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Dismissed academic visitor ran unofficial “Oxbridge fellowship” scheme for financial associates

Onyeka Nwelue, whose Academic Visitor status at Oxford and Cambridge was terminated last month, used his position at the two universities to set up a fellowship scheme for the benefit of his financial associates, an ongoing investigation by Cherwell has found. This comes after he established his own place at Oxbridge through payment of at least £12,000 in donations and academic visitorship fees. 

The Fellowships

The James Currey Fellowships were created by the James Currey Society, which Nwelue incorporated as a for-profit company in May 2022. They provide funding for African writers to visit Oxford or Cambridge in a research capacity, although Oxford and Cambridge confirmed the fellowships have not been administered, funded, or awarded by either university. Recipients have been listed as academic visitors rather than fellows on the university websites and Nwelue said their visitorship fees were paid: “From my own pocket”.

Before the recipients of this year’s James Currey Fellowships were announced, Nwelue posted about the scheme online, tweeting: “I am not a billionaire but I have established two Fellowships in Oxford and Cambridge” and “Philanthropy is a messy thing. If you’re a criminal, a fraudster (sic) … invest in things that will cleanse your stained heart”.

Both the James Currey Fellowships and the society awarding them are named after Oxford alumnus James Currey, a celebrated publisher of African literature. When asked about the society, Nwelue told Cherwell: “Mr James Currey approves everything before I go ahead”. Currey is elderly and has recently been in ill health. His son, commenting on his behalf, confirmed: “The James Currey Society was not set up at his behest, he has not been involved in programming events – though has attended some – and he has not provided financial support.”

Cherwell found that both individuals who were awarded the James Currey Fellowships this year had existing financial relationships with Nwelue before receiving them.

David Hundeyin, a Nigerian blogger, was announced as the James Currey Fellow at Cambridge in October 2022, after signing a book deal with Nwelue’s publishing house Abibiman Publishers in September. Hundeyin later faced complaints for making misogynistic remarks to students at a launch event for this book in Oxford on 31st January 2023, which he promoted under the university logo without the university’s permission. He has also claimed on Twitter that Cambridge awarded him a “Fellowship” despite the university consistently denying any input in selecting the James Currey Fellows and confirming to Cherwell that Hundeyin’s status was that of an academic visitor.

Mitterand Okorie, the current James Currey Fellow at Oxford, co-founded the World Arts Agency, a Johannesburg-based literary agency, with Nwelue in 2019 as well as publishing his first book in 2017 with Nwelue’s company Blues & Hills. He also wrote Nwelue’s biography, Onyeka Nwelue: A Troubled Life, which he published through Abibiman in 2022.

Asked why the James Currey Fellowships had been awarded to these individuals, Nwelue said: “I have no answer to your questions.” However, after his associations with Oxbridge were terminated, Nwelue wrote in an email to Oxford staff: “I did not mean to tarnish the image of the African Studies Centre … I am very sorry to have brought the embarrassment I brought. About bringing David Hundeyin here, I didn’t read the signs properly. I am also sorry about that.”

The Winner

The James Currey Fellowship in Oxford was actually offered to another writer before being given to Mitterand Okorie, Cherwell discovered. In September 2022, aspiring Nigerian author Rosemary Okeke won the James Currey Prize, a competition she entered through the James Currey Society several months earlier. Along with prize money, one of the benefits of the prize was a funded James Currey Fellowship at Oxford, contingent on signing a book deal with Abibiman Publishers. 

Nwelue appointed a jury of nine people to judge the work of authors who entered the prize, although several of the five jurors who spoke to Cherwell were unaware that Oxbridge fellowships were promised as one of the prize’s benefits.

In October, Mitterand Okorie contacted Okeke as a literary agent with the World Arts Agency, offering her a contract of representation for her book. Okeke stated that she hoped to have a female literary agent, after which she received no further correspondence from Okorie. She subsequently discovered he had been appointed as the James Currey Fellow at Oxford instead.

Okeke received no formal contact from Oxford University throughout this. After questioning the fellowship’s re-allocation, she received an email from Nwelue saying: “I was sent your response to the contract offer. You mentioned that … you were looking forward to a female agent. Why is the Fellowship important to you, since I am a man?”

She told Cherwell: “There was, and is, a lot of confusion about the fellowship on my end, especially because people who weren’t even among the shortlisted candidates [for the James Currey Prize] were getting appointed fellowships by the Society. They seemed to be uncoordinated.”

One of the James Currey Prize jurors told Cherwell: “I was unaware that Rosemary Okeke never received the fellowship. This is unfortunate and unfair to Rosemary Okeke. The assessment process was very rigorous and time-consuming. It took two rounds of assessment, and to prevail as the winner means that Okeke deserved everything that was promised to her by the award organisers.” 

Oxford University declined to comment on the situation with Okeke, reiterating that the University was not involved in selecting recipients of the James Currey Fellowship.

“Dr. Onyeka Nwelue was here”

In September 2022, before this year’s fellowships were awarded, Nwelue donated a bust of James Currey to Wadham College. Wadham said: “we accepted a bust of [James Currey] from the organisers of the James Currey Literary Festival”, adding “Wadham College has no direct association with Onyeka Nwelue.” However, Nwelue was photographed alongside the Warden of Wadham College during the bust’s unveiling ceremony and he was one of the organisers of the festival.

While running the James Currey Fellowship scheme, Nwelue also continued to pay for his own associations with Oxford and Cambridge. Neither institution confirmed whether all academic visitors pay a set bench fee, but documents show Nwelue has paid £1000 per academic year for access to Oxford’s university libraries since 2021. At Cambridge, he was charged £9000 for one year’s association with the Centre for African Studies in 2022-23.

He told Cherwell that his Academic Visitorship “was a platform to be seen as powerful, a platform to leverage on… What money and power can not do, does not exist!”

Nwelue also made online claims about donating to Oxford University, posting a letter addressed to “Professor Nwelue” from former Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson thanking him for his “generous support”. Oxford University did not respond to Cherwell’s inquiries about the full sum that Nwelue donated. 

However, it was confirmed that Nwelue paid £1000 to have his name engraved on a chair in Oxford’s Weston Library; the words “Dr. Onyeka Nwelue was here” are inscribed on its armrest. Although Cherwell revealed that Nwelue has no professorial position or PhD, Weston Library confirmed that the plaque on the chair will remain in place.

Investigations into whether any background checks were carried out on Nwelue and the fellowship holders he appointed are ongoing.

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