Africa needs to bridge the technological gap to compete

By: Ali A. Mazrui

There are five forms of technology. Technology of production seeks to tap the riches of nature and of the human mind. Sometimes the wealth produced can be replenished as in the case of agricultural production.

But there are cases where the wealth produced is depleted, as in the case of oil production and the harder minerals that we dig out of mother earth such as coal to gold, copper and diamonds.

Africa is rich in mineral wealth, but not rich enough in the technology, which digs it up. African oil producing countries need Western corporations and their engineers to prospect, dig, process, and even to market the oil. We may shortly be using Chinese mineral engineers as well.

Sudan is already turning to China for petroleum engineers. We need to close the technological gap as a continent, if we are ever to control our own resources.

In addition to the technology of production, world history has been transformed by the technology of destruction. When post-Industrial Revolution Europe outranked Africa in technological prowess, it acquired the capacity to colonize it under the threat of military destruction. There was a time when the maxim gun (an early machine gun) was a major instrument of controlling other societies.

Recent debates about weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East are about technology of destruction. In my BBC Reith lectures in 1979, I urged Africa to move fast towards acquiring a nuclear capability.

My leading candidates for the nuclearisation of Africa were Nigeria and South Africa. South Africa did make it, but in those days South Africa was under apartheid. By the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison, South Africa had at least six nuclear warheads.

But no one trusted Black-ruled South Africa with such weapons of mass destruction. Mandela and his associates were thus persuaded to forego their nuclear status and sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Conceivably, that was black Africa's last chance to have a nuclear military power.

Big powers seek to monopolise certain areas of technology. When I urged Africa to go nuclear in 1979, there was no physical threat from the United States to stop such undertaking. And so apartheid South Africa could manufacture nuclear devices, with the help of Israel, without being threatened by the United States.

But today Iran seeks to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and is threatened by all sorts of reprisals. It is a crisis of technological monopoly as the nuclear-haves are determined to prevent the nuclear have-nots from acquiring a dangerous technology.

African countries that have attempted more modest forms of nuclear research include Ghana. When Nkrumah declared that socialism without science is void, he initiated nuclear research.

And even the Belgian Congo launched nuclear research on the eve of independence. In spite of all the Congolese upheavals since independence, my BBC camera crew and I were allowed to film its nuclear facilities a quarter of a century after the country's independence.

Africa does buy conventional types of technology of destruction from machine guns to tanks, from fighter planes to grenades. We do not make those weapons ourselves, but we spend millions upon millions of foreign exchange to acquire them.

Since Somalia was absolutely saturated with conventional weapons during the cold war, that beloved neighbour of ours has suffered greatly from undisciplined use of the technology of destruction. And Somalia's neighbours have witnessed disproportionate smuggling of such weapons. That is why Nairobi City is less safe today than it was 20 years ago.

In addition to the technologies of production and destruction, there is the technology of communication, ranging from new modes of transportation to the wonders of the electronic revolution. We have been awed by the great possibilities of the information superhighway. Jomo Kenyattta University seeks to have its own impact in this field of the technology communication, ranging from small farm vehicles to a future bicycle and from computerized archives of the future to the nuances of informational refinement.

There is evidence to suggest that Information Technology in developing countries is the most gender-neutral. It attracts men and women in comparable numbers, whereas the technology of destruction (military technology) continues to be disproportionately masculine and macho.

If the technology of destruction is disproportionately male, and the technology of information is increasingly gender-neutral, the technology of production in Africa started off especially feminine in the earlier generations. Women were custodians of fire, as they trekked long distances for firewood; women were custodians of water as they walked miles to fetch water from rivers, lakes and bore-holes; and women were custodians of earth, as they tilled the land and planted food crops.

As the technology of production got more modernized, women became partially marginalized. Modernised technology of production began to tilt on the side of male experts rather than female. But women are fighting back to recover lost ground. Our universities should continue to provide inducements for male and female students to excel.

In addition to the technologies of production, destruction, communication/information, there is also the technology of recuperation and healing. This includes the sciences of healing humans and animals, and the sciences of preserving planet earth and restoring its depleted riches.

Movements like those initiated by Prof Wangari Maathai to plant millions of trees need not only the political will to rejuvenate and restore, but also the accompanying technologies of soil enrichment and human enhancement.

The fifth area of technology is the technology of physical construction. In Africa this kind of technology started spectacularly with the pyramids of Egypt; huge stones weighing tons were moved in the ancient world in ways, which are mind-boggling. The engineering skills of ancient Egyptians five thousand years ago continue to be awe-inspiring.

While I do understand the paradigm-shift at our institutions of higher learning to encourage technological innovation to serve the nation, let us not forget that the core task of a university is not just to promote practical development; it is also to promote greater human knowledge and scholarship.