By Mnena Achineku
Since Monday the 22nd of February, the Guardian UK has been running a week long exploration of Lagos as part of its Cities series. Other cities such as Liverpool, Beirut and Berlin have been featured in the past.
I’m a huge fan and daily reader of the Guardian and this was about Lagos, a city I grew up in, and until last month, had lived in. And with the series’ description of Lagos as one of “Africa’s cities[which] are at the bleeding edge of urban challenges” and as “the great megalopolis of Nigeria”, I was eager to see what my favourite newspaper would do with Lagos. So far the results have ranged from middling to disappointing. It seems to be a paint by numbers reporting.
The Guardian’s primary audience, I assume, is the UK market and even though this particular series also comes under the umbrella of the Guardian Africa Network, it was featured on the front page of the Guardian UK website. For those ‘oyinbo’ eyes, yes, the Guardian’s attempt at Lagos 101 ticks the regular boxes. Power outages, check. Makoko, check. Corruption, double check. However, contrary to my expectations, I am yet to see the Guardian delve into a never before explored area or aspect of Lagos life to provide useful or surprising insights. For the denizens of Lagos, who know these problems and people intimately, the Guardian series has offered us nothing new so far.
In some cases – I dare say – the paper simply got its information and conclusions wrong. Take the Lagos power list, a compilation of 21 people shaping Lagos. The Guardian populated the first 11 spots with the help of local(ish) partners, which is commendable. Sahara Reporters, provided the names on the politics side with YNaija! providing the names of entertainers. On the politics list, four out of the five names derive their influence from Twitter. A recent NOI Polls result showed that just 17% of Nigerians (not Lagosians) use Twitter, compared to 91% who use Facebook. Yes, we should not discount Twitter “as just Twitter”. Afterall, this is a platform which has driven and continues to drive the conversation and – sometimes – action in Nigeria. But can we truly say that the Twitter influence of these personalities, as accomplished as they are, truly ‘shapes’ the life of the average Lagosian?
One would think that there would be a space on the list for an actual Lagos politician. Alas, not one made the Guardian list. Instead we got some people resident in Abuja and the United States, far away from the city they are purported to be shaping. This is not a dismissal of hashtag activism, which has had some success in Nigeria, with the mentioned individuals playing significant roles in that. But to extrapolate and conclude that it is a proof of influence in Lagos is too much of a stretch.
This dives into my other issue with the series: Nigeria and Lagos are continually being conflated. We risk the oft made mistake of assuming that Lagos is Nigeria. No, Lagos is a beast all on its own.
In past series of Cities, focus was given to particular areas of the cities being featured. For instance, Liverpool’s new shopping centre, Liverpool One and its impact on the city was investigated in depth. Apart from the trite report on Makoko and Hilary O’Shaughnessy‘s insights (with a detour to Bristol England) into the playability of Lagos, the coverage remains broadly about Nigeria. The interesting Q & A done by Yomi John Olomofe, a journalist, is very important but not unique to Lagos. Mr Olomofe was beaten into a coma for investigating smuggling by officials of the Nigerian Customs Service, a Federal agency.
The intriguing photos of megachurches’ worshippers housed in field sized hangars is not confined to just Lagos. In fact most Nigerian megachurches are not located inside of Lagos, but on highways passing through the neighbouring state of Ogun. Worshippers from all over the country pool into these venues. Again, fervent religiosity is not unique to Lagosians, these are not the mega churches of Lagos but of international conglomerates.
In summary, the Guardian series rehashed viewpoints and ideas which form a continuing motif when reporting about Nigeria. Why does this keep happening? Do western newspapers use the same fixers? Do they reach out to the same sources who provide a true but limited viewpoint of Nigeria, of Lagos?
The Guardian hosted a panel at the ongoing Lagos Social Media week. They asked the question: How Does The Western Media Get Nigeria Wrong? On the panel were Yele Sowore of the Sahara Reporters, Isime Esene of Y! Naija and Yomi Kazeem of Quartz Africa. In reply to the question, Esene said, “I think the western media gets Nigeria wrong because they don’t have enough correspondents on ground who are willing to dig deep… making it easy to their audience to label it a stereotype. Most do stories that mainly appeal to foreign audiences, who I’m not sure are willing to change their notion of the Africa they grew up watching on TV: the one filled with war, famine, hunger, and despotic leaders.”
Sadly, it seems with Lagos Cities week, the complexity was lost once again; the same outcome has been achieved. I’m not asking that we show the one faceted view of Lagos where people ride speed boats and play golf on lush verdant lawns. Make no mistake, life can be hard in Lagos but that is not all there is to it. Perhaps the Guardian could explore how the disabled navigate the chaos of the city. They could put faces to the people of the oft quoted “$1 a day” statistic, how do those people function in a city that proves hard even for the number living in relative luxury.
There are still two more days of the series left. I hope that these will reveal something new about this city which has shaped me.
Mnena Achineku is the managing editor of The ScoopNG.
Featured Image: Andrew Esiebo/Guardian