Bill Gates of Africa Talks About Nigeria
IT was difficult tracking down Philip Emeagwali. "I'm fully booked for one year ahead", he'd said, "and I am terribly behind." "I'm sorry too," I pleaded, "my editor, Eluem Emeka Izeze, personally requested that I get an interview with you by all means." It helps in this kind of situation to invoke the authority of the editor and make it look like the newspaper will collapse if the prospective interviewee doesn't oblige. It worked. Emeagwali softened a little. "But I am surprised. Nigerian newspapers are usually not interested in science. I am a scientist, not a politician." I had to tell him that when last year, he was honored at the 50th anniversary of the computer, as one of the individuals who have made significant contributions to computer technology, Nigerians celebrated not only that achievement, but his 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, the highest honor in Computer science which Emeagwali had won for inventing the fastest computer in the world. This newspaper did an editorial on him; other Nigerian newspapers as well. He is after all, a national hero. At a time when Nigerians are looked down upon internationally as crooks, Emeagwali's distinction in the field of parallel computing brings a new shine to Nigeria, and advertises the genius of our people.
Born in Akure, 42 years ago to Igbo parents, Emeagwali who dropped out of Christ the King's College at 14, and had to sit for his General Certificate Examination as a private student, holds five degrees in four fields, a Bachelors, three Masters, and a doctorate in Scientific Computing, Ocean and Marine Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Applied Mathematics. He holds six world records in computer technology, several awards and consulting appointments with top US institutions including a two-year consultancy for the US Army. In 1989, Emeagwali programmed a Cray Connection Machine to arrive at the world's fastest computer computation, a record 3.1 billion calculations per second using 65,536 processors.
This achievement helped to solve one of America's 20 Grand Challenges: how oil flows underground. Oil companies are now using Emeagwali's supercomputing to recover maximum amounts of oil in seconds. In April 1996, he had another breakthrough when he presented a 816 page description of a new computer to the US Office of Patents and Trademarks. This new computer, the Hyperball computer, is based on what he calls "the theory of tessellated models" and its design is inspired by Emeagwali's observations of a bee's honeycomb. He says the computer will be more efficient in predicting the world's weather patterns a century ahead of time, something no scientist has ever attempted. Emeagwali has been described as "one of the fastest humans in the world." He has been called the "Bill Gates of Africa." The London Guardian described him as "the new bright boy of the Information Age."
But still, he couldn't fit me into his busy schedule. Emeagwali works seven days a week, 16 hours a day, with little breaks in between, and constant travel across the United States: "I don't know any other way. It's what I am used to. I have to work." When eventually Emeagwali agreed to talk to this writer, he chose the medium in which he works: an electronic interview via the computer. Over a period of seven months, we exchanged about twenty-five electronic mails through his web site (http://emeagwali.com). The product is a 20-page discussion which focuses on Emeagwali's background, experience, motivations, current research, Deep Blue and Africa's status in an age of information. Still, I needed to meet him in person. A technological interview may have become inevitable now that the whole world is wired but nothing can replace the one-on-one interview of the traditional reporter.
He says he is surprised how badly things have turned out in less than 15 years. "In 1982, Nigeria's per capita income was $1,200, by 1994, it had dropped to $250. That's terrible. Of course to those of us who are overseas, it's meaningless because it's just numbers to you. But for people in Nigeria, it must be really tough. That's quite a drop. And yet the people at home want those of us who are here to return." Emeagwali thinks if he were to return to Nigeria, life would be very frustrating for him or he'd probably get killed. The last time he was in the country, he tried to stop a policeman from taking a bribe. "Everyone including the policeman thought I was insane." Emeagwali says he doesn't visit Nigeria that often. The first of nine children, every member of his family including his parents all now live in the United States.
He says the only reason countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea are progressing and Nigeria is stagnant is because Nigeria does not invest in people. "These countries invested in people, and now they are spending a lot of money to get to the information age. In Nigeria, we imported a lot of cars 25 years ago, all those cars are down now because we didn't invest in people. Labour is cheap in Nigeria. People can stay in that country and do a lot of international work if they have the skills. But there is no emphasis on skills. Nigerians just want to get rich. You can't buy your way to civilization. You need to have an educational system that is strong from first grade. You can't build a country when everybody is into petty trading."
I had to remind Emeagwali that petty trading is very profitable, and that many of his kinsmen will disagree with him. He shot back: "People are not enlightened. You can create wealth for yourself or for society. Our people prefer to respect people who create wealth for themselves. You might be familiar with the Ozo title. That's what I mean. Igbos are very individualistic and their focus is on creating wealth for themselves. Nobody gives you an Ozo if you create wealth for society. We need a shift in the way we think."
"Another problem," he says, "is that people don't appreciate the fact that Nigeria is over-populated. Part of our development plan should include asking couples to have a maximum of one child and if possible, not to have a child at all because it is not necessary. We have enough people. If we had limited our population to 10 million after independence and managed the petroleum money well, we would have been in a lot better shape." Our culture, I quietly remarked, favours large scale procreation. He explains: "Culture is dynamic. It has to adapt to the time. There were reasons in the past to have more children because infant mortality was high but now, it's in the individual's best interest to have only one child. I didn't have a child for the first nine years that I was married. I've been married 16 years and I only have a child who is seven years old. You see, you don't have to have a large family. The reason Nigerians have many children is that they don't spend a lot raising a child. Which is bad because this is our future..."
By now, the club had become busy, the music had turned heavy; before us were meatless bones of
fish and meat, and empty glasses of beer on tap; we'd spent five hours already. Emeagwali was
beginning to talk of leaving. He wanted to return to his on-going work, what he calls the
AFRICA ONE project, a communication design that will bring fiber optics technology to 41
points on Africa's coastlines, making it possible for the continent to make the best use of the
information revolution within the next two years. He also wanted to return to the privacy of his
life. His work has brought him recognition but also a lot of hate and racism from white
supremacists. His response is to continue working, and to keep away from possible danger.
Emeagwali is one out of about one million Nigerians overseas who are distinguished in several
fields. They are not at home, and they are not coming home, because their beloved country has
become a wasteland of hopes.
Original article distributed on June 24, 1997 by the OneWorld News Service (United Kingdom, http://www.oneworld.org).
Philip Emeagwali's Honors
1. Nigeria Prize, (Africa's
largest scholarly prize)
1. Nigeria Prize, (Africa's
largest scholarly prize)
© Copyright 1997 The Philadelphia Sun