Humanity found amid chaos of Lagos

Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo's Welcome to Lagos features an ensemble cast that provides multiple perspectives of the bustling West African city.

Chibundu Onuzo
Allen and Unwin/
Penguin Random House


Chibundu Onuzo describes Lagos as a magnet not just for Nigeria but for West Africa as a whole; it epitomises in miniature the social, political, religious and moral challenges that face the region.

It's a city where no good deed goes unpunished and in which there is "no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment ... an orderly ecosystem with a ranked food chain, winners and losers decided before they were born'', but also a place where companionship can be found in the most unexpected places. Where Western eyes see only squalor and chaos, for those who come to the city from rural Nigeria it is a place of opportunity and wonder.

Welcome to Lagos features an ensemble cast that provides multiple perspectives of this bustling city.

The novel opens in the Niger Delta, where Lieutenant Chike Amoebi and Private Yemi Oke have just deserted their platoon rather than massacre a civilian village. They decide to head for Lagos in the hope of disappearing into the mass of humanity that crowds its streets, and as their journey progresses they find themselves surrounded by a diverse group of other runaways with the same idea; a teenage girl fleeing the violence, a teenage militant who dreams of becoming a radio DJ and a woman escaping her abusive husband.

Their uneasy alliance continues once they reach the city where, after weeks squatting under a bridge, they find an apparently abandoned underground bunker in a walled community and move in.

Then the dwelling's rightful owner, the disgraced minister of education, arrives. He has just absconded with $10 million from the UN development fund and, Chike, the group's default leader and moral compass, decides to take him into custody and use the money to provide local schools with much-needed infrastructure. Then the politician attempts to rehabilitate his reputation by exposing details of government corruption to an idealistic local newspaper editor and the BBC, with disastrous consequences.

Although she left Nigeria at the age of 14, Onuzo retains strong family ties in Nigeria, and the novel is based on historical fact - the Odi massacre in 1999 - and interviews with people who have worked with international media, NGOs and the Government.

The portrait she paints of the country and its capital feels unflinchingly honest, and condemns not just the Nigerian Government but also the West for creating and maintaining the situations she describes. Despite this, the novel ends on a note of quiet hope and the suggestion that, even in the midst of chaos, there are those who retain (or rediscover) their basic humanity.

Nigeria has a fine tradition of writers whose willingness and ability to present their country to an English-speaking audience - a political act in its own right - is internationally recognised. Although Onuzo not yet at the level of Chinua Achebe or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she is well on her way towards joining their ranks.

Cushla McKinney is a local scientist.


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