In 1979 the late astute and erudite, Chinua Achebe, received the first Nigerian National Order of Merit Award and delivered its first lecture. He said that while Japan snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after she had lost World War II, that Nigeria snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after winning its civil war. Japan was not only defeated, she was devastated in every sense of that word. Yet, Japan rebounded within a short spell of time because of the technological wonders she orchestrated after the war, and by 1979, Japanese cars were much beloved all across the globe because they were fuel efficient while their American competitors were petrol guzzlers.
Achebe was peeved that his country, Nigeria, had refused to go the technological innovation way despite the modest scientific and technological beginnings recorded by the Biafran enclave during the 1967 – 1970 Nigerian Civil War. We marked the 50th anniversary of the end of that war on January 15th.
1979. The General Olusegun Obasanjo-led Murtala-Obasanjo administration was about to hand over to the civilian administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari when Achebe delivered that lecture. Two years earlier, Nigeria had hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77). A black renaissance was supposed to be on. Talks were on about Nigeria’s being Africa’s super power and a global medium power. We were a true giant of Africa as our position swayed the continent. Even some persons announced that Nigeria was about to become a nuclear power and that we owed no nation any apology.
Achebe must have surveyed the entire scenario and concluded that we were, once again suffering from national delusion. Or perhaps, he was telling the military, at the end of its 13-year despotism that its major failure was allowing the scientific and technological seed that had started to germinate on the war-ravaged and thus infertile Biafran soil, to smolder in a peacetime Nigeria.
Hey, may I spring the first surprise? The first attempt to nurture home-grown Nigerian technological innovation did not begin in Biafra. It started in Nigeria. Biafra was born in May 1967 but the attempt at technological innovation began in earnest in 1964. I’ll explain.
The incubation of Nigeria’s technical egg was on at least by 1964. A technological prodigy, a mere kid but a real wonder kid who was just in Form Two at St. John´s Secondary School, Alor, in present day Anambra State, had constructed a functional rocket; perhaps the first really functional rocket in Nigeria. The Nigerian Army – yes, in 1964 – got interested in the boy and his wonderful toy. Once the Army tested the rocket, the Federal Government awarded secondary school and university scholarships to the boy, James Achike, from Odekpe in Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra State.
Now, here is another twist to the story; all of us have believed that as necessity is the mother of invention, Biafran technological innovation took off only when the war had constricted its supply of essential commodities and weaponries. But that is not entirely true. Here, we have to acclaim late General Emeka Odumegu Ojukwu’s foresight and a wholesome belief in his people. Even before the pogrom against the Igbo people swept through the Northern Region, and even before the Nigerian Supreme Military Commander, Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi was assassinated on 29th July 1966, two events that started the technological innovation took place; first, he invited the young James Achike to the Eastern Regional State House. There, he was asked whether he could reproduce one of the rockets he built in 1964. The wonder boy performed the feat; the scene was Government Technical College, at Enugu, the region’s capital. Actually, James Achike´s newly invented solid rocket fuel was not only reproduced those who had watched it earlier noticed that he had improved upon his toy, considerably.
A few weeks after this, handpicked Engineers and Scientists from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and technical schools in the entire Eastern Region were invited for workshops and immediate research and production plans started in earnest.
Before that month ended, Ironsi had been killed. Nigeria became tension-soaked. One thing led to the other and war ensued. Biafra showcased Africa’s technological innovative ability and scientific resourcefulness. Please note that arms and ammunition were not the only things produced by the Biafran Research and Production Department. Biafra cars ran on locally refined petrol. It produced engine oil and found remarkable usages for coconut milk. It found ways to alleviate kwashiorkor illness. It had a land army that ensured enhanced food production.
James Achike said: “Because of the pressure on Biafra, more Igbo and Effik-Ibibio Engineers and Scientists in the United States of America and Europe started coming back to Biafra to join RAP (Research And Production). Consequently, RAP expanded into various branches according to fields of learning. This resulted in the establishment of about 32 branches throughout Biafra. There was a RAP branch for medical research and production, mainly for medicine and nutrition, another for Crude Oil and Palm Oil Refineries, another for producing explosives and bombs. We also had a branch for missiles/rockets and related weapons like rocket rifles and grenades rifles, generally known as Bazookas.
“I invented new solid rocket fuels which was so effective that it was recommended for immediate use for operations in the war fronts. I used such materials that are used for domestic purposes, like grinded sugarcane powder, cassava starch, and so on. I constructed suitable rocket motors for these solid fuels.
“My second research work with RAP, in Port Harcourt, was the design and construction of new Form of OGBUNIGWE. The form was purely based on geometrical configuration which should give most effective wide area destruction when detonated. We named it OGBUNIGWE, which means, Mutual Multiple Wide Destruction (MMWD). It is more than ordinary land mines we had been using in war front though. The Life-Prototype was constructed by RAP in Dockyard, Port Harcourt, in 1968. It was tested with my new explosives and the result was as expected. Immediately, this new form of Ogbunigwe was given to other RAP branches for mass production. This new weapon, Ogbunigwe, could be attached to rocket or jet propulsion device, as well as being used as land mines”.
Please, remember that Achike was only a West African School Certificate holder at that time. But he was not alone; at the Port Harcourt Dockyard alone were Engr. O. Odinwe, Engr. Nwaosu, Dr. Onyeachonam, and the Dockyard’s technicians. This dazzling team produced a 15-meter long and two meters in diameter Life-Prototype of Under-Water Submarine, designed to have shallow submerging capability. After initial tests they succeeded finally in making it to float under the water but Port Harcourt’s fall in 1968 meant the submarine could not be fine-tuned. The team then moved to Owerri, and Enyiogugu and to Amuzi, Mbaise and to Obizi, Mbaise, as their bases fell one after another.
The other research teams also kept moving and still remained at the job posts; doing research and innovating.
Biafra actually produced surface to surface missiles that could cover long distances. February 1970, just two months after the Civil War ended, the Drum Magazine published the picture of the Seacraft Missile, as well as the other weapon systems which emerged from the inventive genius of the Biafran Scientists and Engineers.
The following year in 1971, the American publication, the Readers’ Digest, wrote a major story on Biafran war inventions and predicted that within 10 years, Nigeria would be a technological and scientific innovation hub that would spearhead Africa’s technical awakening.
By the time Achebe was delivering his Nigerian National Order of Merit Award in October 1979, the War had been over for nine years and all the wonderful predictions of Nigeria’s and Africa’s technological awakening had been proved wrong. By that time, Nigeria had forgotten about Biafran science and technology.
So, was Achebe, in 1979, actually challenging the in-coming civilian administration to truly change Nigeria and Africa’s story by nurturing the scientific and technological tendril that Nigeria had until then allowed to be scorched by the sizzling sun of nonchalance? Perhaps yes.
I answered yes to that question because of the kernel of Achebe’s lecture, “What Has Literature Got To Do With It” is that literature means more than a creative form of expression as it is a necessary and vital contribution to everyday life. Achebe said that “Literature, whether handed down by word of mouth or in print gives us a second handle on reality”, providing the essential building blocks toward “modernization.”
He identified modernization as the “comprehensive goal” of every developing country, and showed how literature has helped shape other countries’ technological and scientific advancement because “the modern developed world owes much of its success to scientific education and development” which would have been impossible without literature. He asked: “what kind of science can a child learn in the absence, for example, of basic language competence?”
Achebe then asked: “What good does fine horsemanship do to a fellow without a horse?” Put differently, even if Africans were to gain a better understanding of literature, their simplistic underdeveloped way of life would not allow them to reach modernisation. Therefore, Africa must become scientifically and technologically innovative, or remain underdeveloped and unable to prosper.
Well, the Shehu Shagari administration and all the others after it did not listen to Achebe and thus Nigeria has remained backward.
1970. Three days after Ojukwu fled Biafra to the Ivory Coast, he addressed a World Press Conference: “As a people we have endured as only giants endure. We have fought as heroes fight. We have dared as only gods dare”. Can any Nigerian leader truthfully say this of Nigeria? No, we have failed at technological innovation – even as humans (not gods) do!