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Last month's presidential elections in Nigeria have cast a shadow over the country's efforts to promote science and technology.

Nigerian scientists have several reasons to feel optimistic about last month's presidential elections. The winner (and now president-elect), Umaru Yar'Adua, is a chemistry graduate widely expected to continue the pro-science, pro-innovation policies of his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Obasanjo, who is stepping down after two terms of office, leaves behind a solid platform for turning these policies into reality. Its components range from last year's commitment to provide US$5 billion for funding research, to the creation of a National Council for Science and Technology, and even an ambitious — but also practical — national space programme to exploit the benefits of remote sensing and telecommunications satellites (see Nigerian science fund 'should inspire Muslim world').

But Nigerian scientists should also be concerned at the way the elections were conducted. Many observers, both Nigerian and foreign, claimed to witness widespread efforts to rig the voting — leading some internal monitoring groups and opposition parties to demand a re-election. Certainly there has been surprise at the majority obtained by Yar'Adua, a relatively obscure and uncharismatic politician.

Science is not a democratic activity; disputes are not resolved by majority voting, and not all views on scientific theories carry equal weight. But science needs a democratic environment, free of imposed authority, to thrive. Political support is essential; but, on its own, is not sufficient. The best ideas must be allowed to surface on their own merits.

A strong scientific legacy

Obasanjo's scientific legacy reflects his conviction that if Nigeria is to become a leading player in the global economy by the year 2020 it must invest in, and subsequently harness, the potential of science and technology.

For example, last month (April), at the Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad in Abuja, Obasanjo repeated his call for Nigeria to keep science and technology as a high political priority — a theme he has frequently urged on colleagues throughout Africa in recent years.

This partly reflects a desire to ensure that, in a country where only half the population — the largest in Africa — has access to clean drinking water, science and technology are applied to pressing social needs. According to media reports, the education minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili, speaking on the president's behalf, declared that "science alone can solve the problem of poverty and hunger".

But Obasanjo also recognised that a thriving, innovation-based economy is essential for tackling unemployment and the social disruption and unrest that goes with it.

As Nigeria's long-serving science minister, Turner Isoun, pointed out in a recent speech, however profitable the country's oil industry, the fact that it only requires a relatively low number of workers means it can never solve the country's employment problems on its own.

Key ingredients

But science and technology can help the Nigerian economy diversify. A key development has been the country's decision to establish "policy roadmaps" in 11 areas of technology. Three of these — in information technology, biotechnology and space science — have already been approved and agencies established to implement them.

Equally important has been the decision to revitalise the country's tertiary education system, which focuses funding on six universities identified as centres of scientific and technological excellence.

Nigeria is fortunate in that it can rely on oil profits to provide the means for diversification. Indeed, the central mechanism for channelling money into research is the national Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), set up in the 1970s to produce skilled energy workers and scientists.

But the country's oil wealth is also a source of much of its political tension. For example, Obasanjo's supporters tried to use charges over the misuse of the PTDF to block one of his strongest political opponents, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, from participating in last month's elections (see Science and technology millions missing in Nigeria).

In an era of globalisation, strong social and economic policy requires a solid grounding in science and technology. It is to Obasanjo's credit to have recognised this, and taken steps to implement projects and policies that reflect it.

But strong science and technology requires a solid grounding in good governance and effective democracy. The conduct of last month's elections, with its implication that political authority can be imposed by brute force, raises question marks over Obasanjo's legacy in this area. It must not be allowed to undermine one of the brightest prospects for Africa's scientific revival.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

SciDev.Net thanks Onche Odeh, a science reporter with the Daily Independent newspaper in Lagos, for contributing additional information for this article.