Book Review: WELCOME TO LAGOS, a more than convincing portrait of the largest city in Nigeria

Onuzo, Chibundu - Welcome to LagosWelcome to Lagos
Chibundu Onuzo

In Welcome to Lagos, motley characters on the run find each other and travel together from near Yenagoa, in Southeast Nigeria to Lagos, the largest city in the country. Army officer Chike Ameobi and Private Yẹmi Ọkẹ have deserted the army after their commanding officer ordered them to fire on innocent civilians. Fineboy, an ex-militant who joined only for the chance to read a ransom demand on the radio, left his unit and ran into them in the bush. There, they encountered Isoken, doubly traumatized by an attack on her mother’s home village that separated her from her parents and then from an assault by a group of men after she ran into the bush for safety. On the bus to Lagos, Chike sat next to Oma, a devout woman escaping her wealthy, abusive husband. In Lagos, their paths cross the reform journalist Ahmed Bakare and the corrupt, discredited former minister of education Chief Rẹmi Sandayọ.

Onuzo describes Lagos as a city with agency, a city that variously will grind people to gristle or like a cannibal eat them to their bones. For an honorable and honest man like Chike, Lagos offers few opportunities. At times, the group, without money, and unable to find work, sleep under a bridge–after paying protection money to the local boss. The dynamic society created in these spaces is succinctly yet vividly captured and it is easy as a reader to imagine what it must be like to live and sleep in so vulnerable a setting in such close proximity to others.

Lagos, too, challenges Ahmed, who was educated in England and worked there until he returned home to found the Nigerian Journal, a paper of the people and by the people. Ahmed committed to publishing an anticorruption piece in every issues, a commitment that angered those in power–especially since Ahmed’s father gained his wealth through the same graft that Ahmed was trying to expose–and the paper lost advertisers and subscribers. When Ahmed heard of the attack on the village that drove Chike and Yẹmi to desert the army, he was unable to convince any reporter to travel to the Delta to cover it because it was unsafe. Given the obstacles to publishing anything critical of the government, an educated, informed populace was impossible.

Problems with education, though, began at the primary school level, and through Chief Rẹmi Sandayọ, we see the corruption in the Ministry of Education, and how funds earmarked for schools instead line politicians’ pockets so that students are deprived of desks, computers, even textbooks.

As Chief Sandayọ tries to reform his image and gain revenge on his political enemies, he unleashes a firestorm of publicity and with the help of the BBC and a popular musician he’d never met, his narrative spread across the globe, giving hope that Chike’s group might make a difference after all.

One of my favorite elements of the novel was in Part II when each chapter had as an epigram an excerpt from the fictional Nigerian Journal. At times, these directly related to the plot; others provided details of life in Lagos.

With so many characters, understandably, not all get equal attention, though I wish that the novel had followed Isoken and Yẹmi more. At the same time, Onuzo writes with an economy that would make additional characterization challenging.

Although dealing with serious themes, Welcome to Lagos had a farcical quality about it. I don’t often read books with this tone, and enjoyed it for them most part. With the outrageous, though delightful, layering of subplots, it was difficult to see how the novel could possibly end, and in some ways, I can understand why Onuzo chose to close the novel as she did. On the other hand, I didn’t particularly like how it ended.

I’ve read a handful of books that take place in or partly in Lagos, and certainly this book captures the essence of the city better than any other, and for that reason alone, I recommend it if you are interested in Nigerian literature. Beyond that, it addresses themes of corruption, morality, and faith and satisfying read.