The presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, whatever its pitfalls, has been positive for Nigerian science.
The orderly transfer of power is an important test of any democracy. This Saturday, voters will go to the polls in Nigeria to select a successor to President Olusegun Obasanjo, the former general elected in 1999. Having served two terms, Obasanjo will return to academic life. But the election campaign has already been characterized by considerable violence, and it remains to be seen if its outcome can be regarded as fair.
Over the course of his presidency, Obasanjo has emerged as one of the most significant figures in contemporary African politics and has attempted to incorporate science into the continent's development. In recent months, he has given the go-ahead for reforms to Nigeria's science and technology governance, which had stagnated since independence in 1960. The reforms include creating a new National Council for Research and Development (to be chaired by his successor), and a number of individual research councils, which will provide funding on a competitive basis for research in specific areas such as agriculture and energy, as well as provision for independent quality assessments in the universities.
New research centres have also been established, including the African Institute for Science and Technology in Abuja. But perhaps his most ambitious plan was that of a major expansion, announced in June 2006, of the country's Petroleum Technology Development Fund, to set aside US$5 billion of oil revenues for research grants, education and infrastructure. The fund has been in existence for years, but the expansion could go some way towards protecting Nigerian researchers from the inevitable budget cuts that take place in oil-dependent nations when oil prices fall, or if political priorities change.
Unfortunately, the petroleum fund is now at the heart of a dispute between the departing president and the vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, who is standing for the presidency this time round. Each has accused the other of diverting money from the fund to non-scientific causes (see http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3334). So the jury remains out on whether the fund is ever going to materialize in its advertised form.
All of Nigeria's main opposition parties seem to be signed up to the Obasanjo agenda for science and development. The next president will inherit a range of instruments for promoting education and science — as well as a massive challenge in addressing poverty, disease and corruption. According to the United Nations Development Programme, one in two Nigerians lacks access to clean water, and life expectancy is less than 44, unmoved since 1970.
But at least Obasanjo recognized that Nigeria needs to invest in education and research in order to confront these challenges — an approach that is growing more popular across sub-Saharan Africa. That has provided a platform on which his successor can build.