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Nigerian scientists are hoping that the new president's science background will prioritise science for development. Semiu Babalola reports.

On 23 April 2007, Umar Musa Yar'Adua was announced as the winner of Nigeria's presidential elections. Today (29 May), he will become the third executive president in Nigeria's 47-year history.

The 56-year-old former chemistry lecturer is the first graduate to become Nigeria's president. These credentials lead many in the scientific community to hope his appointment will herald a new golden era of Nigerian science, building on the foundations laid by his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Scientists agree that in Obasanjo's eight-year term, remarkable steps have been made in Nigerian science.

"Obasanjo made significant contributions towards achieving the country's technological growth," says Waris Alli of the Lagos-based Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA).

Alli ― like other scientists ― expects Yar'Adua to consolidate and surpass Obasanjo's initiatives.

From lecturer to leader

Born in 1951 in the northern city of Katsina, Yar'Adua's interest in the sciences began as a boy.

He studied a joint bachelor's degree in education and chemistry and a master's degree in analytical chemistry at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, between 1972 and 1980.

While studying for his master's, Yar'Adua began a career as a science teacher. He lectured at the Katsina College of Arts, Science and Technology and Katsina Polytechnic, for seven years until 1983, when he left to work in the private sector.

It was also during this time that Yar'Adua became actively involved in governance, serving as a member of the governing council for the Katsina College of Arts, Science and Technology and Katsina Polytechnic.

In the late 1970s, Yar'Adua joined the leftist People's Redemption Party and entered into politics. By 1999 he was elected governor of Katsina State and was re-elected for another four years in 2003.

In this role he led recruitment drives for teachers for secondary schools, upgraded laboratory facilities and awarded scholarships to medical students. He also established the first university in Katsina State.

Kehinde Osinfade, head of the clinical services at the Federal Medical Centre in Abeokuta, south west Nigeria, says that during Yar'Adua's tenure as governor his achievements ― increased student enrolments, health care delivery, roads, water supply and agriculture ― made Katsina a model state. It is hoped that Yar'Adua will bring this success to a national scale.

In the new government, Yar'Adua will be supported by a man with a past similar to his.

Many hope Yar'Adua will
prioritise science
Credit: SciDev.Net/Brahic
Incoming vice-president Jonathan Goodluck is, like Yar'Adua, a science graduate and a former governor (of Nigeria's Bayelsa State). He holds a master's degree in hydro and fisheries biology and a doctorate in zoology. Goodluck was also a science lecturer, in the biology department of the Rivers State College of Education in Port Harcourt for ten years, before which he served as the Rivers State science inspector of education.

With such strong scientific backgrounds, many in Nigeria's science community believe Yar'Adua's government will have a significant impact on the development of Nigerian science, technology, engineering and innovation.

Scientists' wishlist

There remains a firm belief that excellence in science can help the nation address problems in public health, energy and food security.

President of the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS), David Okali, believes that science and technology should be at the centre of Nigeria's development and hopes that Yar'Adua will continue to support the field as his predecessor did.

"We must develop our indigenous science capacity. It is not enough depending on people from outside, capacity must be grown internally," Okali told SciDev.Net.

Okali has called for the setup of a science advisory council to provide evidence-based advice to the incoming government. He also highlighted the importance of strengthening science institutions like NAS.

He told SciDev.Net that he hopes the Yar'Adua administration will support the Academy and appreciate its place in technological development.

Osita Agbu, a researcher at the NIIA in Lagos said Yar'Adua has a greater understanding of the country's technological needs than previous leaders.

"It is all a matter of interest, vision and understanding what your country needs to develop technologically and industrially," said Agbu.

NIIA's Waris Alli says Yar'Adua's should first address the energy problem. "This is important for science and technological development. If you don't have a regular power supply, how do you hope to make any meaningful technological leap?" says Alli.

Agbu highlights another major problem. Although Nigerian farmers produce enough food, they cannot preserve it, making food preservation technology a must.

He also emphasised the need for proper coordination among the various institutions in the science and technology infrastructure, so that duplication would be avoided.

Measures are also needed to address the country's higher education system. Nigeria's 52 public universities have been closed since late March 2007, following a strike by lecturers demanding improved working conditions.

Lecturers say the government agreed to make money available for refurbishing universities but has so far not delivered, despite more money being invested in the science sector in recent years.

"There has been a massive increase in student intake but this has not been supported by funding. Universities suffer from lack of necessary tools," explains Alli.

"Successive governments have not given serious attention to funding. There has been increased funding but not enough to solve the problems," Alli added.

Yar'Adua's immediate priorities also lie with public health, specifically the control of infectious diseases.

Oliver Ezechi, chief research fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research in Lagos, emphasised the need to step up efforts to prevent maternal and infant mortality ― of which Nigeria has one of the highest rates ― and research into developing locally made vaccines and improving healthcare provision for HIV/AIDS malaria, tuberculosis and polio.

"There is need for a multisector approach in solving health problems," adds Kehinde Osinfade.

"Provision of drinkable water, electricity, food, good roads and information are essential. If you have regular power supply, you will have better doctors, nurses and engineers."

Continuing the legacy

In most of his public statements, Yar'Adua has promised to sustain various reforms initiated by Obasanjo in the past eight years.

He has said energy, modern agriculture, public transportation, mining, education, poverty reduction, increasing the number of women in governance and crime remain priority areas.

He also pledged continued support for Nigeria's space and satellite programmes, such as the National Space Centre in Abuja.

Obasanjo strongly believed that space science and technology had become a dominant factor in national security, communication, natural resources management, navigation and natural disaster management in the last 50 years.

Space science is thought of
as important to Nigeria's
Credit: NASA

Nigeria's communication satellite NIGCOMSAT-1, was launched on 13 May, estimated to have cost some US$400 million (see Satellite launches boost African communications).

Nigeria hope to deploy more satellites before the end of the satellite's 15-year lifespan. By 2009, when Yar'Adua will be half way into his presidential term, the country should have launched NIGCOMSAT-2.

Last year, Turner Isoun, Nigeria's science and technology minister, announced Nigeria's intention to carry out a manned mission to the moon by 2030. Whether this ambition turns out to be feasible depends on Yar'Adua's administration.

Ahmed Rufai, head of NigComSat Limited ― the company that oversaw the commercialisation of the satellite project ― says the strides taken by the country's space programme mean Yar'Adua has a lot to live up to in this area.

Rufai said at a press briefing that the satellite will help bridge the digital divide, bring business opportunities and save Nigeria and other African countries buying communications technology and access.

The success of the satellite programme could have wider impacts on the economy and people's lives in areas such as telemedicine, agriculture, e-governance and information and communication technologies.

A transparent future?

A major sticking point in any Nigerian science endeavour will be funding. Issues of finance in Nigeria are constantly dogged by allegations of corruption and science has not escaped this.

The Petroleum Technology Development Fund ― established by the Nigerian government in 1973 to produce skilled workers and scientists in field of energy ― has been tarred by high profile corruption (see Science and technology millions missing in Nigeria).

Osita Agbu says agencies should be restructured to provide effective service delivery and improve transparency.

"I think there are many institutions that have under-performed. [The petroleum fund] is not the only culprit. Yar'Adua should sustain the anti-corruption war, to ensure transparency and accountability," says Alli.

However, there are fears that Yar'Adua might not be disposed to look further into the agency's finances, considering that Obasanjo was involved in the controversy.

According to Akin Adubifa, executive director of NAS, what the country wants is a good president, regardless of their background, though it would be an advantage to have a president who has a better understanding of science and science policy.

Yar'Adua has promised not to disappoint Nigerians. Nigeria's scientists are particularly hoping he will not disappoint them.