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Only science and tech will save Nigeria

By Ogbonnaya Onu   |   12 October 2016   |   1:49 am

Dr. Ogbonaya Onu

Dr. Ogbonaya Onu

In history, both in ancient and modern times, no nation has ever become truly great without science, technology and innovation. Indeed, developed nations are those that embrace science, technology and innovation, while others that do not, remain undeveloped. Hence nations, both big and small, know that knowledge, particularly technological knowledge, is central to development, social progress and human freedom.

Lee Kuan Yew, the acknowledged father of Singapore, in his book:  From Third World to First: The Singapore Story; 1965-2000, explained how by integrating technology into the country’s businesses, government and homes, he used the power of the internet to position Singapore for survival and success in the knowledge economy. Being fully aware, the people of Singapore effectively deployed technology to transform their country from a poor dilapidated colony to a rich, modern and prosperous nation.

Political leaders and scholars do know the importance of knowledge in the developmental process. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, in his broadcast of 1943 remarked that: “the future of the world is to the highly educated races, who alone can handle the scientific apparatus necessary for pre-eminence in peace and survival in war”. Also it is remarkable that Israel based her national development plans on the prediction of Charles P. Steinmetz (1865- 1923) that: “there will come an age of independent nations whose frontline of defence will be knowledge”.

Many developing countries, between the last two decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, made remarkable progress in their economic development. Such development was sustained over a long period of time. In every case, technological knowledge was employed to start and in most cases helped quicken the pace of economic growth and development. Notable among such countries, were those with large population such as China, India and Brazil.

China, though with a history of great achievements was once a poor country, but recorded an unprecedented high rate of economic growth averaging more than a per capita GDP growth rate of eight per cent over a period of more than three decades, stretching from 1979-2013. Within this period, China, with slightly less than one fifth of the world’s population, doubled her economy three times over to become the second largest economy in the world. This spectacular growth has no equal in modern history. China feeds 1.4 billion of her citizens. This is a major achievement. Do we imagine what would have happened to food prices in the world if the rest of the world had to feed 1.4 billion Chinese people?

India, with one of the oldest recorded civilisations in the world, entered the 21st century with a population of more than a billion people. She embraced technology and witnessed a high economic growth rate which was sustained for many years. Her achievements in so many areas were spectacular. She became a net exporter of food, a very impressive achievement in view of the huge shortage of food which India experienced in her immediate post-independent period. India built a strong industrial base, modernised her military and became both a nuclear and a space power.

Brazil is the most populous country in Latin America. She is also the industrial giant of the region. By utilising the enormous power of science and technology in exploiting her abundant natural resources and a huge labour force she, in the 1970s, became the leading industrial power of Latin America. Agricultural production, scientific research, innovation and technological development also improved considerably. By the 1990s, Brazil had one of the world’s largest economies. Though Brazil currently experiences enormous challenges, yet her achievements through the effective utilisation of science and technology for nation building is impressive.

Nations that are anxious to develop have long known that if they desire to modernise and be competitive, the only road to follow is that of knowledge, particularly scientific and technological knowledge. It is important to observe that just as the acquisition of knowledge helped many countries attain very high standards of living, so also its neglect inevitably results in the decline of the influence of those nations. Arnold Toynbee in his monumental work: A Study of History where he studied 21 great civilisations and Jim Nelson Black in his book: When Nations Die are both in agreement that intellectual apathy and lack of vision led to the disintegration of the structures that made civilisation possible.

Nigeria, in her post-independence history did not pay sufficient attention to the crucial role which science and technology plays in nation building. The impact of this trend in development on our economy can be better appreciated if we can examine the nature of our exports within the past 50 years for both Nigeria and South Korea.

In 1962, Nigerian exports comprised green groundnuts (16%), palm nuts and kernels (11%), natural rubber, latex and gums (7%), sawlogs and veneer logs of non-coniferous nature (5%), raw cotton (4%), crude petroleum (15%), raw and roasted cocoa beans (19%), oil cake (2%), palm oil (5%), peanut oil (3%), unwrought tin and alloys (4%), etc.

Also in the same year 1962, South Korean exports comprised vegetable origin materials (7%), animal origin materials (4%), flora in pharmacy (3%), other non-ferrous base materials (10%), semi or wholly milled rice (11%), unprepared rice in the husks or husked (7%), raw silk (10%), clay and refractory minerals (4%), fresh chilled, frozen or salted crustaceans and mollusks (11%), swine, pig (4%), unbleached cotton wool (4%), quartz and mineral (2%), salted, dried or smoked fish (4%), etc.

It can be seen that in 1962, both Nigeria and South Korea exported essentially unprocessed commodities, with little input from science, technology and innovation. Nearly 50 years later, the situation changed completely. The technology content of the exports of the two countries differed considerably.
Onu is Minister of Science and Technology

In 2011, South Korean exports had transformed to industrial products and already processed commodities comprising refined petroleum (8.69%), integrated circuits (8.5%), broadcasting equipment (4%), wholly manufactured cars (not assembled) –(6.5%), passenger and cargo ships (4.5%), special purpose ships (3.38%), vehicle parts (3.08%), LCDs (4%), others were hot-rolled iron, cold-rolled high tensile iron, broadcasting accessories, hydrocarbons, chemical products, vehicle tyres, ethylene, propylene, polyesters and polyethylene, telephone and telecommunications, equipment and machinery, etc.

Also in 2011, on the other hand, Nigerian exports still remained as nearly unprocessed commodities, although there was a shift to crude petroleum (78.41%), petroleum gas (9.12%), refined petroleum (6.69%). Hence, as high as 94.22% of exports became petroleum based. The traditional non-oil unprocessed commodities were virtually no longer exported.

It is clear that in 1962, both Nigeria and South Korea exported nearly unprocessed commodities. Nearly 50 years later in 2011, Nigeria still exported nearly unprocessed commodities. Though Nigeria exported commodities in 2011, the situation had become so bad such that she had become essentially a mono-product economy, as virtually all her exports (94%) were petroleum based. On the hand, South Korea had between 1962-2011 become an industrial power exporting broadcasting equipment, wholly manufactured cars; passenger, cargo and special purpose ships. What is most interesting is that though South Korea does not produce crude oil, but she exported refined petroleum products. This should not be surprising because while South Korea paid a lot of attention to science, technology and innovation, Nigeria did not. No wonder data from the World Bank on Investments in Research and Development (R&D) between 2005 and 2014, the expenditures for R&D as a percentage of the GDP for South Korea was as high as 4.15% while that for Nigeria was as low as 0.22%.

Perhaps, for us to properly understand the enormity of the damage that the neglect of science, technology and innovation has done to our national development, it has become necessary to start with a review of Nigeria’s standing in current global comparative statistics on the contribution of scientific innovation to national development. The Global Innovation Index 2016 (, published by the Johnson Cornell University in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) ranked Nigeria 114 out of 128 countries of the world on innovation.

Nigeria stands behind such sub-Saharan African countries as Mauritius (53rd), South Africa (54th), Kenya (80th), Rwanda (83rd), Mozambique (84th), Botswana (90th), Namibia (93rd), and Malawi (98th). The critical indicators used for ranking, include human capital development, Research output, Development funding, university performance and international dimension of Patent application. For me, it is a matter of grave concern that of the countries ahead of Nigeria in Sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa can compare with Nigeria in terms of economic resources and science and innovation potential. Therefore, why other countries which are less endowed than Nigeria actually performed better confirms the fact that we have not considered science, technology and innovation as a critical component of our economic growth strategy. It is important that we appreciate that we risk being left further behind. This is sad, if the trend continues.

In this article:
Lee Kuan YewOgbonnaya Onu

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