Arts triumphing in spite of scholarship incentives for sciences
A country needs its physical sciences in her quest for development. But in Nigeria, science and its derivatives of technology and engineering seem far-fetched concepts.
This is in spite of the patronage science enjoys through incentives such as scholarships and other encouragements. And so while Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) are being actively promoted, orphaned disciplines in the arts or humanities march on regardless with visible outputs that shame the scientific and engineering communities.
From both government and big corporations like Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Chevron, Shell, Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and numerous others, there is a plethora of scholarships, which those studying sciences can easily access.
These are in bids to fast-track the country into rapid industrial development.
However, no such opportunities exist for the arts. But in spite of these incentives, Nigeria’s science still lags behind its artistic counterpart in terms of output. Nigeria as yet cannot manufacture a pin, but the arts have produced a Nobel and many other prizes.
In fact, it is so bad that a lot of those who studied science and engineering ironically end up abandoning their first calling and opt for the allure of the arts instead.
The question then is, why haven’t the incentives for sciences yielded comparative results as the arts that is often looked down upon? What is wrong with Nigeria’s science that it has kept under-performing and for which Nigeria has remained poor and under-developed and perhaps even undevelopable?
It is development historian and economist, Dr. JImanze Ego-Alowes, who rightly surmises in his latest book, The University-Media Complex: Nigeria’s Foremost Amusement Chain that while Nigerians are good at consuming the knowledge others have produced, they lack first class brains to contribute to and innovate existing knowledge. This singular reason, he argues, is responsible for the country’s under-development.
According to him, “Therefore, in excelling only in school, we miss it all. We miss the education to be prophets and contributors, not consumers. Education is not a banquet. Education is production; it is harvesting new yams of knowledge and not in eating barn-held ones. Therefore, having a million PhDs or Harvard and Oxford first class degrees come to and will come to nothing save our orientation moves from banqueting to the producing of knowledge.”
The Guardian spoke with three experts, who shed light on the yawning gap in output between Nigeria’s scientists and artists.
Two of them are scientists who, in their old age, turned to the arts and writing and have made notable contributions in the literary landscape, while a third is a retired professor and innovative, prize-winning engineer, whose ingenuous invention is still lying fallow and unused.
Electrical engineer, Omo Solomon Uwaifo, worked with the defunct Electric Company of Nigeria (ECN), which transmuted into National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) that would later become Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) before being privatised. Uwaifo studied at Yaba Technical Institute in the 1970s before it was converted to Yaba College of Technology, a development Uwaifo regards as calamitous and which he primarily blames for Nigeria’s unending technical education woes and why the country may never fully become industrialised. Uwaifo has since become a poet and novelist for which he won a prize with his novel, Fattening House.
According to Uwaifo, many Nigerians have no science background as much as they do with folklore and so the propensity to do well in the sciences or technical field is limited, as against excelling in folk narratives and its derivatives that rightly inform artistic propensity.
“Most Nigerians have no technical background, but I do have a technical background,” he submitted. “I grew up in Igu Street (the famous bronze-carving street a few metres from the Oba’s Palace), Benin City, Edo State.
In primary school, we went from tailoring to carpentry to weaving baskets. I then went to Yaba Technical Institute, now Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH).
“There, five of my colleagues made a piston engine they mounted on a bicycle in 1973. I didn’t think Nigeria would not be able to produce a car within 10 years. Now we can’t even make a pin!”
Yaba Technical Institute changed, according to Uwaifo, and with it Nigeria’s chances of attaining excellence in technical and industrial sphere changed for the worse, as the technical laboratories and workshops were abandoned.
“We managed to change the theatres (workshops at Yaba Technical Institute) intended to produce industries to black-hole philosophies,” Uwaifo lamented.
“We have no technical background. But wherever you come from you have folklores being told to you in the evening. For art students, there is a background he could stand on. Get a Nigerian to measure anything and he can’t measure it accurately. Federal Government destroyed Yaba Technical Institute and replaced it with Yaba College of Technology for no reason. The two could have existed side by side.
“Yaba Technical Institute was destroyed with nothing to replace it. The problem we have in the electricity power industry is as a result. The technical secondary schools only exist in name; nothing happens there.”
Uwaifo points out the tragedy of science and engineering when he said that most of those who teach engineering in Nigerian universities have never seen an engine being made or assembled in a plant, adding, “We have to get them to be in production centres. To teach in any Nigerian university and say you’re an engineer is a lie.”
For any light to shine on Nigeria’s dream of industrialisation, according to Uwaifo, is for government to “provide the right environment for engineers to work,” noting that the country does not have “the right institutions to harness even university students’ innovative projects that are capable of being harvested as industrial products.”
Prof. Mark Nwagwu is a molecular biologist, who recently got a lifetime recognition award and retired from the Department of Zoology, University of Ibadan, and was able to develop a unique programme in cellular and molecular parasitologist which, at its inception in 1981, was the only one of its type in Sub-Saharan Africa. But he has turned his attention in retirement to writing. He has collections of poetry and novels to his credit.
Nwagwu also lent his voice to the argument, noting that Nigeria’s science environment is poor and has actually continued to degenerate over the years.
Nwagwu confessed to the fate of scientific enquiry in the country thus, “We’re in a very sorry state. There are massive efforts being made, but results are not visible. The facilities are not there. Why can’t companies invest in the sciences? All Nigerians want now is money and profit, no real investment.
“Our ministry of science and technology is asleep, dead. A man once invented a compound that could prevent roads from breaking up, but no one invested in it; he went abroad. Can anyone get $100,000 from government for any scientific research? Are there laboratories? All the facilities are getting dilapidated and no one is interested.”
Nwagwu then made a distinction with the arts, saying, “In the arts, I can sit here and write a novel; it all depends on me. It’s not so in the sciences; it takes a whole lot, not less than N5 million to get started. Every scientist wants to leave the country because of poor facilities. I’m going to Ibadan again and I will go to the laboratory but what will I see?”
Professor Prof. Apkoveta Susu also retired from Faculty of Engineering, University of Lagos, and won The Nigeria Prize for Science in 2004, alongside his doctoral student, Kingsley Abhulimen, for their work, ‘Real-Time Computer Assisted Leak Detection/Location Reporting and Inventory Loss Monitoring System.’ If adopted, the work would help prevent leakages from vandalised crude oil pipelines. But till date neither NNPC nor the oil companies have adopted the innovative invention much less deployed it.
Susu acknowledged that there is very low patronage for science in the country, saying science “needs infrastructure to thrive, very expensive infrastructure to thrive. At the level of research, you need dedicated equipment; it’s very expensive venture. If I want to do research on AIDS, I need specific, dedicated equipment; if I want to research for malaria, I also need another type of specific, dedicated equipment.
“To do science, you need a lot of money, but in the arts, all I need is my God-given talent; I can sit in my room and create poetry; it doesn’t mean it’s less noble.
“But to build a prototype, you need no less than N3 million. You need government and government doesn’t have that or the interest to invest in science. That leak detection system we invented, we thought that it would be developed. We thought it would be developed by government before industries get involved, but it hasn’t happened.”
The way out of the logjam would be to start from scratch. So, instead of giving scholarships to students, facilities should first be created so students would be better grounded in the sciences.
But while that is waiting and scientists keep lamenting their sorry fate, those in the arts will keep flourishing with their talent that is easily harnessed for its economic gains.
Also, scientists with artistic talents, who are smart enough to spot their endangerment, have made a crossover already like Olujazz, who is giving back to society through his mastery of the saxophone instrument.
But those in the arts need the patronage of scientists alike for their art to flourish in a reciprocal approach. Government and big industry need to step in and reformulate a scientific model that would get scientists back to their laboratories for the needed industrialization to materialise. That is the route other climes have walked. Nigeria’s cannot be any different.