Babatunde Raji Fashola: Great Promise, Hope Inspired By Reuben Abati

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Babatunde Raji Fashola: Great Promise, Hope Inspired . By Reuben Abati

Babatunde Raji Fashola, Governor of Lagos state, 46, is The Guardian's Man of the Year. In a country where leadership is considered an opportunity for vainglorious indolence, Fashola since his assumption of office in 2007 has shown that it is possible in the midst of so much rot to provide leadership, to act with a sense of purpose in official corridors, and to bring to the task of governance such transparency that inspires and attracts admiration. It is refreshing to find in the midst of so much mediocrity an example that is worthy of celebration. Deciding on Fashola however was no easy task. There were questions as to whether or not he showed up on the short list for this year because of the proximity of his seat of government to the media in Lagos.

Afterall, Governors in other parts of the country also appear to be making an effort. Members of the opposition have also claimed elsewhere that Fashola's government appears productive because Lagos state enjoys a high revenue profile. To this may be added the observation that generally many state governors tend to do well in their first two years or first term, only to falter woefully when they win election for a second term in office. In Fashola's case, it would appear that his troubles may have just started in the face of cynical statements about him by the leadership of the State House of Assembly and controversies as to who between him and his predecessor in office is "the better administrator." This is a needless comparison that has occasioned curious newspaper advertorials. How he manages the challenges would in the long run determine the final shape of his stewardship.

Will Fashola falter and be distracted? Will he lose the will to perform and excel? What is clear so far is that Fashola has made the greatest impression on the public imagination, with the concrete and verifiable manner in which his administration has given the state of Lagos a new face lift, the rigour that he has brought to the leadership process, the high standards with which he appears to be leading the Lagos team, the passion that he has brought to the job. Governors of other states, foreign dignitaries and visitors, as well as ordinary citizens arrive in Lagos and they remark, following the evidence of their eyes, upon how much has been done in Lagos within such a short time. The popular adulation that Fashola has enjoyed should draw attention to a major crisis in the Nigerian process; the failure of leadership.

The standard assumption that the arena of governance is an arena of primitive accumulation of wealth; the sense of power being a personal property often results in the discounting of the electorate. Every man or woman who is privileged to gain access to the levers of power, soon responds to personal greed and so-called pressures from others, these being the well-entrenched rent collectors in the Nigerian environment and gullible hangers-on, and in due course, governance is abandoned, public wealth is frittered away and unnecessary excuses are made for failure and inefficiency. Fashola has been able to side-step this major encumbrance to focus on the assignment that the people of Lagos gave him in 2007, and it is this that accounts for his differentness, and perhaps also, ironically, his hubris. The lesson of his achievement is that Nigerians are actually not looking for saints, and we do not by any measure assume that our Man of The Year is a saint; we have no evidence to that effect. Nigerians are looking for leaders who are willing to pursue an agenda and see such through. They want leaders who appear well-meaning and also defend the people's interests. Fashola has made concrete efforts that the people can point to.

What we celebrate about him is ironic: in the first place, governments are supposed to do what governments are constitutionally meant to do: act in a manner, provide facilities and policies, which promote the well-being and happiness of the people, and yet it is for this reason that we celebrate Fashola, the Governor of Lagos state. That this is so is a reflection of the state of Nigeria's underdevelopment and the poverty of its political culture. What in concrete terms has Fashola done to merit our attention? He has proven in the last year to be not just a hardworking Governor, a Governor who makes promises and keeps them, but also an emerging leader of great potential. When he showed up on the political rostrum in 2007, barely 44, ahead of the Gubernatorial elections, he had engaged Nigerians with a simple but telling slogan: Eko o oni baje o. One possible translation is that it shall be well with Lagos, or that the state of Lagos will continue to excel. Under his watch, Fashola has kept this promise by focussing passionately on service delivery, by making the people, the ordinary people of Lagos state, the centrepiece of his administration's focus and concern.

A major bane of the development process in Nigeria has been that elected officials or persons in leadership positions make fine-sounding promises to the people but they do so in vain. The moment they seize the reins of power, they do the precise opposite; they renounce the social contract, there is therefore such insufferable disconnect between election-time campaigns and actual performance in office. Fashola is of a different mould. The city of Lagos, the state capital to start with, bears all the marks of a city that is under the careful watch of a responsive government. Obviously inspired by the example of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, the miracle worker who moved Singapore from the Third World to the First, Fashola's government began with the beautification of the city of Lagos. A vast urban conurbation, the city-state with its close to 18 million population, presents special challenges. It is one of such cities that requires all-round, unrelenting attention. Out of the chaos, Fashola's government has been able to show that which is possible; he has in this and other regards demonstrated that hope is not lost in Nigeria, and that with a little effort so much can be achieved. Many streets in Lagos are now lined with beautiful flowers, and parks, Central Lagos wears a new look, dark spots, once the rendezvous of petty crooks have been fitted with street lights. Oshodi, once a fearsome haunt of lawless merchants of everything include flesh, has also been transformed into a welcoming ambience. Gone are the irreverent traders and their shacks blocking the highway and the railway tracks; gone are the marijuana-smoking underlings of the neighbourhood; gone are the crazy drivers turning every corner into a bus stop; gone also are many illegal shops across the city.

All of a sudden, the Oshodi of old vanished to give room for order. In other parts of the city, such orderliness has been imposed, be it on Ikorodu road, or the Airport-Maryland stretch, or on Western avenue. Many side streets whose residents never expected government to remember their neighbourhoods have had their roads been tarred. Across the city and around the state, there is so much construction work going on. The streets are swept clean on a daily basis, the government is committed to climate change as well. Whatever the government sets its mind to do, it makes an effort to accomplish it, and the people can see and experience this, proving the point that governance is to be measured in terms of quality and impact and its promotion of the common good.

Fashola's strides can also be seen in the health sector, in transportation, education, and even more in security. There was in the course of 2009, a number of security glitches in Lagos including the attack on Atlas Cove jetty which caught the security agencies napping. There were also cases of assassination, murder and armed robbery but significantly, government-private sector and public partnership under the auspices of the Lagos State Security Fund has resulted, as admitted officially by the Lagos State Police Command in a sharp reduction in crime rate.
The evidence of that success can be further seen in the high level of co-operation that the state government's initiative continues to enjoy among members of the public, possibly the most remarkable in this respect being the eventual acceptance by Landlords Associations across the state to keep gated streets open till midnight. Hitherto, Lagos had been seized with such fear and anxiety that most streets were kept under lock and key for hours on end, to prevent outsiders from using such streets as thoroughfare. This had serious implications for security and free vehicular and human movement. In the last one year, the gates have gone either down or they are kept open: an acknowledgement of the improvement in the security situation. With its support for the Rapid Response Squad and the fund-raising and management efforts of the Lagos State Security Trust Fund, and the reduction in crime rate, the Lagos State Government under Fashola's watch has succeeded in making a much stronger argument for the introduction of state police.

The Fashola government is however by no means perfect. The local councils appear indolent, conceding innovation and creativity to the state government which in its relationship with the councils also appears unduly overbearing, a strange scenario given Fashola's continuing insistence on the rule of law and federalism and his pedigree as a lawyer. The Fashola government has also had a few conflicts with the public on issues of taxation, particularly the land use charge, and allegations of multiple taxation. Generally, land allocation, and approval processes in Lagos remain veritable signals of inefficiency and absent-mindedness even if so much funds are spent regularly advertising government's commitment to make the process painless for the public. The hypocrisy of such declarations and the corruption within the system clearly indicate that there is still a lot of work to be done by the Fashola administration.
More attention also needs to be paid to the disposal of environmental waste, the provision of regular electricity, and providing an effective, multi-modal mass transit system in Lagos. The Fashola administration often likes to boast about how it has raised the state's internally generated revenue considerably within the last two years, and quite significantly in the past year. Prudence may have been an enabling factor, but an irritating exploitation of the tax and charges option is more the reason. During the presentation of the Lagos State 2010 Budget before the State House of Assembly, the Speaker of the House in a rather abrasive speech, had accused Governor Fashola, in passing, of over-concentrating on the Lagos metropolis and ignoring other parts of the state, in addition to admonishing him not to get carried away by too much praise. The Speaker's statement may have been politically motivated but there is no denying the fact that the Fashola development effort needs to be more evenly spread, despite the continuous assurance that the government has invested in infrastructure in the state's 50 towns and 300 communities. What he is guilty of however, is not neglect. Budget performance in Lagos state is well above 80%.

Popular opinion in many quarters is that Fashola is currently Nigeria's most impressive Governor. From almost relative obscurity, he has built a name for himself as a go-getter. He is a role model to many youths who look up to him. His example reassures them that there is hope still, whatever level of uncertainty may exist in Nigeria. Fashola's style is also part of the factor of his success. Football-loving, unassuming, he comes across like a regular professional in government whose sole interest is to make a difference. Unlike many Nigerian governors, he is not the party-going, extravagant, siren-blaring type. Those who are close to him report that he does not keep a band of thugs at his beck and call, nor does he hold special meetings to attend to rent collectors whose sole interest is to milk the treasury dry. The weight of perception favours him. But he is accused nonetheless of being too aloof. In the consideration of his critics, he may be "the best Governor," but they insist that he is probably Nigeria's worst politician. True, because he does not appear to know how to walk the tight rope of Nigerian politics. His forthrightness is unusual in an environment where deception is part of the game. He seems to believe that "by their fruits, ye shall know them", which may be naive. Dyed-in-the wool Nigerian politicians would insist that a little bit of negotiation is required in Nigerian politics. Sadly, this is what has brought Nigeria to the present sorry pass. It also accounts for Fashola's nemesis.
Every attempt by him and his aides to reassure the public that there is no conflict between him and his predecessor, former Governor of Lagos State Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu appears to have been compromised by two advertorials in the newspapers this week, one insisting on Tinubu's imperishable legacy, and the other, Fashola's veiled response, expressing commitment to his predecessor. The Godfather phenomenon remains one of the tricky aspects of Nigerian politics. It belongs to the realm of clientelism and often conflicts with the freedom of choice and actual performance in office. The brewing conflict between Fashola and his predecessor is absolutely uncalled for. In 2007, Fashola was practically hand-picked by then Governor Tinubu. Fashola had served Tinubu as his Chief of Staff. Tinubu wanted a man who had some inside experience of governance as his successor. When he anointed Fashola who had no known interest in partisan politics, Tinubu's close associates and loyalists who had shown interest in the position of Governor were livid with rage. In Nigeria's rather underdeveloped political system, the man who controls the levers of party influence and the grassroots could exercise much bigger influence than even the voters on election day.

It is a tragic fact of our political process. In the past ten years, conflicts have been reported between party leaders and their proteges, but in the Fashola/Tinubu case, the issue seems to be one of performance, who should take credit for the achievements in Lagos, and the mischief of others. There is no denying the fact that Governor Fashola is a major beneficiary of the foundations that had been laid by the Tinubu administration. Having been part of that government, he came into power armed with a clear road map and a picture of what more needed to be done. Not too many state Governors in Nigeria enjoy such head-start. Too many indeed get into office before beginning to imagine what they would do with power. There should be no controversies: former Governor Tinubu should be pleased that he had made the right judgement in choosing Fashola. After all, another successor could have destroyed all that legacy that the Tinubu group now insists upon. Tradition is critical in governance as in other aspects of life. Indeed, more than the roads or the infrastructure that have been built, Fashola is the authentic legacy of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu who it would now appear has justified the popular saying that there is no success without a successor.

Fashola has close to two more years in the saddle before the end of his tenure. Sustaining his present achievements and building a continuous profile as a public-spirited and focused leader would determine his eventual place in the hall of fame. Strengthening his demonstrated potential and refusing to be distracted, while honing needed political skills, and making amends in areas of obvious shortcomings may well be all that he needs. In the end, there is much anticipation about his political future; what lies ahead may be more important than what is past.
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