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

Nwangwu was horrified when the Abacha government brutalized some of his former colleagues, including the famous writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. The poet, novelist and environmental activist was a columnist for the Daily Times during Nwangwu's tenure on the editorial board. The two argued heatedly over some issues, but Nwangwu respected his talent and commitment to his people.

Saro-Wiwa was an outspoken critic of the government's human rights abuses, and of Shell Oil's destruction of the forests and water supply in his home state. In 1994 he and several others affiliated with his social justice organization were arrested and charged with murder, on what many believed were bogus accusations. Saro-Wiwa was executed in November 1995.

Nwangwu was prolific in his denunciations of Abacha.

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.

"It was another milestone in the systematized devilry and the eating of some of our most brilliant people by the military machine and its murderous and collaborative agencies, including some of the oil companies," he says today.

Nwangwu was informed by well-placed friends that his criticisms had caught the attention of the Abacha regime and that it would be most unwise to return to Nigeria while the tyrant was in office. To his writers in Nigeria, Nwangwu preached "operational discretion."

"I encourage the reporters who work for me to not engage in self-immolation," he says. "I try as much as possible to bring about the sense for hard-edge criticism and, if you will, the safety of the people who work for the paper."

Having his main Nigeria office in the oil town of Port Harcourt and not in the capital, Abuja, helps keep his staff out of harm's way, he says.

Recent developments in Nigeria may bode well for democracy there. Abacha died of a heart attack in 1998. The following year elections were held. The winner, Obasanjo, took office as the first popularly elected president in 16 years. His election may presage greater freedom, Nwangwu says, but true democracy has yet to arrive.

"Nigeria is democratizing; it is not yet a democracy," he says.

On a recent Friday a harried young woman toiled alone to make deadline in USAfrica's red-carpeted office off the Southwest Freeway. The space is a tidy, no-frills maze of desks, potted plants and newspaper stacks -- an unassuming command post for Nwangwu's expanding media endeavors.

For its first four years, USAfrica came out only in hard copies. Circulation grew but was nowhere near what a globally minded person like Nwangwu wanted. The launch of USAfrica's Web site in 1996 expanded the publication's reach immeasurably. For Nwangwu, the Internet was a godsend.

The site receives thousands of hits each day, he says. It reached an all-time high of 35,000 in December 1998 when octuplets were born to a Nigerian couple in Houston. Nwangwu found the medium so effective that he launched a new on-line publication called NigeriaCentral.com in 1998.

That same year he was one of a handful of journalists invited to cover President Bill Clinton's trip to Africa. The press corps included several African-Americans. For years Nwangwu had tried to connect with African-American readers. He found that many were not familiar with or even interested in their African roots. His perception changed when his entourage visited Goree Island in Senegal, where ships had sailed away with their cargoes of millions of African slaves.

Nwangwu said that the sight of the island's dank chambers and the "Door of No Return" caused some of the reporters to break down.

"It touched my soul," he recalls solemnly. "I mean, you see a professional crying because they walked through the doors of the dungeons where the shipment of human beings by other human beings occurred….It showed me the importance of our interconnectedness as people of African descent."

Nwangwu has shown, in columns about Martin Luther King Jr. and others, a keen interest in the history and struggle for justice by African-Americans. He says that he has not had trouble getting respect as a black journalist in the United States. But he is under no illusions that the playing field is level for people of color.

"It does not take a rocket scientist to know that there was a time when black folks were not even allowed to come to the table," he says. But he also believes, as he once wrote in a Houston Chronicle op-ed, that "Black America must take primary responsibility for its self-inflicted wounds regardless of the machinations and deprivations it has historically suffered."

Nwangwu has long touted trade and investment as engines for democratization in Africa. But in 1998 he took his pro-entrepreneurial leanings in a different direction, this one aimed at African-Americans. He launched The Black Business Journal to offer professional advice, investment information and profiles on black businesspeople.

There is an expression in Nigeria that a man who answers every summons by the town crier will not plant corn in his fields. Nwangwu currently puts out three publications, writes copiously, advises Mayor Lee Brown and other local officials on Africa, assists immigrants with legal quandaries and hosts conferences and conventions for visiting Africans.

On top of that, his wife, Valerie, a New York-born pharmacologist of Nigerian descent, is due to give birth soon to their first child.

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