Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

Lagos is not the capital of Nigeria – that is planned, concrete, unexciting Abuja, in the middle of the country but without a past or much atmosphere, the centre of government but of little real commercial or historic interest; this is where the lawmakers sit – it is not where the country is being made and remade.  But Lagos, Lagos is sprawling, chaotic, exciting, corrupt, all resources stretched well beyond the snapping point – full of history and desperate for the future.  And this is the magnet that draws five ill assorted people, on the run from different furies, when they need a place to hide and a way to somehow make a living.

Two of them are soldiers – Chike and Yemi – who desert after being ordered to kill innocent civilians in cold blood, allegedly to prevent them sheltering insurgents in their Delta villages.  Chike is an officer, Yemi a private, and while this relationship weakens under the pressure of a tough civilian life, Chike remains in some sense the leader and guide of the group, even when others have important skills.  On the run, they meet Isoken, a beautiful girl who is on the run from abuse and rape, and Fineboy, a young man who fancies himself a great deal and desires nothing more than to be a radio announcer.  While Isoken and Fineboy are very wary of each other, they travel together, and Chike meets Oma, a slightly older woman, who has walked out on her husband after a beating.  Apart from the two soldiers, they have nothing in common except their fugitive status, but they stick together and somehow scrape by.

Everything is harder than they imagine. You have glimpses of the raw underbelly of a desperate city, but Fineboy manages to get them the right to live under a bridge, an awful existence where they they pay the local criminal boss for the right to stay, but better than the open street.  Fineboy, too, manages to find a deserted flat and a safe way in, where they move and where they run into issues which are much bigger than they can deal with. Every night, Chike reads them the Bible without belief.

All this is written in clear, simple prose, but not always in English – there are bursts of local languages, street slang and so on which can add colour and drama but which are occasionally obscure.  But Chibundu Onuzo, a young Nigerian currently studying in London, brings a series of remote and daunting environments to life with great clarity, with bittersweet observation, and a kind of melancholy for the difficulty of living decently.  She has a knack of capturing a personality quickly on the page, and these main characters quickly become individuals with whom we identify.

While the group of five have been making their way to Lagos, the story has touched on two other people – Chief Sandayo, an education minister who is tipped off that he is to be sacked, and Ahmed, the idealistic editor of a failing newspaper.  These two and the five fugitives all come together in a sadly archetypal story of modern Nigeria.  Sandayo has run from the job with $10 million of public money, and he leaves Abuja and goes to his secret flat in Lagos, prepared for just such an emergency – where he finds the group of five living.  They quickly realise who is and why he is there, and there is a nationwide hunt for him, so they won’t let him go.  But they don’t know how to act – should they hand him to the police – who they know are not on the side of the angels?  Should they take some money and let him go?  Should they break his story to the press?

The story travels on two different trajectories – the individual human level, of making out in Lagos, of a hand to mouth existence, full of dirt, threats, and minor corruption – made slightly better when Chike flukes a job; and the state level, dysfunctional and corrupt, where good and bad are hard to tell apart, and some good people are living on stolen money.  They come under pressure to make ethical judgements they are not equipped to take, to make a stand against brutal and powerful forces that will disregard every human right they have.  What happens is a perversion of the truth, yet it is a step forward to putting things right.  The western press completely misunderstands the story, and it is a nine days wonder which ends badly for Sandayo  – though he shows a streak of human generosity before he goes under –  and evicts the Chike and the others from their safe haven. They, Obandayo and Ahmed burst off in different directions, some achieving a local life, however secure, others fleeing.

In the end, nothing is changed – not Nigeria, not Lagos, not the west’s view of Africa.  But some of them have tried to change these things, and maybe that is all we can ask of anybody.

Chike woke up most mornings and sat by the door or if he woke and it was still dark, he caught a boat to the middle of the lagoon and paid the owner to wait in silence. He has set a tabernacle for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber. Its rising is from one end of heaven and its circuit to the other end. There is nothing hidden from its heat. … His prayers were vague, formless and void, but he had lost his self consciousness in saying them.  It was more natural to pray, he felt, when he saw the line of the sun break the edge of the water, more in keeping with the rest of humanity to worship the sun or whatever had made it.  Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, those moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.

Chibundu Onuzo, Welcome to Lagos  (Faber & Faber, 2017), 978-0571268948  354pp, paperback.

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