On Thursday, 13 November 2008, my colleague and I attended a symposium organised by the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation (NHEF) at Columbia University, New York. In attendance were several distinguished US-based Nigerians in academia holding down important positions in their fields and publishing cutting-edge research. Participants also included people from business and representatives of some higher institutions in Nigeria, including the University of Ibadan. In attendance was the Obi of Onitsha, an alumnus of Columbia University for forty years. (I stand with the Obi in the photo above)
The symposium was on the role of partnerships in African sustainable development. Participating organisations included the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Among the speakers at the symposium--and there were very many of them--were the distinguished Professor of Development Economics, Jeffrey Sachs; the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Achebe; Anthony Olorunnisola (Penn State University); Ibrahim Gambari (United Nations); Wole Soboyejo (Princeton University); Bola Omoniyi (the Earth Institute); Funmi Olopade (University of Chicago); G.O.S Ekhaguere (University of Ibadan, Nigeria), and Sam Ofodile (UNIPORT, Nigeria). Some presenters shared their research breakthroughs (Prof Ofodile and his team had perfected a method of injecting a substantial quantity of protein into garri!) while others presented the activities of their organisations (Bola Omoniyi talked about the Millennium Villages Project in countries including Nigeria). Everyone stressed how their research or organisations could help, or had been helping, Nigeria especially with regard to attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Presenters however shared their frustrations with the situation in Nigeria: the difficulty in collaborating with Nigerian universities caused by lack of follow up; the daunting problem of bureaucracy in Nigerian universities; and cold reception or even outright opposition from colleagues back home! The problem of infrastructure and
corruption in the nation as a whole also received substantial coverage. (To your left is a discussion panel at the symposium. I stand with Dr Olorunnisola in the photograph below)
This symposium was my first real encounter with brain drain at work. The presenters were first-rate academics, distinguished in every sense of the word, who had left Nigeria years ago out of sheer frustration--unemployment, militarism, poverty, insecurity, corruption--or in search of education. Nigeria's loss is America's gain. It also exposed me to the reality of media bias and stereotypes: in the media we hardly hear of this category of Nigerians in the US; but all the time we hear of a different kind of Nigerians in America: those who defraud others. The symposium also exposed me to a different kind of patriotism. These people left Nigeria years ago but their hearts never left Nigeria. Everyone was driven by one question: "how can we help Nigeria?" In fact, that was the question that led to the birth of NHEF in 2004.
It appears to me that Nigeria has immense resources and an inexhaustible reservoir of goodwill from Nigerians in diaspora--resources which our leaders and administrators have ignored. Will Nigerian academic adminstrators and political leaders respond to the NHEF and diasporic beckon? I am frightened by the obvious answer to this question.
PS: Jeffrey Sachs's wisecrack at the symposium: Each time people complain about corruption in developing countries, I ask, 'Really? You mean there are corrupt people outside of Washington?'