Monday, November 1, 2010

Oil Tanks Exhausted, Think Tanks Needed - Can Africa Leapfrog into the Information Age?By Philip Emeagwali

Nigeria, Paris. Lecture video and audio are posted at

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
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
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.
Philip Emeagwali
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
A Nigeria Without Oil
– Part 3 of 5
By Philip Emeagwali
Excerpt from Nigeria’s 50 anniversary lecture at the Embassy of Nigeria, Paris.
Lecture video and audio are posted at
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
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. He won the 1989 Gordon
Bell Prize, the Nobel Prize of supercomputing, for reprogramming 65,000
subcomputers as an internet that helps recover more oil.
Philip Emeagwali
Memories of Colonial Africa
– Part 2 of 5
By Philip Emeagwali
Excerpt from Nigeria’s 50 anniversary lecture at the Embassy of
Nigeria, Paris. Lecture video and audio are posted at
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
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
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.
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. He was voted history’s
greatest scientist of African descent by New African.
Philip Emeagwali
AFRICA: Then, Now and Forever
– Part 1 of 5
By Philip Emeagwali
Excerpt from Nigeria’s 50 anniversary lecture at the Embassy of Nigeria, Paris.
Lecture video and audio are posted at
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. It 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.
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.
Philip Emeagwali []
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