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

Roughly 100,000 Nigerians live in Harris County, as well as thousands of Ghanaians, Ethiopians, Kenyans, South Africans and others. As a journalist, Nwangwu was eager to tap into the culture. He also believed he would find opportunities in the oil industry.

He moved to Houston in 1992 and became a consultant for a small energy firm.

The presence of a thriving African community brought trappings of home. If he wanted a dashiki, he could easily find one. He also could have his fill of goat meat or pounded yam if the urge possessed him.

USAfrica has grown to about 65,000 in circulation.
USAfrica has grown to about 65,000 in circulation.
Former ambassador Perry faults the paper for not taking stronger stands on immigrant issues.
Deron Neblett
Former ambassador Perry faults the paper for not taking stronger stands on immigrant issues.

But when it came to thoughtful and comprehensive news about Africa, Nwangwu found a void. What coverage there was in U.S. papers seemed like an afterthought. Most stories depicted, in his words, "a continent of natives who are sentenced and cursed to face bestial cycles of ethnic wars, genocidal slaughters and more wars."

For its part, Houston's African community published a handful of small newspapers. Nwangwu had bigger plans.

"There was no publication that strictly served the United States' and Africa's interests," he says. He envisioned a forum for "a common body of thoughts, opinions, events, shared perspectives, shared hopes, disagreements, our celebrations … what our kids are doing, and the rest of it."

Nwangwu wasted no time. He raised sufficient money from family and investors, found an office and hired a few good staffers. In August 1992 he launched USAfrica as a monthly magazine.

Since then, it has evolved into a biweekly newspaper that also appears on-line. Ten people work at the Houston headquarters. There are two offices in Nigeria. Overall, 15 correspondents contribute stories from New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Circulation is about 65,000; 70 percent of that is in the United States, and the rest in Africa.

From its inception Nwangwu has crusaded against government corruption and repression, touted economic development and technology, provided a forum for discussions of issues and dutifully covered community events.

These basic tenets have not changed. A recent edition had stories about harassment of journalists in Angola and trade in South Africa. Nwangwu wrote a commentary on Colin Powell and affirmative action. Another op-ed ridiculed the notion that Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, should serve for life. There was a loving full-page obituary for an elderly Igbo woman, and splashy pictures from traditional social events.

Nwangwu uses his publication to blast racists' stereotypes, as he did in 1999 after Bill Maher, the host of Politically Incorrect, said AIDS started because an African had sex with a monkey.

"They smear my heritage, our shared heritage, and thrive on sensationalism and other assorted stereotypes to advance some preconceived, noxious notions and agenda," he wrote of the "vertically challenged" Maher (whom he refers to as Phil in his writing) and those of similar mind.

USAfrica has pushed the envelope on social issues considered off-limits for open discourse in Africa. Many readers were shocked when the paper in 1996 ran a frank essay by a Nigerian-born woman about the physical and psychological toll of female genital mutilation, a rite practiced in numerous African countries. But the blitz of letters that followed suggested that many were eager to debate the subject.

USAfrica "really takes the African paper up another notch," says Olu McGunnis Otubusin, a Houston lawyer from Nigeria who has watched the local African media evolve for 20 years.

In December the publication broke the story of a massacre by Nigerian soldiers of residents in a small village. It was the kind of story that government officials would do anything to suppress, Nwangwu says.

He recently put up a rare photo on USAfricaonline.com depicting Nigeria's principal power brokers, including Obasanjo, playing checkers in a barracks during their military days in the 1970s. "This historic picture," he wrote, "is an all too apt pictorial irony and metaphor for the complicated and intertwined layers of power and friendships in the country of over 100 million governed by a couple of friends…." The page has had about 150,000 hits, he says.

Many readers praise Nwangwu for closely monitoring developments in his homeland. But Perry, the former ambassador, says USAfrica focuses too heavily on Nigeria at the expense of more comprehensive coverage of other countries. And while Perry finds the publication useful to her investment work in Africa, she faults Nwangwu for not taking stronger positions on issues concerning African immigrants in the United States.

"I think it's his failure to take a stand … that will keep his paper from growing," she says.

But Nwangwu, whose work has been recognized by the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., says he has been able to put together the kind of uncompromising publication he wanted.

"Now being physically outside of Nigeria, I have a lot more clout to write and comment on things as they are without fear of physical harassment," he says. "We can comment a lot more freely."

Indeed, the decade he has spent in Houston has been a deadly one for writers and activists in his homeland. Major General Ibrahim Babangida promised a return to civilian rule. But the apparent winner of the 1993 presidential elections, opposition party leader Moshood K. Abiola, was arrested for treason for declaring himself the victor. Babangida later resigned, and his self-appointed successor was toppled in a coup by Defense Minister Sani Abacha.

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