Higher education – The lifeblood of development

We are in the midst of a crisis – the crisis of COVID-19 – that has seen Africa lock down, right from Cape Town in South Africa through to Cairo in Egypt; from Djibouti through to Dakar in Senegal. There is a sense in which this crisis is ‘giving back’, one of which includes our inclination to begin to interrogate the role of education in our affairs going forward. And this has come about because during this crisis Africa’s underbelly has been exposed in a number of areas.

In the field of health, we have been forced to remind ourselves that notwithstanding the decision of African heads of state in Abuja several years ago to dedicate 15% of national budgets to health, that has not happened, with the consequence that we have seen that our health facilities are below par.

It has also demonstrated to us that notwithstanding the position taken by African heads of state in Maputo in Mozambique that we would dedicate 15% of national budgets to agriculture, Africa cannot feed herself.

It has also demonstrated that many African governments have in the last many years not regarded science and research and development as key components of development. The net effect is that we have had to rely on other countries to support us even in the provision of things as mundane as masks.

Development in its broadest sense

I think that this legitimises the conversation we are having today. Post-coronavirus, what is the role of higher education in Africa’s development? And when we talk about development, we must understand development in its broadest sense.

Will higher education help to address Africa’s perennial problems which we have stated and restated numerous times? Will it help us to address the problem of hunger? Will it help us to address the problem of the disease burden? Will it ensure we embrace technology and our diffidence of the fourth industrial revolution age? Will it ensure we create opportunities for our young men and women to innovate and to invent? Will it ensure we use our various resources in the areas of art and performance?

In a nutshell, will it help Africa to realise the goals that are identified under the African Agenda 2063 so that Africa will be a mid-level economy which is no longer famous for having people live from hand to mouth?

In order to do justice to that conversation, it is incumbent upon me to look back to the past. Because when we look back, we are going to recognise that Africans and African leaders have always understood that education is at the very heart of development.

I remember as a young man, institutions within the African continent were identified for their excellence – institutions such as Fourah Bay [College] in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which was referred to as the essence of Africa and was famous for its contribution to engineering; institutions such as the University of Ibadan in Nigeria; institutions such as Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Fort Hare and a series of other universities – and when I talk about that history I remember two important events that took place in Ghana in 1961.

The founding father of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was invited to be first chancellor of the University of Ghana at Legon on the 25th day of November 1961. In his inaugural speech he said: “Today we are gathered here to inaugurate the University of Ghana. It is a university that is being founded and being redesigned and being reoriented in postcolonial time. We all know that our institutions prior to independence were indeed designed to help the colonial agenda. Today we must think differently. We must create institutions that are going to ensure that our young men and women are going to be trained in a manner that will benefit the newly independent state.

“We must give pride of place to science because science will enable us to solve our problems. We must recognise the role of technology in our affairs and we must appreciate that engineering will catapult us from the things of the Stone Age to the age of the atom and the age of nanotechnology. We must also embrace mathematics…”

Today, what Nkrumah was speaking about in 1961 is what we refer to as STEM, as if it were new. It is not. Four days later on 29 November 1961, Kwame Nkrumah was once again being inaugurated as the first chancellor of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, and once again he reminded his audience that the post-independence university was going to be critical in the development of his country and by extension Africa.


Today, we are in a continent which continues to underperform and underachieve in all critical areas. Which then legitimises the question: what is the role of higher education in the development of Africa and what is it we want to do in Africa so that we can realise the thing that we call development?

Let us begin from the beginning. We recognise that African countries are weak and they are weak because they are divided and they are divided because it is in the interests of a number of powers that Africa remains weak. But for how long shall we remain in the ruins and inner recesses of agonising and lamentation? We must not remain there and we must ask ourselves how we can use education as a platform to realise what we need.

And what do we need? Let us go sector by sector.

We claim, and many Africans make the claim, that agriculture is the backbone of the economy, which then legitimises the assertion that going forward our agriculture must be mechanised. Which then tells us we cannot continue to engage in agriculture in the way that our forefathers did. As populations increase, we must have more mouths to feed which then demands that our universities of agriculture must embrace technology and there are no shortage of universities of agriculture in Africa. If you go to Tanzania, we have the Sokoine University of Agriculture.

We must ask ourselves how we are to train our young men and women in that area because if we cannot feed ourselves, if there is no research in agriculture, it means that we will not have food production and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we are talking about, including SDGs 1 and 2 that talk about hunger and poverty, will not be met.

The area of health

If we move away from the area of agriculture and we go into the area of health which has now become very topical, we know that immediately after independence, one of the focuses of many African countries was to ensure that we reduce infant mortality and maternal mortality and enhance life expectancy.

Indeed, certain gains were made but over the years Africa has had to bear the burden of high levels of both mortality and morbidity with the consequence that gains made in the early 1960s have been partly negated.

Going forward, therefore, we must ask ourselves the question: who is manufacturing our medicines? What are our universities doing in terms of research and development of medicine in the area of pharmaceuticals?

It gladdens my heart that a number of African institutions are now getting into that arena. And I was very glad recently when I saw the Malagasy Institute for Applied Research coming out to the world in the midst of COVID-19 and saying that through research they have come up with something called COVID Organics.

There are naysayers and sceptics and cynics but the truth is the government of Madagascar has now agreed that this particular medicine be subjected to protocols so that Africa is put in a position to compete with the world.

I was equally gladdened when the Pasteur Institute of Dakar, Senegal, was able in a short period to come out and say they now have rapid test kits. Africa is already moving in the direction of innovation in the area of pharmaceuticals and I look forward to the day when our continent is able to make our own medicine so we don’t rely on Western, Chinese and Indian pharmaceuticals.

African pioneers

In the area of medicine we know Africans have already been pioneers. People in South Africa will remember the exploits of Dr Christiaan Barnard who undertook the first heart transplant. It demonstrates that we can do it here on the continent of Africa. You will also remember the first person in the world to perform an operation in utero was a Nigerian. Although the operation was undertaken in the United States, it was an African hand and an African brain that was doing it.

All these ‘firsts’ can be consolidated through higher education.

Which brings me to a very critical area: what are African governments doing to ensure higher education is funded and funded properly? In the last many years, many African governments have only paid lip service to the financing of higher education. It is now incumbent upon not only governments but even the private sector to ensure that we fund higher education.

We know, for example, that development cannot take place outside of the provision of energy. I want to ask those who are in the higher education arena: what are we doing to ensure we use nuclear energy? What are we doing to ensure that we use solar, wind energy, geothermal energy, and hydro-electric power?

Africa has these resources. It is said that the Grand Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if properly harnessed, can provide power to the entire region of Sub-Saharan Africa. There is also the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam … Through the introduction of courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we can inform these areas.


If you go into the area of aquaculture, for example, universities such as the University of Namibia, which is close to the Atlantic Ocean, and Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique and the University of Dar es Salaam – all these universities must now collaborate.

That is why it gladdens my heart when I hear Central University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Professor Henk de Jager saying that the Central University of Technology in South Africa is home to 30 nationalities. That is indeed demonstrative of the fact that you are already beginning to recognise that, going forward, higher education must provide an environment where there is a confluence of ideas across the continent.

The beauty is that science does not know boundaries. Science is the most global of things and innovation is now critical. I am suggesting to universities and institutions of higher learning that we can no longer afford the luxury of playing ‘catch-up’.

Allow me a little latitude: it annoys me that Africa still remains a consumer of very basic technology while we have universities in Africa. How is it that today we are meeting via Zoom, BlueJeans or Skype, but all these are from outside of the continent of Africa? Is there not a university in Africa that can come up with a medium that we can use? How can it be that we have institutions of higher learning but when I’m hailing a cab in Nairobi, Kenya, I use Uber? Somebody sitting in the US who does not own a car is the one who is providing me with that app.

Is there not a student at Cheikh Anta Diop University who can come up with an application? Is there not a scientific mind at the University of the Witwatersrand who can do it? How can it be that I am using Bolt and someone is sitting all the way in Estonia, controlling what I do? How can it be if we have institutions of higher learning and we are telling ourselves we want to develop?

No shortage of avenues

What about the arts? Africans have a rich culture. We understand that science cannot exist apart from the arts and humanities. In higher education we must give pride of place to the humanities.

Today, Nollywood in Nigeria produces more movies than Hollywood and, I suspect, Bollywood. It is a multibillion-dollar industry which means that higher education should be encouraging our young men and women who are talented to excel in theatre arts. That will help in African development. Today, football and other sports are multibillion-dollar industries. Which universities are focusing on sports as an industry, which can help the continent?

There are no shortages of avenues we can use to go forward to ensure the African continent is present. The continent must be present in science, she must be present in technology, she must be present in engineering, and she must be present in mathematics – not as a consumer but as a participant in innovation.

Today, we are talking about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the internet of things, robotics and artificial intelligence. Are we ensuring our institutions of higher learning will be present in that space? Are we ensuring we are present in 5G which is going to revolutionise the world in the area of mobile telephony?

Is the University of Kinshasa going to be the lead university in the area of converting rare earth materials which are an essential ingredient in every mobile phone? Is research money going to be released by the private sector and the government?

Is the Central University of Technology going to collaborate with the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of Nairobi, the University of Ibadan, Cheikh Anta Diop University and the University of Cairo to ensure that in that space of the 4IR we are present? Or are we simply going to watch as the world proceeds and we marvel as spectators?

Agenda 2063

Today as we talk about African development, we must also remember Africa’s Agenda 2063 which is founded on seven pillars. The seven pillars presuppose that our institutions of higher learning will be providing the intellectual firepower and give practical meaning to the agenda.

In the case of agriculture, it means that individuals produced from our institutions of higher learning will preside (as Nkrumah said in 1961) over the greening of Africa’s deserts.

In the area of trade and commerce, it means that we produce economies that are not simply going to wait to be dictated to by the International Monetary Fund and other Bretton Woods institutions; that we produce students who come up with economic ideas that will catapult the continent in a totally different direction.

When it comes to issues of trade within Africa under the aegis of the African Continental Free Trade Area when it begins to operate in July, it will mean that institutions of higher learning are underpinning every activity that is being undertaken.

Are we going to ensure that African universities no longer look to Harvard, Oxford or the Sorbonne as their true intellectual north but instead look to Ibadan as the true intellectual north in the area of the arts; to the Central University of Technology as the true intellectual north in the area of innovation, science and technology; the University of Nairobi in the area of medicine; the University of Dar es Salaam in the area of law; and Makerere University in the area of artificial intelligence.

In a nutshell, higher education is a game changer. Others wiser than me have long said that education is indeed the mother’s milk of human progress. Writing in 1933, the great African American educator Carter G Woodson, in his famous book The Mis-Education of the Negro, recognised that the manner in which you educate your young men and women will determine how they think, behave and impact their societies.

Today, I say with Woodson that if we are going anywhere in terms of liberating ourselves from sorrow and want, higher education must redefine our orientation and must ensure that we are present in the critical areas of human development. It is not only Woods who recognised it. Martin Luther King Jr also said that unless we train our young men and women to think critically and incisively, no matter how well we preach, not matter how well we sing, our societies will never change.

‘No longer beggars’

It is your own Nelson Mandela who said (to paraphrase) that education is the game changer and only valuable when it changes a man inside out. And I cannot stop without agreeing with Julius Kambarage Nyerere when he said the day education changes the quality of lives of our people is the day our people will change, and when our people change they will change their societies and we will no longer be beggars.

Higher education is at the top of the food chain because the quality of the education we give out to young men and women will determine whether we are going to compete with the rest of the world.

If you ever doubted that education was important, ask the South Koreans: they were bombed and reduced to ashes in 1953 during that fratricidal war. Today that country is perhaps one of the leading technology countries in the world and if you ask why, it is because universities changed and adopted and embraced STEM, as underpinned by the arts and humanities.

Japan is the only country to have been struck by two atomic bombs. Within our lifetime, Japan is now possibly the third strongest economy in the world. Germany was bombed to smithereens in the Second World War; what they did was to invest in higher education, as did the Singaporeans.

We could go on listing countries that have succeeded, but we need not do that. We already have the answers. The duty now is this: we must be coordinated. Shakespeare said there is a “tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries”.

COVID-19 has created a crisis but out of the womb of that crisis we are having a conversation about the role of higher education. Higher education will revolutionise our agriculture, our industries, our mining sectors, our aquaculture and pharmaceutical sectors. It will change our medical sectors, and provide our young men and women with opportunities for innovation and invention.

Higher education is the lifeblood and going forward we only need remind ourselves that if we do not seize this moment and if the universities do not descend into the arena of action and instead remain as ivory towers where academics write academic papers exchanged within their ranks, then we will not have contributed to the development of Africa.

Let us today, as we celebrate Africa Day, give pride of place to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, the arts and humanities, history, geography … If we do that, and although I do not have the gift of prophecy, I can see that Africa will be great again.

Professor PLO Lumumba is an associate professor of public law, a renowned legal practitioner and author of several books and articles. He was the founding dean of Kabarak University School of Law, a former lecturer at the University of Nairobi, the United States International University-Africa and Widener University, USA (Nairobi Summer School). He is the immediate former director and chief executive officer of the Kenya School of Law, a former secretary of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission and a former director of the defunct Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (now the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission). He is the founding trustee of the African Institute for Leaders and Leadership and founding chairman of the Association of the Citizens Against Corruption.

This is an edited version of a virtual public lecture he gave on the occasion of Africa Day, 25 May 2020, at an event hosted by the Central University of Technology in South Africa, the topic being: “The role of higher education in creating conducive conditions for African development”.