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

 …The cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household but his voice is the property of the neighborhood. -- Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

"There are those who wonder if gold could rust, what will iron do?" Chido Nwangwu said, smiling softly as he spoke. "If we are going to have these kinds of complications in … the electoral process in Florida, imagine what will happen in a place like Lesotho, or even in Nigeria."

Nwangwu was speaking live to CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield, 12 days after the presidential election. The network wanted Nwangwu to give an "overseas" perspective. Curiously, the man donning the traditional regalia of the Igbo people of Nigeria was not in a faraway African city but in Houston, his adopted home and the headquarters of his growing media company.

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.
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.
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.

Greenfield asked whether, for Africans, the Florida fiasco gave the impression of instability. America's fine, Nwangwu suggested. What Africans were worried about was the likely president-elect.

"Africans are concerned that Governor Bush of our state here in Texas stated emphatically -- ill-advisedly, I will suggest -- that Africa does not count in his area of priority," he said in his courtly baritone. "That is a major area of concern for our people."

Deliberative and calm, the performance was pure Nwangwu. Since arriving in the United States a decade ago, the 38-year-old founder and publisher of USAfrica has made it his quest to get people thinking about Africa. By covering that continent and Africans living in the United States, and circulating his newspaper in both places and on-line, he aims to debunk stereotypes about his homeland while, at the same time, taking a hard look at the problems holding it back.

"He brings out the richness of African culture, African pride, African intellectual heritage," says Elias Bongmba, an assistant professor of religion at Rice University and native of Cameroon. "Yet he always is very clear to articulate that in a lot of ways we Africans stand in our way of maximizing that potential."

Even as he fielded questions on CNN, Nwangwu's probing intellect and laid-back style betrayed few clues about his improbable journey, one that brought him from southeastern Nigeria to Houston -- and a place at the table of global punditry.

Home, to Nwangwu, is now quintessential middle-class Americana -- a one-story brick house on an orderly street of identical dwellings in west Houston. The interior bears the markings of a self-professed technophile on the go. Computer and financial magazines lie scattered beside an open laptop. A large television silently carries MSNBC. Pictures of Nwangwu and his wife cover the walls.

"I have a scar here, which I can show you," Nwangwu says, springing to his feet in his living room. He raises the loose pin-striped leg of his gray woko suit just over his kneecap to reveal the inch-long reminder of an early wound.

"You see this thing?" he asks. "My older brother Blessing, if not for him I wouldn't be alive, just as hundreds of thousands of other Igbo kids."

He was only three on that sunny afternoon in 1967, too young to understand the civil war ripping apart Nigeria. He and his brother were walking home when a military jet roared overhead and began dropping bombs.

"Blessing held me like a bag of beans, and he was just running. Just running!" he says, putting his whole body into the description of the frantic dash. "Running for safety because of these murderous mercenaries….The plane was just all over the place."

The terrified boys scampered, fell hard to the ground and struggled on to the shelter of their nearby Anglican church, where they nursed their nasty scrapes and waited out the attack.

Calm returned to Aba, their city of more than 225,000. But the experience burned in Nwangwu's mind. "What was that thing that almost killed me?" he desperately wanted to know.

Answers are hard to come by in a country where nine different generals have hijacked the government since it gained independence from Great Britain in 1960, spawning violence and perpetual uncertainty. The population is a combustible mix of Muslims and Christians and more than 250 ethnic groups, the largest of which are Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo (also spelled "Ibo").

Nwangwu grew up in the heart of Igbo country, the third of seven children born to a successful produce examiner for a multinational company. The family's English-style home stood out among the low-slung buildings of downtown Aba. Portions of the house were rented out as distribution centers for several regional newspapers and magazines, giving Nwangwu exposure to his future profession from an early age.

An animated, Aristotle-quoting raconteur whose beaming face and expressive hands fill the room, Nwangwu insists that understanding his origins is key to grasping who he is. The Igbo of his hometown are Christian, cosmopolitan and fiercely capitalistic, he says. Picking up a wooden elephant from his coffee table, he explains, "This is the symbol of the town I grew up in. This represents Aba: resilience, endurance. If any city in Africa can borrow the slang 'Don't mess with Texas,' it's 'Don't mess with Aba.' "

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

It's the kind of schedule that would drive a lesser person insane. Although his cell phone screeches to life every few minutes, Nwangwu seems to find time for his endeavors and to thrive.

He plans to start an oil and gas publication and a sweeping technology initiative for schools and libraries in Africa. He is also at work on a book about Nigeria's civil war, BIAFRA: History Has No Mercy. The subject goes to the core of the question he asked as a boy after the bombs fell on Aba: "What was that thing that almost killed me?"

The mere question may contain the antidote to more violence. Bongmba, the Rice professor, finds Nwangwu's prose reflects a clearheaded awareness of the fragility of peace. The professor says that by exposing the dangerous follies of extremists and tyrants, and by celebrating the richness and promise of African people, Nwangwu provides the kind of humane dialogue required for a sane, stable and even prosperous future.

"He certainly wants to see a critical engagement that will continue to keep the unity of Nigeria. The kind of writing he does [reflects] that that kind of unity is something people have to work for," Bongmba says. "He has a very, very broad appreciation of what Nigeria can offer and what the rest of Africa can offer."

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