The Nigerian literary scene, usually a controversy-free zone, had its share of controversy last week. In a report by Cherwell, a newspaper published by students of Oxford University, the Nigerian author and filmmaker Onyeka Nwelue was accused of being “classist”, “sexist” and “racist”. The report went a notch further by claiming Nwelue was guilty of fraud. The 35-year-old, the damning report demonstrated, had frequently misrepresented himself to the public for self-gain.
The report inspired a wave of reactions, many of them condemning Nwelue’s alleged falsehood and hateful prejudices. But some voices on the fringes expressed sympathy for the author, claiming he had also done some good for the Nigerian literary community and thus should not be entirely blackballed.
Allegations of sexism, classism and racism
In the report which Cherwell published last Tuesday, Onyeka Nwelue was accused of misogyny, classism and racism. For proof the report cited posts from Nwelue’s social media accounts. Some of the evidence presented show Nwelue making certain negative generalisations about women, China, Arabs and Eastern Europeans. One of the tweets by Nwelue which the report cited reads, “No poor person has any value.”
In proving Nwelue’s sexism, the report also called attention to a book launch event which Nwelue had organised on 31 January 2023, on Oxford University’s premises, on behalf of the controversial Nigerian journalist David Hundeyin. According to the report, some attendees of the event said “the speaker and audience” had made blatantly misogynistic remarks, and that Nwelue had laughed to and agreed with the remarks.
Many on social media have agreed with the report’s claims that Nwelue frequently trafficked in classist, racist and sexist language, particularly on social media. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, a Nigerian writer and the 2016 winner of the Nigerian Prize for Literature, said, “The evisceration of Onyeka Nwelue has been a painful spectacle to witness, just as his social media posts have been equally painful to glean. I confess, I muted his posts because I simply couldn’t condone them.”
The Cherwell report likewise claimed that Nwelue had often misrepresented himself and engaged in fraudulent activities for his own profit. The report said the author had falsely passed as a professor of both Oxford and Cambridge University, even though he does not own an academic PhD. As proof that Nwelue has often passed as a professor, the report pointed to his social media bio, which reads, “Professor + Academic Visitor, @uniofoxford, @cambridge_uni.”
It is worth stating that, last year, in a heated Twitter exchange with a Nigerian blogger, Kemi Olunloyo, Nwelue had said, “I am a university professor, attached to two of the top best universities in the world.” Last year, too, in response to a Twitter user who had asked if he was a professor, he said, “Yes. At Cambridge and Oxford at that o!”
But falsely passing as a professor was not Nwelue’s only fraud, according to the report. The report claimed Nwelue had said, in his social media bio, that he was a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. However, the report said that SOAS told Cherwell that Nwelue was not among its research associates.
The report said that for the book launch hosted in Hundeyin’s honour, Nwelue had deceptively used Oxford University’s logo and that of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages to promote the event, even though neither of the bodies had sanctioned the event. At the same event, the report said, Nwelue had charged attendees £20 for entry tickets, which is unusual because attendance at book launch events are typically not paid for.
Both Oxford and Cambridge have severed ties with Nwelue and revoked his academic visitor position. The former did so in early February and the latter, last week. This was in spite of Nwelue writing a letter to Oxford’s Vice Chancellor Professor Irene Tracy, in which he appealed the termination of his academic visitorship.
On February 20, due to inquiries into Nwelue’s behaviour, which the Cherwell investigations had caused the universities to make, Nwelue stepped down as Director of the James Currey Society, announcing the Zimbabwean actor Charmaine Mujeri as his replacement. Nwelue founded the society and had registered it as a for-profit organisation in May 2022. He had named it after James Currey, the South African book publisher, and the society has sponsored African authors to attend both Oxford and Cambridge.
Also, due to the ongoing controversy, the Canada-based publisher Griot’s Lounge has decided it will no longer be publishing a forthcoming edition of Nwelue’s novel, The Strangers of Braamfontein. In a statement Nwelue published in response to the Cherwell report, he revealed he has also been dropped by his South African publisher.
Among those who have reacted to the backlash that Nwelue has suffered is the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, who has a personal relationship with Nwelue. In an opinion piece published in Premium Times, Soyinka criticised the decision of the publisher, who, on account of the recent controversy, has decided to no longer publish the new edition of Nwelue’s novel, Strangers of Braamfontein, which was first published in 2021. He ended the opinion piece thus:
Casting the first stone is easy enough; ensuring that the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater is the harder, and far more productive responsibility. The literary world can do with more babies from the bassinet of The Strangers of Braamfontein.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, in a piece titled The Onyeka Nwelue Paradox, agreed that Nwelue’s social media behaviour had, indeed, been disturbing. Ibrahim said while he understood the “glee” with which many received the Cherwell report, he did not agree with the outright condemnation of Nwelue. He added that while Nwelue is publicly “anti-people, disagreeable and cantankerous,” he is kind and solicitous in private.
Gimba Kakanda, a columnist at Daily Trust, said he had since come to realise that Nwelue never meant the “provocative and eccentric things he said.” Kakanda also said that Nwelue, nonetheless, should have “read the room.”
After the publication of the Cherwell report, Nwelue, through a proxy, released a long statement, in which he denied any wrongdoing. He said he “never in this world, told anyone that I was a professor at Oxford and Cambridge.” He said he had only told people that he was an academic visitor at both Oxford and Cambridge. He said:
On my social media bio, where I wrote: “Professor + Academic Visitor at the University of Oxford and Cambridge.” Please, read that again. ‘Professor’ came before ‘Academic Visitor.’ If I were a professor at Oxford, why did I need to add Academic Visitor? Comprehension is a problem, so I don’t have to blame the writers of the article meant to scandalize me, for not understanding what I said in the language of the country they live in.
The position of academic visitor is a non-contract and non-paid one which universities offer for a fee. According to Nwelue, he had paid Oxford £1000 and Cambridge £9000 for the position, and that it was “the idea of the [Oxford] University” that he took up the academic visitor position. In his statement, he said, “I was a ‘Professor’ before I came to Oxford.” He then implied that he had meant ‘professor’ not as an academic title but to mean ‘teacher’. He said, “The Spanish word for teacher, is ‘profesor’ and the French word for teacher, is ‘professeur’. He also said he has taught at several universities as a visiting lecturer, such as the University of Hong Kong and the University of Manipur.
Nwelue said he could not have possibly deceived anyone that he was an academic professor because it was public knowledge that he did not own a bachelor’s degree—he had dropped out from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he briefly studied sociology and anthropology.
He likewise denied the allegations of misogyny, racism and classism, saying that his social media posts had been a “social experiment” for a new book he was working on. But he apologised to those who might have taken offence at his social media posts:
The only thing I want to achieve with this piece, is to apologize to everyone that believes I am a racist, a misogynist, sexist or other crimes against humanity from the ‘evidence’ screenshot from my posts. They were meant to elicit feedback for my books. I am none of those and I didn’t utter any misogynistic word at the launch of the book that I published.
On the claims that he had fraudulently charged a gate fee for a book launch event, he said, “The venue I used for this event, was paid for. It was not advertised as an event for students. Fans of the author came from cities like Liverpool. They had no issue coming for it. Another problem is the use of logo, which I apologized for and removed after I was asked to remove it.”
Nwelue has since deactivated his social media accounts. It is uncertain when, or if, he would resume using them. He has said that in the meantime he wants to “focus on my writing.” In his statement, he said his new book, The Nigerian Mafia: Mumbai, will be released “in a few weeks.”
He also hinted that he will be writing and self-publishing a new book titled Cancelled. The book, he implied, will focus on the persecution he has suffered due to the Cherwell report.