|The New Gong Magazine
Publishers of New Writing and Images
By Philip Emeagwali
In far-away Lagos, the Union Jack was lowered. Nigeria's Head of State, the Queen of
England, was dethroned and Nnamdi Azikiwe became Nigeria's first black leader.
Fifty years earlier, the Union Jack had cast its shadow across every global time zone, giving
rise to the saying, "The sun never sets on the British Empire.” We had showed our pride in
being part of the empire by celebrating Empire Day on May 24th, Queen Victoria's birthday,
with parades and sporting competitions. Later, Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth
As a country, Nigeria has existed for 96 years, but it has only been independent for 50
years, for just over half that time. We must critically examine the 46 years of colonial rule
over Nigeria and the scramble for Africa that began with the Berlin Conference of 1884, if we
are to get insights into how to chart our nation's course for the next 50 years.
The Sankofa is a mythical bird of the Akan people of West Africa. It flies forward while
looking backward, with an egg in its mouth to symbolize the future. In order to understand its
history, to reclaim its past, and to enable its people to move forward into the 21st century,
Africa must look back, back to the Berlin Conference of 1884 and back to the Atlantic slave
trade that spanned four continents and four centuries. This will allow us to understand how
we came to be 54 nations instead of one.
Like the Sankofa bird, Africa must look to its past to predict its future. It must know how it
evolved in order to understand how it can be recreated. Its people should know where their
journey began in order to understand which direction to take to find their future.
The Berlin Conference is when Africa was divided into roughly 50 colonies, and 1884 was
when the modern map of Africa was created. The Berlin Conference was the beginning of
modern Africa. In 1884, Africa was the agenda, but no African was at the table.
This year, in 2010, 17 African nations are celebrating their 50th anniversary of sovereignty
and post-colonial rule. Nigeria's journey, like that of the other independent African nations,
began at the Berlin Conference 126 years ago with no African in attendance. If colonial
Africa could be created in Berlin, then a future Africa could be created in Beijing. Nations
creating technological knowledge are reinventing the future and recreating Africa.
I believe that, by the end of this century, one in two Africans will live outside Africa. I was
asked: "Why did you live in exile from Africa for 37 years?" Put differently, "Why don't you
deliver Nigeria's 50th anniversary lecture in Abuja, instead of in Paris?" I have never visited
Abuja. But I am not at home in Washington, D.C., either.
I had an asymmetrical relationship with Africa and America, as well as with science and
technology. I worked entirely outside the gates of science and as an outcast, with outsider
status. I was honored, but will forever remain an outsider in America. I was honored for
retelling the 330-year-old story of the Second Law of Motion: from the storyboard, to the
blackboard, to the motherboard, by reprogramming 65,000 subcomputers to compute as a
supercomputer, and to communicate as an internet. I became my own ancestor in physics,
my contemporary in mathematics, and descendant in internet science.
I experienced the usual in an unusual way. I was an ordinary person caught up in
extraordinary circumstances. I decided to march forward, to come home to myself, not to
someone else's home. I stayed in exile in America, feeling at home in my alienation from the
white community. My 37 years of solitude allowed me to gather myself and to find my power.
Philip Emeagwali has been called “a father of the Internet” by CNN and TIME, and extolled
as a “Digital Giant” by BBC and as “one of the great minds of the Information Age” by former
U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Walk with me in memory to one of the
greatest celebrations, the end of the
colonial era in Africa. The day: October 1,
1960. The place: British West Africa. The
setting: a crowded stadium in the Atlantic
coastal town of Sapele. School children
are waving green and white flags in honor
of the birth of modern Nigeria, no longer
part of the British Empire.
I was six years old and was in that stadium.
I do not remember what was said because
the concept of colonialism was abstract to
me. But I vividly remember an incident that
made me cry all that day. I was waving my
flag in excitement when a faceless bully
snatched it away and disappeared into the