Memories of Colonial Africa: A Nigeria Without Oil

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.

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 twelve members of the Organization 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.

Timbuktu was great not because of its petroleum reserves, but because of its unsurpassed intellectual capital and the collective knowledge and wisdom of its people. Nigeria will join the world’s top 20 economies, not because of its petroleum revenues but through the technological knowledge of future generations.

For Nigeria to join the top twenty economies, it must turn its brain drain into brain gain. As a center of intellectual excellence, Timbuktu attracted the best brains and inspired the ancient West African proverb:

“Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, and silver from the country of the white man, but the word of God and the treasures of truth are found only in Timbuktu. “

For Nigeria to build the Timbuktu of tomorrow and become a top twenty economy, it must control critical technologies, and not merely purchase them. It must turn its brain brain into brain gain. Nigeria needs men and women of ideas, technological visionaries and futurists, to help its people answer the larger question of who they are, where they’ve been, and where they want to go.

It was Britain’s superior maritime technology that enabled it to shape Africa’s destiny with over 500 years of slave trading and colonization. Slave trade lead to brain drain needed for growth while colonization yielded brain gain that increased development.

While the United States was beginning to profit from the brain drain flowing from Europe and Africa, Timbuktu was being physically and intellectually sacked by Moroccan invaders and slave traders from the Americas. Timbuktu lost the human capital needed for growth and development and never recovered as a center of intellectual excellence.

Technology will allow Nigeria to do more with less, without depleting its natural resources, but with greater reliance on technology. The future is for us to create, but first we must outline our vision.

Foot soldiers, not generals, will lead our war against ignorance. The foot soldiers are our 100 million young Nigerians whose weapon is knowledge. Their collective intellectual capital will enable them to build a stronger Nigeria using technology knowledge. My 50-year vision for Nigeria is to tap into the creativity and innovation of our young people. Our young people have the potential to uplift humanity.

Technology is all around us and we humans are constantly inventing and reinventing new tools, techniques, and technologies. Our journey of discovery to the frontier of science reaffirms humanity’s goal to endlessly search for new knowledge, and to demand more of itself and its people.

Philip 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.


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