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.

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