Edmund Abaka, Director of the African Studies Program, University of Miami, writes about the responsibility of migrant scholars. His suggestions on what scholars based abroad can contribute to Africa's development call for an extensive response.
Burtoon Bollag's article "African Academic Leaders Worldwide Strategize on Improving the Continent's Colleges," showcases one important ingredient in the effort to stimulate, promote, and nurture intellectual development in Africa back to the heights of the 1960s and 70s. The African scholars who are at the forefront of this effort deserve credit and our thanks for their effort. For now, how do we nurture good governance, respect for state property, affordable education for African children, and champion respect for the African rural area where most people live as opposed to the urban bias of our leaders - civilian and military? Let us ask Swiss banks to return the African loot into a scholarship Fund for needy school children. The interest on the monies African leaders kept in Western accounts will fund 10 children through to the University level every year. Our pens may be mighty in returning Africa's loot to the people who deserve it and education for all may be one way (out of many) to create a civil society. Who knows, it may be possible to foster the idea that an opposition party is not an alien from another planet (caps mine).
However, there are other ancillaries that can go with the effort. Africa is losing a large number of "bright minds" who could have gone into politics. Where is the incentive to go into politics when all it takes is a corporal (Sankoh), Master-Sergeant (Doe), Captain (Strasser) to topple a legitimately-constituted government and plunge a country into decades of mismanagement, rape of the environment and resources of a country, and treat education and educational practitioners like pariahs in their own countries? The African scholars involved in this worldwide strategy should also consider means of delegitimizing coup d'etats. How do we strengthen institutions of governance to withstand the activities of rapacious leaders like Siad Barre, Marcias Nguema, Mobutu Sese Seko, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor and others like him, civilian or military? Do we even have to bother with governance? Sure, it is the source from which springs a good tax policy, a good investment policy, a good infrastructure-building policy, a good policy that will avert recurring famine and starvation.
When academics and academic institutions are harassed by governments, when intellectuals are beaten, threatened or dismissed from institutions of higher learning, no amount of incentives will prevent a brain drain (cognizance is taken of the multi-faceted nature of the brain-drain, that is, forced and unforced departure from the continent. Similarly, when student leaders are dismissed for leading student protests against government policies, governments are signaling their support of the "bandit-state" and disregard of anything resembling the rule of law. Probably, it is time to speak out forcefully on this issue. Research linkages will not work when institutions of higher learning are closed for months and even years, as has happened in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia and many other African countries. It is an outrage to close a university down for political reasons, but when professors salaries fall into arrears, how shall I call it? How can one justify not paying professors for months in Nigeria in the not-too-distant past, when the country was, and still is brimming with oil? Is it surprising that there may be more professors and doctors outside Nigeria than in the country itself?
Education is not a top priority for many African leaders, especially the military types or the military-turned-civilian types who are increasingly becoming the new type of politicians in Africa. These military or "military-minded" leaders prefer to spend more money on security than on educational institutions because the former ensures their continued existence in office. This is a pragmatic policy that sees, as far as its owners are concerned, the security establishment as the key to power. In some cases, they use overseas intelligence services and agencies to train their security detail in contradistinction to the military establishment itself. More money is wasted on new institutions of state.
When African leaders like Mobutu Sese Sekou of Zaire (Congo), Abacha and Co. stash huge fortunes outside the continent, money that could have been used to improve education, health care systems etc., there is a serious problem. It is time to ask various European banks to account for this loot. This money plus all the interest that have accrued over the years is the money of the same poor and starving people that we often see on television or read about in the newspapers. What a contradiction that these poor people have fueled various economies in the west.
In short, governance is one of a myriad of problems militating against Africa's leap into the twenty-first century. Granted that the trend toward democratization is on the rise, and that the Westminster type of government, or which ever type, is only forty years or so after independence, how do we shore up the institutions of state to prevent leaders from treating education as a footnote to everything else? When there is good governance and respect for education, some of Africa's problems will dissipate. The brain drain will be arrested when there is a guarantee of respect for equality, human rights (including the right to a fair and decent wage), support for teaching and research. When libraries are starved of journals while arsenals are stockpiled, there is something fundamentally wrong with the status quo.
To discount the ravages of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, and the effects of the Cold war on Africa (after all the war was fought by proxy in Africa) is to discount the realities of history and a people who forget their history stand to make the same mistakes (sadly we make the same mistakes even if we remember our history, and our western-educated leaders of the present time are also guilty). The effects of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism have been exacerbated by leaders like Charles Taylor (Liberia), Samuel Doe (Liberia), Mobutu Sese Sekou and Laurent Kabila (Congo), Martin Kerekou (Benin), Gnassingbe Eyadema (Togo) Ibrahim Babangida (Nigeria), Abacha (Nigeria), Rawlings (Ghana). These military leaders who hijacked governance in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s have stunted the continent's growth and accelerated the brain drain. Other civilian leaders have followed in their footsteps.
The question is : How do we foster a climate of good governance? How do we or can we, as intellectuals, nurture the concept of the opposition which seems to be an alien concept in Africa? Members of the opposition are often harassed, jailed, and even murdered in some countries. What a price to pay as a member of an opposition party?
The wars in Sierra Leone, the conflicts in the Great Lakes Region and the Sudan have destroyed the environment, gobbled up millions of dollars that could have been put to use increasing productivity, promoting education, health care. These wars have resulted in massive dislocation. In fact, there are more Africans in exile and in refugee camps on the continent than in Europe and North America. Finding solutions to these crises will free up resources for other fields of endeavor. The African concept of crisis solving has been applied in some countries. What else is there? Re-drawing boundaries (as even worse proposition), merging states (Nkrumah's Ghana Guinea-Mali model), and creating a supra-nation state (African Union Parliament)? At the end of the day, what do Africans on the ground say about solving the continent's problems?
Quietly and without fanfare, people are going back to Africa to teach during sabbaticals as one way of maintaining links with colleagues back home, to set up businesses, to participate in government and to make contribution of some sort. There are those who send journals and other things back to schools in Africa, medical equipment to hospitals, food aid to starving children. All these represent a tiny drop in a mighty ocean, but the idea that people outside care about what is going on is an important psychological boost for some of the people on ground zero.
If publishing monographs is becoming problematic, especially for new professors here in the United States, it is a nightmare in Africa. But this was not the case in the 60s and 70s. What has gone wrong? Nigeria used to publish materials as if there was no tomorrow. Research is still conducted in Africa, albeit with little or no support, and academics still write articles and books, the economic and political situation not withstanding. Audio-visual materials (basic stuff rather than complex ones) have broken down and are not repaired because "there is no money." But when leaders live opulently and government officials misuse state vehicles (one minister using three or four state cars) while public institutions are "abandoned" what is the justification for their continued leadership?
I laud the efforts of the African scholars who are devoting time and attention to help resuscitate African education to its former levels of excellence because intellectuals outside the continent can make a big impact. The other half of the equation has to come from within - respect for education. Soldiers who take up the guns usually treat education as an unimportant dimension of the activities of a state (probably masking their insecurities, but also demonstrating the fact that they have no clue as to the value of a literate society, the importance of research, and the role of the academy in national development). If the utterances of powerful leaders like George Bush contributed towards a recession, as some people argued rightly or wrongly, then the utterances and actions of some African leaders degrade and devalue education, much less encourage incentive and initiative. Some seem to have no clue as to the value of education, or do not care, or only see it as a threat to the status quo. These leaders live in opulence and show a disregard for the welfare of their citizens, a disregard that borders on criminality.
The private sector in Africa gobbles up a fair chunk of the products of the institutions of higher learning but its resources have not been harnessed to make an important contribution. It is time to rally the private sector to the cause of education. But they have to see that something tangible is being done before they are likely to contribute their fair share. How can one preach a redistribution of taxes - a phalanx of private companies not paying their fair share of the tax burden when workers have income taxes deducted at source?
The totality of all of these, some of which seem incidental, have contributed to the state of education in Africa today. I have argued elsewhere that some people choose not to talk about higher education in Africa because it amounts to criticizing African leaders for their role or lack thereof in the education crisis on the continent and can be seen to be anti-government. What ever is done to promote and revive education has to factor in the leadership component. If it means becoming political, so be it.
I am not suggesting that African leaders have the answer to all the problems of the continent. Quite the contrary. But leadership is important in solving many problems, especially in creating the right climate for people to bring their collective effort, wisdom and expertise to bear on problems. Therefore, when leaders stifle criticism, drive out supposedly outspoken individuals (professionals to boot), loot the national treasury, talk down education, dismiss professors and starve institutions of funds (covertly or overtly), live opulently and frivolously, solutions should take into consideration the leadership question. Linkages with people on the ground to promote a campaign of awareness, of good governance, of standing up to over-ambitious corporals and sergeants who sees the state as their channel to riches they can only dream about, should be undertaken side by side with other measures. Surely, only one step can be taken at a time. But keeping that option on the drawing board will ensure that it will not be lost in the larger scheme of things. This is important because all it takes in one individual to throw a monkey wrench in the effort, close down universities and ask professors to vacate their premises on campuses. It has been done before.
This piece is overly weighted on the question of leadership because it is one of the problems militating against education for all in Africa. My point is that Africa's problems are legion - leadership is only one problem, unfair trade practices is another, tax policies that give away our resources to foreigners is another, and the list goes on and on. But we can look at them one at a time. How do we ensure education for all as one method to promote a literate public and civil society that participates in the political discourse (I am talking about aggregates)? Education is not the answer to all of Africa's problems but it certainly will go a long way towards providing answers to some of the major problems of Africa, especially if it is coupled with job opportunities, decent wages, infrastructure-development, affordable healthcare and respect for people's contribution to society or what they do as opposed to the size of their bank accounts (a revolution in attitude that is important for development). Some friends back home may continue to give us the slip if one night out will put a heavy dent in their paychecks.