Great Works of Global Literature
Research Response Blog
Economic Inequality in Lagos, Nigeria
The graphic description of Lagos, Nigeria, a city in turmoil, created in Chris Abani’s Graceland is sadly a quite realistic depiction of the city today. Chris Abani’s Graceland provides an unseen perspective of a young boy growing up in the slums of Lagos struggling to live within a corrupt society. Elvis’ best friend Redemption reminds him, “Dis world operate different way for different people,” (Abani 242). In Lagos, the inequality of wealth distribution is so profound that you can be looking at a mansion, directly juxtaposed to the slums. Elvis ponders, “Giving up on reading, he let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time?” (Abani 7). This is experienced in cities all over the world. So how are the wealthy able to keep this gap between themselves and those less fortunate growing? There are many factors that contribute to this gap including population growth, corrupt government officials, and limited job opportunities.
Those with money will do anything to maintain it. People with extreme wealth don't just turn a blind eye to the poor, but consciously make an effort to make sure they stay within their social class thus, securing their position at the top of the economic pyramid. The issue of inequality between economic classes is something that all countries face. However, in cities the gaps are intensified due to the overwhelming number of people living in a condensed area. In Lagos, Nigeria this problem has risen to the status of a life or death issue for its millions of citizens. While millionaires are living in beachside mansions, millions of people are struggling to feed their families. According to Lukacs’ article “New, privatized African city heralds climate apartheid,” “Sixty percent of Nigeria’s population - almost 100 of 170 million people - live on less than a dollar a day.” Clearly, this is a problem. How is this possible? Before building their next tourist attraction, Nigeria’s government ought to turn its attention towards its own people and direct their funds where they are desperately needed.
With money comes power. Due to this power that the wealthy hold, they are able to influence legislators to rule in favor of their lifestyle. For example, in Lagos a law was passed that restricted commercial motorcyclists to some specific roads (Adelaja 1). This was problematic because it makes doing some people’s jobs even harder. Also as mentioned in the Lukacs’ article, “Casting them as crime-ridden, the government regularly dismantles such slums, bulldozing homes and evicting thousands” (Lukacs 1). How are these people expected to take care of themselves? As illustrated by Elvis in Graceland, it is very hard to get a steady and legal job in Lagos, Nigeria. Laws like this further limit job options available. Elvis does some very extreme jobs for money, varying from impersonating Elvis Presley for tourists to human trafficking. The limited job options push people to move past their morals in order to survive. During Elvis’ and Redemption’s discussion about their involvement in organ selling, we see Elvis’ conscious appear through his reaction: “He watched from another place as his hands trembled and his left eye twitched uncontrollably. He did not want to talk anymore, but somewhere he had crossed the line on that possibility” (Abani 242). Elvis’s body language exudes guilt for his part in the trafficking of children and organs. Here we see his self reflection. We, the reader, know from what we have experienced of Elvis’ character that he would not have knowingly participated in the trade. Poverty can push someone past their normal limitations to do something out of character. This inevitably leads many to turn to a life of crime to survive.
Another factor to this issue is that the government that should be protecting its people, is more concerned with lining their pockets. As shown in Abani’s Graceland the government is run by militia and they are not the people you want to go to with your problems. The government is so corrupt that the military leaders get away with inhumane treatment of their citizens. They rule through fear tactics and become very threatened when their authority is challenged. Throughout the novel we see the King’s character unfold and evolve in ways that provoke a strong response from the Colonel, a fictional amalgamation of Nigeria’s military dictators.. The King’s wisdom is divulged through his interactions with Elvis, “Dat is exactly what I have been trying to tell you since I met you. De majority of our people are honest, hardworking people. But dey are at de mercy of dese army bastards and dose ties in IMF, de World Bank and de U.S.,” (Abani 280). Due to the King’s economic status he is seen by others as less of man. However surprisingly, he is very politically aware and involved. Due to his relations with the King, Elvis was arrested and tortured for days without the slightest chance of a fair trial. This shows the lack of government concern for the wellbeing of individuals, as well as its mistreatment of citizens.
Through projects creatively named to deceive the public, those in power are able to mold the city to their benefit. Projects like the Eko Atlantic city claim to be benefitting the city immeasurably while also combating global warming. If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. This project entails clearing thousands of homes to build a “sustainable city, clean and energy efficient with minimal carbon emissions,” (Lukacs 1). What will happen with people whose homes are being cleared? Similarly, towards the end of Abani’s novel, Elvis’s slum in Lagos is threatened by Operation Clean de Nation. It is revealed later that the cleaning is actually bulldozing of the slums. Elvis’ father Sunday sums up the issues facing his people:
I am not leaving dis place. We just managed to buy dese few rooms we own, and now dey want to come and destroy it. Why? So dat dey can turn dis place to a beachside millionaire’s paradise? No! And den we will all move to another location and set up another ghetto. Instead of dem to address de unemployment and real cause of poverty and crime, dey want to cover it all under a pile of rubbish.(Abani 248).
We see a moment of Sunday’s lost power and knowledge. Instead of blaming those living in the slums for being poor and working against them, the government should work with the people. However, those in charge choose to only grow the wealthy parts of the city. These poor people are just being displaced. With the destruction of the minimal amounts of property they own, how are they ever expected to move out of poverty?
The picture created by Abani’s magically realistic depiction of Lagos parallels the image of Lagos in real society. Through the development of characters in Graceland, we see an interpretation of how people survive in the circumstances facing them daily in Lagos. The question of how people survive on less than a dollar a day and what can be done to fix this pressing issue are still left unanswered. Sadly, the seemingly impossible is happening all over the world. With the rise of large industry in Lagos, it seems like the interests of its millions of average poor citizens are being forgotten.