A prayer for 2014

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[First published January 5, 2014;]

In July 2013, during President Barak Obama’s Africa tour, one of the most enduring images was his encounter with the Soccket ball.

It was in Tanzania that he was presented with the invention, a soccer ball that generates electrical power as it is played. The power can be used for household chores.

The presentation was made by Jessica Matthews, one of the Soccket’s two Harvard University graduate-inventors; her collaborator being Julia Silverman.

Obama, who was promoting a ‘Power Africa’ initiative, juggled the ball, heading it into the air for press photographers. Describing the invention as “cool,” he said it was an illustration that development isn’t just about big projects.

“And this is developed by two young women from the US, so Soccket turns one of the most popular games in Africa into a source of electricity and progress. And you can imagine this in villages all across the continent,” he said.

‘Power Africa’ aims to channel $7bn over five years in assistance through various US agencies, towards double power access in sub-Saharan Africa, with an initial target of bringing electricity to 20 million homes and businesses.

Obama did not visit Nigeria, the United States having repeatedly indicated it considers the corruption and malfeasance that passes for governance in Nigeria to be quite toxic.

Nonetheless, Nigeria leader Goodluck Jonathan appeared to have connected the dots. On August 16, six weeks after Obama’s soccer exploits at Tanzania’s Umbungo Symbion Power Plant, Jessica appeared at the presidential villa in Abuja to present her invention to Jonathan. And then there was Jonathan, complete with his black hat, juggling the ball before photographers.

He declared how impressed he was that Matthews, despite not having studied science, had pioneered the Soccket, celebrating it as a testament to the quality of Nigeria’s human resources.

On the same occasion, Mr Olusegun Aganga, Nigeria’s Minister of Trade and Investment, pointed out that Jessica studied Business at Harvard but taught herself Electrical and Mechanical Engineering.

“So, she is an inspiration to every Nigerian, especially our children in Nigerian universities,” he gushed. And then, wildly overreaching himself, he said, “This is a product not only for Nigeria, but a product made in Nigeria by a Nigerian and for the world.”

Really?

What if Jessica were somewhere in the creeks of the Niger Delta, on the streets of Kano, or in the anonymity of existence under a Lagos bridge and her genius was not acknowledged by Obama or Vladimir Putin? How many Nigerian geniuses have enjoyed Jessica-style boosting by the Nigerian government since 1999 when the Peoples Democratic Party began to ransack Nigeria, or 2010 when Jonathan took personal control?

The truth is that Nigeria is a fiercely anti-intellectual and hypocritical country. In Abuja, Jessica accomplished far more than present the Soccket: she lured official hypocrisy into the open. She demonstrated how Nigeria’s leaders ignore or frustrate local geniuses who commit the unforgivable crime of not studying in Harvard, being endorsed by Obama, or being first celebrated by CNN.

Here are a few examples from last year alone:

·        Case Number One: In September 2013 in Umuchima, Okigwe Local Government Area of Imo State, two boys performed the amazing feat of launching a rocket into space. Gideon Emenike and Chibuisi Nwafor were only 16 and 17 years old, but their rocket soared as high as five kilometres before it crashed, a highly-impressed state Commissioner of Police, Mohammed Katsina, confirmed.

Following investigations, Mr. Katsina applauded the exploits of the boys, saying they meant no harm and deserved encouragement, not punishment.

“Maybe, who knows tomorrow, at my old age, I may be the lucky one that would fly in the spacecraft made by these young lads,” he told journalists. “I would rather dwell heavily on protection, rehabilitation and encouragement of these young boys.”

Gideon, who graduated from the Federal Government College, Okigwe, in 2012, said he built a helicopter in SS1 and the rocket in SS2. He placed second in at least two national competitions. A chance to represent Nigeria in an international competition in Brazil was later mysteriously voided by his school principal.

·        Case Number Two: Hillary Promise Chigozie, also of Imo State.  He has made a robot that can walk, and constructed aeroplanes, ships and cars. He built his first plane, a kerosene-propelled machine, at age 13.

The indigene of the Nbaitoli Local Government Area has dreamt of being an aeronautic engineer since he was five. In 2013, he was admitted into the Nigeria College of Aviation Technology in Zaria to study Airframe and Power Plant in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering.

His poor family could not afford the N2.5m cost of the programme. Hillary, now 27, wrote a series of letters to Governor Rochas Okorocha but received no acknowledgement, let alone help, and he lost the opportunity.

·        Case Number Three: Durojaiye Kehinde Obasanjo dreams of building a vehicle, which he calls a jet car, which can fly, as well as operate on land and water. He has actually developed one, and so far, it does run on land and water.

Durojaiye told a reporter he designed a missile that was launched by former military leader Ibrahim Babangida, and also to have built an aircraft.

The problem is that in order to develop his jet car fully, he estimates he will need at least N15m. To that end, and unable to find financial support in the private sector or at a bank, he approached the federal, Lagos and Ogun state governments in early 2013.

Up till now, he has received no help. The Federal Government, he said, told him it would get in touch “when the need arises.”

·        Case Number Four: Mohammed Mubarak Abdullah, a 24-year old Physics undergraduate in Northern Nigeria who in 2007 built a helicopter from used cars, motorbikes and a crashed Boeing 747. The feat earned him a scholarship to study aircraft maintenance in the United Kingdom. He financed his project by saving money he made from repairing cell phones and computers.

·        Case Number Five: Ibrahim Adekunle, the inventor of what he calls the “Tricycle Hummer,” a new take on the tricycle, which he has tested and driven in Lagos, Abeokuta and Ibadan. He also has another design he calls the Tricycle Limousine.

“I carried the Tricycle Limousine to Abeokuta with seven people and we never broke down, and I’ve already tried Ibadan – there is no problem,” said Adekunle in Lagos.

This short, non-scientific survey refers only to a few instances of inventors who have made headlines in the past year. There are many more, and some younger ones are featured in a regular NTA programme in Nigeria.

The tragedy is that Nigeria’s so-called leaders have no appreciation either of talent or of leadership. The Jessicas are lucky to have landed on soil where they are nurtured; in Nigeria, she would have wilted under the hypocrisy and arrogance of politicians and bureaucrats. In our land, if your family is not rich enough to support your special gift, or if you fail to encounter extraordinary luck, our leaders are happy to watch you suffer and disappear; it makes them feel special.

In the immortal words of Iyabo Obasanjo: “Nigeria has descended into a hellish reality where smart, capable people [in order] to ‘survive’ and have their daily bread, prostrate to imbeciles.”

Perhaps 2014 will be different, and someone honest will engineer a playing field where the gifted Nigerian child can rise to the best of his or her ability, in Nigeria, with Nigeria’s nourishment. This is my prayer.



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