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May 3, 2010

Welcome to Lagos: Don’t castigate the messenger!

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 6:10 pm

Dr Ola Ogunyemi, of the University of Lincoln, argues that Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka was wrong to condemn a BBC series set in the slum areas of Lagos. Rather, the films should be praised for celebrating the human endurance and creative resourcefulness of the slum-dwellers

The condemnation by Professor Wole Soyinka of the series of three documentaries titled Welcome to Lagos which concluded on the BBC2 on Wednesday, 28 April 2010, is unfortunate as it diverts attention from the important issues raised by the films. It also threatens to undermine the real purpose of the programme which is to highlight the everyday experiences of these people from their own perspective.

Soyinka, a Nobel laureate and one of Nigeria’s most famous living writers, told the Guardian that he considered the series ‘condescending’, ‘patronising’ and ‘colonialist’ (see Nobel laureate condemns BBC portrayal of Nigerian city as a ‘pit of degradation’, by Ben Dowell, Guardian, 29 April 2010).

According to the BBC, Welcome to Lagos aimed to explore the impact of the massive rate of global urbanisation in one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world. It also sought to give a voice to those adapting to life in this most extreme of urban environments. All these aims were realised in the three, engrossing films.

Soyinka’s opinion that Welcome to Lagos portrayed a bad image of Nigeria was not supported in a random survey I conducted of friends and colleagues who viewed the programmes. Many of them were extremely positive about the programme, arguing that they helped to put the everyday experience of Nigerians in a proper perspective. They applauded the resilience of the slum dwellers, their ability to remain hopeful and even sane in such conditions. They also found it uplifting that these people had refused to allow their circumstances to rob them of their humanity.

A cursory examination of the comments on the BBC blog also reveals a similar pattern as a high percentage praised the tone and content of the programme. For example, one viewer wrote: ‘This is exactly the kind of documentary we should be seeing more of, surely? Too many times these films concentrate on corruption or degradation or extreme poverty. This sounds like the opposite of that: a genuine attempt to capture people, albeit slum dwellers, as they see themselves, as they are. I actually think this is quite a brave move by the BBC.’

The slum dwellers are the victims of decades of neglect by the government to provide and improve basic social amenities for the people of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria in 2006 when the Governor of Edo State appealed for help to rid the capital of beggars. Many people find it difficult to imagine that a country that is well endowed with skilled manpower and natural resources could allow her citizens to endure such hardships. It is tantamount to a denial of basic human rights. Regrettably, the high youth unemployment, estimated at 40 million, is exacerbating social problems. However, the formation of the Unemployed Youths Association of Nigeria might help to galvanise the government to act promptly.

It is a pity that Nigerian journalists could not make such a programme for fear of reprisal from the government. Many of them are known to be living in fear of losing their jobs and even their lives if they expose social problems. This serves to perpetuate a spiral of silence that is not conducive for democracy in Nigeria. Only last weekend, three journalists, Edo Ugbagwa, 42, a court reporter with the Nation, Nathan S. Dabak, 36 and Sunday Gyang Bwede, 39, of the Christian newspaper, the Light Bearer, were murdered (see Three journalists pay the ultimate price after bloody year for media, by David Smith, the Observer, 2 May 2010). However, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) is vociferous in its condemnation of the erosion of press freedom in Nigeria.

The complaint over Welcome to Lagos by the Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy to the BBC is uncalled for and suggests that the officials need a crash course in media management. Moreover, the brute force and sporadic actions witnessed on the programme by the government Task Force can only exacerbate the problem rather than tackle its root causes.
As the father of the nation, Prof Soyinka should rather be using his influence to lobby the Federal government and the State governments to eschew party politics and leave a lasting legacy for posterity. Democracy has been mocked through vote rigging and self-serving politics.

The collapse of civil society in Nigeria is not helping either. One would have expected non-governmental organisations dealing with homelessness, poverty, capacity building and preventable diseases to swing into action with a clear strategy for helping these people. The Nigerians in diaspora also have a role to play. This could be coordinated through their association - Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO). However, Nigerians, both at home and in diaspora, need to overcome their mutual distrust and work together to develop their country.

Finally, the BBC should be commended for making and showing the programme. It is a classic form of ’show and tell’ documentary that shuns the negative and stereotypical portrayal of Africa. The programme is not damaging to the reputation of Nigeria. Rather, it celebrates human endurance, resilience and creative resourcefulness which could even inspire the rest of the world at this time of global economic uncertainty.

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