Lagos, where anything can happen

The Economist
By The Economist

Chibundu Onuzo’s fine novel of Nigeria has an internationalist heart.

AT LEAST in their conception of the world, there are two broad categories of Nigerians—or for that matter Kenyans, Pakistanis, Chinese or anyone from the poor world. The vast majority are those for whom national boundaries represent insurmountable barriers, for whom even a bus ride to the city seems an otherworldly journey. And then there are those who flit between African and European cities as easily as if they were riding the Victoria line from Brixton to Green Park. They are the lucky ones with connections at embassies or stores of capital certified and triple-stamped by bank officials, or, best of all, the burgundy passports of the European Union.

Lagos, a sprawling shambles of some 21m souls, has its fair share of both categories, and they come crashing together in Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, “Welcome to Lagos”.

Some welcome. It is hard to imagine a megacity less hospitable to newcomers. At every turn lurk scammers, thieves, crooked cops and rent-extracting gang-lords. Into this metropolis come Chike and Yemi, two soldiers deserting their posts in the Niger Delta after one too many orders to shoot civilians and burn down villages. Along the way they meet, and become fellow travellers with, a motley crew of runaways: Fineboy, a militant fleeing from the very same army; Isoken, a young girl near-raped by those militants; and Oma, a housewife escaping her abusive husband. Clueless, practically penniless and unaccustomed to the nasty ways of the big city, they find refuge under a bridge until, one day, Fineboy finds an abandoned flat to squat in.

From another world come Ahmed, the pampered, British-passport-holding crusader who returns to Lagos to start a muckraking newspaper after a decade as a banker in London, and Chief Sandayo, the minister of education, on the run from Abuja with $10m in his suitcase. These worlds—rich and poor, urban and rural, privileged and powerless, Muslim and Christian, Igbo and Yoruba—collide to spectacular effect as their paths cross and power shifts hands in surprising and unexpected ways, and then does so again, and again. It is an unlikely plot, but Ms Onuzo pulls it off, revealing the fault lines in her country’s society—or indeed those of any half-formed democracy. Though drenched in Lagosian atmosphere, the book wears its Nigerian setting lightly: it is clearly the work of a pan-African and an internationalist—and is all the better for it.

Chibundu Onuzo
Fiction