The Uses of Others: Onyeka Nwelue and African Literature in the Age of Cancel Culture — James Yékú

Questions of cancel culture and African literature, in the frameworks of the contentious politics of digital literary networks and communities, illuminate how the toxic polarisation of a social media culture of algorithmic outrage often gets assimilated into literary discourses on Africa.

The current Onyeka Nwelue saga powerfully illustrates a similar saturation of contemporary Nigerian writing on the internetwith discourses of cancellation and literary controversies.

One thing is clear about Onyeka, from what one assembles from the fragments of his digital traces. Like the rest of us, he is not a terrible human beyond redemption, even if his ethics and politics consistently suggest a different narrative. Something else is also clear: he understands aesthetics. Besides creative works such as The Strangers of Braamfontein, his sartorial politics reflects a love for beauty that transcends words. But he also values the attention economy and uses its demands more shrewdly than the rest of us.

In 2016 when he suggested in an interview with Premium Times that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart needed to be buried and cancelled from the public space, some read his comments as those of a budding writer seeking attention. But I would wager he was merely ingratiating himself into an Achebean public imaginary that redounds to his own credentials. His dismissal of Achebe seemed to gesture towards Sara Ahmed’s theory of use as a technique of differentiation that produces subjects and shapes worlds and bodies.

In What’s The Use, Ahmed demonstrates how use as a concept shapes people’s encounters with the world and emerges rhetorically as a trace which invites further activities or inactions. Onyeka has a history of using others, appropriating their images and social prestige for his own benefit and many in our community consigned themselves to indifference until a student newspaper in Oxford called him out. It is possible, as Onyeka argues, that he was politically targeted, but there is nothing to suggest the intent was for him to be cancelled, as is often the case in our unforgiving age of conviction.

This strategy of use is evident in his many labours of self-monumentalisation on social media and in real life and has been perfected since the self-vaunted abandonment of his undergraduate studies in Anthropology at Nsukka for a career in writing. To understand Onyeka, I am suggesting we pay attention to this catalytic event at Nsukka as informing relations of use and using that involve some of the biggest names in the history of African literature, including Soyinka, Achebe, and Adichie.

There is a consistent indication of the decorative tactics of self-curation and branding that solidifies a particular social image and persona, from pinning a video of himself with Soyinka on his Twitter handle to instituting a literary award on behalf of some famous publisher or scholar or even shooting a documentary on the writer Flora Nwapa. Onyeka has maintained that Nwapa was his aunt, but even her children protested the documentary project and saw it as a mindless use of their mother’s image. For someone who uses others, such protests hardly matter.

Yet, as part of his identitarian politics, Onyeka stylises himself as a detribalised Nigerian writer, who, despite being Igbo, is proud to choose and deify Soyinka at the expense of Achebe. A personal choice well in his rights and one that highlights any real or imaginary rivalry between both writers.

Another dimension to this is Onyeka’s ability to insert himself into other people’s sphere of influence and social media prestige, which is all part of this performative regime of use and usability that includes the controversial Adichie-Emezi debate on transgender identities. By writing to denounce and, hence, gatekeep Emezi’s identity as an Ogbanje, Onyeka was not just attacking the spirituality and identity of a trans writer because of his own understanding of Igbo spirituality, but he was also using the attention the viral social media debates had received to draw coveted online followership to himself. To poach on the narratives of those who have more online fame is to use their social capital to your own advantage.

Regarding his educational credentials, an honorary doctorate from Haiti follows this logic, although we must wonder why a potentially brilliant writer needs these symbols to affirm his worth. A possible answer is the politics of authenticity and recognition that drives what sociologist Ebenezer Obadare calls the Nigerian prestige economy; one in which a desire to be known, to be famous trumps the ethical and is driven, among other tokens of self-exhibition, by fabricated pendants of academic distinction. For prestige and its rewards, Onyeka knows how to perform fakery for an attention economy that soon moves on to the next topic on social media. But the way to be known in the attention economy and stay relevant in online public conversations is to keep the performance of use in its different shades of simulacra going.

In Onyeka’s case, it also involves the manufacture of controversies and outrage. When you read comments like “no poor person has any value” or other similar statements on his now-deleted Twitter handle, you would be hasty to show anger since that is only the beginning of a throng of anti-poor rhetoric and inflammatory comments that sometimes shamed and dehumanised people, and sometimes mocked mostly women and children. And many people simply looked away, and we must wonder if the ways he often uses narratives of ill-health on Twitter were, in fact, not intended to numb our critical senses. It is great to read a statement of apology about the Oxford situation. I wonder if the poor among us would ever get one too, or if we will allow another problematic claim to a social experiment make us look away.

If anything is to be learnt from the Oxford episode, it is that credentialing himself through an empty association with Oxford and Cambridge as an academic visitor explains how Western institutions remain deeply embedded in our judgement of literary value in African literature. Despite the resurgent rhetoric of decolonization, many African writers continue to crave these spaces, awards, and validation. The annual Nobel Prize anxiety about an Ngugi win should remind us that some of our best voices, some of whom are bent on decolonising everything except the western funding system that rewards their craft, still look to the west for consecration. Ngugi probably cares less about the prize than many online who pine for the west to validate his place in the canon of global literature.

The claim to academia is also a function of use value. In late 2022, the satirist, Rudolf Okonkwo interviewed Onyeka and asked him to elaborate on his role as a “Prof of African Studies” at Oxford. Onyeka not only doubled down on a non-existent academic role but went on to add that he was, in fact, teaching at Oxford and Cambridge for free. His interlocutor who lives in the US and understands higher education, did not even bother to ask questions. He should have pressed him on that false claim—one Onyeka did not refute in the statement credited to him as an explanation. Instead, his apology merely confirms he paid money to use these British universities as “a platform to be seen as powerful,” to frame it in his own words. But why pay millions of naira to be seen as powerful? I suspect an answer to this is also what motivates the use of Oxford’s logo to officialise the events he organised.

It was not just Okonkwo who did not ask the tough questions. The Maryland critic, and our friend and colleague, Ikhide Ikheloa should have asked questions, too. Ikheloa was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Criticism from what African literature some might consider a faux literary institution Onyeka probably created to use African literature for self-promotion. Pa Ikhide, as many call him, is known to have famously gone after Philip Emeagwali who lied his way to fame but simply looked away when it came to Onyeka. You wonder what happened to the vocal critic who went after Chris Abani for misrepresenting facts about his ties with the Nigerian military establishment. If Pa Ikhide found mind-boggling “the degree of narcissism and self-absorption” in Abani’s construction of a literary identity, Onyeka’s misrepresentations should have been obvious. Inattentive to the controversies surrounding the writer, he allowed himself to be used. Put differently, Onyeka simply used another controversial figure to strengthen his own status.

The point bears repeating: the Nigerian literary community, including the writers, book reviews, and scholars that now prefer to look away, is complicit in producing the Onyeka controversy. By keeping quiet and framing his deception as the literary hustle of an ego-driven youth, many fellow writers enabled him through their silence. It reeks of hypocrisy that some are now happy to attack him and gloat about his ordeal. At the same time, I do not think anybody should want to cancel Onyeka. Certainly not by anyone who politicises a sexual identity, and uses it to circulate in western locations, or some whose penchant is to use their craft to launder state actors and justify oppression. Anyone who has benefitted from the Onyeka brand needs to sit this one out.

Onyeka’s uses of others go beyond logos and institutions, or famous people like James Currey, the former British publisher who, together with Chinua Achebe at Heinemann, produced the famous Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS). The James Currey Fellowship is the product of a mind that knows how to use the structures and legacies of African literature and its writers. But things also get to the arena of state politics. The journalist and supporter of Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi, David Hundeyin, for instance, has a huge social media followership that became courted and used by Onyeka for his own politics of visibility.

Yet Onyeka’s academic fakery predates the #Obidient movement, even if it also comes to symbolise the plasticity and intolerance of some followers of Obi who, in the spirit of social media cancel culture, sometimes seek to exclude ideas or persons external to their own political tribe. Obi has nothing to do with Onyeka’s sham; Onyeka merely sought to use political loyalty to the #Obidient movement for his own gains.

All of this raises the question of how people gain literary access to established voices and public actors, particularly in the social media age. The literary sphere is an essential part of the public sphere and access in one is often connected to visibility in the other. Soyinka and James Currey may not feel used by Onyeka, but neither do they have to explain how they came to have Onyeka in their ranks. It is great to see how Soyinka tactfully defends his protégé, pushing back against the Censorship Index that is bent on demonising Onyeka even when “the charges against this author do not involve plagiarism or other literary offence, nor any crime against humanity.”

Although he does not call it by that notorious name, what shocks Soyinka the most appears to be cancel culture, but Soyinka probably allows an admirable loyalty to a younger friend to underplay the necessary accountability to which Onyeka is being called. Along with cancel culture and literary outrage, though, the Onyeka case must signal to anyone who understands the ambiguities of human nature the imperative of redemptive politics, which is often absent in the selective outrage of censorious mobs.

There is no need to sanitise the Onyeka story because we don’t want to be perceived as envious of his ‘successes’ or even for the necessary sake of human decency. The fact is, he became entangled with a fraudulent production of literary fame, and he has apologised, but the pattern of using other people and their cyphers of achievements connects more intimately to broader questions about how people use African literature.

Meantime, the algorithm-driven outrage machine of social media, as Adichie frames it in a 2022 speech, has much to teach us about the social lives of African letters. The fundamental issues in the Onyeka episode cohere around a personal history of use and symbolic appropriation as fundamental to the prestige economy and literary influence of a Nigerian writer. Many other controversies in the last decade offer other similar generative discourses. For now, it has to be said: there is no need to cancel Onyeka; what’s really the use?



James Yékú teaches African literature, and digital cultures at the University of Kansas, Lawrence



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