and future needs of African nations and the region as a whole and monitor the implementation of this agenda. We need to install a sustainable maintenance culture for the facilities and equipment that will result from the improved investment.

Centres of excellence at the national, sub-regional and regional levels which are emerging as vogue, should not just be a flash in the pan but be sustained over time and expanded in coverage. On the welfare front, African nations need to encourage their scientists with improved welfare scheme that is attractive enough to reverse brain drain. You can have the best laboratories, glittering with the latest technology but without well-motivated scientists, no meaningful and productive practice of science can result.

Continuous professional development of scientists in the use of latest technologies, processes and products should also be given top priority. Paying greater attention to improved delivery of science at the secondary level, will guarantee the development of a corpus of young scientists with the spirit of adventurism which would appear waning in the older generation.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, if there are seven things I imagine Ali Mazrui would want scientists in Africa to invent, they will relate to promoting human security in the continent especially food and nutrition security, health security, environmental security, energy security, cultural security, employment security and quality education. He will want a cure for Ebola and HIV/AIDS as well as a vaccine for malaria ascribed to African medical scientists. Having just returned a few days ago from some Ebola-hit West African countries, I am eager to read in a few months or years that a laboratory in an African country is noted as having found a cure for Ebola.

Perhaps that country will be Ethiopia! As I conclude, if Ali Mazrui were seated in this audience, he would probably be delighted if, aside from the theme of this address which is on science, technology and innovation, I make a few statements about a philosophy he stood for. Ali Mazrui stood for Africa rising like a Sphynx from the ashes of colonialism.

My thoughts align with his about the danger of globalisation for Africa. Africa has effectively been marginalised from the globalisation process from the time of slave trade because institutions have not been part of a convergence economic governance system. We must watch out for globalisation, unequal agreements and burdensome terms of borrowing to avoid the debt trap. If we talk of globalisation, it must be realistic, relevant and it must mean the same thing to humankind everywhere in the world.

There must be something substantially visible, effective and positively affecting the life of every citizen of the world. There must be something in it for everybody. There must be globalist leaders who think globally, plan globally and act globally. We must work out strategies to ensure that global programmers substitute national or even regional programmes, policies and actions.

This requires that we urgently formulate relevant research themes, build institutions, construct or design frameworks and build new values and discourses on global harmony, programmes and policies. We must have equitable share in the global decision-making and global division of labour and production.

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, it now remains for me to thank you for this invitation and to request us all to keep alive the spirit of Africanism which the person we are remembering today, Professor Ali Mazrui, held so dearly.

May his soul continue to rest in peace.


Article written By Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo delivered the above keynote in Addis Ababa, on February 27, 2015, at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in honour of late Professor Ali Al’Amin Mazrui


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