When the announcement came on 8 October that Kenyan assistant environment minister Wangari Maathai had won the Nobel Peace Prize, I was in far off lands. At a party the following day, quite a number of folks who had had their fair share of wine were staggering up to where I was seated, pointing at me, and shouting: "Wangari Maathai". With that, they would stagger off. People didn't need to say more to make their point.
The amount of space and words devoted to Maathai in the press around the world has been overwhelming: She is the first African woman to win the Peace Prize. It was a rare triumph, because it was the first Nobel awarded to an environmentalist – all of it a miracle that came out of a simple message to her countrymen and women to plant trees, and protect the ones that grabbers were trying to cut down.
There was an irony in all this, though. If you take the space the press devoted to Maathai, and work out the amount of newsprint it ate up, you would need to cut down a small forest to produce the paper it consumed.
More telling, however, was the Nobel prizes that, yet again, an African didn't win. Professor Maathai's Nobel brings the number of African recipients to 12. Except for the 1951 Nobel prize for medicine that was awarded to the South African doctor Max Theiler, all the others have been either for Literature or Peace: South Africa's Albert Luthuli (1960, Peace), Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (1978, Peace, jointly with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1984, Peace), Nigeria's Wole Soyinka (1986, Literature), Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1988, Literature), South African writer Nadine Gordimer (1991, Literature), Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk (1993, Peace), Ghana's United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan (2001, Peace, jointly with the UN), and South African writer J. M. Coetzee (2003, Literature).
Surely a continent of between 690 and 750 million people should have got at least one Nobel in Economics and another in Science over the years. It can't be that Africa is an intellectual desert.
Experience from Uganda tells me that it might be that in Africa, crude politics rules the allocation of academic resources and appointments. In the early 1970s, nearly all the academics at Makerere University who got professorships received them as gifts from the military dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin. The practice continued through most of the 1980s, and indeed lives on. Few professors, who don't support the government, aren't friends or relatives of the education minister or in-laws of the vice chancellor become professors, however good they might be. Kenyan universities seem to be as bad.
Then, in the period the situation should have improved in Uganda, i.e. over the past 15 years, there was an unexpected problem. This was when donor agencies were throwing around a lot of money for research on HIV/AIDS and other diseases; to study poverty and how to defeat it; to investigate bananas and cassava; and the breeding habits of rabbits and other animals. These were more than enough resources to produce some Nobel Prize winning work.
But because these projects came with four-wheel drive cars and other goodies, the academics who were appointed to head them up weren't the most qualified. They were the friends and village-mates of either a minister, or a general. That's because these folks would pay back the minister for the job. If there are six donor-funded research projects in a ministry, each will get a Toyota Land Cruiser and send it to the home of the minister in charge. And they will continue to pay its fuel costs and the driver's salary.
That might be why, apart from Theiler, nearly all the other African Nobel recipients were people who either took risks, stood up to the system, or were jailed. It would have been unusual indeed if Maathai too hadn't been beaten by the police many times for her Nobel prize-winning act.
This article originally appeared in the 25 October edition of The East African. Charles Onyango-Obbo is managing editor in charge of media convergence at the Nation Media Group, Kenya.
Editor's note: For reasons of technical accuracy, it should be noted that Ahmed Zewail of Egypt was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize for chemistry for creating the world's fastest camera, which captures atoms on motion. See: http://www.medcom-egypt.com/Zewail.html.