The Many Labours of Mister Fashola

Babatunde Fashola is the governor of Lagos State and de facto mayor of the city of Lagos, one of the largest cities in the world. His initiatives have included investing in primary education, widening streets and tackling crime and infrastructural dysfunction, activities that have seen this soccer-loving former lawyer hailed as a “rare example” of a civic leader

By Ore Disu

Lagos is a city in transition; telltale signs of its evolution are everywhere. Blue-canopied bus stops flank the lanes exclusively dedicated to its recent mass-transit facility. Street sweepers, clad in neon-orange, labour beneath flyovers and along major thoroughfares. Spaces once occupied by guerrilla market stalls have now been colonized by an eclectic array of sculpted foliage. Even the ubiquitous portrait of a city jam-packed with motorists is fraying at its edges. Traffic flows, albeit not as freely since the recent ban on motorcycle taxis (or okadas) compels more private vehicles to the road. A reformative process is reshaping Africa’s largest and most notorious city, and nowhere is this more evident than on its streets.

The most visible and keenly felt changes in Lagos have been attributed to the serving governor: Babatunde Raji Fashola. Already halfway through his second term, Fashola is regarded as one of the few exceptions among the plethora of lacklustre administrators, past and present. Despite being the youngest serving governor, Fashola’s considerable success and fast-tracked ascension to the most contested seat outside the presidency comes at little surprise: he was born— in 1963—into a family closely connected to traditional strongholds of power. As a law student at one of Nigeria’s most prestigious universities, he earned honours before cutting his teeth as a litigator, a position he held for over 15 years. By the time of his formal appointment in May 2007, Fashola had already sat on numerous state councils and distinguished himself professionally as a senior advocate. More importantly, he served in the prominent role of chief of staff to his predecessor and political godfather, Bola Tinubu, earning his candidacy vote for the incumbent Action Congress party. If any doubts remained, his wide-ranging legal experience, standing as a fifth generation indigene and Tinubu-backed campaign were enough to confirm his political prowess and dispel fears of his allegiance.

Historically, Lagos has been lucky, securing a more attentive stock of administrators than other Nigerian cities, even under successive military regimes. Yet it was not spared the consequences of structural adjustment and political instability. Many of its inhabitants have spent the last two decades having to cope with besieged public services, unbridled crime and crumbling infrastructures. From a mere cluster of fishing villages in the fifteenth century, Lagos has grown into a congested metropolis that is home to an estimated 18 million people, many of them living in relative poverty. In other parts of the world, a city the size and complexity of Lagos would have its own mayor. Fashola, however, is both governor of Lagos State and the unofficial mayor of its metropolitan area, which accounts for 90% of the state’s population. This arrangement, based on a reluctance to devolve power further and the ceasefire politics with the federal government, creates challenges in managing parallel investments in outlying suburbs and the demands of political participation in the capital.

Regardless of local dynamics, Lagos increasingly commands global attention. It is home to the largest banks and financial institutions in sub-Saharan Africa and its industrial and commercial activities reportedly account for a significant chunk of Nigeria’s non-oil GDP. Demand for a piece of the action is great. Even with security concerns, many wealthy patrons and foreign multinationals are responding to the allure of high returns and virgin fields for investment. But while Lagos offers a dynamic business climate for entrepreneurs, unemployment remains a major challenge. Young graduates, frustrated by the kick of opportunities for professional advancement, often take on menial roles: tailoring, driving taxis, hairdressing or working as a cashier. Their chief competitors are west African migrants, who, wooed by the city’s bright lights and vibrancy, soon find survival in Lagos requires enterprise and wit, if not sheer bravado.

Fashola is no stranger to the myriad of issues plaguing the city and by no means shy in his resolve to address them. Since assuming office, the governor has raised over $1.2-billion through over-subscribed bonds for infrastructure and noticeably cleaned the city of grime and crime. He has removed unreliable cars and drivers off the road, patched up hundreds of potholed motorways and set up a Bus Rapid Transit system patronised by 200,000 people everyday. In a bid for coverage, his agencies have also rehabilitated courts, classrooms and hospital wards. As a result, the portrait of the city and perceived performance of its leadership is changing. Local newspapers anatomise his exploits—the overhaul of road culture, the introduction of an inner-city rail network, his conscientious makeover of primary education and strides to improve specialist care in a country with the highest newborn and maternal death tolls in Africa—and the public’s responses to them.

While no government boils down to just one individual, the directives developed under Fashola’s watch reveal much about his personal stance towards development. His neo-liberal economic approach favours wealth creation over inclusion, growth over redistribution, and effectiveness over equality. His city-marketing campaigns are one of many bold steps taken to put Lagos on the global economic and cultural maps. His public service upgrades garner $96.5-million a month, while reforms of property, land and consumer taxes have brought an additional $11.8-million to the state’s coffers, quadrupling the 1999 revenues. This jointly equates to more than 50% of its dividends from the capital. Together with public-private partnerships, such actions free the city from the mire of oil-driven politics and afford its administrators more leeway to sustain and dictate their own development priorities.

However, Fashola is not immune to criticism. Taxpayers have higher expectations and unequal gains have been noted amongst local residents. The current policies and practices reveal “exclusionary patterns of metropolitan administration,” said Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, director of local watchdog Spaces for Change. Her criticisms hinge on projects like the Eko Atlantic City, a proposed $6-billion annex to the city’s current business district, which will be housed on a 10km2 artificial island off the Bar Beach coast. A flagship development, it proposes to be “everything that Lagos is not”—a futuristic enclave fully fitted with high-end apartments, world-class transport, public squares and uninterrupted electricity. This, argues Ibezim-Ohaeri, is in conflict with the prerogative of inclusion and environmental protection. “Official insensitivity to the plight of the poor has been effectively masked as ‘formality’ and ‘orderliness’,” she said. “No doubt, some of Fashola’s interventions programmes may have fine intentions, but good intentions are meaningless especially when the non-inclusive and elitist colorations … increase the number of people struggling for access to basic urban services.”

Ibezim-Ohaeri is not the only critic to describe this project’s infrastructural upgrades as exclusionary, taxation regime as oppressive, and demolitions of informal communes like Makoko and Oshodi as inhumane. Some critics point to the shortcomings of the state’s expensive approach to the housing shortfall and the “blighted communities” yet to receive the dividends of a $200-million World Bank-funded upgrade issued in 2008. With few targeted efforts delivering truly affordable housing, flourishing “greenification” schemes can appear distasteful. For the most part, the new parks and promenades remain under lock and key, with restricted pedestrian pathways void of the life and industry that once characterised them. At best, they are the image-bearers of a flourishing new Lagos; at worst, they symbolise acts of state-led revanchism that broaden the gulf between rich and poor.

Fashola’s approach to addressing poverty and his views on the emerging class-based apartheid characterising contemporary Lagos strangely echo Blairite positions on the primacy of responsibility over rights. “My initial reaction was that state-action is harsh and discriminatory,” said Leke Oduwaye, dean of environmental sciences at University of Lagos. “But the city is not a casino where you can come and try your luck, it doesn’t work that way. It’s more accurate to imagine life in the city as a question of survival. If you can’t contribute the economy of the city, you will find yourself in the suburbs. The government is simply providing facilities and a conducive environment for whoever can support it.”

While Fashola has his detractors, others hold him in messianic regard for his efforts to tame the raucous urban landscape and its boisterous populace. “The excitement he has generated simply by turning up for work is in many ways a damning commentary on the performance of the political class as a whole,” offered the Financial Times. Critics cynical of Fashola’s achievements have further argued that he is simply following through on his predecessor’s plans and has disproportionately garnered recognition for Bola Tinubu’s accomplishments. While grassroots popular support for Fashola appears to be waning as delivery on promises has started to lag, his chief antagonists have turned out to be fellow politicians. In 2010 he was at the centre of a failed impeachment: it was alleged that Fashola had misappropriated tax payers’ money by awarding over-inflated road contracts. This backlash may be the result of his outspokenness, intra-partisan power struggles and Fashola’s decisive stance even in the face of opposition.

Encountered at work, Fashola eschews the role of elitist technocrat. He wears jeans on official visits, prefers to be addressed by the title “Mister” rather than “His Excellency”, and once famously reprimanded a colonel for driving on an unauthorised bus lane. Fashola exercises his considerable power from State House in Marina, a more practical than palatial version of America’s White House designed and built by British colonial authority in 1894. A pragmatic leader, Fashola’s lack of sentiment keys in well with the unassuming air of his home where the following interview was given.

Cityscapes: From the very beginning, you have been clear that your vision for Lagos exceeds your term in office. What does it mean to plan for a Lagos of 40 million people? Where does one start?

Babatunde Raji Fashola: I sometimes get misunderstood about some of the things I say to explain what the challenges are. It’s not so much about a plan worked out in detail to build a city for 40 million people, but a consciousness of the growing population and the need to keep an eye on sustainable growth. Forty million is a possibility, but no one wishes for that kind of burden. Already at almost 20 million, we are bigger than many countries. It is my own sense of continuously preparing rather than reacting.

CS: How well prepared is Lagos to deal with the big and complex demands of being a mega-city?

BRF: The population has outstripped the infrastructure, and without infrastructure life would be increasingly difficult to live. People would buy cars and there will be no roads to drive them on. People will have children and there will be no schools and hospitals for their use. People will become adults and want to start businesses, but there will be no services like water supply and electricity to support their endeavours. These are for me the unsanitary ingredients for chaos. So we’ve said, ‘Alright, let’s try and reduce these infrastructural deficits.’

Of course, the more you build the more likely people will be attracted to your environment—and you become a victim of your own success. You will also find that the more you build, the more sensibly your recurring costs go up. More schools mean more teachers. More hospitals mean more health workers. More roads mean more maintenance requirements. This is why it is also important to build what we call ‘our healthy recurrent’.

We are creating a new maintenance regime, none of which has really been done in a structured way before. In that way, yes we will be recurrent, but in a way that raises jobs and helps us to address young graduates—engineers, builders, artisans—who continuously say there is no work. We say, ‘No, there is work to be done here because building a house or a school or a hospital is not the end.’ There is need to do preventive maintenance to ensure that those assets deliver on their full lifespan.

map_LagosCS: Residents welcome the improvements in Lagos, but also worry that the city may already be too expensive for lower-income earners to live and work in. How do you respond to these concerns?

BRF: Truth be told, I find it difficult to recall any city, or country or even community where its urban areas are cheaper to live in than the suburban areas. The rapid urbanisation that we face here is not unique to us. The global city population growth is phenomenal, having reached seven billion recently, and the prognosis for more growth is out there. Unlike in the early Greek and Roman cities, where we had walled cities or even now in ancient cities like Kano, you find that the notion of cities as containable spaces has largely disappeared. What you have now is urban sprawl, big and bursting at the seams—it is difficult sometimes to draw a fine line between the urban and the suburban. For example, if you go to a place like Alimosho in Lagos, which is a suburban area, the difference is no longer clear.

Our light rail project is going to run through those kinds of places that you ordinarily think are disadvantaged. These are the beneficiaries of our biggest public works project. The expansion of the Lagos-Badagry Expressway and the construction of the Blue Line intra-city rail corridor which will run through Orile, Ijora-Badia, Mile Two, Kirikiri, Satellite Town, Ojo and even Iba. Those are the areas that for several years, to put it mildly, have been under-served. If you took a measure, you would see how very quickly their real estate is appreciating, day after day, even though we haven’t finished.

CS: Speaking of urban sprawl, Lagos is the biggest node along the West African urban corridor. In building smarter and more intelligent African cities, what role does Lagos intend to play, from a regional perspective?

BRF: Lagos will play a strategic and pacesetting role, because apart from its economic strength—it’s the fourth largest economy on the continent—it also retains the ability to attract a very high cluster of immigrant capital. If you explore the local joints in Lagos, our restaurants, cafes and bars, you will see a rich mix of African human capital who have chosen Lagos as their destination. Zambians, Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Malians, South Africans, Egyptians—they are all here. In this way Lagos is the critical trigger of the human capital that can make anything on this continent really come alive. The city will respond, as it has done, to their tastes; it will respond to their cultural and economic needs. And in that way, Lagos will be able to capitalise on the inherent desire of the African in any part of the continent as to how each seeks to live. Mind you, I have always believed that there are best practices about how certain things should be done. But my sense is that even as we adopt these best practices, Lagos and other African cities cannot be European cities. It must keep its inherent character and culture.

CS: We know that to be competitive today cities cannot depend on hard infrastructure alone. In Lagos we hear a lot about the transformations in public transport and road rehabilitation—the hardware of development—but what is being done to develop this other critical software?

BRF: I also ask myself this question. It seems if a road is not being built, if a stadium is not being constructed, if a massive drainage system is not underway, the perception is that government is idle. I have interrogated [this fixation] very deeply and the only answer I can come up with is that physical structures are the clearest expression of the deficit of infrastructure that exists. Mainly because this is the innate connection that people first have with the government. All of those very important but not so visible things do not move the electorate. Governance is seen more as physical. There is nothing wrong in seeing it this way. It speaks to their current, urgent and compelling needs: ‘We don’t have a road, so don’t come and tell us about reform. This reform must be first! I want to see that road!’

But I also I understand your point, which is why, despite public perception, in the first six to nine months of my second tenure, I spent more time walking through our hospitals, working with the doctors and nurses, to see how we can improve the quality of care and service. Working with our teachers to see how we can improve the quality of training. Because classrooms don’t teach, and hospital buildings don’t care—it’s people. How can we turn that classroom towards achieving its ultimate purpose, qualitative education? The classroom is the means and not the end. So we’ve reviewed grades, built promotion thresholds and set up timelines for each teacher to monitor their students.

CS: Not all your reforms are without criticism. What is your response to the recent slowing down of promises?

BRF: While we shifted our energies towards healthcare and education reform, there was a perception that I had slowed down. In fact, these latter activities were a much more difficult part of my work. It kept me up later. But somehow I knew we would find a balance. We didn’t stop building, but I was no longer seen at the roadsides. Even in building roads, we also saw that the road culture certainly needed a lot of improvement. I spent more time with the traffic and transport planners, looking at what was going on with out traffic managers. I saw that we needed to change their training. Many were in employment that was not pensionable and therefore there was no security. We needed to create a new structure and cadre for them within the Nigerian civil service—a viable career.

CS: Looking at road culture, the traffic radio station has been a resounding success and is invaluable for collecting information, real-time alerts, forecasting, generating public awareness and cooperative problem solving. Are there other, similar initiatives on the drawing board?

BRF: It’s an ongoing process. The traffic radio was conceived as a traffic management solution. The idea was borne in California. I was attending a Governors’ Summit on Climate Change, convened by [then California governor] Arnold Schwarzenegger. I stayed on two days after the summit just to rest and do some paperwork. In the mornings, I noticed these early newsfeeds describing situations live on the traffic in California on TV. While you’re shaving and having your shower, you know exactly which way you should go and what areas to avoid. I said to myself, ‘This would be nice for Lagos.’ At the time we already had a safe city camera system, but we were having problems because the bandwidth was too low to carry the images. We had the cameras but we were limited by what we could transmit. So I said to myself, ‘If we can’t do TV yet, why not radio?’ I asked my staff to apply for a FM station dedicated only to traffic—and that’s how the idea was born.

CS: Are we getting closer to achieving spatial intelligence in Lagos?

BRF: We issued a service charter this year through which we resolved to be more responsive, in quicker time and in a much more efficient manner to citizens. Our cameras are still there, monitoring major highways, but the bandwidth to carry the graphics citywide is still not sufficient. Neither is the connectivity reliable enough. Yes we have two submarine cables from Europe, but we are not quite there with the retailing of this component. And as that becomes possible, there will be many more solutions that we can add on. Let’s be clear: technology itself is just a means to perpetuating an idea. You must think through the idea, you must see it from end to end in your mind and say, ‘I can do this.’

CS: Have you conceived an idea for using appropriate technologies to create synergies for production and knowledge sharing platforms? For example, creating networks where we have mutually reinforcing intercity systems?

BRF: We have a platform called “I am Lagos”. It is a platform for sharing knowledge, information and so many things about government. We also have a structure called the Ignite Programme, which is all about entrepreneurship. This is the language and topic of the day: how young African people can transform their environments. We can’t continue to believe it is enough to simply get a degree and there will be a job waiting, the idea that we are managers rather than builders. Changing that mindset is a huge turning point. It is the same mindset that is expressed in Lagos, that you hear in Mombasa, in Accra, in Joburg and Cape Town. Young Africans looking for work. And in the midst of so much need, so much to do. It is a very cruel irony.

This means that those of us who are policymakers must change the game. You know, it is the entrepreneurial spirit of the west that gave birth to many of the solutions that dominate technology today. We will not be able to truly develop until this same spirit is reignited. I say reignited because it is already there. That’s the interesting thing: it’s only in this part of the world you see someone running in traffic with a cargo of goods on his head. He is balancing the load, giving you change, all the while calculating his profits. And that is a spirit that can be harnessed for a much more productive purpose and those are the challenges that I look to resolve. Clearly the will, the ability and the energy to work are not lacking; it is just the mindset to say, ‘Look, I can turn this around, not in a dependent way but in an original way.’

CS: You’ve spoken about harnessing the drive and resourcefulness of young people, but is this not too vague and all-encompassing a vision for the strategic development of Africa cities? Even if we were to take on this approach, what are the existing systems and spaces of this potential? Where should we be looking?

BRF: I’ll give you an example: Ariaria Market [in Nigeria’s east], I can’t think of anything that can’t be made there. It is a huge commercial and entrepreneurial enclave. If the right policies are in place—power, water and electricity—in ten years time the world will be wide-eyed, mouth agape asking, ‘Was this possible in Africa? Even with their challenges, look how well they are doing.’ That is where I used to buy my curtains. They would make shoes for you and it would pass for any designer in the world. There wasn’t anything you couldn’t make and this is a 15-year-old story. You can imagine what would happen if it had continued for 15 years with the right policies and the right support.

The same thing is possible in Alaba Market in Lagos. At the time when video players were the highest technology of the day, and my VCR got spoilt, they simply disembowelled the damn thing. They were fabricating plastic parts and using open fire and crude knives to recreate plastic gears—and their products would work. So you can imagine what would happen if you exposed them to moulds to recast those plastics. The necessary inquisitiveness and energy is there, it is just the framework to direct that resourcefulness and knowledge in the right direction.

CS: To what extent does the state’s relationship with the central government affect your ability to put forth these ambitions? Especially those initiatives which move beyond the space and politics of the state towards generating synergies across the mega-city region as a whole and with other cities around the world?

BRF: You can never eliminate political considerations from governance. It’s no different here than it is in Canada or in the United States. But clearly, it would seem to me that the problem doesn’t lie so much in the structure as it does in the character of the personnel. Once elections are over, it is people that come first. At that point, the electorate does not really care what colours you are flying. The food in their stomach has no colour. The water they drink has no colour. The roads are colour blind. Security does not discriminate. To reduce any friction between state and federal government to a question of political partisanship is really to attempt to emasculate what may be leadership flaws on either side.

CS: Do you ever step off the governor’s podium?

BRF: Me? Well I couldn’t really find the words. I believe am still essentially me—simple and publicity shy.

CS: Publicity shy? You’ve been described as the most tech-savvy governor in Lagosian history. This view has been supported by a multimedia campaign that secured your re-election and continues to help maintain good relations with the public.

BRF: The multimedia campaign was elections. We had a message to get out and we were not going to allow anyone to tell our story. But that wasn’t Fashola, it was Action Congress of Nigeria. I am the flag bearer of the party. As for me, I like to do my own thing. I wish I could have gone through this work without being known. Personally, the more interesting aspect is not the office, it’s the job. The job is much more interesting and challenging because of its twists and turns—the surprises, the competition. It’s adrenaline. I like my own space and work better when I am alone and can think through things. Don’t get me wrong, I like people and I am very much a team player but I like to come to the team with my ideas crystallized, and then we can have real engagement.

CS: Most Lagosians know you have an active interest in the sport and even play football regularly every week. The word on the streets is that you are a Manchester United fan?

BRF: Since age 10. From the days of Go, Shoot and Joe Jordan. For me football is life. Everything in life, you will see on the pitch: passion, competition, love, hate, tears, smiles, victory, defeat, justice and injustice. Everything in 90 minutes. Law and order. No, really, I am serious. That’s why you have the penalty. Foul—penalty! You steal money—you go to jail. Rigged elections are like a goal that the referee claims he didn’t see. It’s injustice. There’s war! Eleven people on both sides kick each other and afterwards change jerseys, hug each other, and it’s done. The fans curse and cry, some weep when they lose; you abuse the referees and coaches just like you abuse governors and presidents. But when the next goal is scored, the coach is a good man. It’s all there in football. Football is life *

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