George Bernard Shaw’s timeless admonition: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance”, seems an appropriate entry point for this article. This front archway could even be extended with Thomas Sowell’s admonition that “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” Being ignorant is one thing, but coming to a point where you acknowledge your ignorance surely requires a knowledge acquisition journey.
If you are a Nigerian, what entered your mind when you saw this article’s title? Were you expecting another composition shaming the “uselessness” of Nigerian graduates? If you were, I’m happy to disappoint you. This article is my response to a vexing thread I encountered on Nairaland, Nigeria’s largest e-forum. You may want to check the full thread, even though a summary is given in the next paragraph.
In that thread, eponymous to this article’s title, the author made a case that despite the number of first-class graduates churned out in Nigerian universities and the number of professors, the country has not made any technological advancement. Not content with ridiculing local graduates, the author went on to lament that those “who were tutored abroad usually come back home with no significant contribution in science, art, technology and other areas, irrespective of the fact that most of them studied under scholarships or grants.” As expected, a number of commenters on that thread shared the author’s view.
Let me start from a relatively silly point. As a 2:1 graduate of a Nigerian university, I feel disenfranchised because those who graduated with 2:1 degrees were not even considered worthy of being shamed. I wonder if the thread’s author has a personal beef with first-class degree holders that makes him feel they alone, alongside academics in professorial roles, are the only ones whose qualifications provide any potential for technological innovation. Seeing that very few Nigerians, especially in public universities, graduate with first-class degrees, the author’s derogation marginalises a large chunk of Nigerians, but in the spirit of peace, we forgive him. Let’s move to serious matters.
The author’s view, just like many Nigerians, highlights a basic ignorance of how innovation works. In sensible countries, universities and research institutes are pillars of innovation. This dipole forms a base which is supported by research by private companies and individual freelancers. The key thing here is a culture which recognises and upholds the importance of research. Alas, in Nigeria, the word “research” hardly means a thing to most people. In a way, this would seem to buttress the author’s view. However, you cannot fully blame universities and research institutes if the enabling culture and support system is unavailable.
Talking about a support system, the author mentioned that the Polish government spends 3% of its annual budget on research. This point effectively crashes his preceding tirade. If Poland spends 3% of its budget on research, one would expect that with private sector contributions, the total expenditure on research would be much higher. This is seen in the UK, where in 2014, the government’s £6.3 billion input in research and development was just 21% of total R&D funding for that year. In a World Bank listing of R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, developed and smartly developing countries are seen to spend between 1-4% of the GDP on R&D. There is no entry for Nigeria in that table, possibly because of data unavailability or because our expenditure is so close to 0% that the World Bank did not see a need to stain its table.
So far, no one has made the case that Nigerians are dumb people. There are many instances of Nigerians going to foreign institutions to pack laurels for academic performance. Hence, we can rule out dull brains. Something else has to be responsible, and that is the lack of research spending and a culture where research is denigrated since we all want fast results cum profits. R&D is expensive, and sadly, with the exception of the TETFUND and a few other grants, plus donations from foreign organisations, a lot of “research” in Nigerian institutions is funded by the researchers themselves. Let me give an example.
For my bachelor’s thesis, my partner and I looked at ice cream, cold water and soft drinks sellers, and wanted to work on a way to use a cyclist’s energy to power a refrigeration system to keep items chilled under Nigeria’s hot sun. We also felt such a device would be useful in transporting vaccines to off-grid villages, especially, considering Nigeria’s electricity supply deficit. When we proposed this idea to some lecturers, we were told to abandon it as “it would not work”. We also had to consider that in many Nigerian schools, a thesis project that fails to work would be scored poorly, thus making many students to choose projects they feel confident would work or simply plagiarise an existing project. Yet we chose to work on this project. Like every other student in our class, our project was funded by our families. In a society with a high poverty rate, there is surely a limit to how much families can raise for research projects.
Another challenge was getting access to current research papers to see up-to-date information on global research in that area. Compared to most Nigerian universities, Obafemi Awolowo University has a much better ICT framework. Yet, it had no accessible subscription to many top international journals. We had to make do with publicly available papers (Open Access), a few illegally available papers, and sites providing books illegally. At the end of the project, we had recommendations for further work, which we could not do because our funds had dried up and we really wanted to graduate. We just submitted our work and luckily received top grades as our effort was duly noted.
If by now, you have not seen the challenges with doing research in Nigeria, then I would have better luck convincing you that I am female. Still talking about my bachelor’s thesis; in a sane country that understands the concept of incremental knowledge, that thesis would have been assigned to another group in the next academic year. The new team would have been able to see the mistakes my team made and build on that knowledge. This is how R&D works in sane climes. The smartphones, cars, and airplanes that we use were not invented in one day. Billions of dollars are invested in R&D to make any headway. It’s even more glaring in pharmaceuticals where a drug can take up to 10-15 years to be developed. Throughout this time, an organisation would be spending on salaries and overhead costs, and at the end, the required drug may not be developed, or may not get approval for testing, or may get tested and not get approval for commercialisation. Is the Nigerian government or any Nigerian organisation presently interested in spending billions of naira in this form? For a country where the private sector is interested in quick profits and government officials are glued on the fastest means to steal as much public funds as possible, where would the money for R&D come from? There is no need blaming academics if they would have to shit out naira bills to fund their ideas.
Let me use another example to highlight the ignorance of those who feel high IQ individuals should be blamed for Nigeria’s technological woes. Some would ask why despite the number of mechanical engineers, we do not have a “true” Nigerian car. In addition to ignoring the interdisciplinary nature of modern automobile development, these ones happily ignore Nigeria’s lack of a running steel industry. Ajaokuta and Aladja steel mills are effectively shadows spanning large landmasses. Without a functioning steel mill, how would you make a car? Even if we had a proper steel mill, it would take years to make the kind of cars that American or Germany or even Chinese companies can make. For example, despite China’s rapid industrialisation, it was just recently that it achieved the precision required to manufacture the delicate tips of ballpoint pens. During the learning period (incremental knowledge), would Nigerians be interested in using Nigerian cars that lack the sleekness of a BMW? This thought line can also be applied to most of the things Nigerians expect their “first-class graduates and professors” to produce.
I set out to write a brief response and I realise I have gone over a thousand words. Last year, I wrote a similar article about the importance of “finding X” as some Nigerians passionately argue that mathematics is useless. I think it’s important for us to have knowledgeable discussions. It is very true that Nigerian universities, graduates and academics have issues for which they deserve blame. However, it is malicious to blame them wholly for Nigeria’s backwardness. This is a multidimensional issue, and until we can appreciate the diverse contributing factors, we would continue to make statements filled with blissful ignorance.
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