I have gradually emerged from the shock I experienced when I read the avalanche of mostly unpalatable utterances that suffused the Social Media spaces, especially Facebook, since the news broke that Onyeka Nwelue’s appointment as Academic Visitor was terminated by the two United Kingdom’s top tertiary institutions – University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. The shock was not caused so much by the virulent statements in the Cherwell (a student newspaper at Oxford) report as by the bitter, uncharitable and sometimes vicious utterances made by quite a number of Facebook users. For me what is happening affirms the truth that when emotion is allowed to take over in any argument or controversy, objectivity, fair-play, restraint and compassion die inevitably.
I met Onyeka Nwelue in 2009 after he published his first novel, The Abyssinian Boy (Dada Books 2009) at the age of twenty-one. The reviews were good and I became interested in the book and its young author. I bought a copy, read it and was even more impressed. At the time, I was looking for new texts to use in one of the courses I taught, Nigerian Literature – a Third Year Course at the University of Lagos. After recommending the text, I invited Onyeka to my class to interact with students and talk about his book and his life. (Those were days when students acquired recommended texts and read them before they were taught or discussed in class.) The students were delighted and found the book and its author fascinating. They gave him a rousing ovation at the end of the class.
Onyeka Nwelue is a global citizen, but he never forgets his roots. He is African and Nigerian to the core. He has done a lot to promote African literature and African writing and writers. He has established a number of literary prizes to enrich directly and indirectly African literature. He is at home here in Nigeria and everywhere, building bridges, sowing good seeds, inspiring and supporting both young and not-so-young writers and culture theorists and activists. Many people have benefited from his kind and wise gestures, including this writer. An Igbo proverb says, “Egbe bere, Ugo bere; nke si ibe ya ebena, nku kwapu ya” – meaning: “Let the Eagle and the Kite perch; any that says the other must not perch, should have its wings broken.”
My fellow Facebook users and compatriots, let restraint, good sense and compassion guide everyone in their utterances as they apportion blame or proffer advice to the individuals or groups involved in this unfortunate imbroglio – the accused and the accuser. Incidentally, Onyeka Nwelue responded and shed more light on what transpired, providing his own perspective. More importantly, he apologized, regarding the area where he felt he was culpable. I consider this a noble gesture. It is my earnest hope that Cherwell would also revisit its extreme view and divest itself of any unwholesome intent. No one has ever profited by destroying another wrongly. There are lessons to learn from this controversy by everyone, including Onyeka Nwelue, Cherwell, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and, indeed, all of us who have shown interest in the matter.
At the University of Lagos where I taught for over three decades, I taught a course “Critical Writing” to First and Second Year Students in the Department of English. One of the issues I taught students in the course was the difference between ‘Constructive and Destructive Criticism’.
I encourage everyone, all of us, to be mindful of the difference between constructive and destructive criticism in our dealings with others and in our personal lives and relationships. Ultimately, our attitudes, utterances and actions will demonstrate the difference between maturity and immaturity, between compassion and cruelty and between sensitivity and insensitivity.
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, winner of several awards, including the Nigeria Prize for Literature, is an author and educator, whose published work includes novels, poetry, short stories, books for children, essays and journalism. Appointed a professor of English at University of Lagos in 1999. She has, since September 2015, relocated to Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State, in South-East Nigeria, where she has continued to teach students and mentor younger lecturers.