Nigerian playwright derides Welcome to Lagos, shot in teeming slums, as colonialist and patronising

A BBC documentary series set in slum areas of Lagos has been branded “condescending” and “colonialist” by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate and one of Nigeria’s most famous living writers.

Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Soyinka said that Welcome to Lagos, the BBC2 observational documentary which follows various people in poor areas of the city, was “the most tendentious and lopsided programme” he had ever seen.

The series of three programmes, which concludes tomorrow, follows groups of people living in three impoverished areas: a rubbish dump, the Lagos lagoon and the city’s beach area. The narration from the black British actor David Harewood overtly praises their resourceful resilience.

Welcome to Lagos has been well received by most UK critics and featured in the In praise of… slot on the Guardian’s leader page.

Soyinka, a world respected writer and activist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, said the programme displayed “the worst aspects of colonialist and patronising” attitudes to Africa.

The 75-year-old, who splits his time between the US and his home outside Lagos, added: “There was no sense of Lagos as what it is – a modern African state. What we had was jaundiced and extremely patronising. It was 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. It surprised me because it came from the BBC which is supposed to have some sort of reputation. It was not worthy of the BBC.”

His remarks were echoed by the government of Lagos, one of 36 states in Nigeria’s federation. Opeyemi Bamidele, the city’s commissioner for information and strategy, has submitted a formal complaint to the BBC calling on the corporation to commission an alternative series to “repair the damage we believe this series has caused to our image”.

Soyinka’s work includes Death and the King’s Horseman, the celebrated 1976 play about colonialist attitudes, and King Baabu, a 2001 satire on African dictatorships.

He has been an outspoken critic of how his own country is run, most notably in 1967 when he was arrested for trying to broker peace during the Nigerian civil war. He has also been an implacable opponent of corruption, was sentenced to death by General Sani Abacha, the Nigerian dictator, in the early 1990s, and has spoken out against the regime of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Of the BBC series, he said he “did not have any beef with any government” but was speaking as a concerned citizen. “I am talking about Lagos as a place where human beings live and work and which is a place I know intimately,” Soyinka added. “It is a pulsing city – in many ways too pulsing for me, which is why I live a little way out of it. But it is such a rich city, and it is deeply frustrating to see it given such a negative and reductionist overview.

“What I saw I found very unjust and sensationalist. What I saw was not an honest reportage. The problem is the title – it programmes the mind of the viewer in advance and sets the overall context.

“One could do a similar programme about London in which you go to a poor council estate and speaking of poverty and knifings. Or you could follow a hobo selling iron on the streets of London. But you wouldn’t call it Welcome to London because that would give the viewer the impression that that is all London is about.”

Soyinka has close associations with the BBC. He has written many plays for the corporation and recently judged a BBC World Service playwriting competition and recorded a series for the international network about post-apartheid South African writing, to be broadcast in May and June.

He told the Guardian he will continue to work for the BBC and plans to write an essay about the series: “What I think the BBC needs to commission is a remedial series which takes a proper look at Lagos as it is today.”

The BBC did not comment directly on Soyinka’s comments but sought to defend the programme, which was made by KEO Films, an independent producer.

A BBC spokeswoman said: “Welcome to Lagos explores the impact of the massive rate of global urbanisation in one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world. Its aim was to give 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.

“The series has generated a broad range of comment, but it has been well received by both viewers and media commentators, many of whom have specifically highlighted the positive and unstereotypical portrayals within the film.”

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  1. Chijioke Uba says:

    I am so pleased that Soyinka reiterates the same facts that I have made in Mas Siollun’s website. below is a copy of my response to this clip on the 15th of April. I had just listened to the programme being advertised on a british morning TV programme. Some parts of the documentary had been shown. Like Soyinka rightly notes, the woman presenter was like, “to see these people making a life and not complaining , bla bla bla. It did not take me long to make the following ineferences from the advert. Below is a copy of what I posted on the 15th. The link to the page is


    I look forward to watching this documentary. I completely agree with an earlier comment that wondered who this documentary is targeted at. This is the million dollar question. Why this documentary? Why is it always the case that it is only the slummy areas and aspects of life in developing countries that form the major focus of documentaries. The few good aspects you will see on BBC would be the game reserves in Kenya!

    I am appalled with the documentary’s title “Welcome to Lagos”. The author(s) of this clip assume that Lagos can be defined by life of people in the slums. There is nothing about the other sides of Lagos. Why choose thre slum areas and say this is a “welcome to Lagos”??? To portary Lagos from three perpectives all of which are based on life in the slum is yet another improper depiction of a city rich with diversity and so many bright city areas. For the information of those who do not know, I know very well that Lagos has its goods and bads, just like London (where I live for example). I do not mean to make any comparisons, however, I will use a counter example to show the danger of telling tales from a narrow perspective.

    Assuming I was to make a documentary of London, say I call it “Welcome to London” and all I show is the street life and crime, the everyday stabbings and shootings that nowadays define a present gang lifestle in these days, would this be a true depiction of London? Would it suffie to base such coverage on an interview or following of the lives of 3 or more gang members. If I was studying crime and gangs, I would be right, but to qucikly call the results of this documentary “Welcome to London” would amount to making a hasty generalisation. A fallacy that does injustice to the magnitude of good things about London. It is this sort of fallacy and misrepresentation that you see in naming the documentray in question, “Welcome to Lagos”

    I wonder why no one has made documentaries of life in other areas of Lagos and juxtapose this with other parts of the city. Let the author(s) go to the Lekki area of Lagos, where millions of Lagosians live in beautiful spacious houses, drive expensive cars and live quaility lifestyles better than those of the average Londoner. Let the author(s) interview the many Nigerians as well expatriates that live in this and similar parts of Lagos! Do a more comprehensive documentary and let the world see all the sides of Lagos. Why focus on slums, do two interviews and claim this gives us a “welcome into Lagos”. One of the slum areas as the author(s) rightly note has a population of about 1000 people. Asssuming we say the other two areas shown in the documentary have another 1000people each, making a total of 3000people whose lifestyle are documented, to what extent can one TRUELY claim that the lifestyle of 3000 people out of 3,000,000 – three thousand out of three million – offers a “welcome into the world of Lagos!!!

    Lagos has its problems, Yes. The governments have not been as responsive as they ought to be to the plight of the people, agreed (the UK is still rocking from MPs’ scandalous misappropriation of funds… even the Prime Minister was invloved!), but lets tell the truth comprehensively as it really is. Do these slums mentioned in the documentary exist, of course they do (I also know of slum area in the United States and parts of the United Kingdom!). My point is simple, they do not adequately define Lagos. Let documentaries not give the wrong impressions about a generality of people by simply focusing on tiny aspects that do not tell the whole story, and claim that such tiny aspects gives a “welcome” into the general world.

    I am still looking forward to watching this documentary…untill then I will rest other thoughts that I have. Who are the authors of this documentary anyways? And who funded this documentary…perhaps this might give us some idea into “why this documentary”. Like I stated, I rest my case for now….

    I am still waiting to understand why this documentary was made and why the idea is to air it on the BBC!


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