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Out of sheer curiosity or love for adventure, I stumbled unto a report ranking all the think tanks in the world published early in the year by the Think tanks and civil society program of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. The report ranked 6305 think tanks spread across the world. Many things struck me as I looked through the report.

The first is the large disparity in the number of think tanks in Africa compared to other parts of the world. Out of the 6305 think tanks globally, 1815 are located in the United States alone while only 503 are located within the African continent. Reading further I found out that out of the 503 think tanks located in Africa, only 45 are located in Africa’s most populous country, my country of birth Nigeria.

I quickly went further to look at the ranking of these think tanks. Not surprisingly Brookings Institution and Chatham House lead the list as the number one global think tank and the to non-US based think tank respectively. But I did not stop there. I went further to look at the top African think tanks. The first on the list is the South African Institute for International Affairs based in Johannesburg. Out of the three others that followed only the Center for the Development of Social Science Research (CODESRIA) is based in Dakar Senegal. All the other two were based in one city in South Africa or the other. Generally speaking the majority of Africa think tanks are based in Cape Town, Dakar and Nairobi. The two Nigerian think tanks that made the list of top 25 were Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) was number 13 and the new Center for Study of Economies in Africa was number 18 on the list.

I was so disturbed by this report that I had to go check up the definition of a think tank. An online publication defined a think tank as "a public policy research, analysis and engagement institution that generate policy oriented research analysis and advise on domestic and international issues that enable policy makers and public make informed decisions on public policy issues" Is this report a reflection of the amount of this sort of thinking going on in African capitals? I know that there are many Nigerian thinkers both at home and littered in the Diasporas and I have personal contact with many of them. Indeed they are making a difference in many parts of the world. However the quantum of thinking feeding into our policy in the Africa continent may be less than is desirable. You do not need too to see that most of our policy positions are not what we thought out or thought through. This is not because we lack thinkers. This is in my view due to the fact very little independent, objective and reflective thinking has been allowed to flourish in many Africa countries. Governance is a serious business and must not be starved the benefit of critical thinking and African countries should not be seen to be lacking behind.

Some years ago some good friends of mine started the National think tank. It took off with a lot of promise and received overwhelming support from Nigerians from all over the world. An indication of that willingness to give intellectual support (which Nigerians have in abundance) to the government of the day to refine policy direction for effectiveness and sustainability. Many Nigerians I speak are either tired or frustrated with the state of affairs at hole and will be excited at any opportunity to make a contribution. A vibrant think tank may be the starting point. I have not heard of a lot about the National Think tank (NTT) lately and my hope is that it does not go the way many good things go in our dear country.

Let us take a look at the first Nigerian think tank that managed to make it to number 13 on the list of the top 25 African think tanks. Very little is heard about the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) these days except that is usually a choice venue for launch of auto- biographies of spent politicians. NIIA is one of the government agencies that remained in Lagos while the whole instrument of government moved to Abuja. I looked at their old fashioned website only to discover that the organization expects to be "an intellectual base upon which decision makers rely for informed opinion and expert advice in order to make rational choices between contending policy decisions". With NIIA located in Lagos, I doubt very strongly how it expects to implement this vision effectively. I even doubt how many public officials in Abuja who know about the existence of NIIA or refer it for any form of advice in terms of policy decisions.

But if you compare this with what happens let say in Washington DC. Here every single government policy is subjected to several debates, research, and analysis before government adopts it. All arms of government open their door at least in principle to the contribution and critique of think tanks even when some of their position may run at variance to current government thinking. Think tanks continue to produce independent reports which may not necessarily agree with the view of government of but which must also be taken seriously. A lesson for democracies which are not receptive yet of dissenting voices as they are quickly labeled opposition groups The ranking of global think tank report indicates very clearly that we need to do more thinking in Africa or better still we need to do more thinking directed to Africa by Africans. This disparity is not good for the continent and simply unacceptable!

Uche Igwe is a Woodrow Wilson Policy Scholar and Visiting Scholar at Africa Program, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University Washington DC USA.

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