Beyond the surface themes of friendship, family ties and betrayal, Gangs of Lagos takes a closer look at thuggery and politically affiliated gang culture in Nigeria, exploring the country’s historically overlooked backstories.
On 07 April 2023, Gangs of Lagos premiered on Amazon Prime Video, making history as the platform’s first original African film. Directed by Jàde Osiberu, Gangs of Lagos, on the surface, follows the story of Obalola (played by Tobi Bakre) and his friends, Gift (played by Adesua Etomi-Wellington) and Ify (played by Chike-Ezekpeazu Osebuka), who grew up on the rough and vibrant streets of Isale Eko, Lagos. However, beyond the surface themes of friendship, family ties and betrayal, the film, based on true stories from Isale Eko, takes a closer look at thuggery and politically affiliated gang culture in Nigeria, exploring backstories that many have historically overlooked.
THE HEART OF THE HENCHMAN
There is no doubt that Obalola’s childhood years have been fraught with numerous obstacles, especially regarding the fates of the parental figures in his life. But as he shows more grit and critical thinking than what one would expect from a child his age, Obalola quickly wins the favour and the respect of the adults around him.
As a young adult however, it becomes clear that Obalola is a full blown thug—chairman of the Road Workers Union, Kazeem’s (played by Olarotimi Fakunle) henchman—with an obvious penchant for violence and intimidation. Obalola appears to have a moral compass and yet, due to his loyalty to Kazeem, he is willing to perpetuate violence on Kazeem’s behalf and even turn a blind eye to his murderous ways. We are made aware of Kazeem’s plans to run for office and his willingness to do just about anything to assume the coveted position of power, aided and abetted of course, by Obalola, Gift and Ify, among other henchmen.
Despite this, as the viewers, we see life in Isale Eko mostly from Obalola’s perspective, we are privy to his inner thoughts and desires and, as a result, we find ourselves rooting for him because of his apparent depth and sensitivity.
FROM CHILD’S PLAY TO POWER PLAY
When they were children, Obalola and his friends, including Kazeem’s daughter, Teni (played by Bimbo Ademoye), talked about their dreams at length. Teni, who was a bright young girl, made it clear that her ambition was to become as educated as she could possibly be, eventually rising in the ranks to become a judge. Years on, however, Teni levelled with Obalola upon her return to Nigeria in the lead up to the elections her father would be running in, that all that mattered to her now was power. She cited her father, Kazeem’s rise to power in Isale Eko and how his lack of education had not held him back in any way. She said this as though it were a good thing, as if it was the way things ought to be for everyone.
This scene struck me as a particularly important one, as so many are inspired by the ‘lax’ requirements around running for office in Nigeria, hoping, presumably, that one day, they too will have the opportunity to seize power that they are not qualified to hold.
Furthermore, those who may have started off with wholesome dreams to make a valuable contribution often find these dreams taking a backseat to the perhaps more irresistible desires of wealth and power. Obalola wastes no time in pointing out to Teni how much her desires had changed, but she simply laughs it off.
However, Obalola, whilst happy to be reunited with Teni, quickly begins to become resentful of Kazeem, realizing that he is not the ‘father figure’ he has held himself out to be for years. Whilst his daughter is swiftly escorted to a huge apartment in Banana Island (that Obalola estimates can house ‘30 people’), Obalola himself, is living in nothing more than a poorly lit hovel in Isale Eko—evidence in his mind, that Kazeem has been keeping the lion-share of his ill-gotten gains for himself and his real family. The audience before this realization, will see Kazeem insisting that he wanted his daughter to be safely out of harm’s way in the US whilst the elections unfold, grumbling that she was too stubborn to remain there. By contrast, Kazeem has a whole list of dangerous ‘activities’ he wants Obalola and his other cronies to carry out, which of course would put them in the middle of and cause them to perpetuate electoral violence. Being a significant aspect of the film, this moment will strike a chord with viewers as the majority of Nigerians had front row seats to the chaos and carnage that accompanied this year’s elections, with many being killed, brutalized and threatened.
REFLECTING THE BITTER TRUTH
Gangs of Lagos makes a gritty and compelling watch, not only for its striking and hard-hitting visuals, but also for its devastating relevance in the present day, given the recent goings-on in Nigeria’s 2023 presidential and gubernatorial elections.
The film does well to explore the mindsets of those that choose to engage in unlawful acts, especially when it comes to hampering electoral processes. But at the same time, some viewers may find that when it comes to characters like Obalola in particular, we are being asked in some sense to have ‘sympathy for the devil’. Obalola may be the lesser of many evils in the film, but this still cannot exonerate him from his various misdeeds and instances of violence. Political godfatherism, thuggery and the rise to power of those with extremely murky pasts are not new arrivals on Nigerian shores, however, the ubiquitous resistance to them in the film, very much reflects the current realities. As those so desperate to squeeze themselves into seats of power but now groaning under the weight of corruption and unworthiness found out this year.
The film portrays an unstable world and, visually speaking, Osiberu does well to capture the rough, yet somewhat charming aesthetic of Isale Eko. What is most interesting about the high concrete structures used to house its residents is that the viewer gets a distinct sense of fragility and instability, almost as though depending on which way the wind blows, it could all come crashing down like a house of cards. This instability, of course, is a sentiment that many Nigerians are likely to have felt over the past couple of weeks and know too well⎈
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