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Olusegun Obasanjo speaks at the African Think Tanks Summit 2018

Helmut Sorge | Posted : May 10, 2018

These days, the word «crisis» is gaining a new urgency around the globe… Crisis of humanity, of water, hunger, poverty, climate. Crisis of war, destruction, terrorism. And a crisis of thought, intellectual exchange, theories transfered into reality. And a crisis of think tanks, eventually, although their work matters, since it sends signals, offers proposals and applicable solutions. 

In that context, Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria and Board member of the Africa Progress Panel, boarded a private plane in his country, flew through the night, recovered a few hours in Rabat and then described, without hesitation, the urgency  of the survival of think tanks in an passionate keynote address. The audience of some 100 experts from all over Africa listened carefully to him, at the opening of the African Think Tanks Summit 2018, organized by the OCP Policy Center and the Lauder Institute of the University of Pennsylvania

Olusegun Obasanjo’s voice was low, his headgear traditional and his message clear: think tanks are part of regional integration and the will to move towards the “United States of Africa”. «Yes, some of Africa’s think tanks have folded, said Olusegun Obasanjo. Some 60% of these institutions are highly vulnerable with risks of disappearing, given unstable funding, staff turnover and brain drain». 

The risk of political hijacking of think tanks 

For the seasoned veteran of African politics who presided his country for the first time (1976-79) as a General and gave over the power to a civilian President, Shehu Shagari, «it is remarkable that our think tanks have moved from simply conducting research whose reports pick up dust on shelves to actively engaging civil societies and governments in the implementation of their research findings». 

The former President of the IVth Nigerian Republic (1999-2007), that put an end to the harsh military rule of General Sani Abacha, admitted off camera that in some African countries suspicion remains strong about the integrity of think tanks. The reason ? «Government and political opposition often look for means to influence think tanks when it comes to policy making. They end up not implementing the policies which do not represent their interests. Hence a challenge to think tank independence is the risk of hijack by government agencies or the political opposition».

This risk is particulary high in African countries with authoritarian regimes where think tanks are often offered positions or contracts by public officials or the opposition  «to dance to their tune». Funding, human resource capacity deficit, low credibility of data upon which recommandations are based, corruption and suspicion of impartiality are some of the challenges impeding success and sustainability of African think tanks. 

The role of think tanks in regional and continental integration

Not all was negative, though. «Great interest remains in the formulation of solutions tailored to solve Africa’s problems. And in spite of the various challenges that think tanks face in the area of funding, African think tanks have featured prominently on the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index.» 

Olusegun Obasanjo told his audience that «there is evidence that Africa has some of the best think tanks in the world». In his view, «regional integration is more likely to succeed if these agents of diplomacy are involved». 
On the way to the “United States of Africa
” – an old panafrican dream that has been difficult so far to make come true -, Olusegun Obasanjo emphasized the role of regional economic communities and the project of the African Economic Community that should happen by 2028. He also mentioned the recently signed Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), a major milestone in the march for African integration, 

 «In overcoming the bottlenecks faced in integrating Africa, think tanks have a crucial role to play», said Olusegun Obasanjo. Africa’s think tanks, the Nigerian statesman emphazised, «must start focusing their research on prescriptive solutions facing member states and Regional Communities. In policy design they must start to speak the language that the people understand so that their research is purposeful and the findings and recommandations are relevant and appropriate for resolving developmental problems. Some people see African think tanks as undercover agents for the promotion of special interests for governments and donors. We must let our activities dispel this myth». 

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