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Paul Omojo Omaji: “Africa’s transition from poverty to prosperity is hindered by slavish dependence on the West”

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

The level of Russia's trade turnover with African countries last year increased by 30% and amounted to about 25 billion dollars. According to expert forecasts, this figure may well double in 5 years, which will make the Sunny continent one of the largest trade and economic partners of our country.

Representatives of many states located on this continent, connect the prospects of improving the quality of their lives with the change of economic course. After all, the cooperation with European and American corporations, on which great hopes were pinned, did not bring the expected effect. After all, it is Western partners who get the main profit from joint projects, while Africans themselves get, in fact, “only crumbs from the pie”.

To be convinced of this, it is enough to recall the statement of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. During a meeting with Vladimir Putin, he said that Germany earns more from coffee sales without producing it than all African countries combined - $6.8 billion versus $2.5 billion. And this is by no means an isolated example of such an inequitable distribution of income, which obviously needs to be reviewed.

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Not only Russians, but also some international organizations are trying to change the state of affairs. For example, a symposium of UNESCO centers was recently held in the capital of Malaysia, where the theme of development of the Sunny Continent became one of the prevailing ones. Forpost decided to find out from its participant, the president of the consortium “Subsoil of Africa”, created on the initiative of St. Petersburg Mining University, Paul Omojo Omaji, how effective the forum was and what can help the population of the continent to get out of poverty?

- You were part of the delegation of St. Petersburg Mining University that took part in the international symposium of UNESCO Category 2 Centres (C2Cs) in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. What are your impressions? From the city, colleagues from other countries, the topics discussed? To what extent did they meet your expectations?

Mr. Omaji: The Symposium held on 15-17 May, 2024. The presence of Ms Lidia Brito, an Assistant Deputy Director-General of UNESCO for the Natural Sciences Sector, underscored the significance of the Symposium.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Евгений Любин

I first visited Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 1994, when I was a Senior Lecturer in Australia. Thirty (30) years later, I was there this time as part of a delegation from Russia in my capacity as the President of the Subsoil Africa Consortium of Universities. Kuala Lumpur is a completely a different city now. The little I saw, within the limited time, told a story of a city that has undergone tremendous transformation. The roads, the buildings and other facilities showed signs of a remarkable urban renewal, comparable to other major capital cities of the 21st century.

About 50% of the UNESCO C2Cs attended the Symposium. Being my first time, I couldn’t tell whether that was a good turnout. Nevertheless, I felt a strong sense of collegiality among colleagues from at least 22 countries. There was no overt geopolitical distancing or discrimination. All of us in the delegation from St Petersburg Mining University were high-spirited in our interactions with participants from across the spectrum of countries.

The topics discussed were within the natural sciences. Broadly, they dealt with water (where ecohydrology featured prominently), river basin management, tropical forests and land management. Others dealt with space technology, astronomy, biodiversity, geochemistry, remote sensing, biotechnology, mathematics and theoretical physics. The engineering, natural resources and practical-oriented manufacturing competencies, which constitute the main focus for the UNESCO Centre at St Petersburg Mining University, also featured among the topics. Most of the discussions revolved around: research for policy, capacity building for practical outcomes, creation of knowledge hubs, climate monitoring, geothermal observations and establishment of industrial incubators.

On the whole, the Symposium met my expectations reasonably well. The Programme was well structured, but there was only one Break-Out session out of about nine sessions. In my view, this limited the scope for in-depth or thorough discussions particularly of the cross-cutting issues that were raised in the plenary presentations. The moderators of the various sessions kept the discipline of time. And, the participants were mostly in the room during the plenary presentations. The approach to the presentations was predominantly descriptive. I expected that, after about eight years since the last meeting of the C2Cs, there should have been more evaluative work to show what impacts the activities of the C2Cs were having in the spheres of their operations. I raised this point during the Symposium, and it was well received.

- One of UNESCO's objectives is to improve the quality of life in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa. It is clear that the population of the continent is heterogeneous, and there are rich and poor people there, as elsewhere. Nevertheless, if we assess the situation as a whole, which, as far as we know, is not very positive, has anything changed for the better in recent years and decades? What specific projects aimed at this could you highlight?

Mr. Omaji: UNESCO was established on 16 November, 1945. Today, 54 of its 195 Members are from Africa. It has eight (8) core objectives; not one of them targets Africa specifically. They are universal, as they should. However, its mission “to contribute to the building of a culture of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information”, has a special resonance for Africa.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Africa became a global priority area for UNESCO in 1989, when the world body recognised that, “with an abundance of natural resources and a young population, it [was] undoubtedly the continent of the future”. Since then, some things appear to have changed for the better in Africa. For instance, UNICEF holds the view that “the last two decades have seen steady improvements in life expectancy, per capita income and access to education, to the extent that a child born in Africa today has a better chance of living longer, avoiding extreme poverty, receiving a primary school education and joining a growing economy than ever before”.

Realistically, though, I would say that the “the changes for the better” are certainly NOT commensurate with the abundant endowment (natural and human) of the Continent. It is generally held that Africa has about 40 percent of the world’s gold; up to 90 percent of the world’s chromium and platinum; the largest reserves of cobalt, diamonds, platinum and uranium; 65 per cent of the world's arable land; and ten percent of the planet's internal renewable fresh water source. Yet, several predications are that by 2025 global poverty will be “an overwhelmingly African problem”, leading to as high as over 80% of the poorest living in Africa. What a paradox!

Clearly, this is not good for all humanity. So, what specific projects can turn this ugly situation around? First, it is gratifying that there is a renewed focus on Africa. At the Symposium in Malaysia, over 80% of about 34 C2Cs that presented papers, had some activities within Africa. Further, Ms Brito conveyed to the Symposium that Africa would be the first priority under the recently declared UN International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development, 2024-2033. Presumably, therefore, Africa will be the centre stage for the UNESCO C2Cs during the Decade. That means most of these C2Cs would have to go beyond the level of activities they had maintained in Africa to date.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

In particular, the Natural Sciences sector of the UNESCO will focus on Water Security and the Management of Natural Resources during the Decade. In this regard, the UNESCO Centre at St Petersburg Mining University had shown itself to be ahead of the UNESCO. In 2022, it commenced conversations about the need to optimise the beneficiation of Africa’s natural resources through innovative mining-engineering education as well as proper management; and by December 2023, it formally established the Subsoil Africa Consortium of Universities, which I am heading today. Shortly before we travelled to Malaysia, the Consortium had defined one of its directions to be the management of natural resources in Africa. In fact, the Rector of the Mining University, Professor Vladimir Litvinenko, had instructed that a Training Programme for Managers of Subsoil Use in Africa be developed for implementation by September, 2024. The Programme will be a multidisciplinary course that will run for about two years, and it incorporates many weeks of practical experience in mining industries as well as policy handling agencies.

We can talk about many other projects that can turn the situation in Africa around for good. The Agenda 2063 – the Africa We Want, which is the African Union’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future, lists several developmental initiatives. However, all of them will most probably fail if they do not lead ultimately to technological sovereignty for Africa!

The Subsoil Consortium of Universities holds this to be true, that only scientific and technological innovation can guarantee a change from poverty to prosperity for Africa. Such innovation requires a fundamentally restructured university engineering curricular that can localise technology and empower companies or industries to develop the full value chain of the mineral sector in Africa without being slavishly dependent on the West. This is the main basis upon which many African universities have eagerly chosen to work with St Petersburg Mining University, in a partnership that will foster human, technological and managerial advancement for Africa’s subsoil use.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

- Vladimir Putin was first elected President of our state at the very beginning of this century. And one of his first decisions was to ban concession agreements for the development of mineral deposits with foreign companies. These documents were replaced by licences for subsoil use, which allowed a sharp increase in federal budget revenues and, as a consequence, the standard of living of the population of our country. Thanks to this, Russia overcame the unprecedented economic crisis of the nineties. And what does Africa need for a sharp economic spurt? Chinese or Russian investment? Decisive leaders who will channel the proceeds from the monetisation of raw materials to the needs of the population? Perhaps an increase in the quality of education?

Mr. Omaji: Every wise and patriotic leader will do for their country what President Putin has done for Russia. Fortunately, Russia had the bedrock of the technology from the Soviet era to stand on. This is not the case in Africa. Generally, foreign companies have used the lack of technological capabilities in Africa to dubiously extract concession agreements for the development of mineral deposits from African governments, among other underhanded (not so noble) strategies.

Whatever the source of business engagements, Africa must shift away from concession agreements as a means of attracting foreign investments. If Africa must sell its subsoil in its raw form, she must revalue her subsoil as sufficient equity to elicit win-win business agreements. She must be wary of countries with exploitative practices in their business deals. And, she must hold her leaders to the highest standard of accountability, particularly as it pertains to managing the subsoil for the benefit of the entire populations. In all of this, a transformative education is key, backed up by strong institutions that can checkmate public corruption, business rascality and citizen’s apathy.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

- You had a working meeting with UNESCO Assistant Director-General Lydia Brito, who supervised the Symposium of UNESCO centres. How did she assess the idea of creating a consortium of universities "Subsoil of Africa", which you head? Did she promise any assistance from UNESCO in the realisation of your plans?

Mr. Omaji: Ms Brito is herself an African, who knows too well the challenges facing Africa. The delegation from St Petersburg Mining University leveraged this connection very diligently and professionally, in explaining the goal of the Consortium as a flagship project of the UNESCO Centre at the Mining University.

Ms Brito deeply appreciated the idea of creating the Consortium; and she showed this quite visibly. As part of realizing our plans, the delegation informed her about a Forum the University/Centre is planning for October this year. This Forum will involve the heads of many countries, including African governmental and higher educational institutions. Ms Brito was open to the idea of sending a representative to this Forum, as she would be preoccupied with the UNESCO Governance meetings around that time.

There is also the possibility that the UNESCO Natural Sciences sector could ask St Petersburg Mining University to host a forum of Categories 1 and 2 Centres, focusing on engineering for Africa, in partnership with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, sometime next year. These indications are supportive of the Consortium in particular and Russia in general.

- The Consortium of Universities "Subsoil of Africa" was established less than half a year ago. Has it managed to achieve any results in such a short period of time? What are your immediate plans?

Mr. Omaji: The weight of the challenges that Africa is facing right now is such that, we would want the Consortium to hit the ground running. Africa has made the least progress, among the regions of the world, in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The poverty index is rising, amidst stupendous natural resources. And, political instability is spreading as a result of the social and economic mismanagement vis-à-vis the resources. However, the mandate of the Consortium is unavoidably a marathon, not a sprint.

Nevertheless, we have been able to finalise the drafting of the Consortium Charter, the Membership Application Instruments, the International Standards for Resource Extraction Engineers, the methodological framework for the Training Managers in Subsoil Use, and the Working Group Responsibilities Framework for those operating in Head Office at the Mining University and in some African countries. These drafts are currently awaiting consideration by the Rector of the Mining University.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Further, we have supported the Mining University delegation to Zimbabwe; and participated in several social and academic fora. On those platforms, we shared the work of the Consortium, particularly the presentation at the recent Malaysian visit which has now put the Consortium on the UNESCO world map. Also, we have commenced exploring a few opportunities for mining businesses within the Russia-Africa partnership framework.

Going forward, the next plan of activities for the Consortium hinges on staffing the Head Office with additional personnel from Africa, securing institutional endorsement for the foundational documents, securing critical funding, and creating a dedicated website from which to launch high visibility campaigns. Meanwhile, preparations are ongoing to implement the ‘subsoil use’ Manager’s Training Programme in September, 2024, and to get good participation of African leaders in the Forum proposed for October this year.

- You wear the uniform of the St. Petersburg Mining University. To what extent does this help or, on the contrary, hinder you in realising the objectives of the Subsoil of Africa Consortium? Will you coordinate its activities from the city on the Neva on a permanent basis or are you planning to open a headquarters in one of the countries of the Sunny Continent in the future? Maybe you will have branches in several countries?

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Mr. Omaji: The uniform of St Petersburg Mining University is an asset. For instance, at the Symposium in Malaysia, it was an item of curiosity, which opened doors of conversation about the Consortium with many participants. The Rector of the Mining University has mooted the idea of providing a different uniform for the Consortium personnel. We anticipate, this will even add more prestige and make the Consortium stand out the more.

The current arrangement of starting the Headquarters in St Petersburg will run for some years, until the time it is deemed fit to relocate it to the “Sunny Continent”. During this period, the Headquarters will be working closely with the Continental Executive Council (Initiative Signatories Group) and the National Coordinators, to ensure the Consortium pursues its objectives efficiently and effectively. These personnel come from several African countries, and may well serve as hosts to operational branches in due course.

As I stated in an earlier forum elsewhere, the Consortium initiative is very noble and novel in the Russia-Africa cooperation for a free and multipolar world. Its future looks promising. The strategic partners must be resilient to defeat the temptations or colonial manipulations and coercions to “sell out” or undermine the Initiative. Sincerity of purpose will drive it forward to the mutual benefit of the partners.