The Global Urbanist

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It's the Nigerian government clinging to colonial ideas, not the makers of BBC2 documentary 'Welcome to Lagos'

The Nigerian government is demonstrating a strangely Eurocentric mindset in its display of anger over the BBC2 documentary, Welcome to Lagos, which shows only a people who are resourceful, enterprising, organised and content. It is time for the government and the international community to embrace the self-governing systems built by the people of Lagos, rather than cutting them down with every slum demolition.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Lagos

Topics: Participatory governance, Informal economy, Labour and livelihoods, Community organisation

Over the last three Thursdays, BBC Two has been screening Welcome to Lagos, a beautiful, human and forthright documentary by Will Anderson on the ordinary people inhabiting the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa.

Jump to:
The Nigerian government condemns the BBC
It's about the people, not the government
Time to embrace community governance

We meet Eric, aka Vocal Slender, who scavenges for metals in the Olusosun dump, saving money to record his first hip hop album. Chubbey, the enterprising father of eighteen children living in Makoko, where over a hundred thousand shacks are built up to half a mile out into the lagoon. And Esther, living under tarpaulin on the beach, who throws her husband out when she finds text messages from another woman on his phone.

But we also see sophisticated and efficient social organisation in every part of the city, created by the people themselves. When Eric blinds another scavenger in one eye during a fight, their differences and the medical expenses are settled by 'Chairman' Erico, an elder to whom scavengers pay membership fees to act as a community arbitrator.

At the Oluwanisola Cattle Market, an open yard where herders from countries throughout West Africa come to sell their stock, we see an ecosystem of traders and butchers fulfilling every role in the meat processing chain. An agriculture student has arrived and discovered the blood is going to waste, so he starts his own enterprise collecting the blood, boiling it and selling it as fertiliser.

In the centre of the lagoon, we see an armada of boats with rice-sack sails. The sails are hand-stitched, but clearly in mass production by another enterprising community elsewhere in the city. They are crewed by men who dive to collect clean sand from the bottom of the lagoon for use in cement and other industries.

In another part of the water, treefellers have cooperated by lashing together their logs into a raft over one kilometre long, complete with tarpaulin shelters, to float down to the sawmills at Ebute Metta.

And at those mills, the owners and workers are meeting after two recent deaths to collect funeral funds and agreeing to enforce gloves and rubber shoes for all workers.

Will Anderson has been quite subversive in showing these communities in the first two episodes, and waiting till the third to portray the government officials involved in demolishing the slums and beautifying the city. He is adamant in his views that the government does nothing for the everyday lives of slum dwellers, but equally adamant in showing that most locals believe these beautification projects are for the best in the long term.

He also insists on the humanity of the officials demolishing the slums, with his presentation of Sagede, who leads teams wielding sledge hammers to break up shops and bulldoze houses, yet teaches traditional Nigerian dancing in the evenings.

The Nigerian government condemns the BBC

The Nigerian government, and many wealthy Nigerians living abroad, have reacted with outrage to this documentary. As the Punch reported, Nigeria's High Commissioner to the UK, Dr Dalhatu Tafida wrote that it "was an attempt to bring Nigeria and its hardworking people to international odium and scorn".

The National Publicity Secretary of Nigeria's Action Congress party, Alhaji Lai Mohammed stated that "the BBC is acting out a script, as the voice of a colonialist that has long passed its prime and is now nostalgic about its past, which includes holding a whole people down and portraying them as incapable of managing their own affairs."

Speaking to the Guardian, Nigeria's Nobel prize-winning writer, Wole Soyinka described the documentary as saying " 'Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation'. There was this colonialist idea of the noble savage which motivated the programme. It was patronising and condescending."

Soyinka continued, "one could do a similar programme about London in which you go to a poor council estate and speaking of poverty and knifings … but you wouldn't call it Welcome to London because that would give the viewer the impression that that is all London is about."

And in the Daily Trust this week, the Nigerian Information and Communications Minister, Professor Dora Akunyili condemned the documentary as "a deliberate attempt to denigrate the dignity of Nigeria before the international community and to create fear and frustration in the minds of tourists and potential investors in the country.

It's about the people, not the government

BBC's response is that the documentary gives "a voice to those living at the sharp end of this ever-expanding population and highlight the resourcefulness, determination and creativity of those adapting to life in this most extreme of urban environments."

I believe most viewers, Nigerian and international, have received the documentary warmly, seeing very much the dignity and happiness of the Nigerian people, in direct opposition to Professor Akunyili's condemnation.

Indeed, Nigeria's leaders seem to be confusing the government with the people. Throughout the documentary, the people are praised, only the government is denigrated. The "noble savage" was not present; the people were clearly educated, enterprising, responsible, and capable of social justice. "Managing their own affairs" seems to be the people's forté, perhaps not the government's.

In fact, if the documentary has an intellectual wellspring, it is in the recent efforts by African urban scholars such as AbdouMaliq Simone to analyse African cities on their own terms, without imposing European conceptions of cities as places of planning, engineering and zoning.

Their work argues that to understand Africa's cities, one must construct a picture of them based on the survival strategies of their residents. As Anderson's documentary shows, by tracing these strategies, one very quickly sees a thriving ecosystem of social organisations, spanning across neighbourhoods, between cities and traversing international borders. The very spontaneity of these arrangements makes them extremely flexible and efficient, and responsive to the frequent crises of everyday life.

Anderson and his team have thus followed a very un-colonial path in investigating the city of Lagos.

If Nigeria's leaders are embarrassed, it is not out of worry for its people, who are clearly no cause for concern. As Professor Akunyili's comments show, their fear is that European tourists and investors will react in a very narrow-minded way. They should give European minds more credit.

Europeans are a little more cosmopolitan than they were in the colonial era. European tourists will have seen a welcoming, hospitable and musical culture; European investors will have seen a city full of ideas and opportunities.

What really seems to embarrass the government, is that the documentary did not show enough of the major government initiatives, such as the Eko Atlantic City and the Lekki Free Trade Zone; in other words, the places where the spontaneous city has been cleared aside, and European places of planning, engineering and zoning have been created in microcosm.

It is churlish to suggest that this makes the Nigerian government the nostalgic colonialists, but short of pure self-interest, it is hard to imagine another interpretation.

Time to embrace community governance

Rather than drive towards a new London or Singapore, the documentary shows a real opportunity to formalise these spontaneous acts of self-governance.

The government and the international development community should be working with groups like the dumpsite arbitrator, the sawmill operators, the slaughter yard entrepreneurs and the treefeller cooperative to institutionalise their self-governing structures within the management of the city. Rather than presuming to know what form participatory governance ought to take, these leaders need to follow a more inductive path to improved democracy and governance.

When the Nigerian government demolishes the informal settlements and disperses their residents and workers, it is also destroying the capacity of the city's population to manage itself, making its work harder in the short and long term.

Rather, those who wish to regenerate Lagos and expand its infrastructure must harness the goodwill, entrepreneurialism and organisational powers of its people so that the city can redevelop in harmony with its people, without loss of income, livelihood and social order.

If the Nigerian leaders prove themselves unable to see these opportunities, it is up to the international development community and the NGO sector to work with the people of Lagos and bring these energies to the fore.

The BBC2 three-part documentary Welcome to Lagos by Will Anderson is available on iPlayer here, here and here.