The Lagos Driver

24 May 2013

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At Close Range

It's a 41-member crew with Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola serving as the train driver. Destination is PATH– Power, Agriculture, Transport and Housing – and the passengers, 20 million people. Having spent two days watching the “driver” as he piloted the affairs of the state, Olawale Olaleye presents Fashola at close range

The index: The train is herein referred to as Lagos State conveying an estimated population of 20 million people (as often quoted by the state). The train crew denotes the cabinet members, and of course, Governor Babatunde Fashola (SAN), is identified simply as the “driver”.

It was a structured assignment ab initio – a two-day task. Day one was the roadwork and the second, participant observation at the state executive council meeting otherwise called exco.

The first day, May 9, was a Thursday and not a typically crowded day even though Fashola was unable to heave a sigh of relief until evening. At exactly 10.25 am, Fashola sauntered out of his inner chamber at the Lagos House, Marina, Lagos, to a few guests already waiting in the living area downstairs – all journalists.

Smart and sharp with a file containing sheets of his speeches clutched to his side like a “school boy”, Fashola joked at his guests: “Gbogbo irawo le ko wa,” which literally translated to: “You’ve come with a star-studded team”. But that sounded like a familiar line coming from the governor.

Characteristically business-like, Fashola was not going to waste time as he was met on the way by his aide-de-camp, who took the file from him and made straight for his waiting official car, a Range Rover, and the convoy left for the governor’s first assignment at the Civic Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos.

The event was a two-day programme at the instance of the state’s Ministry of Health, themed: Creating Universal Access to Healthcare in Lagos State. At exactly 11.50 am, Fashola began to address the audience. Although a lawyer by training, Fashola, by virtue of his in-depth knowledge of matters outside the legal profession, displayed a good understanding of the workings of the health sector and this was reflected in his address.

With a mastery of delivery, the governor held his audience captive for the few minutes that he spoke. Starting with how he had wished he was a medical practitioner but for his poor knowledge of mathematics which discouraged him, Fashola said his passion and respect for the profession “remained undiminished”.

Fashola, though spoke extempore, was however guided by a few outlines. His speech was centred on what he called the “originality of thinking that challenges the established order” by way of looking away from the old ways of doing things. Therefore, he noted that in civilised climes, medicine had moved from treatment to care even though it could be more expensive to care than to treat.

With a few personal examples, the governor noted that “healthcare is not visible but very important”, and added that it had nothing to do with politics. He spoke of the need to embrace the standard practice all over the world, especially the need for every facet of the system to take its destiny in its hands. He recalled how the Saudi Arabian government had built its medical institutions, using Nigerian medical practitioners and wondered why that could not be replicated back home.

He said he was not oblivious of the new medical challenges across the world and that from all indications, even though he did not have the answers; insurance appeared to be one of the ways out. “Insurance is an option and may translate into medical tourism. I see a dream because every time we’ve taken our destinies in our hands, we’ve always succeeded.”

Fashola was animated and engaging as he joked intermittently and impressed his select audience both with his epistemic structure of argument as well as his rhetorical pattern of presentation. The audience laughed and applauded through most of his presentation, especially when he displayed his respectable knowledge of certain medical terms and medications.

Immediately he was done giving his speech, Fashola left for Coker Aguda Local Council Development Area (LCDA) of the state, for the inauguration of some projects initiated by the LCDA, led by Mrs. Omobolanle Akinyemi-Obe.

Driving through to Coker Aguda was not as hectic in terms of traffic, although Fashola’s motorcade is not in the habit of blaring siren. He observed traffic lights everywhere on the route and was never in a rush as often typified by the acrobatic displays of some convoy. This principle is believed to have enhanced the sanity on Lagos roads even as it speaks more to his leadership.

The governor arrived Coker Aguda at 12.45 pm and the national anthem was quickly taken for the event to kick off. First was the inauguration of blocks of classrooms, followed by the Montessori educational system, a customary court and area office projects.

His address here was short and political. He merely expressed his worry about the House of Representatives report on the public hearing held in Lagos on the constitution review exercise. He asked the people to check out the report and ascertain if what the lower chamber of the National Assembly claimed in its report actually reflected their position. For instance, he asked the crowd: “They claimed you said INEC should conduct local government elections for you and not LASIEC,” to which the crowd yelled “no”. He refused to prod further.

After the first set of projects, Fashola walked a few metres to the next venue where he inaugurated the customary court before leaving for his office in Alausa, Ikeja. As he walked through the streets, the people came out to catch a glimpse of him as he also acknowledged cheers in the heavily over-populated area.

At this time, the day had begun to close in. Fashola got to his office at 2.50pm to a courtesy call already waiting. It was the executive of City Club of Lagos, Surulere, founded in 1963 - a club where Fashola had celebrated his 18th birthday and was born the year the club was founded. Fashola will be 50 next month- June 28.

The club members had come to inform him of the club’s 50th anniversary and also to formerly invite him as well as make him a member. The courtesy call took about one hour before Fashola retired to his office to attend to other official engagements. A few of his commissioners were already waiting to see him, obviously for official matters and he attended to them in turns.

His last official engagement for that day was an audience granted the editorial board of Newswatch Magazine, led by its Managing Director, Mr. Bolu Folayan. They sought the focus of the administration and were granted audience at a time the governor was itching to join his teammates and relax at a game of football. “Ha, emi’n lo gba boolu o. E daun kia kia (I want to go and play football, so please, hurry up)”.

That practically ended the first day with Fashola who rushed into his lounge, done with the interview, to change into his kit and set off for the pitch, right in the Government House.

Monday, May 13 was day two. It was the state Executive Council meeting. Sitting started at 9 am but Fashola was unable to chair the first session as he had some engagements that morning. So, naturally, that session was led by the deputy governor, Mrs. Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire.

Dedicated to minutes of the last meeting and the consideration of matters arising, the session lasted a little over an hour and then, a break was observed for the governor to come and chair the next session – a brain racking session. But while cabinet members waited for the governor, (who though had come in while the break lasted, he however had to attend to a courtesy call which took some time), break time was fun.

The break typically afforded cabinet members the opportunity to eat and prepare for the next session where most of them had presentations to make. However, during the break, they exchanged banter and discussed various issues.

Interestingly, the unifying issue on that day was football. The Lagos exco was not insulated from the craze for English football or Premier League as it were. Serious analysis of some of the matches took the better part of the break. Besides, fans of the Arsenal Football Club like Mr. Tunji Bello, Commissioner for Environment, had cause to fret because a match against Wigan was to hold the next day. Aside this, they also shared inter-ministry concerns and joked over lifestyle.

Fashola’s Chief of Staff, Mr. Lanre Babalola, was visibly in control of the situation pending the arrival of the governor. Apparently, it was his responsibility to make sure that things ran on autopilot. He had a good knowledge of what to do. He is better referred to as the “organiser”.

Put differently, the banter that took place amongst members, the chamber area was sane as mobile phones were not allowed. As you approached the security area, phones were retrieved from visitors while cabinet members already knew that the use of phones was prohibited. The atmosphere was devoid of the usual phone distractions.

Also, apart from the discussions that held at the dinning area, pockets of discussions took place in the chamber. While some cabinet members rested their heads while waiting, others not engaged in small talks looked through their books, probably for some last minute checks.

Precisely at 1.30 pm, Fashola finally appeared at the chamber. Sporting a navy blue suit, with a powder blue shirt and a bow tie, Fashola started by apologising and without further ado, adopted the resolutions of the first session and asked if any other matters were pending, the council chorused “no”, enabling him to proceed.

But before he proceeded, the chief of staff drew his attention to the fact that a guest was in the chamber and formerly, Fashola recognised this reporter.

“He is of the THISDAY team; he is here to observe what we do. Most of the time, people question what we do; they don’t even know how we arrive at decisions and I thought it was good to observe us work. So, please, ignore him and carry on with your work,” adding jokingly to the reporter: “lo ko nkan to ba ri,” meaning, you may please write as you are pleased.

Fashola looked around the council chamber and asked after certain persons with an obviously familiar reference which elicited humour and to which the council responded with laughter. The chemistry at the exco showed a resounding rapport between the governor and his cabinet members. They related almost like contemporaries – age and position aside. It is also important to note that the governor-in-council was referred to as chairman while he identified or recognised each member either by name or ministry. Attendance was also important as a list was passed round for members to sign.

A somewhat relaxing atmosphere for discussing serious issues, Fashola started with some house clearing - that is, attending to pending issues with a view to ascertaining their status. Typically, this was a function of observations and notes he had taken while he drove in his car.

From ministry to ministry, he drew their attention to certain projects or concerns as he read from his notes. The most affected here were the Ministries of Environment, Transport, and Works and the governor gave further instructions, sequel to his observations.

Following this, however, were the various presentations already on the agenda for the day. Starting with the Lagos State Water Regulatory Commission whose Executive Secretary, Mrs. Awokoya, made a presentation on their new logo, the deliberations that followed reflected an intelligent team.

Next in that order was the Ministry of Agriculture done by the commissioner, Mr. Gbolahan Lawal; Transportation by Mr. Kayode Opeifa, who also had guests from LAGBUS and LAMATA; then, the chief of staff made his on the issue of security.

A presentation also came from a parastatal under the Environment Ministry, although not delivered by the commissioner in conjunction with Commerce Ministry on the need to streamline industrial regulatory mechanisms before berthing at the deputy governor’s table who gave a report on her skills acquisition programme.

In all of this, Fashola’s moderation of the deliberations at the exco underscored the fact that he was vast, deep and analytical. His good sense of history also came handy. His contributions showed a good knowledge of issues, exposure (as he was able to compare with what obtains in other climes) and grasp of basic details, which demonstrated that he was thorough.

It was difficult to push issues at him if one was not well grounded and convincing with facts. Tough and critical, cabinet members had a tough passage pushing through any agenda.

He also asserted authority where necessary. He did not dance around issues whenever he needed to put his feet down. For instance, a member almost subtly turned down an assignment handed him by the governor, but Fashola, who took exception to his disposition, gave the commissioner barking orders and the message sank in. “Yes sir,” the commissioner responded accordingly.

A stickler for discipline, Fashola was the quintessential example of an enforcer. Throughout the almost seven hours that the meeting lasted, Fashola did not visit the restroom as many of the members, including this reporter, did. Instead, whenever exhaustion crept in, he stretched his hands and legs or got up from his seat to stretch his entire frame. This, he did at a few intervals.

Sandwiched by Babalola and the Attorney-General, Ade Ipaye, to his right, and deputy governor and Secretary to the State Government, Mrs. Oluranti Adegbule to his right, Fashola gave the exco amazing attention as he sat at a vantage position. Even when he was busy looking through files or whispering to someone, he did not miss a thing.

To underscore this fact, he interjected a few of the presentations to clear certain grey areas while multi-tasking, just to show he was following the presentations with rapt attention.

At this time, however, extreme fatigue had begun to set in. Although members confirmed it was one of those lucky times that they had to finish exco early, the day did not end until 7.20 pm. But before he closed the meeting at exactly 6.50 pm, it started to rain heavily and the thunderous sound of the rain prompted Fashola to react. “Tunji, are your men on the drainage?” Quickly, the Environment Commissioner responded: “Yes sir, they are on the drainage.”

Fashola adjourned at 7.20 pm and the exco was rounded off with a prayer. Indeed, Lagos is metropolitan and Fashola is cosmopolitan. The result combination is the emerging mega city that he heads.

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Lagos Driver

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