Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 31, November 2002 


In Memoriam: Chief Victor Nwankwo

Hans M Zell
Hans M Zell is a publishing consultant specialising in scholarly and reference book publishing, and journals publishing management. Glais Bheinn, Lochcarron, Ross-shire, IV54 8YB, Scotland. +44 1520 722951 (tel), +44 1520 722953 (fax), email:

One of Africa’s leading publishers, Chief Victor Nwankwo, was brutally murdered on 29 August 2002, outside his home in Enugu, Nigeria, apparently the victim of a political assassination.
Educated at Okrika Grammar School, Government Secondary School in Afikpo, and Yaba College of Technology, Victor Nwankwo graduated as a civil engineer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1971. His time at the University of Nigeria was dramatically interrupted when, in 1967, part of Eastern Nigeria, inhabited chiefly by the Igbo people, was proclaimed the independent state of Biafra, and the ensuing civil war put Nwankwo’s academic career on hold. He joined the Biafran army as a script writer for its publication Biafran, and also served on the Biafran frontline as a combat officer in the Engineers Squadron attached to ‘S’ Brigade. The civil war ended in 1970, and Biafra ceased to exist. After initial fears of reprisals and a period in hiding, Nwankwo returned home and, following graduation, rejoined civil life as a design engineer at Ove Arup and Partners from 1971 to 1974. Later he became a design engineer at Brunelli Construction Company, followed by appointments as Assistant Project Manager for the Maiduguri Airport project and head of design at Cubitts Nigeria, and thereafter director of production at Joart United Construction and Engineering Ltd.

In 1977, with his older brother Arthur and younger brother Ejiofor, he set up Fourth Dimension Publishing Company (FDP) in Enugu. Arthur Nwankwo, a prolific writer and commentator on political and social issues, had earlier entered the publishing field through a stake in Nwamife Publishers Ltd., in partnership with Alex Ekwueme, also based in Enugu. Arthur was the driving force in the early years of FDP’s development, while Victor continued his work as an engineer, only working for the publishing house on a part-time basis. Fourth Dimension first exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1980, attracting a considerable amount of international attention at the time. While Arthur remained as (and still is) Chairman of the firm, he and Ejiofor were increasingly involved in the political life of Nigeria, and Victor took over the reigns at the publishing house in 1984 as its Managing Director. Meanwhile the business had grown rapidly over a period of just a few years, with a list of almost 700 titles, including many scholarly works, school textbooks, books in Nigerian languages, fiction and poetry by many prominent Nigerian writers, as well as children’s books—including two children’s books by the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. By the year 1989 the number of FDP books in print amounted to over a thousand titles, and the firm employed a staff of 88. However that number was about to be sharply reduced, as rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Nigeria began to bite and demanded adjustments to cope with increasingly difficult trading conditions.

Victor Nwankwo quickly adapted to the book publishing business. As a bookish person and an avid reader, a former editor of his school magazine, and someone who also dabbled in poetry in his youth, books and writing were not new to him; and he did not find it difficult to switch from an engineering environment to the world of books, and the business of publishing. He was also a writer himself, who used to write a daily newspaper column, and was the co-editor, with Chinua Achebe, of a collection of African short stories. He had also published a novel, which had a very unusual publishing history: based on a manuscript written in English, it attracted the attention of a German journalist, was translated into German by Ruth Bowert, and published as Der Weg nach Udima by the Afrika-Presse Dienst in Bonn in 1969. The original manuscript was subsequently lost, and it was not until 1985 that the English version appeared, having been translated back from the German into English, and published as The Road to Udima by Fourth Dimension. The novel captures the fears and emotions of Biafran society during the civil war, and tackles corruption and other issues not normally mentioned by the Biafran propaganda machine.

In 1989 Fourth Dimension Publishers became a founder member of the Oxford-based African Books Collective (ABC), a major self-help initiative by a group of African publishers to promote their books in Europe, North America and in Commonwealth countries outside Africa, and collectively owned by its founder publishers. Victor Nwankwo has served on the ABC Council of Management since its inception, and also became a member of the editorial advisory board of The African Book Publishing Record.

Victor Nwankwo has written extensively, and passionately, about his country’s book needs; he was President of the Nigerian Publishers Association from 1989-1991, and was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Nigerian Book Foundation. He also wrote eloquently on the many issues and problems confronting the indigenous African book industries continent-wide, and soon became widely respected as one of Africa’s foremost publishers and spokesperson for the cause of African autonomous publishing. And so it was not surprising that, in 1993, he was elected as the first Chairperson of the African Publishers’ Network (APNET), the Harare-based organization committed to strengthening publishing and the book trade throughout the continent.

Perhaps by virtue of the fact that he was an engineer by training, Victor Nwankwo always seemed to be one step ahead of most of his African colleagues when it came to technology; and he and his firm were usually the first to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technology, and the recent revolutionary changes in printing and book manufacture, which he regarded as a kind of liberation for African publishers. Despite facing huge infrastructural problems, the lack of skilled staff and adequate technical support services, he was the first Nigerian publisher to introduce in-house originated computerized typesetting in the early 1980s, although he always pointed out that while it was important to take advantage of the new technologies it had to go hand in hand with more traditional methods of book production. More recently he became much involved with print-on-demand publishing and digital printing, and, through articles, workshops, and a joint initiative with African Books Collective, was busy trying to convince other African publishers of the very significant benefits print-on-demand technology can bring to the African book industries.
He was also vociferous in calling for more equitable policies in the World Bank’s ‘International Competitive Bidding’ procurement policies for textbook production, which have been the subject of intense criticism by publishers in developing countries, as the policies favoured multinational publishers, rather than the local book industry. (It should be added that there has now been a considerable shift from these policies, and African publishers have welcomed recent changes in World Bank textbook provision policies.) However, while championing the cause of autonomous African publishing, Victor Nwankwo always recognized that books and publishing were international in every respect, and he actively encouraged partnerships with publishers in the West, as well as developing publishing partnerships, and co-publishing ventures, on a South-South basis.

Although Victor Nwankwo came from a family that remains politically very active, he was not a political firebrand, and while he cared deeply about Nigeria he was less actively involved in politics than his two brothers. His commitment involved him in community leadership and support for his home area; amongst his many contributions, he organized and raised the finance for a hospital and school built in his home village. His immediate and extended family were central to his life and brought him much happiness. His life-long commitment to his country and people was recognized when an Igbo chieftaincy title was bestowed upon him, an honour of which he was justly proud.
Victor was a quiet, good-natured, fair-minded, and exceptionally level-headed man, and it is therefore particularly shocking that he should meet such a violent death, and that his life was so abruptly and so cruelly terminated by the bullets of assassins.
Victor Nwankwo was a man of wisdom and vision, who will be sorely missed.

Victor Uzoma Nwankwo, civil engineer and publisher; born Ajalli, Aguata, Anambra State, Nigeria, 12 December 1944; died 29 August 2002; married Theodora Ndigwe 1979; one son, three daughters. [end] [BPN, no 31, 2002, p. 23.]

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