Onyeka Nwelue Vs Oxford University: Some Personal Thoughts

Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
6 min readMar 7, 2023
Onyeka Nwelue in Berlin, 2015

I have known Onyeka since my days in Abuja about 10 years ago and I had known of him even longer. When I was an undergrad in UNIBEN reading the Guardian Nigeria newspaper, I was prone to beefing the amount of attention showered on his doings at the time. The Guardian liked him so much and gave him a surfeit of attention.

And even then, he was already saying stuff that I disagreed with. I recall they published a speech he gave at a secondary school and I read it disagreeing with at least one major point he was making. But I was just a student studying pharmacy with an overdeveloped love for writing. Onyeka was living the dream out there in the world.

It would take a few more years before our meeting in Abuja, where he was as boisterous as I had imagined and friendly. By then I had become a bit of a writer with a reputation, minuscule compared to his. We hit it off and have been friends ever since.

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If you didn’t like your personalities a bit brash, you may have taken an exception to him. For me, I liked him and we have remained cool ever since barring his frequent disappearances. He once surprised me by appearing in Berlin and then taking me to eat pounded yam when it mattered most (lol) in that city. I can’t remember clearly but I think I also ran into him at an airport in Turkey years ago and it appeared he had engineered our encounter.

He’s my guy even if we are different in a significant number of ways. For instance, many people on social media know that my literary policy has always been narrow and I say it all the time: writers must write well first; everything else proceeds from that skill. Onyeka, in practice, has a broader vision of literary life. I have lived my life according to my policy; Onyeka has lived his demonstrably with his own vision. That difference has never affected our relationship. We disagree on a lot of things but he’s always great company.

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I think part of what has happened over the last few days stems from a miscommunication that Onyeka allowed to linger for too long. I always knew he was not an academic professor; I thought everybody knew. He never hid it on social media, if you followed him all of those years ago, and there are many people who knew him from his days as an undergrad who either maliciously, or in praise, mentioned that he never stayed long enough in school to get his first degree.

But I understand the confusion: a friend reminded me the day Oxford published the now viral piece that he had once asked me if Onyeka really was a professor. I told him he wasn’t an academic prof but in the American system that word is used loosely and Onyeka has shown evidence over the years of teaching at higher institutions. The mistake, intentional or not, was taking that whole idea to an actual school in the UK revered for its academic chops and also overplaying his hand publicly when the topic came up — or, as in one publicised exchange with that infamous social media lady, bringing it up himself.

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In his defence, I was going to quote something Bernhard Schlink once wrote about people doing weird things just to avoid awkwardness, in this case, the awkwardness of correcting people’s elevated perception of you, but I admit that I have seen a few screenshots of exchanges where Onyeka fed the beast. I think there’s a part of Soyinka’s intervention where he says he can’t really excuse Onyeka and I understand the old man because another friend sent me those screenshots and I winced.

And yet, it should be noted that it wasn’t the prof thing that led to Oxford’s decision to terminate its relationship with Onyeka. The faculty didn’t care about his first degree; it wasn’t for his academic pedigree that they agreed to let him join them as visitor. This isn’t OOU; it is Oxbridge. Their concern was related to other things, like the use of the school’s logo on an event that had no official Oxford endorsement and his inviting a “disreputable” person to Oxford. More on this last part later.

It was the Oxford students’ newspaper, Cherwell, that took issue with his prof designation as seen on Twitter. The paper is written by students who are steeped in British academic lingo and when they saw that prof bit they had to investigate. Unfortunately, Onyeka’s response when they asked him about it wasn’t the sort that they could accept. But, at that point, nothing but producing a video of an elaborate ceremony naming him Professor could have saved him. Things had already come to a head.

The truth is the way Onyeka worded his title and his “title” was careful in a layman sense but not careful enough to save him from an academic inquisition by people who were displeased with him. Hence that harsh headline, decrying a “fake professor”, a description that nobody across the pond would use for Onyeka because of the looser meaning of “professor” in the US.

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As a Nigerian, I am concerned that this episode and its reporting have given an unmissable opportunity to those looking for ways to demonise others. Take a look at the Telegraph UK report on the subject. Several of the more than 100 comments, at the time I visited the site, were unflattering remarks, some about the “Nigerian prince” and the supposedly lax inspection black people receive when seeking something valuable from big, historically white institutions.

Away from the UK, I see people connecting the current issue with Onyeka’s statement, years ago, about Chinua Achebe’s first book and I shake my head. Give me a break. You superstitious people will not kill me. The people who felt some type of way about his comments on class in Nigeria have also spoken. And there are other people who have had unpleasant exchanges with Onyeka speaking up now.

Truth is, even those of us who are pals with Onyeka have had issues with his long-running commentary on poor people maybe because, as writers in Nigeria, a lot of us are intimate with poverty at some level — but we also laughed it off as Onyeka just being Onyeka and he did have a traumatic experience with kidnappers that perhaps influenced his thinking on the issue of class. Even so, I have been infuriated by some of his comments on social media. As I said, we disagree.

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Many of those statements are things that get said in a writers’ gathering where people in such an environment are aware of Onyeka’s penchant for mischief. Without the context of knowing the person behind the words personally certain things will be taken more seriously than anyone expects. So, one lesson here is that for globally revered institutions, everything public is serious. And when you repeatedly poke at people, many of them will dance excitedly on your grave even if it’s merely fugacious.

Then there is the political angle. In some ways, what has happened would never have happened if Onyeka didn’t invite a man with powerful enemies to Oxford. His visitor was ensnared by Onyeka’s excesses; Onyeka himself was done in by his visitor’s brash audacity over the past couple years.

But nothing as apocalyptic would result if Onyeka didn’t have a chink in his armour. The man’s mask has eaten into the man’s face. But along with leaving social media for now, he has made amends. He has apologised and he has explained. Hopefully that helps everyone move on. I don’t expect that to happen immediately because this really is big news. But Onyeka will return as he always does — this time with several lessons learned.

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