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Only two of ten presidents attend AU ‘science champions’ summit

Most of the presidents who volunteered to sit on an African Union committee to champion African science, technology and education investment sent proxies to their first get-together held in Lilongwe, Malawi, last week.

The first summit of the Committee of Ten Heads of State and Government Championing Education, Science and Technology in Africa (C10) was attended by only two leaders: Arthur Mutharika of host Malawi and Hage Geingob of Namibia.

Senegal’s president Macky Sall, the chair of the C10 and a staunch advocate for the meeting, sent prime minister Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne in his stead. Other delegations were led by ministers and “high profile government representatives”.

Malawi’s media described the no-show as an embarrassment for Mutharika. An article on the Malawi 24 news site called it a "snub".

Mammo Muchie, a South African Research Chair holder at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology, agreed that it was unacceptable that only two heads of states attended.

“How can there be science champions when those who joined to be the marathon runners of science do not join the race? There cannot be science champions with the absence of the marathon runners,” he said.

No mention was made of the missing dignitaries during the summit’s opening address, although a giant banner emblazoned with their faces hung above the speakers.

The C10 was established in 2015. The heads of state for two countries per region were chosen as champions of science. Apart from Malawi, Namibia and Senegal, the others involved are Chad, Egypt, Gabon, Kenya, Mauritius, Sierra Leone and Tunisia.

An expert group met in Senegal a month before the summit, while the science and education ministers met a day before the summit in Malawi. The ministers came up with recommendations that the heads of states’ representatives considered in a closed session and which formed the Lilongwe declaration. It was adopted and will be presented to the AU in January 2019.

The contents of the declaration have not been published. AU officials said that it has “not yet been cleared for circulation”, with no date as to when this may happen.

Delegates stressed commitment

Despite the presidential no-show, the speakers at the opening ceremony made a strong case for African science.

Sarah Anyang-Agbor, the AU commissioner for human resources, science and technology, called for greater investment in science, technology and innovation and more links to the private sector, as well as action and follow-through on plans

She insisted that science and technology enjoy the attention of the “highest level of policymaking” on the continent. “Education, science and technology is now at the front and centre of the development debate in Africa,” she said.

President Geingob offered a more sober outlook, arguing that investment is crucial and urgent: “We have been left in the past. If we allow ourselves to be left again that will be our fault.”

Geingob said Africa should invest in “talent management” to help countries retain their researchers and scientists, and prioritise postgraduate study and research infrastructure. He promised that Namibia will boost its research spending from the current 0.35 per cent of GDP to to 1 per cent by 2022.

President Mutharika argued that Africa is the birthplace of science and technology, which must therefore take up its rightful place in societies: “For too long we have taught science as if it is a Western subject. Science is not foreign to Africa.”

Muchie was sceptical of the commitment voiced by speakers, calling for more concrete action.

“It is easy to [acknowledge the importance of education, science, technology and innovation] but what is not so easy is to find very specific, tangible and measurable  road maps on how real transformation and performance outcomes can be delivered,” he said.