Lagos — When you get to certain age, you begin to discover that there are those things you cannot change and will never see change in your lifetime. As a young man, you might be boiling with anger why the world is so unjust, and why such level of poverty in the world, particularly in Africa. I strongly believed we had to get it right in my lifetime. I strongly believed that all we needed was putting out leadership house in order.
But over the years as I grow older and older, I began to feel probably I was acting out of sheer naivety. If not for any reason, for the fact that I have come to discover that ours is a difficult enterprise, and culturally reinforcing. I have come to the painful discovering that probably I might not see the Africa of my dream before I die. I have come to the painful truth, that if care is not taken, our children and their children would inherit an Africa worse than we have today.
Let me share with you my recent painful experience, involving my four years efforts to help contribute my little quota to the development of our struggling continent and how some fellow Africans at the "World Bank" took it over to parade themselves and some African scholars as the initiators of the efforts. By the time you finish reading my story, you would understand why I have come to the painful conclusion that it is going to be difficult for our children and their children should we continue this way.
Ten years ago, I challenged myself. I told myself you must do something, something to help your children and their children inherit a better Africa, an Africa better than you inherited from your parents, an Africa where the limits of your children and their children will simply be the limits of their own dreams. During these years, I had to try here and there, looking for what is it that I had to do to contribute to a better Africa. When I finally came to believe that probably somewhere my contributions might be felt most could be in education and human capital development, which unfortunately remains what really separates us from the developed world, I began to be optimistic again.
But as I did the digging, I came to further realize that after all, what we really needed was a world-class research university where Africa's best and brightest could easily come together to think out homegrown answers to the critical problems facing the continent, malaria, AIDS, food production and distribution, and leadership for example. The surprising discovering was that after all, it was just a few private research universities out of America's numerous universities that drive America's knowledge leadership and economic power, while others are simply there to help complete the circle.
Coming to this appreciation became the turning point of my dream of a pan-African research university, "the Africa Institute of Technology". Just like the experiences of leading private research universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Indian Institute of Technology (still emerging), I strongly believed that such a pan-African research university would also be focused on the training of a handful of highly talented students as top-flight designers, engineers, scientists, scholars, and managers, who would serve as the major source of intellectual capital, and through their informal networks and strategic alliances, typically with industry in selected areas of concentration would begin the painful journey of transforming African economy to a knowledge-based industrial economy. I also believed that it would be through this same concentration of today's scarce resources that Africa could be able to achieve the real critical mass for its rapid industrialization, which is today an impossibility given the current thinly spread of scarce human, financial, infrastructure, and entrepreneurial resources across the continent. During my research, I equally discovered that even such a concentration would trigger true regional economic integration driven by "inside-out" effects.
I knew also that copying today's leading universities like MIT wouldn't be the best way go about it because they were established to reflect the unique realities of their own world, and might not suit the realities facing Africa today. So I believed we needed a research university that takes into account the needs of Africa. I came to believe also that the only way such a pan-African university could succeed would be if it was privately owned and privately managed, since such a private institution when far better funded and freer from government control and bureaucratic burden, would become financially independent, administratively efficient, and academically forward-looking and entrepreneurial, as well as help reverse the current brain drain that for years has left most of our universities without qualified teachers. I strongly contended that as a private institution, those wanting to give to the university would freely give to it knowing fully well that the university will be accountable to them, and that their gifts would not be seen as to be supplementing government annual allocation, as is the case today in publicly run universities in Africa.
In as much as that remained the best route in Africa's journey to join the club of knowledge societies, I did not underestimate the cultural problems inherent in Africa's university funding model, which would make the transition extremely difficult. First, there are a small number of wealthy people in Africa. Second, Africa does not have the culture of philanthropy. Third, in Africa there is the belief that asking directly for money is impolite and crude. Fourth, and most important, the fact that universities are largely state-financed, and state-run makes donors reluctant to give as they fear that their generosity would just make up for government shortfalls--or worse, be mal-administrated by government appointed university bureaucrats. Finally, the vice-chancellors, as the chief executive officers of the universities are not trained for asking for private financial support.
Starting with such a clean slate, gave me the opportunity to be in continuous thinking, adding and subtracting. My new energy drove me to thinking beyond just establishing a mere research university. It made me to start thinking an environment where both a world-class university and leading innovative companies and service industry would all coexist, pursuing mutually beneficial goals that could produce Africa's high-tech hub.
With the project planning finally completed and presented to my supporters at MIT, seeking planning grants to initiate the final processes of planning created the need to approach some financial institutions, particularly the World Bank. But little did I know that bringing this project to the attention of some Africans at the Bank would be the demise of my four years work. In other words, I didn't know that informing three fellow Africans, introduced to me by an MIT professor would end up making the project a World Bank project.
It is difficult for anyone to feel the pain as I do, if you did not know the sacrifice that went into putting together this project for four years. It is difficult indeed to see people who did not know what went into the planning process to now parade what they call the African Institute of Science and Technology to be hosted by Mandela Foundation. It is painful to see the joke they call African Institute of Science and Technology without any serious planning to back it up. It is painful because two years from now it would become another World Bank abandoned project with hundreds of millions of scarce public money spent in supplies and contracts to the benefit of both World Bank bureaucrats and their African counterparts.
Enwegbara is the founder of the Africa Institute of Technology .