Saturday, October 30, 2010

Oil Tanks Exhausted, Think Tanks Needed

Can Nigeria Leapfrog into the Information Age?

By Philip Emeagwali

The man with wisdom is a shining torch that sheds light in our darkness and guides us out of our ignorance. I am often asked: "How do we build a stronger Nigeria through technological innovation?" I came across the answer in 1963 sitting on the verandah of our house along Gbenoba Road, Agbor, Midwest Region. I was silently reciting a quotation on the masthead of the newspaper called the West African Pilot. It read: “Show the light and the people will find the way.”

Because I was nine years old, I did not understand the deep meaning of those wise words. I now understand “the light” as a metaphor for knowledge, and “showing the light” to mean increasing the intellectual capital, the sum of human knowledge possessed by 6.6 billion men, women, and children. We find "the way" when we've brought to fruition our dream of eradicating poverty, discovering the cure for AIDS, and inventing the internet for email communication.

A long time ago, a man asked his children, “If you had a choice between the clay of wisdom or a bag of gold, which would you choose?” “The bag of gold, the bag of gold,” the na├»ve children cried, not realizing that wisdom had the potential to earn them many more bags of gold in the future. The wealth of the future will be derived from developing the intellectual capital—the clay of wisdom—and the innovations of the younger generation to make Nigeria stronger.

Should Nigeria migrate from oil to soil, as is often suggested. I think not. It should leapfrog into the Information Age. Nigeria cannot return to an agricultural age because the West is being urbanized, the East is being eroded, and the North is being desertified. A Nigeria without oil must make the transition to a knowledge-based economy. Nollywood can redefine 21st century Africa as the continent of arts and innovation.

If Nigerians have an average of three children per couple, it will become the world's third most populous nation in 50 years. It will lag behind China and India, but will have a greater population density. Where will we find farmland? My grandfather's farmland was located where Onitsha market now lies. For countless centuries, my Igbo ancestors were farmers. Sons walked in their father's footsteps, ploughing the same land. Their life expectancy was about 37 years.

Daughters married early, had as many children as they could, and became young widows. My mother married days after her 14th birthday and gave birth to me six days after her 15th birthday. She was born in colonial Africa, where she counted her age on her fingers and toes and by her age-grade affiliation.

Yet she had a son who could count the ages of humanity on his supercomputer, which occupies the space of four tennis courts. Her son's supercomputer computes and communicates as an internet and sends and receives answers via e-mails to and from 65,000 subcomputers.

My father and I, followed by my son, broke the tradition of walking in our ancestors' footsteps. My father was a nurse, and my son and I are computer scientists. All three of us abandoned the soil to work in knowledge-based industries.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Nigeria without oil

By Philip Emeagwali

I wish to look back to 1960, and forward to 2060, to share my thoughts about the challenges to, and opportunities for, building a stronger Nigeria through technology. In the past 50 years, Nigeria has grown economically stronger through its use of technology to discover and then recover petroleum. Fifty years ago, Nigeria had only one oil well. Fifty years later, that first oil well is empty and abandoned.
Do the math: "How many oil wells will Nigeria have left in 50 years?"
Empty oil wells are not abstract, intangible things. They're as concrete as Nigeria's first oil well: the Oloibiri well, that now exists only on postcards. We treat our oil wells like we treat snails:

We take the flesh and leave the shell. And we leave the shell for our children, and they leave it for their children, who will earn income by converting it into a tourist attraction.
Fifty-year-old oil wells are drying up everywhere, from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Russia. Perhaps in 50 years, Nigeria will no longer be one of the 12 members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Our petroleum was formed millions of years ago, when our pre-human ancestors crawled on four legs. And today we've discovered nearly all the oil that can be discovered. Yet Nigeria's future is being written by its few oilfields. Oil revenues account for 80 percent of Nigeria's budget. The nagging question is: What will we do when that 80 percent is gone? What is our Plan B when our Plan A fails? Searching for more oil is not the answer.
These are tough questions that we prefer to ignore but our children must answer. To prepare our future leaders for "a world without oil," I advise newspapers and schools to sponsor essay competitions that ask, "If you're an editor who's been informed that the last oil well in Nigeria has dried up, what headline would you use and what would you say in your editorial?"

I posed this same question to my friends and they e-mailed these headlines:
1. "The Goose is Dead."
2. "The End of Nigeria's Curse."
3. "Oil Tanks Exhausted, Think Tanks Needed."

I am forming a think-tank that addresses futuristic questions, such as: "What are the challenges to, and opportunities for, a Nigeria without oil?" The answer lies within the soil of our minds. If we do not understand our past we are bound to repeat our mistakes. Africa's history is more than dusty facts and faded images.
Once upon a time, West Africa was on par with Europe in terms of intellectual capital and development. Ten centuries before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas and Mungo Park sought the course of the River Niger, Timbuktu loomed large in the European imagination as one of the most mysterious and remote places on Earth. Timbuktu, which emerged from the River Niger, was a metaphor for the end of the ancient world.

Ghana in the club of oil-producing nations

If all goes as planned, Ghana will begin commercial exploration of its new oil find in a month’s time. Can Ghana learn from the mistakes of Nigeria and other oil-producing countries in Africa?

Ghana is a cherished bride in international circles compared to its big regional brother, Nigeria. It remains a favourite of foreign donors and Western governments in a region often known for brutal civil wars, corruption and tyranny. With its growing economy and squeaky-clean image, Ghana is a frequently cited success story in Africa.

Praising the country during his visit in July 2009, United States president Barack Obama described Ghana as representing “a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or the need for charity.” As president Obama acknowledge during the historic visit, “the people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on a firmer footing, with peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections. “

The story of Ghana and Nigeria - strong rivals when it comes to the game of football, and historical friends given colonial antecedents – is the story of a presumably performing small brother versus a non-performing big brother. It bears a resemblance to the relationship between biblical Cain and Abel, with the only exception being that, unlike the biblical story, no one is trying to kill the other.

For many from the two countries who have continued to interact over the years, because of the strong historical antecedence, it is sometimes easy to forget that two other countries (Benin and Togo) actually separate them.

Somehow, Ghana has a couple of things going for it: a thriving democracy, peace and security, the availability of basic infrastructure particularly electricity, and a stable educational system in which students who enter for four year degree courses actually spend four years without the fear of lecturers’ strike extending the years. These are Ghana’s golden spots. They are some of the edge it has over Nigeria, and the principal reasons, in recent times, why a number of Nigerians find the place endearing.

Imagine never worrying about generators at night or travelling around the Niger Delta or the south-eastern states in choice cars without the fear of being kidnapped. Oppositions rarely win elections in Nigeria, but in Ghana, it can be anybody’s game. The last presidential elections saw the dethronement of a ruling president’s party for the second time since the West African country returned to democracy in 1992, something that has never happened in Nigeria’s democratic experiment and doesn’t seem likely in the next presidential elections scheduled for 2011.

Ghana is a much united country compared to Nigeria; its centripetal forces are much stronger than the centrifugal elements. No part of the country has attempted secession in its entire post-colonial history. Kwame Nkrumah, the acclaimed pan-Africanist and founding father of the country, deliberately laid a foundation that ensures that ethnicity is under-played in Ghana’s politics. No politician campaigns on the basis of where he or she comes from and there is no debate as to which part of the country should produce a president.

These are some of the things that delight the West about Ghana. The question many are now asking, however, is: Can Ghana resist the resource curse as it joins the league of oil producing and exporting countries from next month? Discovered around the time of its 50th anniversary celebrations, Ghana’s oil reserves currently run to more than 1.8 billion barrels, expected to earn the country at least $1 billion a year between 2011 and 2029. That will add more than 25 per cent to government revenues which were just $3.7 billion in 2008.

Ghana’s oil reserves are not anywhere near Nigeria’s which is estimated at more than 38 billion barrels, but it is enough to transform its economy if well-managed. The proper management of the resources remains the critical challenge. The government has taken a number of steps. A series of bills that would: create a separate oil regulatory agency, mandate a greater role for local contractors, and increase the transparency of the country’s oil revenues, is currently making its way through parliament.

Oil smears reputation and the petro-dollar that comes from it increases the temptation to be corrupt, and often, the intense scramble for a slice of the wealth could sometimes stir conflict. Besides, the oil industry is highly concentrated and capital intensive. This means that oil-fuelled growth does not create jobs in volumes commensurate with oil’s large share of the economy. In Nigeria, oil accounts for more than 85 per cent of government revenues, while the sector employs less than five per cent of the country’s work force. Inevitably, this leads to high income inequity.

That, perhaps, accounts for why Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, Venezuelan oil minister in the 1960s, described oil in a most unpleasant manner. Oil, he said, was not black gold; it was the devil’s excrement. “Ten years from now, 20 years from now, you will see,” Alfonzo predicted in the 1970s, “oil will bring us ruin”. It was an oddball statement at a time when oil was bringing Venezuela unprecedented wealth – the government’s 1973 revenues was larger than all previous years combined, raising hopes that black gold would catapult Venezuela straight to First World status.

Today, he seems a prophet. When it hit the jackpot, Venezuela had a functioning democracy and the highest per capita income on the continent. Now, it has a despotic government and a per capita income lower than its 1960 level. Venezuela supplies the United States one fifth of the oil it consumes. Outside of Africa, Venezuela is a classic example of resource curse. A 1995 analysis of developing countries by Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned American economist, found that the more an economy relied on mineral wealth, the lower its growth rate. Venezuela isn’t poor despite its oil riches – it’s poor because of them.

"How could that be? For the same reason so many entertainers go bankrupt. Showered with sudden windfalls, governments start spending like rock stars, creating programs that are hard to undo when oil prices fall. And because nobody wants to pay taxes to a government that's swimming in petrodollars--"In Venezuela only the stupid pay taxes," a former President once said--the state finds itself living beyond its means.

A cycle begins. The economy can't absorb the sudden influx of money, causing wages and prices to inflate and the nation's currency to appreciate. That makes it harder for local manufacturers to compete. Incentives, meanwhile, become wildly distorted. When free money is flowing out of the ground, people who might otherwise start a business or do something innovative, instead, busy themselves angling for a share of the spoils. Why slog it out in a low-margin industry when some oil contracts could make you a millionaire? Thus, a doubly deadly dynamic: a ballooning public sector, a withering private one.

Oil is not an economy. Creative economic activities have spill-over effects that become self-sustaining. Oil spills only into a barrel --and from there usually into the hands of a favored few. That's the real reason Venezuela's productivity growth has been roughly half the Latin American average. Can Ghana avoid the curse? A few smaller countries--Malaysia, Norway, Mauritius--curbed its worst effects by spending slowly and using the money to diversify their economies."

Ghana must learn from Nigeria and other nations where oil has harmed economies rather than prosper them. But much more, it must learn from its own history. For more than a century, Ghana has depended on gold, yet, gold has added little to its economy. The gold producing communities today are environmental disasters. Besides, many young people who feel they are not getting their own slice of the gold wealth have tried to mine for themselves in some way. A good number of them have ended up dying inside their ‘galamsey’ gold pits.

Prospering from oil would mean using the wealth from it to diversify the economy. Imani, an Accra-based think-tank has proposed the separation of all oil revenue from Ghana’s current inflows into a special fund. “This ensures that governments are not slack in developing other areas of the economy and collecting taxes.” Spending it as part of the country’s annual budget, the body says, will bring Ghana the problems others have suffered from treating their oil revenue as another regular source of government income.

“Investing the revenue in infrastructural projects will soak up liquidity and prevent inflation whilst boosting national productivity and production, thus generating real growth. It will also have the effect of sequestering the revenue from the rest of our expenditures and thereby avoid the artificial rise in our currency value and the neglect of other industries.”

Renowned Venezuelan writer, Arturo Uslar Pietri, has the best description for how Ghana’s oil money should be handled – sow it. Pietri originated the phrase “sow the oil”. Ghana must sow the oil wealth so that politicians don’t plunder it. Some have described oil as the true enemy of democracy. What is presently happening in Pietri’s homeland and in Nigeria suggest that that assertion might not be wrong after all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Memories of Colonial Africa

By Philip Emeagwali

I was born in 1954 in colonial Africa. One of my most cherished mementos from the colony of Nigeria is one of the pennies I received for my school lunch allowance. The coins bore the likeness of Edward VIII, who became King of England on January 20, 1936, and were minted in anticipation of his reign. However, Edward abdicated the throne on December 11th of that year before he could be crowned. He gave up the British kingdom to marry the love of his life, an American divorcee.

In 1960, a typical day in my life began at our compound on Yoruba Road, in Sapele. Our compound was adjacent to the Eagle Club, a night club where I ran errands for music legends, such as master trumpeters E.T. Mensah, Eddy Okonta, and Zeal Onyia. They would give me a penny to buy two sticks of cigarettes and I would bring back their half-penny change.

Some mornings, my mother would give me a penny with the instructions: "Buy rice with a farthing, beans with a farthing, and bring back a half-penny change." When I told this story to my son, Ijeoma, he interrupted, saying, incredulously "Daddy, you can't get change for a penny!" I then show him my souvenir: a British West African central-holed coin, bearing the head of King George V and minted in 1936 with the inscription "one tenth of a penny." The central hole was for stringing the coins together, to carry them. The world has changed greatly since my youth!

Nigeria has existed for 96 years and has been independent for 50 years. Nigerians must look back to the first 46 years, spent under colonial rule, to understand the 50 post-colonial years of their self-rule. Looking backward, like the Sankofa, is a prerequisite for understanding the way forward.

With self-rule came responsibility. We're now being held accountable for our actions and inaction, our coups and corruption, and our civil wars in Biafra, Congo, and Rwanda.

Looking backward 96 years will enable Nigeria to understand when and where it's train derailed and how to put it back on track. I believe our train derailed because, although the 46 pre-independence years were a brain-gain period, the 50 post-independence years have been marked by the largest brain drain since the Atlantic slave trade.

Looking forward 50 years, I foresee that nations delivering information and communication technologies will indirectly rule Africa. I see the cellular phone, the computer, and the internet enabling Africa to replace selection with election. I see the internet enabling citizens to become reporters, decentralizing the media. I see technology enabling freedom of the press and democracy in Africa.

Kwame Nkrumah said, "Socialism without science is void." I say, "Democracy without technology is void."

A scientist can be famous yet remain unknown. The grand challenge for scientists is to focus on discoveries that reduce poverty rather than on winning prizes. To focus on the prizes we have won, instead of the discoveries we have made, would be akin to dwelling on a hero's medal and ignoring his heroism.

Discoveries and inventions that increase wealth and reduce poverty are the "heroes" of science and technology and one hundred nations have printed their revered scientists' likenesses on their currency. This elevated those scientists as exalted bearers of their people's best vision of themselves.

Please allow me to answer a question I was asked: What did I contribute to science and technology? I reformulated and solved nine partial differential equations listed in the 20 Grand Challenges of computing.

The equations I invented are akin to the iconic Navier-Stokes equations listed in the Seven Millennium Problems of mathematics. Those Seven Millennium Problems are to mathematics what the Seven Wonders of the World are to history. To be accurate, the equations I solved were not exactly solvable, but were computably solvable. That is, I digitally solved the grand challenge version, not the millennium one that must be solved logically.

A novelist is a storyteller, and a scientist is a history maker. A novelist creates a fictional world, but a scientist discovers factual stories about our universe. I am an internet scientist who discovered factual stories. I reprogrammed and reinvented an internet to tell 65,000 factual stories to as many subcomputers.

The internet—meets humanity's fundamental need to compute and communicate—and spreads like bush fire, and resonates decade after decade, and maybe century after century. The internet is a technology that both connects people and connect with people in a way that will forever remain deep and enduring.

I am the artist that told stories about how the Laws of Motion gave rise to the eternal truths of calculus; timeless truths that will outlast the changing opinions of all times. My restated Second Law of Motion became my footprints; my reformulated partial differential equations became my handprints; and my reinvented algorithms became my fingerprints on the sands of time.

I'm the physicist and the mathematician who told a story in which a new technology came alive through three boards: a storyboard, a blackboard, and a motherboard.

My story has been retold from boardrooms to newsrooms, from classrooms to living rooms. It all began as a dialogue between a supercomputer programmer and his 65,000 subcomputers, which he reprogrammed as an internet.

During a conversation conducted in the languages of physics and mathematics between me and my machines, in 1989, I performed a world record of 3.1 billion calculations per second: This occurred when my keyboard replaced the handwriting on my blackboard and bridged the gap between man and motherboard. I became known for my discovery that a supercomputer is an internet and vice versa, and I, the storyteller, became both the story and the witness.

My journey to the frontier of knowledge did not begin in America. It began in 1960 in Colonial Africa.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

AFRICA: Then, Now and Forever

By Philip Emeagwali

Walk with me in memory to one of the greatest celebrations, the end of the colonial era in Africa. The day: October 1, 1960. The place: British West Africa. The setting: a crowded stadium in the Atlantic coastal town of Sapele. School children are waving green and white flags in honor of the birth of modern Nigeria, no longer part of the British Empire.

I was six years old and was in that stadium. I do not remember what was said because the concept of colonialism was abstract to me. But I vividly remember an incident that made me cry all that day. I was waving my flag in excitement when a faceless bully snatched it away and disappeared into the crowd.

In far-away Lagos, the Union Jack was lowered. Nigeria's Head of State, the Queen of England, was dethroned and Nnamdi Azikiwe became Nigeria's first black leader.

Fifty years earlier, the Union Jack had cast its shadow across every global time zone, giving rise to the saying, "The sun never sets on the British Empire.” We had showed our pride in being part of the empire by celebrating Empire Day on May 24th, Queen Victoria's birthday, with parades and sporting competitions. Later, Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day.

As a country, Nigeria has existed for 96 years, but it has only been independent for 50 years, for just over half that time. We must critically examine the 46 years of colonial rule over Nigeria and the scramble for Africa that began with the Berlin Conference of 1884, if we are to get insights into how to chart our nation's course for the next 50 years.

The Sankofa is a mythical bird of the Akan people of West Africa. If flies forward while looking backward, with an egg in its mouth to symbolize the future. In order to understand its history, to reclaim its past, and to enable its people to move forward into the 21st century, Africa must look back, back to the Berlin Conference of 1884 and back to the Atlantic slave trade that spanned four continents and four centuries. This will allow us to understand how we came to be 54 nations instead of one.

Like the Sankofa bird, Africa must look to its past to predict its future. It must know how it evolved in order to understand how it can be recreated. Its people should know where their journey began in order to understand which direction to take to find their future.

The Berlin Conference is when Africa was divided into roughly 50 colonies, and 1884 was when the modern map of Africa was created. The Berlin Conference was the beginning of modern Africa. In 1884, Africa was the agenda, but no African was at the table.

This year, in 2010, 17 African nations are celebrating their 50th anniversary of sovereignty and post-colonial rule. Nigeria's journey, like that of the other independent African nations, began at the Berlin Conference 126 years ago with no African in attendance. If colonial Africa could be created in Berlin, then a future Africa could be created in Beijing. Nations creating technological knowledge are reinventing the future and recreating Africa.

I believe that, by the end of this century, one in two Africans will live outside Africa. I was asked: "Why did you live in exile from Africa for 37 years?" Put differently, "Why don't you deliver Nigeria's 50th anniversary lecture in Abuja, instead of in Paris?" I have never visited Abuja. But I am not at home in Washington, D.C., either.

I had an asymmetrical relationship with Africa and America, as well as with science and technology. I worked entirely outside the gates of science and as an outcast, with outsider status. I was honored, but will forever remain an outsider in America. I was honored for retelling the 330-year-old story of the Second Law of Motion: from the storyboard, to the blackboard, to the motherboard, by reprogramming 65,000 subcomputers to compute as a supercomputer, and to communicate as an internet. I became my own ancestor in physics, my contemporary in mathematics, and descendant in internet science.

I experienced the usual in an unusual way. I was an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I decided to march forward, to come home to myself, not to someone else's home. I stayed in exile in America, feeling at home in my alienation from the white community. My 37 years of solitude allowed me to gather myself and to find my power.

Emeagwali has been called “a father of the Internet” by CNN and TIME, and extolled as a “Digital Giant” by BBC and as “one of the great minds of the Information Age” by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.