By Abimbola Adelakun
If you have always been a Nigerian, by now you would be highly familiar with deferred national promises. Those are the lofty and extremely ambitious promises usually denominated with decade-long life cycles. Those promises, like a malevolent abiku child, are almost always guaranteed to die before they can even live. It so often happens that just when the years have rolled by, and the stated date to deliver on those promises neared, the promise givers (read: the government) quickly reset the date of redemption to another future date. That way, there is no shortage of either grandstanding on the part of the state, or disappointment on the part of the society that faithfully waits for the state to live up to its promises.
In 1991, partly in response to the United Nations advocacy for collective sheltering, the military government of Ibrahim Babangida launched the “Housing for All by Year 2000 A.D.” The programme had the goal of building up to 700,000 housing units per year but that idea never quite successfully took off. Then, there was Vision 2010 proposed by Gen. Sani Abacha. The year, 2010, they promised, was the time when Nigeria would finally soar on the wings of its grand vision and become one of the largest economies of the world. Again, that dream withered like a raisin in the sun. Then came Olusegun Obasanjo to launch Vision 2020, merely a rhetorical upgrade from Abacha’s dark-googled vision into Nigeria’s future. There was not much realised other than further hoodwink Nigerians.
Then lately, the Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, added another futuristic vision of fancy: Nigeria will land an astronaut in space by 2030. That is a rather bold declaration, almost reminiscent of President John Kennedy standing before the US Congress in 1961 requesting an additional sum of $7-9bn to fund their space programme. Kennedy said then, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Kennedy’s dream would come to pass a mere eight years later. That story should tell us that the earth and its fullness thereof shall be inherited only by those who dare to dream beyond themselves. If there is a lesson to be learnt from President Kennedy’s, it is that for one to be able to dream, publicly commit oneself before the public that those dreams can come to pass, and have them happen exactly as one has foretold, is one of the greatest things that can happen to anyone or to any nation.
However, the kind of cynicism that has greeted Onu’s grandiose vision shows that Nigerians are not buying into his skyscraping goals. For obvious reasons, one should be pained at the thought of a society where such idealised goals cannot ignite public fancy. Personally, I find it disheartening that as a people we cannot see our culture as doing things beyond ourselves. What is the future of a society where its inhabitants cannot think beyond their present circumstances?
No, the problem is not that we, the people, are incapable of envisioning a future beyond the present and its pains. The issue is that we have heard these things so frequently it has become psittacistic. Space exploration is not new in Nigeria’s many fantasies and Onu should have checked with his priors before he uttered those words.
In 2013, the National Space Research and Development Agency made a similar claim: that they would produce the first Nigerian astronaut in 2015! The Director General of the agency who made the promise, Dr. Seidu Mohammed, claimed producing Nigeria’s astronaut by 2015 was part of their comprehensive plan of the agency towards boosting technological development in Nigeria. This is 2016 and nobody seems to remember that we have a promise pending. This year, we are being handed a similar promise by Onu, this time to be realised in about another 15 years. Who knows what another minister would promise for 2040 as soon as 2030 begins to beckon closer?
The same Mohammed said their agency, NASRDA, would design satellites in Nigeria by 2020 and five years later, would also commercialise the technology. If those goals were ever meant to be accomplished, by now there should be various indications in that direction. Nigerians should, by now, be able to see for themselves that the country has matured enough, technologically, to undertake such goals.
The truth however is that we have barely advanced and it is unlikely we ever will at this rate. The reason should be clear to Onu himself: no society sends an astronaut to space in isolation of other contributing factors of its existence. Nigeria should not be joining conversations about space technology for now, not because such accomplishments are beyond our natural endowments as a race or culture but because collectively, our society does not yet guarantee the kind of conducive atmosphere where ideas are allowed to thrive for such a goal to be possible.
It would be rather easy – too much in fact- to point at the infrastructure that are not working in Nigeria presently – such as power supply and similar basic provision and hold that up as proof the nation is not going anywhere. Yet, the reason we are stuck in pre-modern times goes far beyond that. It is that we are a resolutely anti-intellectual society, a superficial one that spies on – and tries to copy the accomplishments of others – with nary an understanding of the social and cultural philosophy on which those technological advancements were anchored. We dream of certain accomplishments but abjure the sacrifices and the processes others have made as they walked towards similar goals. As a culture, we act like the lazy person who desires the good things of this world; s/he lies on his back all day fantasising about living “the life” yet would not let rise and let his/her feet make contact with the ground of reality.
If Nigeria wants to join the club of nations such as the US, India, Japan, China, Russia, and Canada, in space exploration, we cannot begin with mere declarations and more noise but by inscribing certain ideas into every vein and artery of our national existence. We have to start by working on more fundamental things such as repairing our vandalised educational and social value system. To raise an astronaut in an abiku society like Nigeria entails rewriting our social DNA, re-ordering our priorities, and essentially building a modern society.
Nigeria’s goal should not be to have an astronaut by any stated date – a budding society like Nigeria that reasons that way will never rise above its mediocrity. What our country and its peoples should be concerned with is crafting an ideology, a national philosophy, that will jumpstart development in all facets of our life, of which sending an astronaut up there by whenever will be one of the many fruits of the social charter we have crafted.
Onu himself knows that presently, his dream of space technology, one must say, is almost as unattainable as saying Nigeria would become one of the 20 biggest economies in the world by year 2020. Even though no one in Nigeria seems bugged by the possibility of the Nigerian economy becoming anything anyone would reckon with in another four years, the idea of landing an astronaut in space by 2030 should not be just another sad joke meant to be cynically laughed to death.