Nigerians Deserve Themselves – Onyeka Nwelue

As part of the general idea to bridge the gap created by the global pandemic, Covid19, the British Council Literature came up with the ‘British Council International Digital Collaboration Project’ to connect artists across countries.  Our project titled #Wahalaconvo run by the Nigerian writer, Obinna Udenwe, and the British–Nigerian author, Peter Kalu, working with other artists in both Nigerian and the UK, has looked at the Covid19 pandemic, #EndSARS and #BlackLivesMatter, and how they have shaped our lives not just as writers and artists but as humans in Nigeria and in the UK. To expand the scope of the project, Obinna Udenwe has interviewed the controversial Nigerian writer/filmmaker, Onyeka Nwelue – an author whose work has resonated with others greatly; who has initiated inspiring projects and is making headway irrespective of the lockdowns and the pandemic.

Obinna Udenwe: Pleased to interact with you Onyeka.

It is interesting that during the pandemic, while many were in a state of despair, not knowing what to do or how to reorganize their life, you created three great projects – the James Currey Prize for African Literature, Abibiman Publishing and The Onyeka Nwelue Show where you discuss art and world affair with great minds. I have watched your interview with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi and loved it – the frankness of the discussion, most especially. Tell me what inspired you to come up with these projects and the impact you hope they make in the life of young people, especially African writers?

Onyeka Nwelue: Thank you! I have always operated in isolation. I was happy they asked everyone to stay at home. I hate going out. I spend money when I go out. I feel lonely in the midst of people. I try not to have interactions with humans, physically, so it is the kind of life I love. Solitude. Alienation. And with that, comes peace of mind. No distractions. 

When I first met James Currey in Ghana, he was so kind to me. I kept thinking: what can I do for this man? So, I texted him and told him of my idea. He was happy and he asked that we have a Zoom meeting. After the Zoom meeting, he gave me his blessings and I kicked off. Set up my jury, website, guidelines and that was it! He was the only one I needed his permission and validation. Because I also hate procrastination, I do not go seeking for people’s opinions. I don’t think opinions of people are important, when it relates to my dreams. 

The time Nigerian writers ganged up against Linda Ikeji was when I filmed the first season of The Onyeka Nwelue Show. I went on hiatus when I had a car accident that confined me to a wheelchair for a while. I got better and had a conversation with Linda again. Then, I had some episodes of the second season shot in different places. I have had these things going on, before the lockdown. The lockdown was a great way to actualise them. 

They are also not the only initiatives I worked on: I worked on a book I have been writing since 2009, I got more engaged with the record label that I run in Paris, La Cave Musik and I set up a bookshop, Hattus Bookshop and set up a literary agency, World Arts Agency, with two other people, before setting up Abibiman Publishing in the UK. 

Obinna Udenwe: Aside the Prize that you founded which promotes African writing, you have been at the forefront of promoting works of young writers and as well, promoting older writers. For instance, you have done some great projects in this regard, the documentary on Flora Nwapa where in you interviewed Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka resonates with me – the documentary for me is a shift from the mainstream writing, African authors are comfortable doing, so what’s your journey as a filmmaker and what do you think we can do to promote African authors and their literature, using film?

Onyeka Nwelue: Recently, I approached Alexandra Pringle, the Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury in the UK to do a documentary on her, but she was modest enough to say she is not ripe for a documentary. I think she is just modest, but many young people need to know about her and how she got where she is today. I can’t say I know what we have to do to promote African authors, aside setting up publishing houses and funding them to publish their books and instituting literary prizes. 

Obinna Udenwe. You divide your time between Nigeria and the abroad, but most recently you seem to have relocated permanently to the UK. In Nigeria, we are facing challenges – political, economic and security challenges, more than ever before. The EndSARS protest was a turning point, a time when Nigerian youths, for the first time in recent memory stood up to power, it seems to have since changed the course of the country and things are spiraling out of control – what do you consider the greatest success of the protest? Again, is there a thing or two we can learn from the Black Lives Matter protest in the UK?

Onyeka Nwelue: A group of Nigerians took placards to protest against me and my book in Abuja. I was beaten up by 14 military men in Abuja for trying to save a sex worker from being raped by them. The sex worker refused to testify in court. I was locked up at Alagbon by Nigerians who wanted to humble me. They petitioned that I was owing them money and once I arrived the Lagos airport, I was taken to Alagbon, without being told what my crime was. They said they would tell me later. Luckily, Wole Soyinka came to my rescue with Femi Falana and I was released. They held onto my passport, which I eventually got, after offering money to the police officer who was in charge of it and I left Nigeria by road to Europe. And I will not return there. He threatened to declare me Wanted, so this interview is to declare myself Wanted before he does. 

I did not pay attention to the EndSARS protest, because I genuinely believe Nigerians deserve themselves. Whatever they went through then, I don’t care and I do not want to know – you can’t be protesting against a bad government when you are a bad person. So, none of the protesters have any moral right to protest. 

Obinna Udenwe: You recently created Abibiman Publishing with other young artists. It is your intention to use the publishing house to give platform to writings from Africa and the Caribbean – in your statement when the firm was launched you said ‘…Abibiman Publishing is here with a strong team, to change the narrative, to bring our writings both new and old to the mainstream in Europe and America’ – I would like to know what the reception has been so far and how your team intend to swim through the precarious ocean of publishing already muddled by the wealthy giant western publishers? Do you see the challenge of bringing African and Caribbean writing to the wider world surmountable in the near future?

Onyeka Nwelue: I have spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, especially Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. We are not different from them. I think it is just Haiti being in the Western Hemisphere and them speaking French that would be the difference. The political landscape and mentality, they are the same with us. Everything comes with a challenge, so that is not my issue. I go around taking loans and borrowing money to publish, to invest in my dreams. What other thing can you do in life without facing challenges? If people want easy things, they need to create their own universe and planet. As long as you are in this space with me, troubles will subsist. 

Obinna Udenwe. You are generally referred to as ‘the writer turned filmmaker’ so I would love to ask, film making and novel writing, which comes to you easily? 

Onyeka Nwelue: One of my friends advised I stick to filmmaking. I know that came from a place of love, but I think he was saying that I am a better filmmaker than a writer. 

For which comes easily, it should be writing. Filmmaking is a different ball game. It requires team work. You have to tolerate all kinds of people: from the money mongering costume woman to the lousy production manager to the whimsical cinematographer. The people you normally can’t stand. 

Writing is a lonely job. Until you have to get published. Then, you have to face the editor and other folks. 

Writing comes easily. Filmmaking is hard.