Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Brain Drain

Education in Africa
interview of Emeagwali


On this edition of Africa Journal, we will look at the issue of Africans studying away from their homeland and their reasons for not returning. We'll discuss where brain drain occurs most often and what countries are doing to attract Africans to return home. We'll also talk about the economic and social impact of loosing Africans to other countries. The weekly host of Africa Journal is Maimouna Mills, a Voice of America radio host.


What is your opinion about Africans studying away from their homeland?

EMEAGWALI: There is nothing wrong with Africans studying abroad. America is the motherland of technology and I could not program the world's fastest supercomputers if I had stayed in Africa. What is wrong is that most African students that studied abroad did not return to Africa.

The problem is that Africans who completed their studies in Europe and the United States are not returning to Africa. Since one in three African professionals will like to live outside Africa, African universities are actually training one third of their graduates for export to the developed nations. We are operating one third of African universities to satisfy the manpower needs Great Britain and the United States. The African education budget nothing but a supplement to the American education budget. In essence, Africa is giving developmental assistance to the wealthier western nations which makes the rich nations richer and the poor nations poorer.


What are the causes of brain drain?

EMEAGWALI: The primary cause of external brain drain is unreasonably low wages paid to African professionals. The contradiction is that we spend four billion dollars annually to recruit and pay 100,000 expatriates to work in Africa but we fail to spend a proportional amount to recruit the 250,000 African professionals now working outside Africa. African professionals working in Africa are paid considerably less than similarly qualified expatriates.

We also have internal brain drain when people are not employed in the fields of their expertise. For example, many military officers are politicians in uniform and some medical doctors are moonlighting as taxi cab drivers.


What are their reasons for not returning home?

EMEAGWALI: The socio-economic conditions make it difficult for us to achieve our potential. Political instability increases the rates at which professionals emigrate to the developed nations.

Many professionals emigrated during the brutal reigns of Idi Amin, Mobutu and Sani Abacha. The war in Sudan between the Islamic north and the Christian south has led to the emigration of half of Sudanese professionals. In 1991, one in three African countries were affected by conflicts. Today, there are more refugees in Africa than in any other region in the world.


What are your reasons for not returning home?

EMEAGWALI: First, I have an American wife that has her academic career and an eight-year son that is in a good school. It will be inconsiderate of me to disrupt my wife's career and my son's education.

Second, I never received invitations from government officials. Individuals look me up on the Internet and invite me to Nigeria.

Hopefully, by the end of the year, I should at least make a visit to Nigeria.


Which countries are most affected by the brain drain?

EMEAGWALI: The receiving countries are the winners while the sending countries are the losers. The receiving countries include the United States, Australia and West Germany. The sending countries include Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Ghana. Nigeria has 100,000 immigrants in the United States alone. In the United States, sixty-four percent of foreign-born Nigerians aged 25 and older have at least a bachelors degree. Forty-three (43) percent of foreign-born Africans living in the United States have at least a bachelors degree. Nigerians and Africans are the most educated ethnic groups in the United States.

The wars in Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola and Zaire contributed to the brain drain problem.


What are the social impact of brain drain?


Brain drain makes it difficult to create a middle class consisting of doctors, engineers and other professionals. We have a two class African society: a massive underclass that is largely unemployed and very poor people and a few very rich people that are mostly corrupt military and government officials.

Brain drain gives rise to poor leadership and corruption. A large educated middle class will ensure that political power is transferred by ballots instead of by bullets.

When the medical doctors emigrate to the United States, the poor are forced to seek medical treatment from traditional healers while the elite fly to London for their routine medical checkups.

Nigerian government officials are using tax payer's money to travel abroad for routine medical check-ups and malarial treatment. Overseas medical check-ups is a national disgrace and banning it would force Nigeria to re-hire those medical doctors that emigrated to Europe.


What is the economic impact of brain drain?

EMEAGWALI: It is the best and brightest that can emigrate, leaving behind the weak and less imaginative. It means a slow death for Africa.

We cannot achieve long-term economic growth by exporting our natural resources. In the new world order, economic growth is driven by people with knowledge. We talk a lot of poverty alleviation in Africa. But who is going to alleviate the poverty? It is most talented that should lead the people, create wealth and eradicate poverty and corruption.

The professionals that are emigrating out of Africa include those with technical expertise, entrepreneurial and managerial skills. Their absence increases the endemic corruption and makes it easier for the military to overthrow a democratically elected government.

Africa needs a large middle class to build a large tax base which,in turn, will enable us to build good schools and hospitals and provide constant electricity. The 250,000 African professionals working overseas will increase the size of the middle class


In what ways have you given back to your community?

EMEAGWALI: Telecomunications has changed the world and we now live in a global village or community. Right now, you and I are using telephone and satellite broadcasting technology to hold live conversation.

Being a guest in Africa Journal allows me to share my expertise and insight with you and other viewers. Each day, a dozen people look me up on the Internet and write me for advice on their career and life goals. I respond to most of them. Also, my website is used in 6000 schools and I provide academic guidance to many primary and secondary school students.


Do Africans who leave their home countries to study and work have an obligation to return and share the benefits of their education?

EMEAGWALI: In theory, we are morally obliged to return to Africa. In reality, an African professional will not resign from his $50,000 a year job to accept a $500 a year job in Africa. A more meaningful question will be to ask: What measures can be taken to entice Africans leaving abroad to return home and what can be done to discourage those professionals in Africa to remain in Africa.


How can brain drain be reversed?

EMEAGWALI: You have to recruit and retain them. We can provide recruitment incentives such relocation expenses, loans for housing and for starting businesses, salary supplement for the first few years. However, when the salary supplement ends, many of the professionals will pack their bags and return to Europe and the United States.

A more permanent solution will be to pay wages that are competitive.


What changes will you like to see in governmental policies?

EMEAGWALI: We have eliminate military spending and increase our spending the education, women's empowerment and youth development.

Forty years ago, Fourah Bay College, Makerere University and University of Ibadan used to be one of the best in the developing world. Today, these universities are crumbling and have chronic shortage of books and equipments. Student and lecturer strikes create an irregular academic sessions and it is not uncommon for students to take five or six years to complete a four year degree.

The problem began in the early 1980s, when many African nations were undergoing structural adjustment programs (SAPs) which required them to both devalue their currency and cut public expenditure.

Devaluation restricted the amount of equipments and books that could be purchased. It also made it difficult to travel abroad to study the sciences, engineering and medicine. A university professor that was earning $1000 a month in 1980 now earns $50 a month and most are forced to emigrate.

When the World Bank and IMF forced Nigeria to reduce public expenditures, Ibrahim Babangida cut the education budget instead of the military budget. While teachers salary were unpaid for several months, Nigeria was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to import arms.

We must not forget to invest in basic education. Nigeria needs to learn from Zambia. The illiteracy rate in the Nigerian adult population is 49 percent while that of Zambia is 27 percent. Yet Nigeria has far more universities than Zambia. Nigeria should learn from Zambia and focus on good quality basic education for the masses. With a high illiteracy rate and millions of university graduates, Nigeria will end up with her feet in the Stone Age and her head in the computer Information Age.


Emeagwali dropped out of school at the age of 12, served in the Biafran army at the age of 14 and came to the United States on scholarship in March 1974. Emeagwali won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, computation's Nobel Prize, for inventing a formula that lets computers perform their fastest computations, work that led to the reinvention of supercomputers. He has been extolled by Bill Clinton as "one of the great minds of the Information Age," described by CNN as "A Father of the Internet," and is the world's most searched-for scientist on the Internet.

Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor