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Welcome to Lagos [Book Review]

Summary

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo is the story of five people from different parts of Nigerian society who flee the Niger Delta in hopes of better lives in Lagos. Instead they find themselves struggling to secure basics like employment, a place to live, and food. Largely ignored by society, they get caught up in a political scandal that threatens to upend their lives right when they finally find some degree of stability and comfort.

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Show Notes

Welcome to Lagos begins with two soldiers in the Nigerian Army going AWOL. Chike Ameobi is an officer in the army after having joined the military with a vision of helping to protect and defend his country. The reality of serving in the military prompts him to runaway with Yemi, a junior officer. Hoping to escape both the military and local militants, the pair decide to set out for Lagos.

When soldiers go off to war or at the outset of a brewing war, there’s a lot of talk about doing good and having a code of ethics. This appeals to Chike because he joined the military with the vision of being an officer and a gentleman. He was going to be one of the good guys and would follow a moral code.

But upon joining the military and serving under the commander he realized that soldiers would be involved in missions and activities that he viewed as being morally wrong. Soldiers were attacking villages and causing harm to civilians which was at odds with his idea of the military protecting civilians.

The “work” he’s doing doesn’t match up to the mission that was initially proposed. Having experienced the reality of serving and knowing future assignments and missions are going to be much more of what they’ve been doing and even worse Chike realizes that he can’t serve anymore.

There’s great attention paid to the soldiers’ physical appearance. They must be properly attired and disciplined in their appearance, especially in wearing their uniforms properly. There is concern paid to the outward appearances of being upstanding officers and troops. But the reality is that while they might look good, they’re not doing good deeds. Rather than helping, they’re harming the people with whom they have contact.

The Nigeria Army is supposed to be fighting against militants, the Resistance Army. Chike doesn’t have a personal issue with the militants nor does he agree with their ideologies. He simply joined the military with the expectation of defending civilians from the militants. But serving in the military under these corrupt leaders has made him realize that the country and its citizens need to be defended from the military as well.

Chike is serving in his unit with Yemi, a junior officer that he has befriended. When Chike decides to leave, Yemi is the only other soldier he trusts to take the risk of telling and inviting along. You get the sense that Yemi is similar to Chike but only quieter.

You have a choice as to whether or not you join the military in most countries. But in most countries, once you join the military, even if you were drafted, you can’t just decide to pick up and leave. Whether you volunteered or your service is compulsory, leaving without permission even for a little while is highly frowned upon and can have very serious consequences.

Given the particularly questionable behavior and cliquishness within the group, Chike and Yemi can’t voice their concerns to their commanding officers. And they certainly can’t just tell them that they want to leave. Instead, they abandon their group in secret. Stationed in what seems to be a remote area in the woods they leave the army base and their careers behind.

They can’t be seen by anyone in the military because they’re deserters. But they also can’t be seen by any of the rebels who operate in the area, because dressed in military attire, they face danger from them as well. In efforts to try and get back to civilization, their homes, and their lives, they use the trees for cover.

There’s a brief moment of dread when they bump into a young man while walking through the bush. This guy appears to be in his late teens and claims to be one of the militants. Fineboy is an interesting character from the very beginning. First, he is described as having a weird vaguely American accent. Keep in mind that this is Nigeria. So…how?

I believe Chike and Yemi had taken off their shirts at this point to conceal that they were soldiers in the army. Yet, Fineboy identifies them as soldiers and claims to be from the militant camp in the Niger Delta near where there’s been fighting between the military and the militants. Chike and Yemi are still carrying their weapons but there’s great danger in Fineboy raising the alarm or running off to the militants or military. Thus there’s quite a bit of distrust and unease between the men.

When they finally get the situation under control the soldiers learn from the young woman that she was attacked by Fineboy and his group the day before. They attempted to rape her but she was wearing tight jeans which they were unable to get off. You get the sense that some of the things that Fineboy says are questionable but here he’s proven to be a bold-faced liar. He told a completely different (though far-fetched) version of the events.

Fineboy was positioning himself and the militants as being a freedom fighting group for the people. But the reality is that just like the military, they’re doing their fair share of harm to civilians. Civilians are regular people who are trying to go about their lives. Yet here are these two warring factions that are making life miserable for them.

With the introduction of this new character, Isoken, you get a civilian and thus more neutral perspective on the fighting. She also offers more insight into Fineboy as not only does he have this questionable accent but he’s also a huckster. The lies he chooses to tell reveal that he might have a lot more going on beneath the surface. He’s been involved in some bad things but probably isn’t completely evil though he’s not the do-gooder that he presents himself as being.

Speaking to Isoken they learn her backstory as well. which is that her mother was ill. She is in her mid teens and lived in Lagos with her parents until her mother became very ill. At that point her parents decided to return to her mother’s hometown to seek natural medical treatment. While there, the village was attacked by the militants and they had to flee.

Due to her illness, Isoken’s mother wasn’t able to move as quickly so they stayed behind but sent her on to seek safety. She is now dealing with the terror of what she experienced in her mother’s village as well as her attempted rape by the militants. In a short space of time, she has experienced multiple traumatic events. And further complicating matters is the added stress of being separated from her parents while her mother is sick. It’s just one terrible thing after another.

Given all that Isoken has been through and the potential for danger, the soldiers invite her to join them. The plan is that they will accompany her to a nearby village where her uncle lives. Hopefully, making contact with a family member will help her reconnect with her parents or at least get an update.

Despite Fineboy trying to imply that he is living a great life in the bush with the militants, he decides that he wants to come along as well. It’s important to note that the soldiers had kept him under control with the presence of their guns. Eventually they have to get rid of their guns as they come into contact with civilian transportation. Now unarmed, they’re no longer trying to force him to do anything. Thus he’s now with them of his own freewill.

It’s another instance of Fineboy’s story not quite matching up. If things are so great in the militant camp why are you all of a sudden open to leaving? And not just leaving them behind but leaving them to travel with these two guys who not so long ago were controlling you at gunpoint.

When they arrive in the next village, their attempt to reunite Isoken with her family doesn’t go according to plan. She ends up remaining with the soldiers and Fineboy. But this is with the understanding that there will be some distance maintained between her and Fineboy given their past history.

Hoping to put some distance between themselves and the fighting, they all decide to continue on to Legos and make plans from there. They board a bus and settle in for the overnight journey during which Chike ends up having a conversation with a woman, Oma. It’s one of those situations where sometimes when you’re going through things in life you find yourself speaking more openly about your hardships with a stranger.

In Oma’s case, she is fleeing her wealthy but abusive husband. They live in a very nice house and she is a housewife while he works for an oil company. She makes an effort to cook meals that he likes. But there’s just no pleasing him as he’s just a very violent man. At the least provocation an even sometimes for no reason, he will attack her. It’s gotten to the point where she can’t take it anymore.

She’s already tried reaching out to her family seeking if not help then guidance for dealing with this situation. The only advice she receives is for her to try and do better. None of her family members encouraged her to leave and for those who did offer advice they made it seem like she was the problem. This is in part because they benefit from her husband’s wealthy so she eventually realizes that she can’t turn to her family.

Oma is traveling by herself and fleeing this financially comfortable life that is terrible from a mental and physical standpoint. A combination of stress and relief cause her to be emotional. Chike notices this when she begins crying and because he’s a stranger, she opens up to him.

Like the others, she’s running away from her problems and violence. She has her secrets, the primary one being that no one can know where she is out of fear of her husband showing up. Chike also can’t let anyone know who he is or where he’s from. They form a bond upon Chike realizing that they share this common shared thread and Oma joins the group.

Chike is a rather principled and compassionate person. He and thus the rest of the group become each other’s protectors. The group’s members or at least the females make attempts to reach out to their families but that doesn’t work out. Thus this cross group of various factions of Nigerian society are bound together for the forseeable future.

Upon arriving in Lagos, they find temporary housing but in need of something more long-term, they settle on a low budget hotel where all five of them will stay in a single room. Yet even with that, because they have limited money, it’s still too expensive for them to stay there for multiple nights. They’ve been traveling for some time at this point and haven’t really showered in a fair amount of days. They’re able to at least use the hotel room to shower and get themselves cleaned up before having to move out onto the streets.

It’s heartbreaking because they’re all going through rough times in their lives. The added pressure of their financial insecurity makes things even more stressful. When you’re going through a rough time in life things as simple as a hot shower, good meal, and a warm bed can offer some relief.

Isoken in particular is struggling emotionally. She’s had all of these traumatic experiences in a short period of time and there’s the uneasy fear about what might have happened to her parents. It results in her becoming depressed where she isn’t eating and mostly lays in the same spot crying all the time.

Oma seeing this, takes it upon herself to not just speak to Isoken but to talk out her issues and concerns. Part of the problem is that she’s had all of these traumatic experiences. But she’s also learned from her mother that she shouldn’t express pain, hurt, or any other emotions with anyone outside of her family. She’s at a loss as to how to deal with all of this. Overwhelmed with emotion, there’s a feeling that she’s doing something wrong.

Isoken was able to explain Chike and Lemi the basic facts about what happened when she was attacked by the militants. They in turn took responsibility for protecting her. But Chike didn’t feel comfortable speaking to her in greater detail about what happened. He realized that he is a man and she is a young girl and talking about the situation with him might make her uncomfortable. It’s fortunate that Oma joined the group, because Isoken needed someone to talk to about her feelings and experience.

They both have both endured experiences of physical harm. It’s not exactly the same situation but Oma can understand what Isoken is going through. She provides her with some degree of comfort and encourages her to let her emotions out and to allow herself to feel however she feels. The exchange certainly doesn’t solve Isoken’s problems in that very moment, but it helps make things a bit more manageable.

Out in the bush and then in the smaller village, Lagos appeared to the group as an oasis. It promised some safety and at least a temporary escape from their problems. They might also be able to find work which would help them achieve some stability. But the reality of being in Lagos was different from their expectations and aspirations as the city has its fair share of problems and danger also lurks though its more subtle.

First they have a hard time finding jobs which makes it difficult to find a place to stay. They go from living at a raggedy hotel to living under a bridge. But even being homeless comes at a price. There’s like a local group of guys who make people pay for the privilege of living under the bridge. The group’s leader reasons that its only fair because his group provide protection against robbers and murderers. Who would think that you have to pay somebody to be homeless.

The amount of money that this guy is asking them to pay is a lot of money for someone who is homeless and doesn’t have a job. Thus living under the bridge has to be only temporary for multiple reasons. It’s unfortunate that even while you’re going through hard times in life, there are people who would still seek to take advantage of you.

There are these little tidbits along the way that show Fineboy is quite the hustler. He certainly has the gift of gab and while he finds himself introuble, he’s can also talk himself out of it. When they’re brought before the bridge extortioner, Fineboy negotiates an agreement that includes a discount.

He later comes across a group of guys with a radio and it turns out that he has aspirations of being a radio star. And that’s in part where this American accent has come from. In bits and pieces we hear stories about his family and him growing up in a farming community. Fineboy has a way of charming people. He assesses people to figure out what they need or want and then negotiates with them to get what he needs as well.

While the others go out in search of hustles and jobs, he hustles to get information and the things that they need. This is all while spending no money, which is impressive in its own way. Through his new connections and contacts, Fineboy learns that in Lagos people squat in vacant houses. Using these means, he finds the group a place to stay though he doesn’t exactly tell them how. Or at least not immediately.

There’s an interesting point that’s made, where I’m the kind of settled into a routine, the group that is where for the most part, they’ve all found if not a job then some kind of means to be productive and to contribute to the household. They settle into a routine where Oma cooks and the rest eat before Chike reads from the Bible. It’s something that he’s been doing for a while for his own enjoyment. Chike reads the Bible but more from the view of it being literature.

Outwardly Fineboy is a bit overbearing at points and lies a lot. But there’s more to him beneath the surface. On a basic level he’s pretty annoying. But when you get past his posturing there’s some intelligence there. There’s a deeper story to him that he keeps hidden compared to the rest of the characters. We have at least some understanding of who they are, where they’ve come from, and their motivations. But things are less clear with Fineboy as his story comes out in pieces.

In addition, while he’s caught lying several times, he also has moments of being selfish and seemingly just out for himself. Yet, even with those moments he tends to come around to pitching in to help others. I feel like deep down inside most people are at the very least decent and are just trying to live their lives and get by. When you come across someone like this it always makes me wonder, how they became that way?

While all of this is going on with the main group, there are a few other stories taking place in the country. At first they seem far removed from the story and not directly related to the main group. But as the story progresses, these different parts of society begin to cross paths.

There’s a young man, Ahmed Bakare, who is the founder and editor of the Nigerian Journal. He comes from a fairly well to do background as his parents are well-connected in the country’s political and social spheres. Yet, he’s experiencing some hardships because advertisers are afraid of being associated with his paper.

Instead of society gossip and puff pieces, the newspaper tells the truth about the government and politicians. He uses the newspaper to speak out about topics that powerful people would like kept quiet. Thus the paper isn’t viewed in the most positive light by the country’s decision makers. One of the major stories of the moment is the Minister of Education absconding with millions of dollars from the education fund.

Ahmed has received a good education and everything that should have provided him with an easy and comfortable life. But he decided that he wanted more than a life of privilege and so began this newspaper. His mother laments that he’s not married and would like for him to marry one of her wealthy friends’ daughters. But he’s also not interested in them.

He’s dated different women including some from his parents’ world. But he’s found that most of them are just out for money as far as what he can do or provide for them. Ahmed is looking for a woman who has more substance. He’s not some playboy looking to have a good time as he would like to have a woman in his life like and settle down. But it’s important to him that it’s the right woman.

While they are from different social groups, these sentiments are also shared by Chike. Over time he develops an attraction to Oma but is insecure about having left the military and not having any money. He doubts that she would be interested in him because he knows that despite her husband being abusive, he was wealthy. Oma was likely used to a lifestyle that is beyond what he can afford to provide for her. He’s not exactly sure of her age but estimates that she’s at least a bit older than him.

In conversation, Oma compares Chike to her husband. Oma’s husband had a lot of money but a terrible personality, a horrible temper, etc. He had no redeeming traits or features beyond him being wealthy. She contrasts that to Chike who has no money but he’s a very decent guy. He’s also handsome, likes to read for fun, and has principles.

Under different circumstances, Chike would love the opportunity to take Oma out on a legitimate date. He thinks back on his past dating experiences where he found himself disappointed that a lot of the women he came into contact with could be easily seduced with a meal or a series of meals. He was also in the military where the men frequented brothels. Those experiences led to him taking a break from dating because he didn’t want to date anyone that could be so easily bought.

In a bit of a coincidence, it turns out the home where the group is squatting is owned by the Minister of Education who is on the run after running off with money from the Education Fund. The house appears unfinished / abandoned from the outside but there’s an apartment in the basement/bunker which they discreetly occupy. Of course, the minister, Chief Sandayo, pops up with the money that he’s embezzled.

He and the group are caught off guard by the other’s presence but he is outnumbered and quickly subdued. They take the money from him but not in the sense of robbing him. He’s been all over the news so they know that he’s wanted and on the run with a lot of money. While they could all use this money, instead of plotting to buy luxuries or otherwise change their lives they all decide to do the work that should have been done by the Ministry of Education. That is everyone excluding Fineboy.

They formulate a plan to personally distribute Sandayo’s money to the schools to ensure the schools receive the money. Fineboy figures that if he can’t get a cut of the stolen money or himself, he can still figure out a way to personally profit from the situation. After some consideration, he reaches out to Ahmed and begins negotiations for him to get this exclusive interview.

Everyone is looking for Sandayo and getting this interview would be a hot story that brings attention to Ahmed’s newspaper. During the first meeting, everything is calm and Sandayo is at turns defiant, petty, selfish, and self-righteous. Though he does speak a bit of truth.

We learn Sandayo’s backstory of having been an idealist activist in the past who has become a part of the dysfunctional system. In some ways, his complexity and conflicting values reminded me of an older and more jaded version of Fineboy. When questioned about stealing the money Sandayo points to the reality that everyone is fussing about him stealing $10 million but that pales in comparison to what people like the president, first lady, and others pocket on the regular.

Welcome to Lagos up to that point was interesting because you get an understanding of the different characters, their backstories, and their motivations. But the story reaches a new level when all of the characters and levels of society converge while the group is in Lagos. The main group are regular people but the addition of Ahmed and Sandayo adds politics and high society. Their presence and truths bring intrigue and an initially subtle threat of danger that becomes openly menacing as they begin to reveal the secrets of the powerful.

Bringing these two into the fold completes the collection of people from different areas of Nigerian society. Soldiers in the army are represented by Chike and Yemi. To a degree, Fineboy represents both militants and farmers or more accurately, people from rural areas. Isoken and Oma represent regular society as far as villages and cities. Isoken is from a working-class family while Oma via her estranged husband was more middle to high-income.

Ahmed represents media and the second generation of a wealthy family but has picked and choosed which privledges he will exercise. Sandayo represents the first generation of a wealthy family and also the government. They are like one person but at different phases in life and starting life from different levels of privlege has impacted their development.

During Chief Sandayo’s meeting with Ahmed, he begins to tell his story. He’s looking to shield himself from criticism. To get out in front of the story, he starts spilling the beans about everyone else’s wrongdoing. Shining a light on the widespread corruption and embezzlement of funds.

He even shares information about the First Lady’s expensive taste and spending habits. But the reality is that she uses her husband’s position and connections to fund her lifestyle via bribes and stealing from government funds. Everyone is stealing but the only difference is that Sandayo managed to get caught.

Some of Sandayo’s allegations ring true and begin to bring consequences and repercussions. Through Ahmed’s media contacts, the story begins to grow even larger. Unfortunately, the other members of this group are unwittingly drawn into this.

Ahmed ends up returning to London and with that reconnecting with some of his former classmates. That shows a bit of what life is like for Nigerians living abroad. As these secrets begin to come out Ahmed realizes that his family was able to obtain some of the luxuries that they have because his father was a part of the problem.

This is how a lot of these VIPs obtained their money. On the flip side, Welcome to Lagos also offers some insight into how the country functions. This is an oil rich country which generates tremendous armounts of money from oil and other resources. But because of corruption, very little of it trickles down to the everyday people. This affords people in high places who steal the money to live rather comfortably while your rank and file regular people, never see any of that money.

It’s a work of fiction, but there’s a lot of commentary on Nigerian society. Really post-colonial countries as a whole. Reading that part of Welcome to Lagos reminded me of my family’s experience and other countries in Africa and the Caribbean. My mom is from Guyana, South America but both parents have ties to Barbados and India while my father is from Jamaica. To my understanding, they were never directly involved in the government as far as being politicians. But taking more of an interest and speaking to them in recent years, there seems to be a common thread with a lot of these countries that were former colonies.

There were several disadvantages of colonialism which included specific groups of people being treated like second-class citizens. Obtaining independence was supposed to usher in a new age for regular people. Self-rule was supposed to enable these countries to exercise self-determination. These nations were to work for themselves, trade on their own behalf, and share in the wealth created by their effort.

But as we see that’s not always what happens. In some ways, it can be like trading one oppressor for another. Depending on the people who get into power they might be just as willing to fill their pockets and leave the people destitute. They selfishly rob these countries of their resources just as the colonial powers did in the past.

That internal greed combined with a history of these countries being organized by colonialists for the most effective means of extracting value with no regard for the people has resulted in instability and a host of other issues. And because the colonial powers no longer maintain direct control or benefit from trade and resources it’s not to their advantage to maintain infrastructure. To be clear, they still make money off of these countries and benefit from revenue generated generations ago. But there’s less incentive for them to invest in building infrastructure in these countries when they can extract money without having to invest money.

During one of the interviews, Chief Sandayo is called out on his being a hypocrite in pointing fingers at everyone else while he took money as well. When his allegations extended beyond the country, the foreign media becomes interested in the story.

He points out that there’s hypocrisy on the part of these former colonialists. These former colonial powers now sit back and present themselves as upstanding global citizens. But the reality is that they try to play the part of the peace police and global referees when their hands are still dirty from things they did in the past (and arguably continue to do). The wealth and infrastructure of their societies have been built on revenue generated from taking resources out of these countries in the past.

Chief Sandayo makes some astute points as these countries point the finger at nations such as Nigeria being corrupt. They certainly are but these same countries are less willing to explore their corruption at present. And certainly not their past wrongdoing though both benefit them in the present.

He points out that many countries and companies benefited from the slave trade and/or controlling colonies. Sure slavery might have ended in these countries and to some degree, they’ve withdrawn from these colonies. But this is after having made tremendous amounts of money, none of which they’ve returned.

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