From Monday, July 22, Dutch television broadcasts Ikenna Azuike's six-part documentary series about a "gigantic" and "spectacular" country in western Africa. Traveling between the extremes.
Azuike made a name for himself as a satirical vlogger. After a career shift - he first worked as a lawyer - he joined RNW Media. This is where he developed his What’s Up, Africa satirical vlogs. They were soon noticed by BBC World and taken over.
His new series Planeet Nigeria, produced by De Haaien with journalist Femke van Zeijl as a researcher, is no satire, although Azuike understands the art of raising heavy themes with lightness and humor. Religion is sacred in Nigeria, but Azuike makes no secret of not believing in God. Family is inevitable, but Azuike confesses to a greater understanding of his father's decision to migrate to the UK. He did so not only because of the consequences of a devastating war, but to escape social pressure of neighbors and the chaos proverbial to the country. ‘My father was a very organized man’, Azuike says. The belief in a realm of spirits and ancestors lives, even in the minds of modern professionals. In dealing with the topic, Azuike avoids letting his scepticism stand in the way of a sincere curiosity. A Louis Theroux-esque naive approach helps him to penetrate deep into the capillaries of a country about which so many misconceptions circulate.
ZAM spoke to Azuike and covers his series in 10 words.
Important! Big! I am part of a family that is much larger than I knew. Keep your distance, my father always said. Don't go there, don't let the money go out of your pocket. My father, who died in 2017, did not understand my fascination with and curiosity about the country where I spent the first years of childhood. Everyone wants to get out of Nigeria, he said. Why do you want to go back? But now that I've been there, I feel more understanding for him. I am less concerned about the pressure of the family. I don't think I have to go back every 6 months. I don't have to build a plot. I now understand that my father didn't want to be there, he didn't fit in. And I feel relieved of a bit of a burden.
I had to go there so that I could take more distance. That’s the irony. But I only realized when I was there. I am at peace with the fact that my life is here and taking a direction here. I'm not like my cousins. Taking responsibility for my family obsessed me. But I have seen that everyone over there is getting on with their lives. Yes, if someone dies I will send money, but I don't have to visit the feat. It would be nice to show my children the country later, though.
The making of the series was a kind of catharsis.
I wanted to explore my roots and get to know my father better. I wanted to show the cool side of Nigeria, to get to know the story of ordinary people, to offer a wider, more nuanced perspective. To acknowledge that enthusiasm, the ingenuity, the creative side of Nigerians. But not in a patronizing way, and also showing that life is precarious, everywhere. Nigerians deserve much better.
We filmed in a church where every Sunday six times fifty thousand people worship. What a bowl, amazing! Selling hope to people but you can't eat hope. People feel compelled to go to church. But for many it is also a source of inspiration. They baptised that church for good reason: Winner’s Chapel.
The clothing designer I interview in the series couldn't imagine I don’t believe in God. She thought I was making a joke. In Nigeria, 97% of people are religious. The country is a shrine, as the club of Fela Kuti was called.
Faith is generally about assisting people in dealing with pain, or loss, to promise something better after death. But in Nigeria God is money. He is the ultimate marketeer. Faith is a source of success. Sometimes I am a little jealous of that. Because this conviction also helps you through repentance and trauma. But that materialistic side, no.
I wonder, is evangelicalism elsewhere in the world mainly about just pose, bling-bling? Probably not. Perhaps in Nigeria precisely because people are so entrepreneurial. They can convert an impact-full story into money. In essence, the preachers are motivational speakers. And often millionaires.
Such vibrancy! The Lagos hustle. The city is like Lionel Messi, so tintilating, you don't know what to expect around the corner. So spectacular. But then, Messi played for Argenina and was hopeless.
Corruption is all over and it is frustrating. One of the women in the series is trying to find a job but nobody is offering anything. When she finally finds someting she gets terribly exploited. People are scrupuless.
The traffic, such chaos. I wonder if people are so religious because they're praying all the time to get out of the jam.
(Lack of) governance
Nigerian deserve so much better. Just imagine the potential. If there was only 4 or 5 hours of electricity per day - the gdp would jump through the roof! But politicians only look at their own interests. They don't hesitate to stir up ethnic tensions if it serves their interests. In general, ethnicity is not that important. It's a society of hunters and herdsmen, they move, it's a nomadic culture. It does not matter that much to what tribe one belongs. Until they stir up ethnic flames.
You know, it's ordinary people who fought against Boko Haram. Mechanics, pavers. The army and the police were useless, they did nothing. But today nobody is looking after the people who were at the forefront. They’re forgotten. There’s so much post traumatic stress disorder.
It's not that there is no money. There is. There are plenty of billionaires. But only in Lagos and maybe in Abuja, the local government collect taxes. The roads are better, the airport has been improved.
I knew so little about the war (1967-70). I met with uncles who had been child soldiers. I expected to feel more tension in the region but I did not hear any call for secession. People just want to be slightly more independent within a federal set-up.
What struck me was how people build their houses in protected compounds, surrounded by gates. There is still a fear, probably lots of trauma too.
However, you don't come across much emotion. I saw my father cry only once. He couldn't talk about his wartime experiences. Too me that was very strange. It seems that a whole generation has tucked their emotions away.
A thoughtful, quiet man. Humble, really. I now understand why he did not want to go back and was so intrigued, puzzled, that I was so curious about it. But he didn't fit in. When we went on a trip, he set the route a week in advance. Just to be sure. He loved preparation and he loved being organised. Not Nigerian.
I enjoyed seeing these physical similarities with other members of the Azuike family. When my father was dying and he had such a golden glow on his face, I saw how we looked alike.
Oba (the King)
Impressive. Our guide Peter gave such a good insight into the history of the Benin Kingdom and the Obas. Peter is a very educated man but he absolutely believes that the Oba is an extension of something eternal. And, yes, the Oba is well educated as well. He was an ambassador. He loves talking. I have no idea if he believes everything he preaches, but he certainly attaches to the pompous, the ceremony, the power. And he understands its impact. Just like the chiefs who all drive in huge houses and in Rolls Royces. These are the Big Men. Whether they genuinely believe in this culture, they love the respect they enjoy. And of course it is also about money. They have political power. They tell who they will vote for and that has a lot of influence. They also think they have spiritual power. Whether the King believes that? He's a clever guy.
Many of the problems and challenges are the result of the state in which the country was left behind by the British. In many parts of Africa the colonial hangover is about looking like the West. This is how effective colonialism was. But many Nigerians are more proud, look at the Bronzes. Especially the younger generation wants to reclaim that rich history of early civilisation. We are who we are not because of what the British did. But children still hardly get an explanation of how the country looked before colonialism. It is such a good story, it keeps your chest busting. There is such pride in it.
In the series we show the colonial outfits people wear at a funeral. Why? It's insane! There was such a strange mix of an opera performance, Igbo poems, bag pipes, the traditional dances. Bizarre.
Magic, spirits, ancestors
There are two ages living together. First, a felt a reluctance to pay too much attention to it because Western imaging always emphasises that mystique. But it's the reality. To most people what happens to them feels like a predicament. Will modern Nigeria survive this conviction? You don't see any sign that it's on the way back. You do see all those advertisements offering potions. Witchdoctors are getting busier by the day. It's an interesting clash of ages. But it's a great story.
I feel that very strongly, but it’s tempered when I see how awful some of the politicians are and how inflammable some of the situations can be. People believe a 100% that they can get there, that they reach the sky. They say God will decide, but they are doing it themselves. Watch the trailer of Planeet Nigeria here.