The end of February, Disney+ released Iwájú, an animation series set in a future Lagos and written, directed, and produced by Black Africans. Its story concerns, Tola, the daughter of successful and very stressed computer scientist, Tunde, who works for a no-nonsense Nigerian tech company. The father is developing a lizard-looking robot that can protect rich people, all of whom live on "the island" (the rest live on the mainland). But the robot lizard has bugs the computer scientist can't remove. Unlike real lizards, this little orange, blue-eyed machine can't sit and recharge in the sun. It always needs power. It's always losing power. When you need it most, it suddenly powers off. No more juice.

Yes. A robot lizard/bodyguard.


And this lizard business is not the only clearly African element in this series. The story is, in structure, also not Western. For sure, Iwájú has a happy ending, but one that, by the standards of Disney animations, is strange. For example, the villain, Bode, who successfully kidnaps Tola and gets the demanded ransom money, is not very good at being a villain. Even his underworld underlings are aware of his shortcomings. He just does not have the right evil stuff, like the Joker in The Dark Knight. Bode puts way too much thought into his wickedness. He even engages in a debate about Lagos' raw class relations with his 10-year-old captive.

This debate is at once eye-opening and depressing. Iwájú's future Lagos is a hi-tech city—flying cars, super-smartphones in every hand, drones zipping this way and that, the business-district towers designed by starchitects—but its poor are the same as the ones on the streets of today's Lagos. (Keep in mind while watching this series that Nigeria will very likely become the world's first Black country with a trillion-dollar GDP—meaning, it will become a superpower). So, nothing has changed in Lagos' future. Access to computers, robots, and drones has had no impact on the city's class structure. Indeed, every advancement in these technologies has, by all appearances, intensified the exploitation and misery of the powerless. What must not be missed in this development is app-coordinated ride services. Though an app costs next to nothing, the oppression of taxi drivers (who in most cases own their cars—meaning there are no fixed capital costs to the owners of the apps) and the cost of rides has skyrocketed. This is the Lagos we see in Iwájú. 

This is why Iwájú's science fiction is not only realistic but closer to cyberpunk than Afrofuturism.

What the former genre has and is lacking in the latter is a realistic reading of advanced technology: its sources, its motive, its historical specificity. The robots and AI in Iwájú are clearly developed by market forces. Meaning, they did not fall from the sky as in the Afrofuturist blockbuster Black Panther. In that film, the advanced technology that (secretly) makes the African nation equal, in power, to the Western world, comes from the same place as Sun Ra, space. And so the habit in this movement, which begins with Sun Ra's Space Is the Place, is to imagine technological development in purely mystical terms. How did Sun Ra come to Earth from space? How did the underwater Black race develop a "Bubble Metropolis" in Drexciya's 1993 masterpiece of the same name? 

The hi-tech in Iwájú is not shrouded in mystery. It's very much down to earth and pushed and pulled by capitalism. The lizard is, after all, designed to protect rich people because they are a small minority and, to maintain power, must oppress an endless sea of the poor (this fact is brought up in the series). Those at the bottom use technology to make ends meet. The drone-modified robots only amplify their street hustle. They must always have phones and robots working. A breakdown is nothing but catastrophic. How will you eat that night? How will you pay your bills this week? Rent this month? Iwájú's future Lagos doesn't even basic health care, a key point of its plot.

It also doesn't have a public transportation system. And so, Nigeria ascendancy to Africa's first world-class economic power comes with underdevelopment, with no middle class, with weak or no public services and democratic institutions. You only have the very poor and the very rich. This, I think, is Iwájú's depressing but realistic conclusion of technology and Black Africa's future.