By Farooq A. Kperogi
This first appeared in my column in the Saturday, July 15, 2006 edition of Weekly Trust, Abuja, Nigeria.
If you think it’s only financial crimes that Nigerians are involved in, you will be shocked to know that even a few of the people that have been publicized and elevated as our intellectual icons in the United States are also soiled in disgraceful intellectual frauds. The most shocking cases are those of Philip Emeagwali and Dr. Gabriel Oyibo.
Emeagwali was etched into our national memory when President Bill Clinton, in the course of his speech to a joint session of the National Assembly during his first visit to Nigeria, called him the “Bill Gates of Africa.” As will be shown later in this column, Clinton was duped, and he became an inadvertent medium for the popularization of a well-knit intellectual fraud.
Dr. Oyibo got national visibility when he claimed to have dislodged Albert Einstein as the world’s greatest physicist with the “discovery” of his oddly named “God Almighty’s Grand Unified Theorem,” or GAGUT for short. He even makes a ridiculous pretence to omniscience by labeling his GAGUT “the theory of everything.” He also falsely claims that he is a three-time Nobel Prize nominee in physics. The Nigerian media uncritically bought the fraud and undeservedly celebrated the man to high heavens.
It has now come to light that Emeagwali and Oyibo are high-profile impostors. Emeagwali, praiseworthy as his contribution to supercomputing is, did not invent the supercomputer as he claims, nor is the Gordon Bell Prize he won for supercomputing on which he stakes his claim to genius nearly as significant as he cracks it up to be.
The real “Nobel Prize for computing,” as he misleadingly calls his award, is the Turing Award. The award has been around since 1966, and has a monetary value of $100,000. The Gordon Bell
Prize, on the other hand, was instituted only in 1987 and has a cash value of $1,000.
In fact, Emeagwali did not complete the Ph.D. that he started at the University of Michigan, yet he attaches Ph.D. to his name and even sometimes calls himself a professor. Inquiries from the University showed that he failed his Ph.D. qualifying exams twice and wrote a doctoral dissertation that fell short of the standards of the Graduate School there. He was therefore not awarded the Ph.D. He filed a racial discrimination suit against the university, but it was thrown out for lack of merit.
A search on his name in all the peer-reviewed computing journals in the world often yields no matches. It is his wife’s name that manages to show up in three places. Yet the man claims to be one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Apart from the fact that his name is absent from the list of the true fathers of the Internet, a feat such as he claims to have achieved in computing cannot merely be limited to word of mouth and self-promotional Internet sites; it has got to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s an inviolable article of faith in inventions and scholarship.
As for Dr. Oyinbo, his GAGUT is just as cranky and nonsensical as it sounds. It is pooh-poohed by his colleagues because it has no basis in any known province of knowledge. What is worse, it is not published in any peer-reviewed journal in his field. All he has is a vanity, self-published book, which a U.S. professor in his field characterized as a “Nigerian 419 scam-within-a-book.”
Again, he is only a visiting associate professor at a nondescript U.S. college. Any scholar who is truly a three-time Nobel Prize nominee will certainly be a much sought-after researcher/professor in all the major universities in the United States. He will not be vegetating in some backwaters.
As for whether he is a three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy, which administers the Nobel prizes, told a U.S.-based Nigerian citizen reporter that it does not reveal the names of its nominees, even to the nominees themselves, until after 50 years. It is therefore clear that Oyibo merely elevated his wishful thinking to “reality,” and got gullible Nigerian reporters to publicize this fabrication. In time, the fraud captured the imagination of a Nigerian public that is more than eager for such oases of glory in our desert of national despair.
But it was easy to know that the man was a fraudster from the beginning. Physical science and spirituality are two mutually exclusive provinces of knowledge, and anybody whose scholarly activity pretends to reconcile these provinces can only either be an intellectual fraudster, a deranged person, or a joker—or all of these!
Physical science is hallmarked by its search for precision, by the implicit admission of the provisionality and tentativeness of its findings, by the amenability of all its ontological and epistemological resources to review, and by its concern with the known and the knowable.
Spirituality, on the other hand, thrives on faith without proof, on the celestial, on the imprecise, the unknown and the unknowable, the mysterious and the transcendent. It dispenses with rationality and formal logic because these apparatuses are considered too self-limiting in its quest for eternal verities. None is wrong, and none is necessarily superior to the other.
The foregoing, however, does not mean that a scientist cannot be spiritual. But it does mean that science and spirituality not only deploy different methodological apparatuses to appropriate their realities but also have almost mutually exclusive preoccupations. Their existence encapsulates the rich multiplicity and complexity of our humanity.
Well, so much for pontification. Now, what can we do to repair our image? Or, more appropriately, what drives many of our compatriots to crime, and what can be done to stop or lessen this? How can we replenish our severely depleted international reputational capital?
These are soul-searching questions that we should all chew over if we are still interested in salvaging what remains of our badly soiled international image.
It is all too easy to blame our proneness to criminality on poverty. It is a well-worn, all-too-familiar excuse, but it is one that is weakened by the reality that we are not the poorest people in Africa. Why are citizens of nations that are poorer than Nigeria not as criminally-minded as many Nigerians are?
Perhaps, an explanation can be found in the form and content of many Nigerian cultures. We have cultures that celebrate wealth, however ill-gotten, and scorn modesty of means. A U.S. writer who investigated the 419 phenomenon in Nigeria described our country as a “land where con is king.”
However, we all know that there is also a regional and ethnic dimension to Nigerian fraud. In fact, 419 refers to a section in the (Southern Nigerian) Criminal Code that criminalizes the impersonation of government officials for fraudulent financial gains. I remember that when we watched the CNN documentary on Nigerian fraudsters in the U.S. sometime ago one fellow Nigerian remarked to me that he wished Biafra had seceded from Nigeria. “What is now called Nigerian fraud here would simply have been called ‘Biafran fraud’,” he said in obvious reference to the preponderance of Igbos in 419 frauds.
Perhaps if an Igbo man were present when he made the comment, he might have reminded my friend that the people of his own ethnic extraction, the Yoruba, are the geniuses in credit card and identity frauds.
But it is unhelpful to dwell on the regional and ethnic content of Nigerian fraud because non-Nigerians cannot tell a southerner from a northerner. No non-Nigerian who is a victim of “Nigerian” scams is impressed or even persuaded by the fact that 419 and credit card frauds are perpetrated largely, if not wholly, by southern Nigerians. The shame and embarrassment of these scams affect us all, irrespective of our regions of origin.
This is an issue that should concern any government deeply. The restoration of civilian rule may have brought our government officials back to the official circles of the so-called international community, but we are still pariahs in many ordinary circles because of our image as a nation of scammers.
Instead of worrying their corrupt little heads about this serious image problem, our president and our state governors are held prisoner by a childish obsession to “attract foreign investment” into the country.
With our current severely battered image and culture of fraud, only three kinds of foreigners can be persuaded to come and invest here: a naïve person, a criminally minded investor, or a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence.