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The Tragedy Of Philip Emeagwali-How the Gordon Bell Prize (GBP) Ruined Him

November 2, 2010

«Not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you—that is what has distressed me. » —Friedrich Nietzsche

«Not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you—that is what has distressed me. » —Friedrich Nietzsche

I remember it very clearly. It was in 1997. I didn’t just read it, I assimilated every single word of that story about Philip Emeagwali, ‘The Bill Gates of Africa,’ in that edition of The Guardian On Sunday, the ‘flagship’ of the Nigerian Press. I believed every word I read. The highlights of that story are similar to the grandiose and megalomaniac claims on Every progressive human being, especially black people everywhere, would be extremely happy with that story.

Unfortunately that story was a scam! How come nobody thought it was too good to be true? I think the answer is that our hunger for greatness, partly in order to prove that we are also humans like others, coupled with the false belief that the best brains are to be found in the pure sciences, that a scientific invention is the absolute proof of superior intelligence and of genius, could becloud our better judgment and cause us to lower our guards. If the Nigerian authorities were not sold on that nonsense they would have put the picture of the man who actually won the Noble Prize, purely on account his intellectual contribution, on their postage stamp instead of that of a spin doctor who won a $1,000.00 prize but convinced them it was the equivalent of the Noble Prize!

Mr. Emeagwali harps on the point, well taken by the way, that, to counter the stories the West has been telling about Africa which are distortions at best, Africans should tell their own stories. So Emeagwali took it upon himself to tell his own story, he had after all won the Almighty Gordon Bell Prize on Supercomputing.

In that narrative in The Guardian, Emeagwali started with the impressive and convincing story of how his dad turned him into a mathematical genius by making him solve complex problems mentally at a very tender age. The result of this home education, according to Philip, was that when he went to take the Common Entrance exam in Asaba, he did the mathematics test that was supposed to take about an hour in less than ten minutes. In his words, the examiners became suspicious, thinking that he had used unconventional means. So they made him retake the test, and he again repeated the genial feat. When he went to the famous CKC, Onitsha, he was called Calculus because of his ability to crack difficult maths and additional maths problems in no time. Naturally he ended up in the great US of A. After successfully completing his first degree, so goes the narrative, he did between 5 and 7 Masters Degrees in one go before finally taking his doctorate in engineering. Mr. Emeagwali went on to speak, again impressively, of his ideas about how to develop Africa and Nigeria in particular via information technology. The Guardian being the best source of information in the country at the time, I didn’t for once think that this guy could be a fraud. Those who have access to The Guardian archives should pull the story up and see for themselves. 

I mention The Guardian exposé because I believe his popularity in Nigeria owes a lot to it. If The Guardian said that this guy is a genius, then most Nigerians believed he must be one. And politicians lined to up to take advantage of the newly minted Nigerian genius. I believe that was how he got all the national awards and his picture ended up on the nation’s stamp. I was always talking of how mighty this guy was and recommended him to my younger ones as a role model. He went through very tough times, according to that story: his family spent time in a refugee camp during the Nigerian civil war. But he seemed to have come through it all unscathed.

Years later when I started graduate studies in North America, I kept asking students who were in computer studies how well they knew Mr. Emeagwali. Forgive my naïveté, but I had to equate him with giants like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka whose names are well known to students of literature (in any language) and indeed any well educated person. But Emeagwali’s name always drew a blank. I was quite concerned about this ‘injustice’ being meted out by the academic world to one of the brightest brains in the field. At a point I even thought it was a conspiracy. Why were they not talking about him? All this while it never occurred to me to check the guy out myself, for instance his publications. It was entirely my fault.

The puzzle began to unravel in a rude awakening I got from reading one of the online Nigerian journals in the spring of 2006. I read it in the evening and had a hard time sleeping. As Nietzsche rightly said, ‘Not that you lied to me, but that I no longer believe you—that is what has distressed me—.’I was deeply disturbed that this man could very well be a fraud. The shock boiled down to a simple question: why claim to have a doctorate when you didn’t have it? Now whether you merited to have one or not is out of the question. Why claim to be what you’re not? My problem with the guy is just as simple as that: why tell a lie about a degree you don’t have? And why lie about a profession you’re not engaged in? In that Guardian exposé he claimed that each time he sent his (intimidating) resume for job openings, he would be invited for interview only for the interviewers to be shocked that he’s a black man and then deny him the job. There certainly are discriminations about minorities by some in the West, but there are even more Westerners ready and willing to recognize achievements by minorities. That is how we have many of our best brains living and working in the west and winning awards constantly. The Prize on which Emeagwali has based his phoney claim to fame is not administered by the Nigerian government, nor by African Americans.

Concerning failing his doctoral candidacy exams, the real problem, as the common wisdom teaches, is not falling down but staying down. Academic history is replete with intellectual giants who failed their exams any number of times. But they proved that failure shouldn’t deter anyone from achieving greatness. Jacques Derrida, the philosopher of deconstruction, failed his exams many times, but went ahead to become a great philosopher. Chinua Achebe reportedly received some exceptionally low marks during his student days. But he refused to stay low, as we all know. Wole Soyinka got an inferior degree at UI but refused to stay inferior. We know the rest. The trouble with Emeagwali is that he remained where he fell, and decided to become a con artist, thereby consummating the failure. If Philip is truly as great as he claims, then failing his exams would not make him any less great, just like not having a graduate degree could not diminish that greatness. This is why it’s painful (to some of us who actually believed that he was great) to see that the man is more interested in claiming titles he didn’t earn and fraudulently benefiting from same. Here’s a man who is more interested in self promotion than in doing serious scientific work. The retort that the man never claimed to be a PhD shows how people have fallen for his ruse. If you look at the CV’s he posted you will see that he is the unique source of that deception. That is why he has never corrected anybody who called him ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor.’

On the other hand we need to give him his due: I don’t think that the fact that he won the Gordon Prize by default is an important detail. It may be factually correct but beside the point. He was not sleeping when they called him to come and claim the prize because there was no one else to claim it. This man actually produced a work that others judged worthy enough to win a prize. The problem is that he allowed that little achievement to get to his head and on the strength of that began calling himself the greatest scientist in history. The fact that no scientific journal, reputable or not, has deemed that  winning entry worthy of publication, the fact that when Emeagwali presented the work as a doctoral dissertation only to see it roundly rejected, should have given him a sense of the negligible value of the prize. To begin to compare the prize to the Noble Prize stretches credibility to a ridiculous level and exposes a dishonest mindset. The prize was supposed to spur him on to more serious work, but he decided that with it, he had arrived, that he is equal or even greater than Noble Prize winning scientists. Unfortunately, for a time, he was able to convince many people, and I fear himself too, that it was the case. That is really tragic.

Paradoxically the prize became his ruination. This is because one could argue that if he didn’t win that prize, he would have done more serious research and would probably not be a professional scammer today. And isn’t it tragic that the man’s claim to be a ‘great’ scientist begins and ends with that prize? In Emeagwali’s narrative, one is left with the impression that the GBP (which is awarded yearly) starts and ends with him. The reader of his claims on his website and other places is easily deceived into believing that no one before or after him had won that prize, that even if they had, their prize is not worth as much as Philip’s. This is one of the reasons he needs to be reminded, not that he won the prize by default, but that he actually came second in that contest. Today with China laying claim to the world's fastest supercomputer which is reported to set a new performance record of 2507 trillion calculations - or 2.5 petaflops - per second, the  entries that won the GBP in 1989 seem like a child’s play. (Philip’s entry could only claim 3.1billion calculations per second).

But let us not forget that Philip’s claim to fame is uniquely hinged on that prize. It’s on the strength of that prize as displayed on his website that he has received accolades. He has made a lot of the fact that Bill Clinton called him the Bill Gates of Africa, based on that spurious claim, and that news organisations like CNN, TIMES and the BBC have paid him glowing tributes. But we need to put these accolades into context. Bill Clinton, when he was in the most populous Black Country, was pandering to his African American base. He knew quite well that many Americans believe what their president says. Isn’t that how they were lied into the Iraqi war? Remember too that in the same speech Clinton said that Nnamdi Azikiwe was influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That was as factually wrong as his claim on Emegwali. Anybody who followed attentively the President’s utterances about the Obama campaign during the Democratic Party primaries in 2008 would understand that for the man, the end is what justifies the means. He didn’t hesitate to play what he called the ‘race card,’ this time pandering to the white voters. The most outrageous claim of the President during that African visit, when he was asked  by a journalist in Zimbabwe about the prospects of Abacha transforming himself to a civilian president, was that some African military men had been known to do that and had gone on to become great statesmen for their countries. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I’m sure very few Nigerians would have liked Abacha’s claim to power and authority to be based on that Clintonian tongue in cheek endorsement. So we need to take what the man said about Emeagwali with a great deal of reservation. The same goes for the news organizations mentioned above. As someone has rightly noted, those news organisations branded Mandela and the ANC terrorists for years before they made a 1800 turn. Today they honor him as a living saint! Let us keep that in mind. As for those who are hung up on the belief that those news organizations have fact checkers, read what they wrote and listen to what they said and you’ll see that their fact checking started and ended with a visit to Emeagwali’s website. One also needs to ask how many scientists stake their claim to honor on what politicians and news organizations say? No scientist worth his salt does that! And so, the fact that Mr. Emeagwali harps on that should be red flag!

Visit Emeagwali’s website and you see adverts about booking him! This is very curious. ‘great’ scientists don’t engage in speaking tours as a profession: they do research. They teach and publish the results of their research. But on the very top of Emeagwali’s website is the invitation: « Booking Request » boldly written, and further down, ‘Book Emeagwali.’ That should tell any discerning mind what the guy is up to! He’s living off people’a gullibility! And if you listen to his speeches, you realize that they are based on statistics that anybody with internet access can easily put together. They have nothing to do with science as such. As his wife said in one of her defences, Mr. Emeagwali gets paid more than tenured professors from his speaking tours. This reminds one of the story, told by the Indian author and spiritual guru, Anthony de Mello, about a thief who went to steal from a house. A member of the house caught him in the act and soon the whole village was looking for the thief who promptly ran into a nearby bush. While in the bush, he saw a heap of ash and quickly doused himself in ashes and quietly went and sat under a tree as a wondering mendicant. Soon word got around the village that a holy man was among them. The villagers started taking gifts to him. The thief was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was for him to live off people’s gullibility as he settled into his new profession.
Emeagwali has severally claimed that his website is the most visited ever! He claims to be greatest scientist ever, and when he remembers, he’d add of African descent. The funniest one I saw on his site is ‘the biggest scientist ever.’ If ‘the greatest’ or ‘biggest’ scientist is living today, he would not need to remind us of it on a commercial website of all places!
As a Yoruba proverb says, lies may be flying for years but a minute of truth will catch up with them and overtake them.The truth of the matter is that the man has been convincingly exposed to be a fraud, based on available facts. Emeagwali is very smart but not very wise. He is very clever but not very intelligent. He should stop deceiving himself about his so called ‘greatness’ and get a life. 

Mr. Emeagwali’s fans should get real. They should open their eyes to the tragedy of their hero: the real possibility that the man believes all these grandiose and megalomaniac lies he has been spewing about himself. In that case the man could be deceiving, not just others, but also himself, and that is pathological.

The only ‘inventions’ on which Emeagwali’s phoney fame rests are these:

1.    The farce that the Gordon Bell Prize is the equivalent of the Noble Prize in Supercomputing.
2.    That that prize makes him the father, or a father, of the internet or of an internet. George Bush may be right after all when he spoke of the internetS! This claim is tantamount to what Ndigbo call a case where a man claims to have had a first son before his father had the chance to have one: he used the internet to do the calculation which made him the/a father of the/an internet!
3.    That he has upwards of 30 patents. There is nowhere in the world, including Nigeria, where he has anything resembling a patent. The only patent he has is the one anyone can buy with $25.00, that is, a website.
4.    That his website is the most visited of all living scientists. Apparently people are really interested in the above mentioned ‘inventions.’
5.    That he solved problems that were 330 years, 200 years, and 100 years old!
6.    Finally, that if Bill Clinton, CNN, TIMES and BBC say that he is a great scientist, then he must be one, even if he himself didn’t know it. That last time I checked, none of the above mentioned ever made somebody a great scientist. A great scientist is made great by his achievements, verifiable by other scientists, and acknowledged by other scientists as such.

To Emeagwali’s fans who re hurting, there are a number of ways you can swallow this bitter pill (I swallowed mine 5 years ago). Some of the ways are honest while others are dishonest. Let me illustrate it with an analogy.

Suppose my mother decides to walk naked on the streets? If I’m honest and truly love her, I’d first try to cover her nudity, get her out of the public place and get her the help she needs. The fact that she walked naked on the street should not and could not stop me from loving her as my mother. But if I’m dishonest, I could do a number of things. I could spin it and argue, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that she did not really walk naked on the streets, that if you looked carefully enough, you would see that she was actually dressed in her wedding gown. I could also play the blame game by saying that the people who dared to utter the fact about her are our personal enemies who have been working or wishing for our downfall. Having said that, I could then proceed to claim that they are the ones who invented the story in the first place because they are jealous of our successes. If I’m a Nigerian, I could easily take refuge in ethnicity: those who are stating that (obvious) fact are from the opposing ethnic groups, just like some people are defending the disastrous Obasanjo presidency based, not on facts, but on ethnic sentiments.

I sincerely hope that Philip and his fans will see the subterfuge they’ve been wallowing in for what it is. It’s never too late to do the right thing. You don’t need to deceive others and possibly yourself in order to be famous or to make a good living.

Ka Chineke mezie okwu!