Out of Africa

In a small office off the Southwest Freeway, an editor carries on his crusade against public corruption and press censorship in his native Nigeria and other African countries

Events conspired to mess with Aba and other Igbo strongholds in a big way. Following a coup and countercoup in 1966, anti-Igbo fervor erupted in northern Nigeria, leading to the massacre of thousands. Problems intensified when the new government proposed carving up the Igbo-dominant east, which included Aba, into three separate states.

Regional leaders denounced the plan and declared their secession from Nigeria, naming their new country Biafra. The Nigerian military poured in to reclaim it.

On the heels of the boys' near-death experience in the bombing, the Nwangwus fled to their native village. Ujari was a place steeped in tradition, where yam harvesting, herbal medicines and the music of the ancient udu drum remained part of daily life. Nwangwu began school outdoors in the village meeting place, learning in the native Igbo language.

Rice professor Bongmba says Nwangwu makes it clear that Africans in some ways stand in the way of their own progress.
Deron Neblett
Rice professor Bongmba says Nwangwu makes it clear that Africans in some ways stand in the way of their own progress.
Rice professor Bongmba says Nwangwu makes it clear that Africans in some ways stand in the way of their own progress.
Deron Neblett
Rice professor Bongmba says Nwangwu makes it clear that Africans in some ways stand in the way of their own progress.

"Under a tree. Under a tree," Nwangwu repeats, as if still amazed at those humble beginnings. "That is part of the marvel of God's blessings in my life."

The war ended with Nigeria reclaiming the eastern region. The family returned to Aba to find rubble where their home once stood. They sold the land and rebuilt elsewhere. Life gradually returned to normal. While in high school, Nwangwu began contributing articles and historical commentaries to a local paper. The main impetus for writing, he says, was to contemplate the volatile events of his country.

Following graduation in 1979, he went to work for the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the government broadcast giant. Although surrounded by professionals three times his age, Nwangwu became, among other things, the moderator for a program on politics called Face the Press and the host of a variety show featuring leading artists.

He studied political science and public administration at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But journalism remained his first love. After graduation, he did a year of compulsory youth service in the Nigerian army, then moved to Lagos, where he co-founded a general-interest magazine with a man who would later become the president of Nigeria's senate. Nwangwu also edited a journal called Africa and the World.

In 1988 he took a job on the editorial board of the Daily Times, the granddaddy of Nigeria's newspapers. That put him among former government ministers, scholars and renowned intellectuals. At 26, he was the youngest person to work on the editorial board.

"It was a humbling experience," he says. But it quickly became a frustrating one as well. Copies of the first run of each edition were sent to the Ministry of Information and the office of the president. If a senior official objected to a piece, it could be pulled from the newspaper. Nwangwu said several of his editorials got killed and there wasn't a thing he could do about it.

"It was a fait accompli … [like] speaking into the wind," he says.

Censorship in Africa is an old problem that persists, says Cynthia Shepard Perry, a former ambassador to Sierra Leone and Burundi and now a director of a Houston-based financial management company.

"I think that in most African countries the government gives lip service to free press," she says. "It doesn't really happen that much."

Nwangwu wrote a scathing editorial on Nigeria's intervention in the civil war in Liberia -- a grotesque "misadventure" in his estimation. When the newspaper killed it, he found himself at a crossroads. After rising to the top of his profession, he felt muzzled. How long could he submit to rank coercion before feeling like a sellout? But then again, how could he reason with ruthless thugs who held the country as their personal spoils and answered their critics with guns?

The journalist felt a powerful desire to "place my emerging intellectual perspective into the international arena without brutish interrogation or censorship." That urge turned him in a new direction: He set his sights on the United States.

Nwangwu found inspiration in Chinua Achebe, an internationally renowned Nigerian novelist who had held posts at different American universities and currently lives in New York.

"I wanted to do what my elderly brother -- in the Igbo sense of the word -- Professor Achebe had done," he says. "He used the power of his pen to speak to the world in a dignified way, in a clear way, in a manner that explained who we are."

Some of Nwangwu's relatives already lived in this country. His uncle was a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and he had an older brother in Houston. Both places intrigued him.

He says he was just a "small-town dude" who had never been outside of Nigeria and could only speculate about how he would fare in the boisterous "land of the free." But if he felt any apprehension about going, Nwangwu doesn't let on now.

"I wanted to compete internationally" is all he says.

He settled in with his uncle in the D.C. area in 1990. From his home outside the capital, he penned a Daily Times column called "A View from America." Soon he developed a hankering to go to Houston, where his brother worked as an officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

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