The news around town is that another Nigerian is claiming to have found a cure for AIDS. Again. Social media shakes its head and reminds us of Dr. Abalaka. Lone voices call for more funding, more testing. Experts take a strong look and immediately distance themselves from him. A few days later, he recants and apologises for making public something still in its early phases, according to him. Everybody breathes out; one almost wonders if we’re relieved that pseudo-normalcy has been restored: Nigerians, indeed Africans, don’t discover or invent anything noteworthy. There is always something more to the story.
But what is actually the essential thing here? As unfortunate as it is that this fiasco played itself out around something as sensitive as this death-dealing virus, it inadvertently brings to light another matter at the core of our continental drift. Be it in medicine, in technology or in any other field necessary for the structural upbuilding of nations. Very simple: how long will we remain dependent on the solution-finding endeavours of others? I thought Independence had another meaning. But since it seems Independence, as a word and a concept, has over the last five decades of Africa’s ‘independence’ surrendered itself to another definition – one that includes inefficiency, beggarliness, corruption, division, non-productivity, squandermania, boastful pride and retrogression – and thereby lost its function as a star drawing our feet forward and a compass showing the way, it has maybe become necessary to temporarily park that word – Independence – in the purifying purgatory of history and replace it with a new-crafted word that more unceremoniously exposes the well-camouflaged wound and slams the nail on the head. A term devoid of poetry and romance, simply being stable and as unmistakably understandable as black-and-white.
A word that very clearly states, describes and defines what we did not get in 1960 when we became independent; nor in 1963 when we became a republic; nor in 1970 when we got the task done of keeping Nigeria one; nor in 1979 when we returned to democracy, new constitution in hand; nor through decades of near-uninterrupted military rule; nor have we found or got it since 1999 when we AGAIN returned to democracy, remixed military constitution again in hand; and even until today we still have not got it. Let us call this word: SELF-DEPENDENCE.
It is the perennial bane of Africa, a continent of people who claim to be the birthpoint of humanity, of civilization and of technology that every modern contraption of essential value which is required for its growth in a modern world, is invented and made on other continents and then freighted into the cradle of civilization at high prices or – even worse – as donations. How many times have we heard the lectures about the great people who built pyramids on the banks of the Nile and then migrated to the banks of the Niger, by which time they had apparently forgotten how to build pyramids because here they started to build huts? Or of the great empire-builders of Mali and Zimbabwe whose descendants, perhaps patronized by the mental version of the tse-tse, steadily slumped into the generational amnesia that rendered them incapable of matching, talk less of outdoing, their forebears?
Truth be told, such tales bore the tears out of me. I’m more interested in other, more recent, exploits, uncelebrated and often greeted with perfunctory yawns of tired amusement at best; but even more often with suspicion, ridicule and denunciation. A tinkering family member of mine and his colleagues designed some new technical thing – don’t ask me what, all I know is that it has to do with computers – but they went ahead and patented it; now some firms want it – apparently it’s the solution they’ve long been looking for. My former secondary school classmate developed with his team a breakthrough procedure for extracting the cells that make up the blood-nerve barrier (if you’re confused, don’t worry, so am I), but it permits an important step forward in understanding peripheral neuropathies, which affects millions of people worldwide.
Some months ago I read of some tenacious eccentric young man in Kaduna State, in northern Nigeria, who has been trying to build a rocket since he was a kid. His last effort did not fly very far, but it flew. The news gave me a thrill. My friend from the south did not know exactly what to make of that piece of news, cautiously asking me in which cardinal direction I thought Boko Haram would first direct that rocket if after the young man ever perfected it, BH stepped in and confiscated it. My answer: don’t worry about that – once one African builds a rocket, another will soon build a magnetic return-to-sender shield. The thirst to invent and build just has to be set free first of all, and encouraged and supported – morally, culturally and financially.
A few years ago I read the amused article of a journalist reporting on another young man, this time in Onitsha in eastern Nigeria, who had designed and built his own version of a helicopter. The writer wondered who would be the first daredevil to attempt a test-flight. And then it was on facebook not long ago that the link to an article was doing the rounds, a report on the scientific tinkering of some secondary school girls in Lagos, in western Nigeria, who had tinkered an electricity generator powered, not by the black curse called petroleum fuel, but by urine. (You read that right). Let’s not go into the jokes people cracked about that. The generator worked, by the way. If you understand anything about the mysterious fuel cabal in Nigeria, you’ll know why this news might cause some powerful people sleepless nights and blocked urethrae.
Tell me more of these stories – these are the ones I like to hear. Why? Simple. How long will we fill our lazy stomachs with the swelling garri of empty pride, back-dated? Must every good thing exist only in some distant dusty past painstakingly reconstructed by dogged historians? What of the future? Who designs it? We don’t need to re-invent the past; we simply have to invent the future. Now, the reason why we should do this, surprisingly enough to the unbelieving, is not even pride. It is more practical than that. It is economic. (The economy, stupid 🙂 ). Long-term sound economics. What is at the core of that which makes a 1st world country a 1st world country? Not the appellage, not the climate, not money, not weapons… but simply the power and the ability to INVENT. The urge as well as the consciousness of the necessity, constantly put into deed, to create new things, to find new self-made solutions, to imagine and anticipate future problems, to constantly improve anything that exists, be it a substance or a process.
If you cannot figure out anything by yourself, you will never be self-dependent and you will never be free, because you will always be dependent on those who do the figuring out and the making. If you cannot make anything by yourself – not just what you yourself need, which in itself would already be a giant step towards self-dependence, but also what others need – you will never be truly independent, because your so-called independence will lack the fortifying ramparts of self-dependence. Every shift in technology is a potential threat to your future stability. You remain constantly one step away from becoming a colony anew. Laugh not at those who warn about neo-colonialism. Political and military independence can be safeguarded long term only by economic self-dependence. And economic self-dependence exists truly only to the extent to which the basis of a people’s, a nation’s or a region’s wealth rests to a large degree on its own capacity for industrial and technological creation. Wealth that comes from the monetary equivalent of fossil fuels stored in the ground by nature’s forces is not real wealth. Real wealth is generated by the power to create or to make (out of something or even out of apparently nothing), to make a needed end-product. Some people call it the power of ideas. I think it’s more than that – we all have ideas. I think it’s the culture of industrial creation; making new things and making things new. Don’t buy everything, build some. Don’t take it, think it.
This is where we have so sorely lagged behind in Sub-Sahara Africa for much too many centuries now. There is no satisfactory excuse for this. We cannot blame others for not giving us the education on time, or in sufficient depth, or spreading it around generously enough without tempering it due to ulterior motives and all the rest of that dialectic, because well they pieced it together and systemized it by themselves, or at least preserved and built upon the documentation and further development of it. We could have also done the same for ourselves over the centuries. All kinds of ethnological theories abound as to why the different continents developed as they did. Well, let bygones be bygones, we are not time-travellers. The moment is now.
Now that we have the knowledge today, why are we still importing the application of it? What will we do when technology shifts away from fossil relics and we no longer have their monetary equivalent with which to pay for the import of new applied intelligence? Is that when we will start trying to learn how to use our own intelligence? Or will we go borrowing from IMF and World Bank? Maybe ‘Independence’ is a pun for a state of living “in dependence”. We need inventors, discoverers and makers, for whatever they imagine and create – or omit to imagine and create – today, is our future tomorrow. We need inventors. Or, to put it differently, we need to identify and, as a matter of public and private policy, indeed as a matter of culture, support our individual inventors specifically and the spirit of invention generally. Institutionalize it even. The cultivation of ideas, the inventing of models, the indigenisation of industry, the manufacture of hardware, the innovation of standards, all this should become a part of our culture. Put on your time-telescope and peer far into the distance of development: you will see that there is no other road that leads from 3rd World to 1st World.
If there be any Nigerian, indeed any African, in whom the spark of invention, the light of discovery, the visionary eye that sees the future’s questions and answers, the power of innovation and the hunger for creation dwells, then the New African Consciousness must recognise in such a person a rung on the ladder that leads out of the dungeons of dependence. You can only be a part of those who dictate things in the new world if you were one of those who invented and designed that new world. To set our policy-compass towards the attainment of self-dependence, but also to properly understand the source and anchor of concrete self-dependence in a world increasingly run by the power of ideas, constantly churned into an unending cycle of research and development, this is the nature of the new struggle. The spark of genius rests in the fertile soil of even the most simple mind. Parents, guardians and teachers: encourage your children and wards to join this struggle. Leaders, encourage your people to join this struggle. It is the struggle for self-dependence. Aluta continua.
Once we fought externally for independence. And, according to our definition of it, we got it. But we forgot to also fight internally for self-dependence. Simply put: we became independent, but we never became self-dependent. And it is just like freedom – if you don’t fight for it, you won’t get it. In other words, you cannot get what you have not fought for. You cannot defeat an enemy you have not properly identified. The journey did not end in 1960; it continued: the journey from independence to self-dependence. For what is independence without self-dependence? Nothing. Unsustainable.
And OK, I admit I lied; it’s not just about economics. It’s also a bit about pride. The kind of pride I sensed in a reporter of African descent who I saw on TV not long ago happily interviewing a group of Ugandan university students who had built a functional, beautiful, mobile, modern electric car. The best part was when he asked them why they chose to build an electric car instead of a petrol or diesel engine car. They said, because electric cars are the future. No point building the past.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.