Talking Books, Chief Victor Nwankwo in conversation with Katherine Salahi
Chief Victor Nwankwo is Managing Director of Fourth Dimension Publishing Company, 16 Fifth Avenue, City Layout, PMB 01164, Enugu, Nigeria. Tel +234 42 459969/256550, fax +234 42 453298/254811, e-mail: email@example.com
It's hard to imagine Victor Nwankwo, publisher, founding member of ABC and APNET, first chairperson of APNET, civil engineer, chief - the very model of calm, measured restraint - as a soldier on the Biafran front line. Yet if you ask him how he came to be a publisher, that's where it all started.
He had written a novel dealing with day-to-day issues within Biafran society. That was before he joined up. A German journalist read the manuscript and liked it not least because it tackled corruption and other burning issues unmentioned in all the official propaganda. The journalist took the manuscript, had it translated and published it in Germany. Then lost the original version. By now it was the mid-sixties and Nwankwo was fighting on the Biafran front.
When the civil war ended in January 1970, after the fear of reprisals and a period in hiding, Victor Nwankwo returned home to his German novel. Nothing daunted, he had it translated back into English. He had trained and was now working as an engineer, building bridges and roads, but he came from a political and literary family. Older brother Arthur was the firebrand of the family, like their mother, steeped in politics, an activist. Victor took after his father, a civil servant and educationalist, punctilious, hardworking, quiet.
`My mother's family were very political. My uncle was a key politician in the first republic (1960-66). My mother was - and still is - very active politically. My father was never involved in politics but he went along with his wife, he shared her spirit.'
It was a family with a lot to say. Arthur Nwankwo had already published with the London publisher Rex Collings. Together with friends they decided to set up their own publishing house in Enugu. It was an overtly political act. `There was a mountain of material waiting to be published which recorded the spirit that dominated people's actions during the civil war. We wanted to record it.' They had no money, `All we had was commitment and ambition.' They started to save, and by 1976 had managed to raise enough capital.
They called their publishing house `Fourth Dimension' because `the experiences of war taught us there were more than the three physical dimensions of life. The fourth co-ordinate is the human spirit that's needed to make change in the life of a nation.' They rapidly built up a list, publishing around 700 titles in the first four years, mostly scholarly books, children's books and fiction. All this time Victor Nwankwo was working as an engineer, contributing to the publishing house in his spare time.
Meanwhile the political situation in Nigeria was deteriorating rapidly. By 1983 the economy was in bad shape, the construction industry was going down, engineering companies were suffering and professional consultants' fees had been cut. Nwankwo's younger brother had gone into politics and been elected into the federal house. That meant both younger and older brothers were in full-time politics and for all practical purposes out of the publishing house. Victor stepped in.
`By this time there was no more challenge in engineering. Everything was repetition. The challenge came when I found myself dealing not with people and materials but with people and words - immaterial material. That was very challenging. Things were changing in Nigeria, and I took my engineering mind into the organisation.'
He didn't come in entirely cold because he'd been involved at some level from the beginning, `but still I found I had to teach myself a lot. So I read every file, followed every action, read books, taught myself everything - lithography, computers. I was largely trained by my staff.'
It helped that he'd been bookish from childhood: `I could read a novel in a couple of hours. I came from a community whose trade is education.' He was editor of the school magazine. He wrote poetry. `My nickname at school was Homer!' The school's headmaster, a tough-minded Welshman, made it compulsory for the boys to read novels for at least an hour a day. `To this day I can't sleep without reading first.'
Publishing began as a mission, but in order to survive it had to become a business. It's essentially still a family business, though for now the other family members have gone off elsewhere and only Victor remains an active director. The company today has a staff of around 22, down from the 80 of boom days, but still going strong. Fourth Dimension is known as a political publisher, dealing with current issues. `Many of our authors are our friends, so even when we fail they show understanding.' They almost always publish Nigerian material. `Sometimes we take an unpopular position. We work on the principle that, if you want to put a case, put it. It doesn't matter if you don't come out in a good light. We've learned that eventually we're proven right.'
It's an unusually upfront attitude for a commercial publisher, something to do with the shared family vision. They don't always agree on the details. Arthur is the ideas man, Victor likes to get things done. `There are many things he does that I wouldn't do, but we have the same eventual direction, and we respect each other.'
Now they are preparing the company for public funding, but they'd like to retain enough family presence to continue to drive the company as a business underpinned by a mission. As to whether their children will want to continue, they are young yet, and it will be up to them.
Chief Victor Nwankwo's involvement in APNET in the first five years meant that Fourth Dimension suffered from his absence. `But it also helped in the sense that Fourth Dimension has gained in terms of visibility, and from the satisfaction we get. We've always been involved at community level, so whether it's a water supply project, telephone, electricity, or books and APNET, it's all part of public service.' The moral imperative of public service runs deep in the Nwankwo family.
As an engineer Victor Nwankwo earned far more than he ever will in publishing, `but ask about job satisfaction and there's no comparison'. He can't imagine doing anything else, except perhaps writing after he retires. In the early eighties he used to write a newspaper column on daily life, and still marvels at how far it reached. `I've discovered you can contribute more by writing than through political activity. You reach more people.'
These are, after all, heady days in Nigeria, with democracy no longer a distant dream but, after so long, just possibly a reality. Those publications from the civil war, the original output of Fourth Dimension Publishers, are useful documents, `because we're able to relate today's crises back to what happened then.' The consummate chief, with a great deal still to say. [end] [BPN, no 23, 1998, pp 15-16.]
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