Collaborative Capacity Building In Intellectual Property — Leveraging On African Diaspora Exchange

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By Chidi Oguamanam

Depending on where one locates its advent, contemporary globalization is now, certainly, more than a half a century old. It requires asking whether globalization has been beneficial to Africa. One quick and easy way of addressing this often asked question is to cursorily look at the regional dynamics of over half century of globalization.

Not many disagree that the East Asian, Southeast Asia and South American regions have taken a quantum leap. China, India and Brazil have indisputably emerged as regional economic and global powers. Despite prevalent poverty and inequity in these continental and sub-continental countries, there is demonstrable evidence that they have been and are on the march. And the world has taken notice. Today, these countries are accorded the recognition and respect they deserve as they continue to wield influence and to shape the global economic and power dynamics.

But the African picture has not been as exciting. Through globalization’s trajectories, Africa is still the continent with the highest concentration of least developed countries. It is still home to the most vulnerable in direst need of the basic means of human survival. It is perhaps the most vulnerable region to global climate crisis as it is the least prepared for the challenge. On a global scale, human development indicators in Africa still remain the worst. If any claim can be fairly made of globalization in regard to Africa, it is this: Globalization has not changed the status quo about Africa. Nonetheless, there are visible signs of change in contemporary Africa.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a “big buzz” about Africa. This is as the US, Europe and most of the developed world’s economies fumble and contract. The downward economic trends in Europe and the US are results both of systemic failures as well a consequence of involuntary, even if inevitable, structural calibrations to accommodate the continuing shift in the global economic status quo instigated by the emerging powers. At the same time, the red-hot growths of the new emerging economies have begun to show signs of slowing down or stabilizing.

But Africa’s regional economy is surging. Compared to other regions, Africa seems to have successfully weathered the global financial crisis of 2008-2010, for reasons outside the present discussion. Today, African countries constitute 80 percent of the fastest growing economies in the world (simply 8 out of 10). These eight economies (Ghana, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Angola and Malawi) are growing at a rate of double or close to double digits. As far-fetched as it sounds, it is projected that at the current growth rate, by 2050 Africa’s economy will surpass that of the United States and Europe combined.

Africa has become the destination of choice for foreign direct investments (FDIs). Africa’s traditional partners in the West (Europe and the United States) are fast being displaced by China, India and Brazil. The three are pushing and digging into Africa not only to satisfy their appetite for energy and natural resources, but also to leverage their political influence in a fast changing world order.

The contemporary transformation in the global economy in which Africa is strategically implicated unravels the catalytic role of two major technological revolutions. They are the digital and biotechnology innovations. From rural and mobile telephony to diverse computing applications and the wonders of the internet, digital technologies have changed the global landscape and have left nothing untouched. From resource extraction, harnessing of genetic resources for food, agriculture and medicine, to various creative repertoire in music, movie, choreography, and resourceful deployment of the cyberspace to energize the social media, personal cum communal exchanges and democratic participation, nothing has escaped the innovative potential of the digital overhang. From research in medicine, to agriculture, food production and processing, and various aspects of life sciences, the marriage of digital technologies and biotechnologies continues to transform our society.

The two technologies of transformation and global transition to the knowledge economy are essentially proprietary. Consequently, current African economic activism and attractiveness is consolidated through the pivotal role of intellectual property rights. It is hardly surprising that intellectual property rights have expanded exponentially since the mid-1990s in order to optimize benefits and control for innovators. Africa is both a consumer and is fast transitioning into a producer of new technologies and innovation.

Like most African countries, Nigeria had embarked on critical transformations in virtually all sectors of its economy since the return of democracy in 1999. The corruption-ridden privatization regime of the early 2000s has swept through the telecommunications, power, ports, banking, petroleum, agriculture and the broadcast industries to name the few. All of these involve the opening up of the market for FDIs and competition. Because technology is the driver of the new ways of doing things, the ability of countries to optimize their interests in the new environment depends, in part, on how they leverage on intellectual property rights and technology transfer in the pursuit of their peculiar development objectives. If a country is not well equipped in the intellectual property and knowledge governance front, it is less likely to optimize opportunities on the critical issue of technology transfer and capacity building. Without strong capacity in intellectual property and overall knowledge governance, the present buzz about Africa may be one in which Africa yet again receives a short end of the stick even in the new framework of South-South partnerships.

Africa’s ability to leverage its increasing visibility and preference for South-South economic partnerships will significantly depend on how well it is equipped to manage the intellectual property complements and components of the contemporary economic transformations. So far, Nigeria has waddled through the transformations in its economy by an ad hoc or fire brigade approach to acquiring capacity in intellectual property in the public sector, the practicing Bar and other critical stakeholders. All of these actors seem overwhelmed by the turn of events. As far back as the 1990s, the practicing Bar constituted an intellectual property lobby, the Intellectual Property Lawyers Association (IPLAN), which has no training or capacity building agenda on IP for its members even as it exerts little influence in areas of IP administration and law reform. The paucity of IP manpower is as true in the practicing Bar as it is in the judiciary and the academia in Nigeria and, indeed, all of Africa. The development of capacity and expertise has not kept pace with the expansion and sophistication of intellectual property. That state of affairs depicts a structural fault line in Africa’s ability to optimize on-going economic and social transformations.

Beyond piracy and other forms of copyright infringement that dominates the media, thanks to the Nigerian Copyright Commission and the Nollywood stakeholders, much more is happening at the intersection of intellectual property and Nigeria’s economic rebirth. We need expertise in IP such as patent rights, especially in: biotechnology at large (including health, food, agriculture, chemistry, pharmaceuticals); the newer regime of rights around traditional knowledge, farmers’ rights, digital rights management, software, domain name; electronic and mobile commerce and the jurisdictional challenges of cyberspace-driven transactions. One can go on and on.

In comparison to the practicing Bar, the civil service, its bureaucrats and other stakeholders, the academia is in stronger position to lead the initiative for national capacity building in intellectual property. Because of academic freedom, the legal academy is not bogged down by bureaucracy and is in a position to seize the opportunity presented by the capacity gap through self-education and collaborative interdisciplinary curriculum development. The good news is that we do not need to re-invent the wheel. It is already past the time to start things from scratch; that option was never available. Innovation in the digital age is fast-paced, unpredictable and continues to push the intellectual property envelope to directions many thought were not plausible. The task of raising new generation of homegrown human IP resource software to meet the challenges of our economic transformation can be accomplished in a number of ways. Not the least of which is the institutionalizing of continuing legal education by IP scholars, practitioners and all stakeholders in this increasingly expanding field.

To do this and more, the IP legal academy can enlist and leverage Nigeria’s expansive Diaspora. Nigeria has the largest global dispersal of African Diaspora in the professions, including in the IP academy. Nigerians are nested in critical areas of cutting edge IP expertise across the globe. With mutual nurturing of Diaspora and homeland solidarity in this important area at individual and institutional levels, we could build critical partnerships and linkages. At limited expense, such partnerships can advance both professor and student exchanges for shorter, medium and longer term programs of various kind. As well, this form of exchange has potential for cross-fertilization of ideas toward effective curriculum development that responds to local and global challenges in this critical area of expertise.

Unfortunately, Nigerian universities and research establishments have shown reluctance to encourage even traditionally subsidized sabbatical exchanges with Nigerian Diaspora. This trend is a disservice and sabotage to national interest. The Diaspora and local are mutually complementary; there is much each can learn from the other. Contrary to popular assumptions, Diaspora-homeland exchange is not a unidirectional relationship. In order for the envisaged collaboration to thrive, we need first a viable Nigerian Intellectual Property Academy as the pivot to build and nurture the required network and linkages toward plugging the capacity gap in intellectual property.

As an initiative with a significant Diaspora component, the Open African Innovation Research and Training (Open-AIR)’s collaboration with the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) exemplifies the translation and realization of a practical Africa-wide Diaspora initiative on intellectual property training and capacity building.

Second, we need strong local institutional commitment to buy into this vision. Related to that, we need a culture of transparency, accountability and efficiency in the management of collaborative research funds and other forms of assistance and partnership. My experience is that such a culture of trust is fundamental for successful and sustainable collaboration. Third, perhaps most importantly, our local institutions should make the issue of creating an effective, functional and interactive web presence a priority. Fourth, those who occupy administrative position in the digital era should strive to be technologically savvy and reflect the efficiency and short turnaround time that is the convention and received wisdom of the new internet-based world.

As Africa gets onto the cusp of a nascent renaissance, a truly development-oriented approach to intellectual property is an imperative. Homeland-Diaspora intellectual property academy capacity building partnership has never been more urgently desirable. Despite international initiatives on intellectual property training and capacity building, the crisis of confidence over the “development content” of those initiatives can be mitigated by a homeland-Diaspora partnership for capacity building in intellectual property.


Chidi Oguamanam is a Professor at the University of Ottawa (Canada) Faculty of Law. His bio is here.

This article is adapted from an address by the author at the “International Conference on Intellectual Property Capacity Building for Development: The Role of Scholars” jointly convened by the Open Africa Innovation Research and Training (Open AIR), in collaboration with the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of Lagos Campus, Akoka, 22 November 2012.

Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported

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