Ours is a country that has (rightly) found joy and satisfaction in trumpeting the unprecedented success of its financial services and entertainment industries, to mention just two shining examples. Nigeria's banks have started to make a mark on the radar of global financial services institutions, successfully oiling the wheels of big business within and outside the country. The days when Nigerian banking was "equal to or less than" retail banking are over. The industry can no longer be ignored by the prestigious credit rating agencies headquartered in the world's financial capitals.
Nigerian comedians and musicians now command hundreds of thousands of naira per stage-hour; as corporate spending and sponsorships have grown in scope and audacity. New professions have arisen â€“ Wardrobe Consultants, professional events managers, On-Air personalities, Lifestyle Coaches and Motivational Consultants. Nollywood is said to be the third largest movie industry in the world. The music industry is alive and well, and very promising. Nigerian radio stations now have no problems finding enough high quality Nigerian music albums to fill their airtime with, unlike a few years ago when our musical appetites depended heavily on imports for satiation.
The beauty and fashion industries are also doing great. Seye Kehinde's "Publisher's Note" in the April 2007 issue of the lifestyle magazine City People Quarterly, begins on a mildly provocative note: "Have you noticed that right now, the dream of every young lady in Nigeria is to be a "model"? Or so it seems. Just ask any female undergraduate what she'll like to be and she'll tell you it is to be a model. Almost on a daily basis, we get phone calls and SMS from many young ladies making enquiries on how they could be helped to realise their ambition of becoming models."
Yes, we have indeed come a long way. God be praised. Gone are the days when one out of every two (my estimates) young people wanted to be a doctor or engineer (the other half of course wanted to be lawyers and accountants). Gone forever are the days when to be a musician or an actor or a footballer were options restricted to no-future-ambition (NFA) personalities. We have made giant leaps up the ladder of human possibility. Today, we can be anything we want to be. Today's parents do not hesitate to do all within their powers to make soccer stars and comedians and beauty queens out of their children.
But that, sadly, is where the good news ends. And it is where the questions begin.
What sort of country comfortably excludes technological development from its equation of progress? Put in another way, what kind of country thinks it is progressing, when technologically speaking, it is a nation on life-support? Five decades after independence, and one decade into the 21st century, we do not seem to possess any serious capacity for technological innovation. Science and technology have been reduced to the whipping boys within our pool of possibilities; the (unintended?) victims of our "progress" in every other sphere of human endeavour.
We have built our economic fortresses on Other Peoples' Inventions (OPI). Our roads currently have no vacancies for made-in-Nigeria automobiles, because, like the ghost workers in our civil service and the invisible power plants in the Niger Delta, the made-in-Nigeria automobile remains a ghost invention, a sheaf of mildewed sketches filed away in a fit of frustration.
Our satellites are ours only because they were paid for with our petrodollars, not because we built them, or launched them into space ourselves. A year ago we paid China (with an "emerging market" economy like us) hundreds of millions of dollars to help us launch a communications satellite into space. Four years before then it was the Russians (another "emerging market" economy) who helped us send a weather satellite into space. Twice in the last four years, the NLNG-funded Nigeria prize for science has gone un-awarded because of the low quality of entries. One year the judges found home-made bottles of wine among the entries. That is the new face of our spirit of technological innovation.
Yet, every year thousands of people bag basic and advanced degrees in the technological sciences in our universities. Which leaves one wondering, what do these degrees stand for? Recycled knowledge, downloaded courtesy of Google and Wikipedia? And what is the point of having scientists who do not invent anything, or technologists whose minds are as cobwebbed as their bookshelves?
There are only a few tragedies worse than the communal loss of the spirit of curiosity and audacious questioning that drives and underlines scientific advancement â€“ an affliction to which it seems we have uncomplainingly succumbed. Ask no questions, seek no answers.
The question still remains unanswered: how far can a country go without home-grown science and technology? How far will Nollywood or our bagful of KORA Awards, or a World-Cup winning Super Eagles, or any other easily recognizable signifier of national success take us, without any appreciable progress in our level of technological know-how? What shall it profit Nigeria if its music stars amass a dozen Grammys, or its banks open eye-popping branches on Wall Street, while its citizens continue to import light-bulbs and mobile phones from China?
We talk of 20/2020 â€“ taking our place in the world's top (largest) 20 economies by the year 2020 (as a replacement for the ill-fated All for All by the Year 2000 Vision, and Vision 2010). But we forget that it is not Nollywood that will usher us into 20/2020 ( India is not an emerging superpower because Bollywood is the 2nd largest movie industry in the world). Neither will our burgeoning music industry do the magic. They will play a part, certainly, but it will take nothing less than the productive efficiency (in tangible terms) of our economy to make us a super-power. What will count will be what we can contribute to the global(ised) production pool â€“ in braindrain-free human talent, and in tangible, useful, technological resource. "A $100 bar of raw iron is worth $200 when forged into drinking cups in Africa, $65,000 when forged into needles in Asia, $5 million when forged into watch springs in Europe. How can this be? European intellectual capital â€“ the collective knowledge of its people â€“ allows a $100 raw iron bar to command a 50,000-fold increase!" is how Philip Emeagwali brilliantly analyses it in his famous " Africa must produce or perish" speech.
The Asians are competing head-to-head with the West in the area of innovative technology. China is busy creating and exporting new technology (while the giant of Africa is busy lapping everything up). We depend on them for our power generators, our standing fans, and our affordable brand-new cars. The Indians recently made history with the cheapest car in the world, the cute "NANO" built by Tata Motors, an Indian company that has already become one of the world's largest automobile manufacturers (it recently acquired the British Jaguar Land Rover Business). I bet that someday, very soon, the NANO will swarm our streets and, in the hands of the Nigerian "masses", become the mobile equivalents of I better pass my neighbour generators.
The same Indians are busy establishing their country as the outsourcing capital of the world, unsettling the Western IT establishment. Brazil is leading the Ethanol Revolution and becoming a biofuel Superpower â€“ close to half of its total passenger vehicle fuel needs are currently met using ethanol, not gasoline. Iran, Pakistan, Korea â€“and even Libya â€“ are (even though controversially) trying their hands at nuclear technology. The Third World (to which we supposedly belong) is busy, creating, innovating, synthesizing. What is Nigeria doing?
It is not all depressing news of course. In 2001, Nigeria's Mohammed Bah Abba earned a place in Time Magazine's Inventions of the Year (as well as a $75,000 Rolex Award for Enterprise) with his non-electric "Food Cooling System" (which consists ingeniously of two earthenware pots, one placed inside the other, with the space in between filled with moist sand) which enables preservation of food sans electricity. Last year, 24-year-old Mubarak Muhammed Abdullahi was in the news for building a model helicopter from scrap material (ingeniously sourced from among other things, a Boeing 747 wreckage, and a Honda Civic). There's however no evidence that any Nigerian Government or corporate organization is aware of any of these geniuses, busy as they are with the apportioning of excess crude oil proceeds, and the management of estacodes, unspent budgets and Reality TV shows.
For now we remain a nation at home with Speeches, Slogans, Schemes and Strategies, incurable believers in the firm ability of rhetoric alone to power our journey. (At every International Airport in Nigeria, there should be giant neon-lit signs proclaiming: Welcome to Nigeria; Powered by Rhetoric. )
Unfortunately for us we shall not wake up in 2020 and find that we have become a superpower. We shall have to stay awake and stay at work. Or, to be more accurate, we will need to start somewhere. On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy shared, before a joint session of the United States Congress, his vision of having the United States put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth," he declared: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, on behalf of America.
Our own dear President Yar'Adua might want to abandon his oft-declared vision of declaring a state of "power emergency", and instead set a target to have a made-in-Nigeria car on the streets of Lagos and Abuja by, say 2012. And our "money-is-not-the-problem-but-how-to-spend-it-fast-enough" banks could play a pivotal role â€“ by opening up their bottomless CSR wallets to the made-in-Nigeria automobile project.
That would be a good place to start, wouldn't it?
Tolu Ogunlesi writes from Lagos.