Clement Onyemelukwe of Westport, known as the “father of electricity” in his native Nigeria, died Jan. 18 at home. The cause was metastatic non-small cell, non-smoker’s lung cancer. He. Was 86.
Clement Onyemelukwe: married Peace Corps volunteer. Contributed photo
He initiated the planning and development of the 330 kV electricity grid still used in Nigeria today when he became chief electrical engineer in 1962.
He and his wife Catherine moved to Westport in 1993. He initially held a residence card, known as a green card, as he was spending a good part of his time in his home country Nigeria on business.
In 2007, he finally became an American citizen. He was a speaker at the Y’s Men of Westport Weston and an active library user while working on his latest book or researching business ideas.
His wife Catherine was president of the library board in 1999-2000, prior to becoming the director of development for the YMCA. She is an active member of TEAM Westport and The Unitarian Church in Westport.
Clement Chukwukadia Onyemelukwe was born April 1, 1933, in Nanka, Anambra State, Nigeria.
After graduating from Dennis Memorial Grammar School, a premier colonial-era boys’ secondary school, Clement attended the University College Ibadan for two years before being sent by the British colonial government to Leeds University.
He received his B.Sc. engineering degree in 1956 and worked in the power sector in UK. He acquired a second degree in economics from London University.
He had nearly abandoned any intention of returning to Nigeria when the Electricity Corporation on Nigeria, ECN, recruited him as part of the drive to fill civil service and parastatal positions after Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960.
In 1961, he became deputy chief and the following year was made chief engineer, taking over from the British man who had run the operations. It was on his desk that the first outline of what is now the NEPA grid was formulated.
All the chief executives of NEPA, the renamed national electricity corporation, since its inception up to 2001 were his former staff.
Although his parents had rejoiced that he had returned from the UK without a foreign white wife, in 1963 he met a white Peace Corps volunteer in Lagos and married her in 1964 after the conclusion of her Peace Corps service.
“Peace Corps Worker to Wed Nigerian Engineer,” was the headline for a brief article in The New York Times from Lagos, Nigeria on Dec. 23, 1964. The couple “went through last-minute preparations today for their wedding Saturday at St. Saviour’s Church,” the piece said. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1964/12/23/97286005.pdf
A second article on Dec. 27, Lloyd Garrison’s “Special to The New York Times,” announced the wedding with bios of the couple. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1964/12/27/93222529.pdf
The marriage in 1964 aroused international attention. “Nigerian Marries Peace Corps Girl” was the headline on the second NY Times article referenced above. Interracial marriage was illegal in Kentucky which was still Catherine’s U.S. residence while she was in the Peace Corps.
When her parents returned to Kentucky after the wedding they had to change their phone number because of hate calls. The couple received telegrams from people all over the world, mostly supportive but a few critical.
A photo of the wedding appeared in Life Magazine in January 1965 and was also noted in Ebony Magazine.
With the Nigerian civil war looming in 1967 Clem left ECN to take up leadership of Biafra’s Coal Corporation and electricity utility. He was also made executive chairman of the Biafra Airports Board.
Late in the war he became chairman of the Panel on Post-War Reconstruction. He returned to Lagos and the Electricity Corporation after Biafra’s surrender in January 1970.
He left the electricity industry to found Freeman Engineering in Lagos in 1973. In 1976 he founded Colechurch International Ltd, a project management and promotion company, in UK.
Onyemelukwe was the author of five books: ”Industrial Planning and Management in Nigeria (Longmans UK) 1964;” “Men and Management in Contemporary Africa (Longmans UK) 1973;“ “Economic Underdevelopment: An Inside View (Longmans UK) 1974;” “Science of Economic Development and Growth: The theory of Factor Proportions (M. E. Sharpe Publishing US) 2004.” His last book, “The Decline of the American Economy”, is due out in spring 2020.
Clem was well loved by the community at the Unitarian Church in Westport and others. His warm smile, easy laugh, and joy in recounting stories of Nigeria made him an engaging conversationalist. He loved to discuss politics and economics with any and all.
He is survived by his wife Catherine, their three children, Chinakueze, Elizabeth, and Samuel, and five grandchildren, Kenechi, Nkiru, Teya, Bruche and Ikem. His brother Professor Geoffrey Onyemelukwe and three sisters also survive him. He was predeceased by one brother and one sister.
His life will be celebrated on March 7, at 1 p.m. at The Unitarian Church in Westport. He will be buried in the family compound in his ancestral village beside his parents in April.