Sanwo-Olu and a Sinking Lagos, By Shola Oshunkeye
The governor must appreciate that Lagos is waiting in a hurry for the Sanwo-Olu touch. He must know that though 2023, a decisive year for Lagos and Nigeria, may seem far, history beckons from its corner. It will richly reward performance and punish failure severely. Yes, failure would be a catastrophic option for both buddy and boss. May God help Sanwo-Olu to deliver.
I do not normally watch or listen to or read state chief executives’ accounts of their first 100 days in office. The reason is simple: Like autobiographies, such self-assessments are usually sexed up, packed with lies, and are largely vainglorious. But on Friday, September 6, this year, I spent most of the over two hours it took me to get to Ikorodu for a business meeting listening to the live broadcast of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s rendition on his first 100 days in office.
For 45 minutes, I listened, with undiluted concentration, as the governor reeled out statistics to justify his pay for the first three months or so in office, harping on what his government has done, not done but hoped to do, to actualise his dream for Lagos as a ‘smart city’. He espoused the inherent advantages in his compass policy programme code-named: six pillars of development, better known as Project T.H.E.M.E.S.
He spoke fast, frankly and honestly on transportation, waste management, traffic management, Lagos roads and their craters, the Lagos-Badagry highway, healthcare delivery, education, to mention just a few. I thought the governor was honest enough and I didn’t bother to score him. But scoring, some of the governor’s men did, after the official closing of the presentation, held at the Blue Roof, the events centre of the Lagos State Broadcasting Corporation. Boy, was their analysis a classical definition of sycophancy?!
The gentlemen on the programme scored their boss 100 per cent on all counts. What do you expect? But rather than stop there, they proceeded and ascribed to him some capabilities you could only find in celestial realms. And they almost brought down the studio’s roof when, at a point in the programme, their co-debaters faulted their evaluations, wondering what the governor would score by the time the curtain falls on his first term. Probably 500 per cent! Sanwo-Olu, to those lieutenants on the radio show, is a super human who, at the snap of his fingers, could command the Atlantic Ocean to move to Accra to pave way for the Eko Atlantic City Extension; and the kings and queens of the coast, their cohorts, as well as the millions of animals in the deep, would obey in a jiffy.
Until that Friday, I never saw that level of sycophancy in all my years of practice as a journalist. But I also understand that it is because the yam is boiling; steaming hot. And their boss, Sanwo-Olu, holds the yam, as well as the knife, as we say in Yorubaland. He determines the quantum of the cut that goes wherever.
Besides corruption, a virulent cancer denoted by the mindless plundering of Nigeria’s commonwealth by godless political office holders, and civil servants, sycophancy is another infirmity that has distorted governance and obstructed service delivery in our country, with the same devastation as cancer. It debilitates the system.
This is not a new inference. I saw sycophancy first-hand, in its crudest forms, as a civil servant from the mid-1970s to around 1991, when I retired to seek the kingdom of news. Civil servants would do and say anything to please their bosses and curry the big men’s favour. Most of them would do anything and everything to stay in their boss’ good books. Consequently, they constantly tell him what he wants to hear, no matter how foolish they may sound. If the big man is a political appointee, and a novice in the game, they think for him, chart the path he has to tread for him, and generally show him, ‘this is how we roll here.’ Once the big man keys into their scheme of things, the field is ripe and wide open for harvest.
For instance, rather than return any unspent allocation to the treasury, they may hurriedly organise a workshop or a conference or some phantom training, in some far-flung place(s), or no place at all, and allocate very handsome portion(s) of the ‘idle funds’ for the event(s). Directors, who are masters of the game, may share the balance among faithful colleagues (leaving the upright ones in the lurch); or purchase ‘Christmas hampers’ for their various publics. And hampers could be anything or nothing, if you know what I mean.
No, they don’t see it as corruption; it is PR. It is an integral part of ‘December rush’. And the bigger the agency and the budget, the bigger the end-of-the-year largesse to the big boss. In plumb parastatals and juicy agencies, December would be the time to change the boss’ official car (even if the ‘old car’ was bought three months before); change the furniture in his official quarters, even his private residence (they can always create sub-heads to accommodate the extraneous expenditure). They could even decide to weed the ‘stubborn grasses’ that are distorting the lush green lawns of the boss. Does that remind you of somebody who, not too long ago, spent N200 million of Internally Displaced Persons’ funds to clean up some irritating species of grasses in IDPs’ camps in the North-East? Did you say Babachir Lawal?
Whereas others in his shoes would have reeled out bales of lies to cover their inability to fix Lagos’ dilapidated roads, he spoke straight and sincerely. He never resorted to politics. Neither did he lay the blames at the doorstops of his predecessor, Mr. Akinwumi Ambode. He claimed ownership of the problems. He admitted the nightmarish potholes were the cause of the paralysis in Lagos.
Please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not by any means suggesting that all civil servants/public officers are thieves or sycophants. There are many who are upright, hold the rules sacrosanct, and walk the narrow path. Yes, we still have some oases of excellence in Nigeria’s public service. And I think Sanwo-Olu may well be an honourable public servant.
I saw a glimpse of that as I watched the live telecast of The Platform, the flagship programme of the Christian Covenant Centre, Lagos, on Channels Television, on Independence Day, Tuesday. The event was the church’s contribution to Nigeria’s 59th Independence Anniversary.
On parade were some of Nigeria’s best brains in financial and economic matters: Professor Charles Soludo, former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria; Mr. Peter Obi, former governor of Anambra State and vice presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the last general elections; Mr. Bismarck Rewane, managing director/chief executive officer of Financial Derivatives Company Limited; as well as Governor Sanwo-olu.
Of course, there was Professor Anil Gupta, one of the world’s leading experts on strategy, globalisation and emerging markets, ranked as 28 on the Thinkers 50 list of the world’s “most influential management thinkers”. These great men were at their cerebral best as they gave quantitative and qualitative analyses of Nigeria’s multifaceted economic problems, as well as the general state of our nation, pointing the way forward.
Although enraptured by their presentations, I couldn’t stop imagining how many bullion vans civil servants would have budgeted for the phenomenal event if it were to be a government baby. I think Nigeria needs more thinkers like Pastor Poju Oyemade, under whose leadership the Christian Covenant Centre put the highly illuminating programme together.
However, of all the speakers, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu stood in a distinct class. His was an interview session, personally conducted by Pastor Oyemade. Either by accident or design, the governor was put on the spot; maybe because he is governor of Lagos. Or, because Lagosians are having a hell of a time right now in terms of commuting from one point to another as a result of the city’s sinking road network.
In retrospect, I’m not sure Sanwo-Olu prepared for what he got. I watched with an admixture of pity and admiration as he struggled to tackle the very difficult questions poked at him. Pity, because after a long haul flight from New York, where he accompanied President Muhammadu to attend the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA74), the man had to endure two hours inside the rain and hellish traffic to get to the venue. In fact, and like he told the audience, he was so tight for time that he had to change his clothes right inside his car, on his way to the event! Leadership.
Admiration because I thought he was honest with his answers. Whereas others in his shoes would have reeled out bales of lies to cover their inability to fix Lagos’ dilapidated roads, he spoke straight and sincerely. He never resorted to politics. Neither did he lay the blames at the doorstops of his predecessor, Mr. Akinwumi Ambode. He claimed ownership of the problems. He admitted the nightmarish potholes were the cause of the paralysis in Lagos. On the economy, he also admitted that the picture he saw as an outsider, looking in, was worlds apart from what he now grapples with as chief executive. Even if he sounded somewhat incoherent at some point during the interview, he sounded truthful, and believable in his responses.
The issues of the dilapidated road network and Lagos’ economy drew so much sweat from the governor that he called Bismarck Rewane twice, as if asking the Financial Derivatives boss and member of President Buhari’s Economic Advisory Council, to either protect or rescue him. The latter responded with a smile on each occasion.
The ball is firmly in Sanwo-Olu’s court now. And the way he plays would determine how posterity would judge him. As Lagosians wait for him, he needs to convince them that he is on top of the situation. He needs to do his home-work well and ensure that his engineers and contractors hit the ground really hard after the rains, and deliver roads that would not fall apart six months after commissioning.
In summary, Sanwo-Olu pleaded with Lagosians to bear with his government as the much-sought rehabilitation would have to wait until the end of the unrelenting rains. His reason: bitumen, the active ingredient for asphalting road surfaces, dissolves during rains the same way as salt does in water. He said no matter the amount of billions spent to rehabilitate the roads under the present climatic condition, the rains would wash everything away. So, Lagosians must tarry a while.
Once the rains are over, the governor assured, his government would not only sort out the roads, it would fix alternative means of transportation like the waterways, railway and mass transit buses. But Lagos, unlike New York, would not venture into subway because of the city’s water table. The sprawling commercial city, according to experts, is so dangerously close to the sea level that it is constantly at the risk of being swamped by ocean surges. So, till the rains go away, Lagosians would continue to suffer and smile. Reality.
Indeed, the current state of Lagos roads is heart-breaking. It looks like a chapter from the never-never world of fiction. Yet, it is real. And its horrifying reality makes one wonder whether all the roads that ex-Governor Akinwunmi Ambode did were only done on paper, especially those in mainland Lagos. Today, you can count on your fingertips the roads that are motor-able in the city and state. Four months after Ambode’s departure, it’s as if the man never did a single road in the four years he spent at Alausa. Yet, he did many. But what bogs the mind is why most of them collapsed like a house of sand within so short a period.
A civil engineer-friend tried to hazards a guess. He says most of the roads lacked integrity and couldn’t have stood the test of time because they were victims of party patronage. He says, Lagos, as virtually all states of the federation, is often dragged to Golgotha in the name of party patronage. Under party patronage, he insists, jobs are sometimes awarded to incompetent and unqualified contractors. “Carpentry jobs are awarded to bricklayers, and bricklayers’ to welders,” my friend argues sarcastically. Worse still, before the contractor clinches the job, he must have paid different layers of gratifications; and he has sustain himself, family and company.
To convince me that he means every word he says, he cites the example of a road in the Ipaja/Ayobo Local Council Development Area where people were reportedly patching a road with broken blocks, sand, and cement. And another one in the same Ayobo area that was not up to two kilometres but rehabilitated in half. And Governor Ambode was made to commission the uncompleted job.
Unlike the other road/bridge projects that the former governor commissioned prior to coming to this particular road, and for which he got deserved accolades, he was reportedly distracted from driving down to get the full picture of work done. “Politicians marooned him to the bus stop area where he cut the tape to commission the half-completed project, and drove off from there,” my friend concludes.
With all of these, I couldn’t do much to defend the former governor who I thought did his level best for Lagos within the little time he had. Like his politics, I never knew he didn’t get the roads right.
Well, that era is gone. The ball is firmly in Sanwo-Olu’s court now. And the way he plays would determine how posterity would judge him. As Lagosians wait for him, he needs to convince them that he is on top of the situation. He needs to do his home-work well and ensure that his engineers and contractors hit the ground really hard after the rains, and deliver roads that would not fall apart six months after commissioning. He must convince Lagosians that he can walk the talk and deliver on his development agenda.
Lagosians can be fiercely loyal to their leaders. But their loyalty must not be taken for granted. It must be sustained through effective service delivery and fidelity to his campaign promises. He must not mistake Lagosians for mechanical taxpayers – the dream and hope of idle and unthinking politicians. Rather, he must prove, through his work, that, yes, he may be a Bourdillon Boy, he has a mind of his own.
The governor must appreciate that Lagos is waiting in a hurry for the Sanwo-Olu touch. He must know that though 2023, a decisive year for Lagos and Nigeria, may seem far, history beckons from its corner. It will richly reward performance and punish failure severely. Yes, failure would be a catastrophic option for both buddy and boss. May God help Sanwo-Olu to deliver. God bless Lagos, the heartbeat of Nigeria.
Shola Oshunkeye is the CEO of Omnimedia Nigeria Limited, and executive director of the non-profit, Sustainable Development and Transparency Foundation.