In 1999 as Africa faced the coming 21st century there were questions being asked about what should be the priorities for Africa. Many institutions had declared that Africa needed penicillin more than pentiums. Professionally I had been advising some of the world’s largest internet /tech companies and had met the founders and understood what was in the pipeline and how the world would be radically changing. The idea that Africa could avoid the future which was popular in the Wet seemed life threatening to me. I tried to get an earlier version of this article published in major journals but no one was interested. Out of frustration I put the article on the internet and went to bed. With no marketing or PR budget I assumed no one would ever hear of it or read it, but I was satisfied that I had done all that I could. To my astonishment within a couple of weeks I received an email from someone at the top of WHO saying they had read my article, were impressed and would be forwarding it to their colleagues. Shortly after I was invited to various symposia at UN and related organisations and for five years I traipsed around the world speaking and engaging at UN agencies from Geneva, New York and Vienna, attending as a member of a UN Expert Group etc. I became one of the founders of the African Open Source Foundation (FOSSFA). All from this one article. The power of the early internet was once again brought home to me.
This article looked at the issue of technology adoption from a long historical perspective and suggested that on the contrary Africa was at a critical juncture and had to adopt the new technologies as soon as possible and as a matter of urgency. Looking back from the perspective of decades it is difficult to remember the debates of the time or the widespread pessimism about technology adoption in Africa. Today with the widespread adoption of mobile technologies, with the ubiquity of internet access in major cities and wifi in most offices and hotels the questions raised have been answered.
What could be learnt fro the Russian experience of technology adoption and could it shed light on options for Africa? This review of a leading book by Loren Graham on Russian technology sought to understand the social and political dynamics of technology adoption. It provided for the first time an alternative explanation of the Lysenko affair showing that far from being a scientific event it was a politically convenient situation to free Russian science from stultifying political control. The standard interpretation had been written by Lord Ashby, the master of Clare College while I was a student there. This review also suggested that Western views of Russia tended to be over influenced by domestic Western agendas rather than seeking a truly objective understanding of Russia.
There was a general call for contributions to a book on the experience of Black students entering US universities in the turbulent period of late 1960’s. I offered to provide a view from the UK at the same period which by comparison might shed some light. The story covering myself, SkipGates and Anthony Appiah seems to have been controversial (I wrote it as I experienced it) and the editor wrote back codedly encouraging me to seek an alternative outlet for such an interesting piece. Friends arranged publication in newspapers in Nigeria and elsewhere. Today it reads like a brief autobiography but was not written as such. But as a creative person one accepts that after birth/creation one’s works have a life of their own.
Scientific racism re emerges from time to time. This work by Baker was initially published by Oxford University press to great fanfare and endorsement by Nobel prize winners. From internal evidence it was probably written in late 1940’s (almost all the sources dated before1940’s and other reviewers had not noticed) when it was refused publication because of its overt racism and the close connection at that time with Hitler. It was quite telling that by 1970’s it was deemed acceptable for publication. I spent several months checking almost every single one of the 1,000 references and his distortion of his sources shed considerable light on his academic integrity. After publication I was told that many students who ha d not shared Baker’s racism had found their careers destroyed but that after my review several were rehabilitated. Racism in the science community is barely concealed but not addressed and certainly the ability of racists professors to enforce their racism using the ‘review’ process or discriminate against students who do not share their obnoxious views is a matter of high political importance.
At the time the existence of mass surveillance was not widely acknowledged and its effect on Africa was generally ignored. This article addressed the consequences for Africa of mass surveillance starting from the deliberate deception of the Swiss encryption firm that embedded backdoors into their equipment at the behest of US intelligence. In a post Snowdon world it could be argued that this is all now old hat, but a better view is to see this as a political pattern, that mass surveillance would be tested on politically acceptable targets before being extended to political sensitive targets like friendly Heads of State. The apparent outrage from the US that they may have been hacked by a foreign power seeking to influence their elections would have been drowned out by hollow laugher from all over the world. To put it in plain English: what the US government does in Africa today it will do in mainland US by the end of the week – our freedoms are indivisible.
When President Buhari came to power he announced he would be focussing on eliminating corruption. There was of course a potential misunderstanding. Western commentators had complained that corruption was killing the country. This of course was a self serving analysis. It implied that all one needed to do was be honest and all would be well. This was of course nonsense. An honest fool is a very dangerous person in authority. This note was to re emphasise that good management was even more important than getting rid of corruption though the latter should not in any way be downplayed if only because of its enormously demoralising effect. Corruption is pretty universal. Good management is scarce.
This was written during a period when Microsoft was encouraging adoption of its products through false generosity. Offering to contribute computers to schools only on condition that they had Microsoft products on them. (There was an absurd case in Namibia where working computers with linux were replaced with computers with Microsoft products which failed go work!) Some may think this inevitable but not only is it not inevitable it would have been illegal in US. Gates contributed enormously to the Computer Science dept at Cambridge University but despite that there students had equal access to Microsoft or Linux etc. This piece was written to remind policy makers in Africa that creating habits for children was a major issue and not one to be ignored.
A chorus of criticism of Africa arose on academic discussion sites following Supreme Court decision in US. African policy which was identical to US/UK policy of several decades was expected to immediately change as if African countries had no autonomy. This piece arose out of one of these discussion and sought to place the debate in an African context where gay bashing and other popular Western sports was largely unknown.