14 March 2016

Africa: Why African Scientists Must Be Champions for Democracy


Hundreds of people were murdered in my home town during three bloody days in December 2015. They were victims of what's come to be called the Zaria massacre, killed by soldiers who were supposed to protect them. A baby girl, scores of children, university students and journalists were among those killed in the Nigerian town where I grew up. If I had been home in December, I could have been among the victims.

This incident - one of many stories of human rights violations in Africa - may not sound like it has anything to do with science or maths. But it's actually inextricably linked with an ongoing drive to find the next Albert Einstein right here on the continent. For what is the point of finding this new Einstein, or many Einsteins, if they cannot do their work safely or actively contribute to building democracy on the continent?

Scientists and humanity

There is no doubt that scientists and mathematicians have an enormous amount to contribute to Africa's future. They can develop vaccines and cures for disease, find ways to purify drinking water, create mathematical and statistical models, and engineer infrastructure.

That is only one side of the coin, though. African mathematicians and scientists must play an equally active role in establishing and protecting a democratic continent where basic human rights are respected in principle and practice. This notion of a science-humanity connection isn't unprecedented. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals, the lightning rod and swim fins, among other things. But he was also a leader of the American revolution and one of the founders of the United States.

There are more recent examples: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry. In Asia, it's common for politicians to be trained scientists.

So how can scientists be equipped with the tools to become activists for democracy?

Learning beyond science

In 2003 I was honoured to be among the first cohort of students at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences' (AIMS) South African centre. Such a space wouldn't have been possible before the country became a democracy in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela - young scientists of different races wouldn't have been able to mix, share ideas and learn from each other during apartheid. Other centres have opened in Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania; a sixth will be opened in Rwanda soon. The organisation's purpose is to develop young scientists and mathematicians. But it goes further.

One of the most exciting aspects of my curriculum back in 2003 was the sessions set aside for exploring contemporary social and political issues. We were taught how to be creative and critical not just in our own scientific research but in all matters. This offers a valuable model: where young scientists gather, there must be discussions about democracy and human rights alongside those about physics, maths, chemistry, biotechnology, innovation and so on.

For instance, the 2018 Next Einstein Forum (the second of its kind after 2016's March meeting in Dakar, Senegal), should organise spaces for such discussions. This platform is a chance for questions and problems to be raised and possible solutions to be analysed. Politicians, NGOs and other non-scientists should be welcome, too - their input and influence are crucial for implementation. But such work can't only happen at special, occasional gatherings. It needs to be carried out on a smaller scale, too.

Developing activist scientists

Mathematicians and scientists are not members of some secret cult with hidden ideas or agendas. Young people must be taught from school that there's more to these disciplines than remaining cloistered in a laboratory or absorbed in theoretical work. They need to understand that their work can be applied to real change, and that they have a role to play in African democracies.

There are a number of politically active scientists around the world who could drive this process. I met several at AIMS, among them applied scientist and engineer Sanjoy Mahajan and David MacKay, the former chief scientific advisor to the UK Government's Department of Energy and Climate Change. Many others exist who could play a valuable role in educating scientists about their social obligations. Activists, journalists and humanitarians can also get involved in teaching scientists about the world beyond their laboratories.

Disclosure statement

Shehu AbdusSalam has been affiliated from childhood with the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.


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