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.
Of the BBC series, he said he "did not have any beef with any government" but was speaking as a concerned citizen. "I am talking about Lagos as a place where human beings live and work and which is a place I know intimately," Soyinka added. "It is a pulsing city – in many ways too pulsing for me, which is why I live a little way out of it. But it is such a rich city, and it is deeply frustrating to see it given such a negative and reductionist overview.
"What I saw I found very unjust and sensationalist. What I saw was not an honest reportage. The problem is the title – it programmes the mind of the viewer in advance and sets the overall context.
"One could do a similar programme about London in which you go to a poor council estate and speaking of poverty and knifings. Or you could follow a hobo selling iron on the streets of London. But you wouldn't call it Welcome to London because that would give the viewer the impression that that is all London is about."
Soyinka has close associations with the BBC. He has written many plays for the corporation and recently judged a BBC World Service playwriting competition and recorded a series for the international network about post-apartheid South African writing, to be broadcast in May and June.
He told the Guardian he will continue to work for the BBC and plans to write an essay about the series: "What I think the BBC needs to commission is a remedial series which takes a proper look at Lagos as it is today."
The BBC did not comment directly on Soyinka's comments but sought to defend the programme, which was made by KEO Films, an independent producer.
A BBC spokeswoman said: "Welcome to Lagos explores the impact of the massive rate of global urbanisation in one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world. Its aim was to give a voice to those living at the sharp end of this ever-expanding population and highlight the resourcefulness, determination and creativity of those adapting to life in this most extreme of urban environments.
"The series has generated a broad range of comment, but it has been well received by both viewers and media commentators, many of whom have specifically highlighted the positive and unstereotypical portrayals within the film."