The white man’s unrelenting gaze shines through Tim Cocks’ ‘Lagos Supernatural City’

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By Anote Ajeluorou

THE white man’s unrelenting, and often jaundiced, gaze is yet again on display in Tim Cocks’ Lagos Supernatural City (Hurst & Company, London; 2022). It never varies, and never falters decades and centuries long after brave sailors from the West ‘discovered’ the sweltering, dark continent. Which is quite understandable since Africa, in its current version, seems to be the white man’s failed creation, their vision for her remaining forever elusive. And so from previous centuries’ Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Joyce Carrey’s Mr. Johnson, here comes 21st century Cocks’ Lagos Supernatural City. But while the first two are fictional and a caricature of Africa and her peoples, the last one is factual, and chooses to dwell more on those who live on the margins of one of Africa’s most populous and popular cities. However, it is rendered in more heartfelt, nuanced manner that will tug at the heartstrings of the inhabitants of this love-hate city.


In a sense, Cocks wonders how Africa stands in defiance and rebellion to the white man’s sense and idea of order that his ancestors brought centuries ago and imposed on a people who would perhaps rather do things their own ‘natural’ ways. And this is perhaps what is at the heart of this book that partly reads like fictional account of its six characters, but is not in fact, as it deals with real Lagos people most of who live on the fringes of the Lagos that never quite welcomes you; you make of it what you will. This is Lagos: that in order for most of its inhabitants to make sense of the new chaos they suddenly find themselves, they need something beyond mere skills or talent, something supernatural to tame the wildness before them. They have all come for a chance to lay their hands on a piece of the oil money that flows from the Niger Delta. Lagos has lured them from their opportunity-locked upland and wetland interior countries.


And so sandwiched between the two imported and imposed religions, one from the West (Christianity) and the other from the Middle East (Islam), Africans and Nigerians still find a middle ground to make allowance for their native gods (religions) through the different creation myths Cocks has rendered in his book to provide some sort of spiritual guidance and balance through which most Lagosians navigate the city’s devious underbelly for the promised wealth. And in a country that has abandoned other ways of creating wealth, but depends solely on its oil that is firmly in the grip of a few who have strategically positioned themselves to benefit in perpetuity, certain interventions other than the ordinary are needed by the vast majority for a chance at making something of their lives.


This essentially is at the heart of Cocks’ thesis: that Nigeria, read Lagos, is still a vast wilderness made up of capricious, vicious elements that must be tamed by its inhabitants for a measure of the comfort it promises. And so Cocks, the British-born journalist of South African parentage, who was Nigeria’s Reuters bureau chief, fishes out six characters from the vast Lagos metropolis to focus his gaze on. And he does it with some gender sensitivity, too: two men and four women that tip the gender balance obviously in favour of women.
Cocks finds Fela’s neologism ‘impossiblity-ism’ as the defining word that characterises the mood of the city of Lagos on account of “the city’s frustrations: the endless noise, ubiquitous power cuts, fuel shortages, extortion at police road-blocks, the street gangs who mug you for unofficial fees, thieving landlords, armed robbery, kidnappings, widespread fraud… The list goes on… The book is about all of these things; it is also about how faith enables Lagosians to cope with them.”

Indeed, it is why Lagos is a supernatural city for Cocks and his coterie of western observers who find it mindboggling how over 20 million people live in such small, compact space, with many more trouping in daily.

So Cocks aptly captures the enigma that is Lagos thus: ‘So, hustle or die. Hustle, hustle, hustle and do your best not to be hustled yourself: for that’s how the winners and losers will be determined.’


Six people give Cocks a handle to navigate the underbelly of Lagos. Four live on the dire margins of this turbulent city, one has succeeded in crossing over to the other side while one is a cross between those on both margins of poverty and wealth. So there’s Toyin who Cocks describes as ‘Iron Lady’ for doing what is traditionally reserved for men. She is an agbero, a motor park tout with as much grit as the men. Born in Lagos Island and lacking in education and parental care, she gravitates towards the rough edges of the society she finds herself. She, along with Ataru gang members, is the thug for hire for political brigandage that would benefit Ahmed Bola Tinubu’s political career as governor of the state. Toyin goes through some of the tragic rituals of the female specie on the Lagos margins: an early drift from home, co-habiting with a man with whom she would have three children before the ‘irresponsible’ man melts into the slums of Lagos and the hapless woman is left to fend for them as best she could. But Toyin survives this rough life with her agbero street instincts, builds herself a home on the outskirts and a chance to find happiness, all in her own terms.


Then comes Eric the ‘Scrapyard Bard’ from AJ City (Ajegunle) who would seem to have made a pact with hunger and poverty from as young as seven. When his mother left, his father promptly married another wife. This would shatter every dream of normalcy Eric and his siblings would nurse. His friend would suggest the Olusosun dumpsite as the new goldmine for poor and desperate folks like Eric. Like most Lagosians, Eric had plied the world of babalawos for solutions to his poverty problems. But Eric, who has his sight set on making it big in music, finds the idea repulsive, but with the unrelenting poverty gnawing at him, he eventually gives in. But that’s where he would hit some sort of gold; his singing talent would set him up to meet the BBC crew that came to film the infamous Olusosun dumpsite. While the powers that-be would eventually raise bedlam over the filming, Eric gets a measure of musical reprieve from his dumpsite druggery. He travels abroad, begins to sing in bars and clubs, starts a foundation and the upward climb from the rock bottom of poverty. He hasn’t quite hit it big yet, but he’s surely on the ascent.


For Uju, it’s ‘God’s Energy’ in her aspiration to climb from one big level to the next on the ladder of wealth that would put her in the big league. She’s already high up in the echelon of the oil industry, but it’s human nature to aspire for more. The late prophet T.B. Joshua is her spiritual father. When Joshua invites her to receive a message from God about her next level elevation (God will make you the centre of your world), she ignores the obstacles in her path, and ploughs ahead. But something goes wrong at the last minute, and she’s at the verge of bankruptcy because her oil well is drilled the wrong way. Down and out, she turns to her God, who would reverse her misfortune overnight in a dream where she’s pointed in the right direction. Now, she’s buying up an apartment yet to be built in Eko Atlantic City at a whooping USD$1 million! Her God is certainly a very big God!

Then there’s Fatai ‘The Overlord’, a Lagos’s quasi-aristocrat who though born poor, discovers he is a prince with a title that an Ifa oracle would pronounce. This sudden elevation, however, comes with a cost. It means he would do battle with rival royal families with similar claims to Ajah, the land on which his ‘Olumegbon’ title covers. In Lagos, land ownership tussle is not only won in the courts of law; resorting to physical fights, armed with thugs and magic, is often the unofficial way. But even with this, the ‘Olumegbon’ finds more than his match in his opponents. Land does not only pre-date man, it also outlasts him. Yet the tussle remains just as the land remains.


And then comes ‘Noah’s Lagoon’ to which Cocks approximates the biblical Noah and his great flood that consumed humanity ancient times. However, in ‘Noah’s Lagoon’ whole communities living on the fringe of Lagos’s humanity is up for scrutiny – Makoko, that watery community that pokes its head over the Lagos Lagoon overlooking Third Mainland Bridge, is a fascinating, forgotten habitation that Cocks dredges up in Lagos Supernatural City. Like Maroko of its ancient look-alike, Makoko however survives government’s Maroko demolition treatment and still stands proudly on its stilt foundations stuck deep into the watery belly of Lagos Lagoon. A boy named Noah, who would be among the very first to be educated from that watery enclave, turned out the biblical Noah who would stave off the floods of government’s demolition that would have consumed Makoko to make way for Oniru-like prime property for the rich. But Noah’s school, the tourist haven Makoko turned out to be, and the charity interests that Noah’s school elicited would be the saviour of his community perched on the edge of water.


And of course, there’s ‘The Ajah Woman and the River Goddess’ world of Kemi whose conflicted loyalty to her Osun goddess and her ties to Islamic faith would clash, with the traditional goddess of her ancestors losing out in the contest between home-grown and imported faiths. Her foreign god trumps her native one in the stiff contest for her soul.


Cocks would perhaps tell his journalistic truth when Eric’s wife asks him what he expected Lagos to be as a way of understanding the inscrutable gaze of the foreigner: ‘It (Lagos) was better than I expected, even more fun. But then people from outside can have a fixed idea about Lagos if they’ve not been.’


Four years’ stay in Lagos, and several trips back and forth later would give birth to Lagos Supernatural City. Cocks’ white man’s gaze is unmistakable in its jaundiced focus in spite of his faithful narrative. After setting up Uju as coming from good family stock, Cocks delivers the classical European caveat: such ‘good stock’ upbringing could have amounted to nothing if the white man had not arrived Uju’s Nigeria and Africa to ‘pacify the primitive tribes of the lower Niger,’ as Chinua Achebe aptly puts it in Things Fall Apart:


Even if the white man had not come to Nigeria’s shores, her family would have been in the ruling class,’ Cocks writes with biting sarcasm. ‘But ruling over what? Would they have had superhighways and airports and shopping malls or shopping trips to Dubai for people like her? Would they have found those huge black lakes of oil?’


One wonders how many of these modern stuffs (superhighways and airports and shopping malls) Cocks’ Europe had when Mongo Park and his sailor colleagues ‘discovered’ Africa!


Another product of the white man’s befuddled gaze is Cocks’ persistent use of ‘ghosts’ when referring to Africa’s ancestral spirits in Zangbeto, Eyo masquerades and all such spiritual essences that elude his understanding. This obviously stems from the white man’s erroneous belief that because he has felicity of his native language that he managed to impose on others, he can also better define what is alien to him but home to his favourite ‘natives’. There are no such things as ghosts in Africa’s spiritual cosmology. Those essences that inhabit the spaces between man and the supernatural is the abode of spirits that mediate between life and the afterlife. Ghost is a negative concept that doesn’t apply to Africa’s spiritual reality that Zangbeto and Eyo represent.


But in spite of these stunted gaze, Cocks’ Lagos Supernatural City is not all Joseph ‘Conradish’ (Heart of Darkness in 21st century Africa!) in intent and disposition. No, he has also delivered sublime truths about the fake lives of Nigeria’s senseless elites. His summation of the obscene opulence found in Victoria Island (also read Ikoyi, Banana Island, Abuja, etc) that feeds fat, in contrast, to the marginalised Niger Delta people where the oil that supports this rapacious lifestyle comes from, in fact next door Makoko, is classic elite buffoonery. A foreigner has now laid bare the home truth coming from among us that is always ignored. Perhaps, this would hit home just once.


Cocks sums up damning verdict on the crudity of Nigeria’s elite cocooned in mansions in Victoria Island and all such places of obscene vanity across the country while millions of their country men and women sweat it out on empty stomachs in neighbouring slums:


The elites in their Lagos mansions, with whitewashed neoclassical pillars, swimming pools and collections of sports cars – useless ornaments in a city with no roads like Lagos – are sucking wealth through a straw that leads to the Niger Delta. Oil pays for their shopping trips to Dubai, New York and Paris, and for the staggering volumes of Champagne that Nigeria imports (and consumes), the highest in Africa… Petrodollars built the staggeringly expensive estates on Banana Island – a man-made peninsula poking off the northern end of Ikoyi into the lagoon – and the Eko Atlantic City, both of them on land that used to be water.’


In spite of the obvious ‘white man’s gaze’ replete in this book, Cocks has delivered some startling truths that most Lagosians know about the city by the lagoon and its inhabitants. Anyone desirous of leading Lagos, and indeed all of Nigeria, should do well to read Cocks’ Lagos Supernatural City. This is more than an intimate portrait of a city. Lagos landlord Bola Tinubu, who is campaigning to replicate the proverbial ‘magic’ of Lagos all over Nigeria, most of all, should read this book. Perhaps, he’s yet to come to terms with the monstrosity of the city he has held under his iron-spell financial grip. A stranger, read foreigner, has delivered an unflattering verdict that Tinubu’s mentee, Babajide Sanwo-Olu will also do well to pay close attention.


Indeed Lagosians, especially the vast majority that live on the margins of this bursting city, owe Cocks a debt of gratitude. It was exactly what Toni Kan did with the fictional flipside of Lagos a few years ago in his blistering novel, The Carnivorous City (Cassava Republic Press – 2016). Cocks’ factual account comes as a necessary corollary to the unbundling of Lagos, both for its inhabitants and visitors alike. Kan’s The Carnivorous City and Cocks’ Lagos Supernatural City should be companion reading for this heaving, exciting city by the lagoon.

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