I have been silent on this issue for a long, long time. Today I shall speak my mind. Our people say that he who wrestles a gorilla, should be prepared to find his back dusty. What shall we then say of he who wrestles three? For these are heavyweights, men of a peculiar timber and caliber--as Mbakwe might have said--who have accomplished more in their years than few shall accomplish in a lifetime. And yet they stand today accused, not of grave crimes against humanity, but of the crime of intellectual fraud. And it is a weighty charge, for such an accusation seeks to reveal something about the character of the individuals who stand in the dock at this hour. And without character, man becomes a ghost.
We shall begin with the popular scientist, Philip Emeagwali. A quote I had made about him was once used in an "ad" of sorts espousing his importance. I had said something about how sad it was that he was in the US using his skills to help oil companies gain access to more of our resource, when he could be back home contributing to national growth and development in myriad and sundry ways. It seemed logical to me, in those days, that we should celebrate our leaders of thought who had done well and advanced Nigerian civilization. But what did I actually know of Philip Emeagwali and from whom did I know it?
The charge is that Philip Emeagwali self-advertized himself all the way to the White House, Toyota and Black History Month, all by leveraging his singular, still impressive, achievement of winning the Gordon Bell Prize for Supercomputing. If it is in fact true that via his website and speaker's portfolio he was able to do this thing, become one of the most celebrated black scientists in the world, then we must give credit to the machine behind him. One could learn something from just such a campaign. For, to be sure, I cannot say with certainty where I heard any of the claims about Philip Emeagwali, only that I can recite what I believed, as sure as you probably can too: that he won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in computing, that he was Dr. Emeagwali PhD, that his work in Supercomputing was influential in the earliest development and utility of the internet, and so on.
His list of achievements was indeed impressive, so much so that he began to be touted as one of the most important black scientists of our time. And there the story would have ended. Or, at least, continued into the prosperous future but taking off from where some non-African critics of Mr. Emeagwali stopped, some interested Nigerians began to ask questions and soon, we must admit, the bubble burst.
Having been hailed so high as to be put on a Nigerian stamp, an investigative report demonstrated that many of the claims made of Mr. Emeagwali were, if not false, distortions. For one thing, he is said never to have received his PhD, the caveat being he sued the university for racial discrimination and lost. Perhaps his refusal to correct those who incessantly refered to him--myself included--as Dr. or Professor Emeagwali was his way of fighting the racist system. Maybe it was his way of being recognized for his intellectual prowess outside of the racial confines of America's haughty system. Perhaps. Still, I consider it now in bad taste.
I myself have been in a situation where I was mischaracterized and if you've ever been in that situation you know to stop it as soon as it begins, before it snowballs out of control. Having now known about Mr. Emeagwali's travails as a PhD candidate, I went back to watch as many interviews and speeches as I could find of him on the internet. The truth is damning. He never once corrected anyone who called him, continuously, "Professor" or "Doctor." Not that a title should be revered to the point of elevating it to a god. But people take their PhDs very seriously, work very hard for them, and those who legitimately have gone through the process of earning one have every right to be suspicious of those who use the title without cause. This speaks to Mr. Emeagwali's character and it is not a positive testimony.
From his interviews on the internet, it is verifiable that he claims to have broken the "world record" with his Gordon Bell computation. It is possible that this is true, although what must also be true is that one other team in that competition--the team that scored higher than he did on that task--also broke the world record. Still, I believe Supercomputing to be an impressive feat. Our people say that when a lizard jumps from a mighty iroko tree, and nobody claps for it, it must nod his own head in appreciation of his greatness. Could Philip Emeagwali be that lizard, who showed the world that the African mind could appreciate complex science--then proceeded to gratify himself with self-created accolades?
It is possible. I recall when I had learned to play a certain complex piece of piano music, I used to go around in those days insinuating that I was a Conservatory-Level pianist. The thrill of accomplishment can overtake an individual so that he makes more out of a great feat than he should have. This, Philip Emeagwali may certainly be guilty of. For, as I say, it still makes me shiver to think about programming 65,000 computers and defeating teams of American scientists working towards the same end. It is a remarkable feat and must be applauded. But it must be applauded by outsiders and observers, not by the participant himself. And this was Philip Emeagwali's downfall.
There is not too much more to say about Emeagwali. He could have carved out a very respectable niche for himself in Supercomputing and possibly even the future of the internet, if he had focused on enriching the thought that produced such a wonderful result as the Gordon Bell Prize. Instead, he spent most of his energies developing a narrative that, when finally held up to scrutiny, did not stick. No one cares if he is a father of the internet or a distant relative.
What we care about is misrepresenting one's obvious talent in order to advance one's reputation, and perhaps earn more money. I have seen defenses of Philip Emeagwali on the internet too, and I even heard that a Nigerian commission was going to look into the issue, or should have by now, to determine whether or not there was a fraud being perpetrated on the Nigerian people: Emeagwali after all resides on a stamp. In the final analysis, Philip Emeagwali suffers from misrepresentation of his great intellect and a distortion of his accomplishments.
These sins will be forgotten by many, as time goes on and he remains more and more silent, until the question arises again about the fathers of the internet; then the cautionary tale will be told of a brilliant scientist who went awry after jumping from a mighty iroko tree. Unless, that is, Philip Emeagwali can dazzle the world once more with an invention worth paying attention to.
And yet, in the case of Emeagwali, his misrepresentations cannot be said to be harmful in any way to any one. They are willful manipulations of the truth by someone who has an elevated perspective of himself, tinged with a healthy dose of pride--the kind that comes before a fall. So we say to ourselves, leave the man to continue in his fantasy, if that is what it is. So long as he doesn't harm anyone in the process. As much, I fear to tell you, cannot be said about gorilla number two, Chris Abani, a man I find as intriguing as any from our troubled country as I've ever met, seen or heard about.
I first heard about Chris Abani a few years ago when a netizen, Mr. Tunde Giwa, did a slobbering review of the book Graceland. Giwa gushed on and on about Abani's prose and his ability to capture Lagos in that era and so on. I never got to read the book, but I had been served notice. I didn't hear about Chris Abani again until a little while ago I was scanning the internet and I saw that one Chris Abani was to speak to an audience of intellectuals on... something or the other. Humanity, I think it was. It had to be the same Chris Abani, so I watched. From the very first words he uttered, I was transfixed.
This man was a master story teller, and he told it in the way that our fathers tell stories, with the salt of proverbs and the humor of kola nut. I was impressed, and so obviously was the audience. I didn't get to watch the entire speech so I missed what had by this time become the lightning rod of contention. In this speech, and others, Chris Abani tells the world the following.
1) As a teenager, he had written a book concerning a Neo-Nazi takeover of Nigeria, which somehow had gotten into General Mamman Vatsa's papers (who had been very good him, he even says in one of his interviews). When the Vatsa coup occurred his book was found, as I said, amongst Vatsa's papers and some foolish underling who wanted a promotion sent for him to get him arrested. His book was claimed to be similar to the coup plans that Vatsa had. He was arrested and sent to jail for a period, if I recall correctly, of six months.
2) He was arrested again when, as a student at Imo State University he and some friends regularly utilized the Soyinkan method of "guerila theater" to criticize the government outside the state house. For this particular arrest, he had been commissioned to present his play "Song of a Broken Flute" during Academic Commencement activities. The play "insulted" the first lady or her genitals or both or something as lewd and soon the entire audience was teargased and rounded up. Then, the cast and crew were to be taken to jail unless Abani signed a confession that he was responsible, after which he was locked up for "treason" and sent to "death row."
3) In Nigeria' notorious Kiri-Kiri prison, he had a cell mate named John James, a fourteen year old lad who had been abducted because his relatives had gone into hiding to escape the junta. John James was held, we are to assume, as ransom. John James taught other prisoners to read Spider Man ("take that Spidey") and really didn't understand what death row was about. One day, he was taken to a room where he was sat in a chair and then his penis nailed to the table. He was left there to bleed--presumably screaming--and died only three days later.
4) In Kiri-Kiri he remembers meeting Fela, who upon learning why he was in jail, told him "Truth is risky business."
5) In Kiri-Kiri there were executions of prisoners. They would take twelve men out blindfolded, then shoot four.
These are the details I remember from going back to listen to all his speeches and interviews that I could find, once I had been sensitized to his brand of storytelling. I was sensitized by much ado made on the internet by a popular netizen Ikhide Ikheloa, and then subsequently by others. I came to find out that a writer/activist group called Crazitivity, or something as ... crazy, had challenged Chris Abani on many of his claims years ago and he defended himself at the time--I read the refutation--without responding to the detailed allegations made about his detailed allegations.
Yes, I went back to his speech and this time instead of being mesmerized, I was... suspicious. Why? Remember the story of the lizard and the iroko tree? Well, it seems again that an exaggeration of sorts might have taken place. My first port of call is John James, the fourteen year old boy whose penis was nailed to a table and he left to bleed for three days. My mind simply failed to grasp that story within the bounds of belief. It was too incredible for me, even by Nigerian standards. Abani says that it was in fact what got him thrown into solitary confinement--a hole in the ground he said--when he made his feelings about John James known.
I simply must ask, who shall we hold responsible for this crime against humanity? I believe that General Babangida was in charge during this period. Did Chris Abani seek out the relatives of this boy when he got out of jail to let them know what happened to their little one? Did he seek out Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to report this depth of depravity unknown even in the most brutal of regimes? How can anyone say he was witness to another person's penis being nailed to a table and not seek to bring to justice just who perpetrated this crime? That story was my first warning signal. It stretches the bounds of credulity and rings strange to the Nigerian ear. I listened even closer now to Chris Abani as he spoke.
His description of what happened during the "Song of a Broken Flute" arrest was again incredible. Tear gas? Rounding up the audience. Then the cast and crew. Then him alone. I have seen the Nigerian soldiers in their element and they have done many marvelously crass things. It just seems a bit contrived that DURING the presentation of a play the matter would be found so offensive as to cause soldiers to teargas the arena and round up the audience. Even by Nigerian standards.
His description of events at Kiri Kiri seem no less incredible. We all saw Abacha's torture machinery revealed after the fall of the junta. We ought to have at least known something about Babangida's regime killing prisoners at random, four-per-twelve at a time, blindfolded, in order to create fear in the other prisoners. My goodness this is beginning to sound like Colombia and its death squads.
I'm not here to sanitize Nigeria's military regimes, but one must ask oneself why there is prevailing doubt concerning Chris Abani's imprisonment. It is the stories he tells about this imprisonment that cause some to suggest that he never was imprisoned. I don't go that far. I just say that even if he did spend time in prison, he never witnessed the nailing of a boy's penis to a table, he never witnessed the arbitrary execution of prisoners, he never was thrown into a hole in the ground as solitary confinement, and he sure as hell never met Fela Anikulakpo Kuti in Kiri Kiri. First Vatsa, now Fela. This fella must have the golden touch.
Chris Abani is popularly believed by his audience to have been imprisoned several times, perhaps four, which makes it hard for those in the know to understand how he was able to graduate, given the interruptions, with his classmates before heading off to NYSC in Efon-Alaiye. I even grant that he was identified as a troublemaker by the Nigerian government, but would that, should that result in the sordid characterizations of the Nigerian regime given by Chris Abani?
Without these stories, Chris Abani would be a compelling author but without the gravitas. His ordeals eclipse Wole Soyinka's and such a reputation is hard to come by. This may explain why he feels the need to exaggerate, for I contend that Abani's crime is just that. I would hardly call it intellectual fraud, although if it is found that he fabricated his stories about his time in prison, or even about being imprisoned, others might think differently. He, after all, has made his career defaming Babangida's regime and causing the Western World to shiver as concerns the heart of darkness that Africa was, is and is to be.
In judgment, I can only speak for myself, and say to Dr. Chris Abani that I apologize but I cannot find it within myself to believe the story of John James, and that begins to unravel everything else. I believe these to be exaggerations, maybe even fabrications and outright lies. What would cause someone of such mastery as a Chris Abani to do this thing? when a lizard jump from a mighty iroko tree and nobody clap for him, he must nod him own head in appreciation.
And now, finally, we turn to Dr. Gabriel Oyibo, the award-winning and controversial scientist. I should not need to explain who he is, for by now he is world renowned as the man who claims to be intellectually closest to GOD due to his God Almighty's Grand Unified Theorem (of Everything). With such a title, that he expects his theory to be taken seriously is laughable. Reducing God to a mathematical equation is almost as absurd as it is offensive.
Beyond that, one must quarrel with such a juvenile conception of God from a supposedly great mind, supposing that because God CREATED the universe, then God IS that universe. Perhaps God inhabits his creation, as a spirit being, one cannot know. But to suggest that God's defining characteristic is being that which does not change whose existence is provable through mathematics is a frivolous exercise of a great intellect. Frivolous I say. In other words, Dr. Oyibo, your God is not my God. As compared with Mr. Emeagwali, critics of Dr. Oyibo however admit that his mathematics is "sound" but that the meaning or interpretation he gives to it is problematic.
Just as Emeagwali claimed to have improved on Newton's equation, Oyibo is claiming to have solved Einstein's nemesis--a unified field theory. Dr. Oyibo's earlier works are peer reviewed, and the more controversial ones have some serious backers. So we should not place Oyibo in the same category as others. He is a serious scientist who... has had a God experience. We spend the shortest amount of time on Dr. Oyibo, if only because the conclusion is once again that this is a case of exaggeration.
The primary charge is that he promoted the idea that he was a multiple Nobel Prize for Physics nominee, a suggestion many have found incredulous. The evidence available shows that, ostensibly at the prompting of Dr. Oyibo and his organization, certain scholars had written letters in support of his nomination for the Nobel Prize. This is quite different from being on the Nobel shortlist. The former is a letter of reccommendation, the latter is the actual list of Nobel candidates as chosen by the Nobel Committee and its defined agents.
Again another case of exaggeration, which in this particular case resulted in the Nigerian government going ahead to institute a prize and offer its inaugural edition to Professor. Naija! We too love novelty. Whatever it is Dr. Oyibo has discovered in five equations, unifying sub-atomic and astronomical space, will have to stand the test of time. If after many years it remains discredited--after all civilization may only ignore the truth at its own peril for so long--we may no longer say that it is because of racialism in science. Dr. Oyibo had also gone to court, like Emeagwali, on this score.
With a name like God Almighty Grand Unified Theorem it is unlikely that this theory shall ever be taken seriously. Even worse, framed in the context of black history, claiming Hydrogen to be the basic and only element "Africanium" and that the universe is not expanding as modern science makes known, might hark to the days when those who said the world was round were considered crazy.
However, these are not those times. The universe is expanding. Gabriel Oyibo is gearing up for a fight he can't win. And then, his pronouncements about his own intellect are alarming and furthermore in bad taste. Consider this from a previous Wikipedia entry that is now, curiously, deleted but can be found in its entirety at http://www.nigerialinks.com/Articles/Sowore/2005/07/prof-oyibos-gagut-theory-science-of.html (and you are very encouraged to read it if you want a fair sense of my concerns about our illustrious son).
"Intelligence is defined by Websterís Dictionary as an act of understanding. This means the one who understands the most is the most intelligent. GOD through GAGUT, has therefore declared or ordained Professor Gabriel Oyibo the greatest genius or the most intelligent human being ever created"
One might say that the great professor is more than taken with his own greatness. More ridiculous claims about his own intellect and about having discovered the holy grail and having been "recognized" as being closest to God pepper his sites on the internet. This is the classic case of the lizard indeed. It is with a compatriot's concern that the advice is given to Dr. Oyibo, use that great mind for what it was meant for and make contributions to Africa and physics and civilization that will move the field forward and be of practical benefit to our people. If I stand in history as a skeptic against a future Einstein, so be it. But I shall not be alone.
I have met Nigerians of every walk of life and every profession and one thing is for certain, Nigeria as a nation produces minds that are capable of understanding the complexity of modern civilization. I might even say that we have reached critical mass and now these minds long to be used to develop Nigeria. The three gorillas are just the angels of time, drawing our attention to Nigeria's marvelous but wayward mind.
Perhaps the Nigerian government can find a way to attract her bright minds in an environment where they do not have to exaggerate their greatness in order to be considered great. Barring that, I expect to see more in the future, of Nigerians who achieve great things but feel the need to inflate the importance of their deeds. When a lizard jumps from a mighty iroko tree, and nobody clap for am, him must nod him own head in appreciation.
NGEX welcomes and encourages reader comments. Permission to post reader comments is assumed, and we reserve the right to excerpt or edit for clarity any comments that are posted. We won't be able to publish all comments. And we can't vouch for the accuracy of posts from readers. Nickname or Name will be used to identify your post.
"The views and opinions expressed in these comment(s) or article(s) do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of NGEX, its partners or its affiliates."