The Igbo people usually name someone ‘Ekwueme’, which loosely translates to someone who talks and backs it up with action. For Igbos to find it significant to give such a striking name to someone, it means there are actually those who make noise, rile, boast and later back it up with a thunderous action, despite the fact that there is a popular adage which emphatically states that dogs that bark do not bite. In life, I have rarely met people who talk too much and meet such talk with consummate action; if you get this, you will understand why it’s always difficult for most politicians to perform. Apart from Mohammed Ali, whom I do not know personally, I can’t remotely claim of knowing anyone who talks too much and delivers. But, after following the trajectory of Onyeka Nwelue, I have cause to think we may soon have an Ekwueme in town.
My first encounter with Onyeka was through his work in 2012 when he wrote an open letter to Tonto Dike. After then, I began to notice and hear more of his noise through his articles, Facebook and Twitter updates. One of his twitter rants instigated a response article I wrote in 2013. However with the passage of time, I got used to his tirades, attention seeking updates, fiery unguarded outbursts against the powers that be, thought-provoking statements, and below-the-belt punches aimed at Nigerian youths and musicians.
Finally, our paths physically crossed in Surulere shopping mall when I bumped into him as he waltzed out from a joint, Bheerhauz, dressed in his now characteristic African attire.
I introduced myself to him he laughed and screamed ‘onye ara’ in Igbo. He asked me what I came to do in Lagos. I told him I came to arrange the distribution of my yet-to-be released film, Coming to Nnewi, and he quickly got animated. He asked me to come and meet a young marketer that he was lounging with. And that was how our discussion started, as I went to join his table over which he presided like a young medieval lord. As we journeyed through various topics, I observed him and read his body language. One thing was crystal evident: sitting beside me was a young man who knows exactly what he wants in life. Onyeka, from my observation, only desires these two things: fame and the freedom to tell whoever annoys him, no matter who you are, to go to the bush and fill your mouth with shit. Between these two desires, I can’t say which one he is more passionate about.
His writings and art projects are his chosen vehicle to fame. He unabashedly informed me that he loves people talking about him. He relishes it. It gives him so much joy. In a world filled with pseudo religious bigotry and hypocritical sycophancy, only a few people will ever admit that they desire the unholy ambition called fame. And out of these few, only the minutiae have the guts to openly admit and consequently pursue it. It may sound egoistic if we use the word ‘fame’; a more innocuous word or phrase for Onyeka’s drive will be more apt. He wants to bury his name in the sands of time. The dreadlocked Onyeka wants people to talk about him, he wants generations to come to read, sing and discuss him. His drive to distinguish himself might be the reason he has rings in almost all ten of his fingers, grooms long dreadlocks on his head, wears African prints and always attacks conservative popular opinions like Christianity, Biafra and Achebe.
The major thrust of our discussion hinged on his latest attempt to fame – a TV documentary on Flora Nwapa. Onyeka discussed the project with so much passion that had me wondering if the project is about Nwapa or about his abiding and never-hidden disgust for Chinua Achebe. Onyeka believes the documentary will unmask and show the world who Achebe is. In his words, he “wants to show the world that Achebe is not really the saint he made the world to believe he is.”
I asked him, “Who exactly is a saint? Are you one?”
He laughed and reminded me that it was Achebe who portrayed himself to the world as a puritan. And now, it was his job to tell us that Achebe is a twenty-first century scam.
Most people who know Onyeka know he likes controversy. Stirring the hornet’s nest is his specialty. He loves to attack and fight people who are bigger and mightier than him. Sitting with him, I sensed he does that to court one side of his life’s ambition, fame. But when I looked beyond the façade and thought through the subtext of our discussion, it quickly dawned on me that his passion to unmask Achebe goes beyond that. It felt to me like a personal vendetta. Now, this is ironical, because Achebe’s personal hatred for Obafemi Awolowo inspired him to write biting remarks about the dead chief in his last work, There Was A Country. To any discerning mind, Achebe’s criticism of Awolowo appeared more like a personal vendetta. Presently, it would seem as though it is Onyeka’s turn to return the personal vendetta to the late chief Achebe. What inspired his abiding hatred for Achebe is what I do not know. When I asked, he said I should look out for it in the documentary.
If Onyeka Nwelue will have the guts, the temerity to release the damning and controversial documentary that he boasts will sink a revered African writer like Chinua Achebe, then he should be called an Ekwueme. If he waters it down or does not eventually release it at all, then it means that Onyeka is one of the present-day, attention-seeking charlatans who masquerade as intellectuals to shout their voice hoarse just to play to the galley and be in the news. If he doesn’t release the documentary which he claims will prove that Achebe was a male prostitute who is physically weak, then Onyeka should be likened to a raving engine which is warmed all day but will never hit the road. But if the self-avowed worshipper of the river goddess, Ogbuide, releases the documentary, then I think he is a perfect epitome of Nwanza who, after eating to his fill, challenged his chi to a fight.
Written by Tobe Osigwe