By Kayode Fayemi
With the passage of Chief (Dr.) Arthur Nwankwo, Nigeria has lost one of our foremost voices of reason, modern-day griots, and patriots. True to his traditional title ‘Ikeogu’, he was a tireless fighter on the side of truth and justice, until he answered the call from heaven, and now takes a well-deserved rest.
I first learnt about the dear departed through his works, during my days as a student in the department of History, University of Lagos in the early 1980s. As an author and publisher, he was one of the most prodigious contributors to the body of knowledge on the history of the Biafran war. His short history of Biafra titled ‘Biafra: The Making of a Nation’ was published in 1969, even before the war ended. By 1970, he collaborated with the late renowned writer Chinua Achebe and others to establish Nwamife Publishers, which provided a platform for publishing many critically acclaimed works by authors such as Dr. Alex Ekwueme, Prof. Ben Nwabueze, Kalu Uka, Meki Nzewi, Maj. Gen. Mamman J. Vatsa, Flora Nwapa, Mokwugo Okoye, and many other public figures and academics, In 1977, he moved on to establish Fourth Dimension Publishers in Enugu.
In a 1979 Washington Post article, Chinua Achebe described how indigenous publishers in Nigeria at the time were “tackling their financial problems with vigor and optimism. Instead of allowing themselves to be bought over by foreign publishers, some of them have developed other businesses from which they fund their publishing companies. A good example is the Fourth Dimension Publishers founded by Arthur Nwankwo. The Fourth Dimension Publishing Company is part of a national network of engineering and construction operations directed by Nwankwo, under the group name of Jo Arts. The publishing company will continue to be funded by Jo Arts until it becomes self-sustaining.”
As an avid reader and historian, I am indebted to Arthur Nwankwo for his efforts in documenting very important epochs in our history, writing over 20 books and publishing the works of many others, and helping people like myself have a more nuanced understanding of where we are coming from, and our collective aspirations for a greater Nigeria. He knew the place of books in any progressive society, but more importantly, he had the business acumen and foresight to establish and sustainably run a thriving publishing enterprise that has survived him.
As a politician and activist, he was at home with the high and mighty in society, as much as he was a man of the people. Likewise, he was as adept in his agitations for justice and equity for the Igbo people, as he was in marshalling ideas on how to renegotiate the basis of our union and birth a new Nigeria that works for all. He pursued his ideas and vision in many ways but remained consistent in his principles. When he ventured into politics in the second republic, on principle, he chose not to join the Igbo mainstream party, late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s defunct Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), choosing rather to join the Mallam Aminu Kano-led Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), under whose banner he ran but lost the Anambra state gubernatorial election in 1979. He subsequently took up the role of an active opposition politician in the old Anambra State during the Second Republic (1979-1983), deploying his writing and grassroots mobilisation skills to serve as a check to the government of the day, leading to him being jailed for sedition.
That was not to be his last time of being jailed. During the heady years of military dictatorship, he was a very vocal critic and chieftain of both the Eastern Mandate Union (EMU) and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). He was one of the few opposition figures who remained in Nigeria when many of us had fled the country for safety. His activism led to his arrest on June 3, 1998, and it was only after the death of late General Sani Abacha about four weeks after, that he was released by the Abdulsalami Abubakar administration. I had the privilege of meeting him in person, during a meeting we convened in London in the aftermath of Abacha’s demise, which was followed shortly after by the death in detention of the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief M.K.O. Abiola.
At the time, the opposition was in a quandary on what should be the next course of action. We convened a meeting of the leadership in exile and in Nigeria, in Bromley, Kent, between August 28 to 30, 1998. Attendees included Prof. Wole Soyinka, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, Julius Ihonvbere, etc. as well as Dr. Arthur Nwankwo, who was fresh out of jail. He was an invaluable resource to the movement, intellectually, materially, and in terms of his vast network.
I remember his intervention during the meeting, in which he argued prophetically, that “the death of General Abacha has not signalled the end of the struggle to enthrone democracy in Nigeria. If anything, we believe it has underlined the need for a movement of change, a broad coalition to confront the twin enemies of militarism and conflict.”
His wise words were consistent with his conviction that nation-building would always be a work in progress, and the struggle for a more perfect union must continue. In the many years since then, Nigeria’s fourth republic was born and has evolved to this day. As a government operative working hard from the inside to achieve the common end of fixing Nigeria, I continued to admire and deeply respect our senior comrade who until his demise was a very vocal critic of government. He was different because he offered not just scathing criticisms, but also constructive advice. The last time I got in touch when my friend, Professor Biko Agozino visited him in Enugu last December, his voice, though frail, remained trenchant against bad governance. His life and legacy of itself is an admonition that we must continue in the trails he blazed.
Chief (Dr.) Arthur Nwankwo fought a good fight to the very end, and now takes a well-deserved rest. May his soul rest well.
-Dr. Kayode Fayemi, CON, Governor of Ekiti State, Chairman, Nigeria Governors Forum