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The “Welcome to Lagos” furore

IN April this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) sent four of its correspondents to film about life in the Lagos slums. The group, led by Will Anderson, believed “everyone thinks of (Lagos) as a noisy, dirty, dangerous city, probably because all we ever hear about it on the news is the corruption, religious violence, and dodgy email scams.”

They decided to come and see things for themselves and report back to their viewers in Britain. They visited slums and dumpsites, such as Olusosun and Makoko, and went back with a three-part serial of life in the dumpsites of Lagos.
When the film was aired, copies were made and circulated around the world through the internet.

As usual, there was outrage that a foreign media house had the gumption to come to Lagos and choose to depict it as a city full of rubbish and scavengers. Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, described the documentary as “condescending” and “colonialist.” The Lagos State Government, the Federal Government and the political party that produced the Lagos State Government — Action Congress (AC) — all joined in condemning the BBC.

The sentiments that poured out were both predictable and understandable. If a Nigerian had done the documentary for airing within Nigeria it would have passed as a creative documentary with a unique angle. It would not have raised much in terms of negative comments. But being a foreign media — BBC no less — that was another ball game.

It only added to the stereotypical reporting of Africa by Western media, which believe that only stories portraying Africans living on trees or in the forests stark or half-naked would “sell” among their home audiences. If Africans have started dwelling in urban areas, according to this one-track, illiterate mindset, then they must be living in “noisy, dirty and dangerous” slums.

It is difficult to imagine how Western audiences would react to the story of a Governor Babatunde Fashola turning chaotic Oshodi to a place of orderliness and free-flowing traffic. That is a story that will interest a Nigerian audience. This is a job for our international cable news channels, such as the newly-launched and highly impressive NN24, NTA, AIT and others. A Western audience will not pay much attention to efforts being made to turn Lagos into a modern mega city fit for the 21st Century. The West was not impressed or interested about such Middle Eastern cities as Dubai and Abu Dhabi until these desert paradises could not longer be ignored.

Now that we have finished tearing our hair to pieces with righteous anger at the demeaning documentary, it is important to examine some of the positive sides to it, since, in every adversity there are lessons. The documentarists expected to be robbed and mugged from the moment they arrived at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, and hence their armed guards and siren escorts. But in spite of the fact that they discarded their guards and went to some of the potentially most dangerous parts of Lagos — dumpsites — they were never attacked.

Instead, they saw a community of lowly-placed but good and inspirational Nigerians struggling, with hope that their efforts will bring about a rosier tomorrow. Anderson confessed: “We realised then that all our characters, wherever they lived, however extreme their working environment, went through all of the same things which we do in the West — love, heartbreak, marriages, births, deaths, etc. It’s just that they live on a different scale to us, in the slums of the fastest growing city in the world, and with no money. This forces them to be more resourceful, energetic, and optimistic than most people in the West.”

Based on these observations, “Welcome to Lagos” was not an outright public relations disaster. It proved that the Nigerian at the lowest level of society is not the scammer and violent criminal he is made to look like in the West, but one that, in spite of his circumstances, continues to exhibit those traits that led Nigerians to be classified as “the happiest people in the world.”

Let us be more open-minded about this documentary. Let us also rise to the challenge it poses. Let us work harder and be so bold and proud of our achievements as to call BBC back in four years for another documentary.

This way, our anger would have produced something other than mere hot air.


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