Oil, minerals but where are Africa’s intellectuals?

Saturday March 08 2014

After a long time of watching news on BBC and CNN (and Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square on the latter), one thing strikes you: No matter the crisis, Mali, Central African Republic (CAR), Lebanon, Syria, DR Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Ukraine, or some remote corner of the world, they will always find a scholar or expert from an American, British, or a European university (or an author on the subject) to interview.

You might think the scholar or author is shallow or biased, but that is a different issue. However, if you are a diligent journalist and you want to find a specialist from any of the over 100 public and private universities in East Africa on Mali, or CAR to give you some riveting insights, you won’t have a story. There are none. And don’t try looking for one on Mongolia, or Israel.

As Africa grows richer, and becomes more interesting to the world, it shall never become powerful or truly rich, if it doesn’t produce the one thing that is more important than the oil and minerals that we are selling to China – intellectuals and specialist institutions of learning.

Let’s take Britain. A tiny island. The other day I was looking at a map that showed the parts of the world that have never been invaded or colonised by the British — and they were barely two dozens.

At the height of its imperial power, Britain didn’t have the equivalent military dominance that the US has today, for example. What it had was ingenuity, scholarship, and gumption.

Unlike America today that builds its brain power partly through immigration, the Brits mostly did it the old fashioned way. The Soviet Union didn’t, and lost the Cold War to America.


Studying the rest of the world, especially when they are not studying you back with equal zest, gives you a strategic advantage.

You are better to dominate or cajole them; to manipulate their people; to run a better propaganda war against them; you will have deeper knowledge about divisions in their societies and how to exploit them; you will know exactly which official to bribe; and you can almost be sure which of the president’s or prime minister’s mistresses you can recruit to poison his wine when he makes his weekly booty call.

Our situation is so bad, the last time I checked (a few days ago), there was not a single prestigious peer-reviewed pan-African journal anymore. All the better journals on Africa are produced by Western institutions and universities.

The scholars and universities can only be blamed a little. They are poorly paid in most of Africa, and in some countries they have to brew moonshine in their bathtubs or drive special hire cabs part-time to make ends meet. The primary blame is on governments, and how they use professors.

On the other hand, who has not met an American professor who was or is a consultant for the State Department, Energy Department, or Defence?

With us, a government will send troops to Somalia without consulting the leading researcher on Somalia. And if they tried, they will not find one. It’s an egg and chicken progress, yes, but if we don’t solve it, we shall never see the age of African Empire.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected]. Twitter: @cobbo3