Lagos should get over itself

Nigeria is so much more than its cultural and economic center.

Photo by Dami Akinbode on Unsplash

Lagos, the center of excellence. The centerpiece of Nigeria and Africa. The overworked muse for artists, writers, and filmmakers. Through Lagos, non-Lagosians, non-Nigerians, and non-Africans glimpse the chaos, vibrancy, creativity, and duplicity that the country is famous for. Writers write about it nonstop; musicians sing odes to its glamor. Chris Abani and 12 other writers capture “the unsettled darkness that continues to lurk in the city’s streets, alleys, and waterways” in the anthology Lagos Noir. Banky W. describes the exuberance of the city’s colorful nightlife in his 2013 hit single “Lagos Party.” In his third album, Made in Lagos, multi-award-winning artist Wizkid mulls over the city’s women, its support systems, and his memorable experiences there, and how these things have contributed to his success.

“Lagos is Nigeria,” one Lagosian told writer Noo Saro-Wiwa for Condé Nast Traveler. This is a common refrain among Lagosians, many of whom are tightly cocooned, unaware of the cultural landscapes beyond Lagos. This main-character syndrome doesn’t lend itself to opening up an international audience to Nigeria’s various cultural offerings.

As a Lagosian myself—born in the city, raised in its suburban estates, and uninterruptedly immersed in the mayhem—I have outgrown the craze of Lagos and its antics. I am worn out by the fixation of it in the media, especially the arts. Every now and then, usually after watching another Lagos-based Nollywood film, I wonder, Why Lagos? Even though I already know why Lagos—I would be a liar to deny the appeal—I continue to wonder how this fixation on the city might hinder the development of the robust cultures in other parts of the country.

The arts play a major role in pushing Lagos’s culture and lifestyle to the forefront. The film industry, for one, has done its part in cementing the many characterizations of the city over the last several decades. As the industry evolved from British-produced shorts, like BFI’s 1960 Bound for Lagos, to homegrown narrative feature films and television shows, such as Checkmate (1991–1994), Blood Money (1997), and The Figurine: Araromire (2009), filmmakers’ interest in visually capturing the multifacetedness of Lagos culture has only deepened. The industry developed through key parts of the country including the southeast (Enugu, Delta and Anambra) and southwest (Ogun, Oyo and Lagos). Lagos’s vast economic opportunities drew people from all over the nation, everyone from filmmakers to businessmen. These new arrivals brought diverse lenses through which to view Lagos, which were capitalized upon by the industry. From spotlighting wealth through films like Bling Lagosians (2019) to investigating sprawling slum life in Awon Boyz (2019), Nollywood has championed Lagos’s culture, pushing it into global mainstream consciousness.  

Lagos sells. The illustrious city has become an important ingredient in marketing and commerce. The continued success of Lagos-centered cultural work reaffirms gatekeepers’ hesitation to decenter the city. The city’s monopoly on the publishing, art, music, fashion, and film industries allows it to dictate what people, stories, and cultures are platformed, oftentimes leaving other cultural narratives by the wayside. This monopoly reinforces ignorance about Nigeria’s and Africa’s diverse cultures and apathy towards knowing more. It’s egotistic enough for Lagosians to believe Nigeria begins and ends in Lagos, but it would be despicable to consciously push that narrative to a global audience.

Non-Lagosians living in Ibadan, Benin, Enugu, Kaduna, and other places have challenged this monopoly by building up cultural infrastructure in their cities. Programs like the Ibadan International Film Festival (IIFF), Eastern Nigeria International Film Festival (ENIFF), Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABA), and Ibom Art and Book Festival give room for interest in other narratives about the country to flourish. Since its inception in 2020, ENIFF has continued its mission to recognize southeastern filmmakers while building itself as a global film festival. KABA, founded in 2017 by critically acclaimed poet and author Lola Shoneyin, is organized to ignite cultural conversations about northern Nigeria and its literary scene. Shoneyin’s influence as an internationally renowned writer draws a global writing community to participate, promote, and build the festival. In the last five years, Leila Aboulela, Bisi Adjapon, Mona Eltahawy, and a slew of other notable literary figures have joined the festival as panelists and guest speakers. The strategic choice to locate the Museum of West African Art (MOWAA) in Edo State will help guide the art community away from Lagos and into the culture-rich city of Benin.

Having these programs is the first step to institutionally maximizing the nation’s wealth of cultural diversity, but it’s not entirely enough. Nigeria is at a crucial moment in global pop-culture history, where it has a unique opportunity to use the arts to rebuild its narrative. From Vogue to Architectural Digest, Coachella to the Venice Biennale, it’s up to Nigerians to make sure this narrative benefits everyone in the country, not just Lagosians. These are opportunities to spotlight institutions and initiatives outside of Lagos that contribute to the country’s cultural fabric. 

This isn’t to overlook Lagos’s contributions or to merely showcase diversity. Decentering Lagos on a global scale could lead cultural producers to seek opportunities outside the city, possibly triggering an exodus to other areas of the country. As other cities gain a global spotlight, they may then be able to attract economic manpower and investment. Sure, this might not immediately leave Lagos free of the strain that its booming population of over 15 million mounts on its infrastructure, nor will it necessarily guarantee that the economic benefits of Nigerian cultural production trickle down to ordinary Nigerians outside of select Lagos neighborhoods. But it might—at the very least—mean Lagosians begin to get over themselves.

Further Reading