AEC 2010: Interview with Dr. Joseph Okpaku

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Okpaku interview

“I have often said that societies are built and sustained on the strength of their intellectual capacity. If you unplug this capacity, society will die,” says Dr. Joseph O. Okpaku, Snr President, Telecom Africa International Corporation and Publisher and Chief Executive of Third Press Publishers,

Question: What are your expectations of the African Economic Conference after listening to the various speakers at the Opening Ceremony?

Answer:  My personal view is that Africa is again at a critical crossroads. We have been here before. After, and perhaps despite, quite a few years of relentless badgering by friends and foes alike with the depressing litany of woes about poverty, underdevelopment and more, we are showing remarkable strength and progress in our socio-economy, the experience and aftermath of the global financial crisis notwithstanding. All the speakers this morning attest to this pregnant dispensation using various macro-economic indicators.

The challenge then is if we can not only sustain this growth but accelerate it and make the gains continental, broad-based, durable and irreversible. In this context, in terms of the clarion call made this morning by President Donald Kaberuka that the African experts attending this Conference and their non-African colleagues of like mind exercise the freedom of thought that institutional bureaucrats do not have, in order to craft bold and innovative strategies and solutions to our socio-economic development is most timely.

At the end of the day, I believe that there inevitably must come the time when we as Africa and Africans have to begin to take full command of our destiny and set out to build our global competitive capacity in all fields. Perhaps that time is now, as there is no reason to delay embarking on what I know to be  the only journey that will bring Africa closer to accomplishing our deep-seated dreams and make all our efforts noble and worthy of our genius as a people.

Question: Dr. Okpaku, you are a renowned expert on Knowledge and Strategic Development. In your address to the Conference of Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of African Universities in Tripoli in 2007, which was titled: From Poverty Management to World-Class Competitive Self-Development: Mobilising Africa’s Global Intellect, Knowledge and Expertise to Build a Smart Modern 21st Century Society, you said the following, and I quote:

“I have said in the past, that there does come a time in the life of a people when, no matter how embattled, they must find the courage to take their destiny in their own hands, and armed with their own resources, no matter how minuscule, strike out with relentless courage and unflinching resolve to build a future of their own design, crafted to achieve their own highest dreams and potential. They must do so with the help of friends, if possible, but alone, if inevitable. That time has come for Africa. The African train into an eminent and proud future must leave the station now. We are either on it, to make a difference once and for all, or we are not, in which case we must be prepared to endure to perpetuity, the endless tirades and castigations that have become common fare and have proven more incapacitating than even the toughest tangible challenges our ancestors faced.”

“The pain and discomfort of Africa’s present and seemingly persistent low standing in the global dispensation,” you continued, “should serve as the most compelling catalyst for our committing to the deployment of the best and brightest of Africa’s genius to transform our society and economy to global competitive standards, determined to excel at all levels.”

You then went on to say, “This is my clarion call. This is the challenge before us as Africa’s intellectuals and experts. This is my challenge to all of us this afternoon. This is the agenda I wish to address today, and to compel you, by whatever means fair or maybe even slightly foul, if necessary, to embrace and commit to. There is no more time to waste, no room for more prevarication, no patience on the part of the masses of our people who continue to suffer, unnecessarily, the scourge and anxiety of poverty, deprivation, marginalization and its attendant insecurity, when we are so endowed with every attribute and resource needed to create, sustain and grow a smart modern society with unparalleled possibilities.”  

Question: That was three years ago.  To what extent do you think your clarion call is being heeded and that this kind of gathering on knowledge can drive Africa’s economic development?

Answer:  Making that critical clarion call to the heads of Africa’s universities was deliberate. In my mindset, development is nothing but problem solving. If you solve my problem, it is you who are developing, not me. So you cannot outsource development. Universities are established for the primary purpose of solving problems. Without problems, a people cannot develop and universities would have no reason for being. Our strategic flaw is that in the past, except for the early years of independence, we have sidelined our intellectuals and experts who are our problem-solvers and for whose education African countries invested so much scarce funds only to marginalise them.

Today, our governments and institutions are coming to recognize this fundamental mistake and acting to cure it. Hence the decision by the African Development Bank to become a knowledge institution is a very important strategic one. This African Economic Conference and its predecessor Conferences (I believe there have been four others), represent a major building block for this paradigm shift. To this extent, conferences like this one hold much promise, especially if their design and conduct encourage maximum intellectual forte, no holds barred, in order that Africa may derive the most from its best trained minds, male and female. I am a perpetual optimist about Africa and heartily bullish about our eminent future and the African genius that will build and sustain it to perpetuity.

Question: From your knowledge and experience, what is, according to you, the priority for African development?

Answer:  Knowledge, Science and Technology-based Strategic Self-Development. I have picked my words carefully. I have often said that societies are built and sustained on the strength of their intellectual capacity. If you unplug this capacity, society will die. And how long it takes to die, whether in a year or a century, depends almost entirely on the residual intellectual capacity that was in place at the time the plug was pulled.

That is why, for example, despite the enormous challenges that Nigeria as a nation and a people has faced, it has the critical advantage of having built an enormous intellectual capacity vey early at its independence, and in fact before independence. This resource has continued to increase exponentially even as the country has tried to weather many storms. So, today, the moment the situation is reasonably stabilized, that enormous intellectual resource will quickly engage to drive a rapid development that could make up for so much lost time. The changes you can begin to sense taking place in Nigeria is fundamentally intellectual, a battle of ideas which translates into critical principles, procedures, policy, legislation. Nigerians are at their best when they can argue freely, energetically, with limitless flights of ideas and imagination. That is the inherent strength of the people.

In terms of Africa’s Strategic Self-Development, Africa in particular needs to invest to build a massive capacity in Research and Development, especially in Science and Technology. That was the objective of the Tripoli Address that you just quoted from. The address laid the intellectual foundation for a massive ongoing plan by our company, Telecom Africa International Corporation, to promote the establishment of world-class Research and Development laboratories in Science and Technology throughout Africa under a programme we have code-named, Project R&D.

Question: I noticed you seemed fascinated by the Keynote Address by M. Pascal Lamy, the Head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Answer: Yes. M. Lamy has an impressive understanding of Africa’s strategic resources, opportunities and capabilities, and the challenges and pitfalls we face, both tangible and intangible. He is clearly a friend of Africa. For these reasons, I naturally like him. However, and this is merely a mild observation, I was a bit taken aback when he sought, perhaps simply out of friendship and admiration for the president of ADB and the Executive Secretary of ECA, to make a case for extending the terms of service in office of those who hold critical posts for what he described as “two or more terms”. For a moment there I felt, “Oh God, No.” Lamy was echoing the very excuse our political leaders use for wanting to stay in power well beyond the term limits of our national constitutions.

But I believe that it was an inadvertent comment born of exuberance of admiration for his friends and colleagues that simply came out the wrong way. No harm was done.

Dr. Joseph Okpaku is a renowned scholar, and expert on communications, strategic development and Futures Studies, fields in which he consults for governments and international organizations. Dr. Okpaku, whose intellectual versatility covers a wide spectrum from Arts and Culture to Science  and Technology, holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering from Northwestern University, a Master of Science Degree in Structural Engineering from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in Theatre History and Dramatic Literature, also from Stanford University. Dr. Okpaku who lives in New Rochelle, N. Y., can be reached at