“Wole Soyinka attacks BBC portrayal of Lagos ‘pit of degradation’
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 (…)”