Homecoming for a Robotic Ambassador

By Max Amuchie

From the mid 1980s up to the 1990s, Nigeria suffered a serious disease called brain drain. Nigerian professionals, the bedrock of the society voted with their feet. Medical doctors and other paramedical personnel moved in droves to America, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other places. With the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, that country equally became a destination point for the country’s professionals running away from harsh economic reality. The comedian, Enebeli Elebuwa acted Andrew, a young, upwardly mobile professional, who was tired of his country, Nigeria, because there was no water, no light, and no job. Andrew was frustrated and wanted to “check out” at all cost. But he changed his mind when someone explained to him the need for patience. He listened and dropped his luggage in order to help “salvage” his Nigeria. The system of checking out has not abated even with the return to civilian rule. In the last few years, the British High omission in Nigeria had to adopt some unpopular measures to manage the huge number of visa applications to the United Kingdom. For many Nigerians, relocating to America, Canada, Europe and now South Africa is the ultimate goal. Whole families have had to sell off all their assets and properties just to travel abroad. And for such people, it is farewell to Nigeria forever. Nigerians have done all kinds of invocations, performed all manner of rituals, endured all kinds of pains and humiliation in the quest to travel and live abroad. For these, prayer houses and fortune tellers have smiled to the banks.

But one man thinks is not that bad. He is Bartholomew Nnaji, the acclaimed robotics engineer, William Kepler Whiteford Distinguished Professor of Industrial/Mechanical Engineering and Director, National Science Foundation Centre for e-Design at the University of Massachusetts, United States. The big story is that from the comfort of his professorial chair in Massachusetts, Nnaji has commenced a process of homecoming to his fatherland. He has taken sabbatical to come and help Nigeria work again. The poor state of power supply in the country has been given him nightmare each time he is the country and his visit to the country is very frequent. An idea occurred to him, one of establishing an independent power project that could be the starting point for the take-off of Nigeria. That idea crystallised into what is now called Geometric Power Ltd., the company that has taken it upon itself to build a power plant in Aba, the commercial nerve centre of the East at a cost of $120 million or N16 billion. The plant will have capacity for 120 megawatts of electricity. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank, Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund and Infraco Management Services both in London, among other international consulting and financial institutions from across the world are enthusiastic about the project. They have sent teams at different levels to do appraisal of the project. Even local finance institutions are as enthusiastic and can’t wait to see the project flagged off. For the business community in Aba, it is an idea whose time had been long due. They are praying fervently that the Geometric Power initiative takes off even ahead of the target date of first quarter of 2007.

For Nnaji, how did the journey begin? An indigene of Enugu State, he was born July 13, 1956. At St. Patrick’s College, Emene, Enugu, where he passed out with distinction in 1975, he offered subjects like additional mathematics and two others even when there were no teachers for these subjects. He taught himself these subjects and passed them with distinction. This was even as he barely managed to pay school fees, having come from a poor home. Without being a sports person, he was made House captain at St. Patrick’s. Once, there was nobody to represent his House during one inter-house sports competition. As House captain, the burden of leadership fell on him and he put on a jersey. He ran 400 metres race and came first without preparing for it. He repeated the feat when it came to long jump. From there, he delved into sports and represented the defunct East Central State in national sports competitions. With this, he was able to get a job with the East Central State Sports Council soon after secondary school. In 1977, he got admitted to St. John’s University in the United States to read physics and mathematics and in 1980 he graduated. The academic programme was made less stressful financially on account of the scholarship he got from the university for excellence in sports. More importantly, he graduated as the school’s valedictorian and in St. John’s 120-year history as at then, it was the first time a black person had emerged as the best graduating student.

Thereafter, Nnaji moved to Virginia Institute of Technology for master’s and doctorate degrees in engineering. At the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he did post-doctoral studies in robotics science. At under age 27, Nnaji was made professor of industrial engineering and director of Robotics and Automation Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts. And in 1993, he was officially proclaimed one of the best three robotics scientists and engineers in the world and appointed Distinguished Professor of Engineering at the same university. It was the first time a black person was named distinguished professor of engineering in America. In the United States, a distinguished professor is higher in rank and recognition than an ordinary professor. In the same year, he was made Minister of Science and Technology in Nigeria. He came home to serve his fatherland but after three months, the late General Sani Abacha coup took place and Nnaji went back to the United States. Two years later, he became the first foreigner in American history to deliver the Annual Distinguished Public Service Lecture. The likes of Henry Kissinger, former American Secretary of State are the kinds of people that deliver the annual lecture. And in 1996, the book he co-authored with two other scholars was declared the best book on manufacturing engineering in the world for that year. The same year, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) hired him to write a technology blueprint for the development of Jamaica. It was in that year too that the Nigerian government appointed him a member of the Vision 2010 Committee. Even though he was based in the United States, he attended all the meetings and conferences of the Committee at his own expense and never asked for reimbursement. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in 1998 declared him Africa’s best scientist. His intellectual accomplishments have won him citation from the Senate of Massachusetts and City of Boston both in the US. In addition, he became consultant to IBM, the multinational computer company; the American Army and Air Force; the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NARTO); Ford Corporation and Digital Equipment Corporation, which has been bought over by Compaq. He is also consultant to Pratt Whitney, which makes engines for aircraft manufacturers.

Nnaji later relocated to the University of Pittsburgh on leave of absence from Massachusetts and was appointed ALCOA (Aluminum Company of America) Professor of Industrial/Mechanical Engineering. It was three years ago that he was appointed to his present position. There are 30 national science foundation centres for different areas in the United States, e-design being one. Each has a director and is based in a particular university. The US government looks for the best to appoint director of each centre. As has become the norm for him, he is the first black person to be appointed director of national science foundation centre. Nnaji has won every prize there is to win in his discipline of robotics and engineering. In Nigeria, he was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award, which is the nation’s highest honour for intellectual achievement. He is also a fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science. He has written seven books and about 100 scientific articles and papers in academic journals. The Nigerian government has equally honoured him with national honours of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) and later Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON). He has also been honoured with honorary doctorate degrees by the Federal University of Technology, Yola; Enugu State University of Technology (ESUT) and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).

If we are looking for a poster boy for patriotism, we need not go further. In an age where Nigerians who managed to find themselves abroad soon acquire citizenship of other countries, Nnaji still has only Nigerian passport despite the pressure on him to take foreign citizenship. Consider the fact that some Nigerians who are already well established in Nigeria to relocate or cannot relocate for some other reasons, even among so-called activists, do everything possible to send their expectant wives to America to have their babies for their children to have American citizenship. Where Nigerians sell their property to send their children to school abroad, having lost faith in the country’s education system, Nnaji sent his first son from the United States to have his secondary education at a Catholic mission school, Grundvig International Secondary School, Oba, near Onitsha, Anambra State. As the boy was finishing, he sent his first daughter also from the US to the same school. She is still there right now. In an era when public officers siphon money abroad, implying they have no faith in the system they lead, Nnaji is attracting foreign investment into the country through the Aba Power Project. Without making money from the Nigerian system, he gives so much. In his village, he has a foundation from which poor widows get funds. For the three universities in the country that have awarded him honorary Ph.D., the best students in engineering are taken to his laboratory in the United States and he trains them from masters to Ph.D free of charge. One of such beneficiaries, Dr. Obinna Muogbo is currently teaching at the Lagos Business School (LBS). He did his postgraduate work under Nnaji in Pittsburgh. Another one, Dr. Tom Nwodo, is a research scientist at MIT but currently on sabbatical, teaching electronics engineering at UNN. Nwodo studied under him at Massachusetts. There is also Dr. Celestine Aguwa, who woks at Ford Corporation in the US and many others. Two years ago, he wanted to run for governorship of his home state of Enugu on the platform of the UNPP to make a difference. If his former students in the United States were those running affairs in Asia and making Asian countries the tigers they have become why would he (Nnaji) not begin the transformation of Nigeria starting with his state? That was his thinking then but it did not take long before he realised that Nigerian politics was not for somebody like him. But still Nnaji believes passionately in Nigeria, that despite the current difficulties, the country would realise her manifest destiny as a beacon of hope for the black race all over the world. He has taken it as an article of faith that he would do anything within his ability to make Nigeria realise that manifest destiny. The Geometric Power Project in Aba is testimony to that article of faith.