Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-olu, is one of us, writes Ibe O. Ibe
He told the story of the Lagos commute by his own experience. From a rain-drenched parade at The Police College, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State set out to a dry arena. As the convoy manoeuvred through the city’s heady traffic, his car seat turned into a dressing room. He was not going to present himself at the annual intellectual fest known as The Platform with his hair glistening with water, his trousers dripping into his shoes and his shirt too soggy for his gubernatorial majesty.
He was not ready to wipe his face, moment after moment, as he stood for questions propounded by Poju Oyemade, pastor of the Covenant Christian centre, to explain his stewardship so far. What a contrast he would have cut around the spruce Peter Obi, or trado-official Chukwuma Soludo or the censorious Bismarck Rewane to whom he deferred deceptively.
So, he changed from the formal, starchy uniform to his trademark cap at a stylish angle on top of his sokoto and buba. Many would have imagined the first citizen of the state, or what columnist Sam Omatseye sees as the BOS of Lagos, pull off his clothes, wipe his body dry and slip into his new wear.
The video must have played out in the fantasies of the audience that October 1 afternoon, each person drawing their own script. But Governor Sanwo-Olu, with that introduction to a story on the peculiar Lagos traffic, had humanised himself before an audience. He was not just the governor, with all the pomp and ceremony. He did not invoke security cover from heaven as the rain poured, his clothes and skin clobbered by the elements, and he reacted by a change of wardrobe. In the words of Joseph Conrad in the novel Lord Jim, he showed he was “one of us.”
It is in that air of the human that he handled the questions from the astute pastor of CCC. If the roads were bad, he knows. He just witnessed it, and he even rolled out some of the names, noting that just as his body and clothes were at the mercy of the elements, so too are the roads. No point filling out the roads, the potholes that have crippled the streets and arteries. They will wash away, and it would amount to a waste of resources. Why not bear for a few months until God closes the skies and allows a new berth of sunshine.
He said that while acknowledging the multi-modal necessity of commute in Nigeria’s big city. Ploughing statistics, he noted that water and rail are the future, while debunking a story comparing Ethiopian rail experience with that of Lagos, a subnational, as well as blowing up the claim that the city had spent fanciful billions far and above even the state budget for the rail project still under construction in the state. Good news, he announces. Boats and buses are coming, and in gradual phases, the city will decongest the roads. No illusion about the work ahead, it is big. Just like working out the profit and loss of water transportation where a boat can ride full in one commute and return almost empty.
He also faced education, and referred to a body known as Bridge House to tackle and monitor quality as the state upgrades infrastructure in the school. Quality of teachers also means getting more of them. He is recruiting thousands of them already, his first priority in hiring so far. Technology is a high key to pursue monitoring, absences and activities. He reiterates the predominance of private schools, and how policy must marry plenty with success. But his is also aspirational and wants to take advantage of school feeding. He knows for Lagos this is a complication, but how is he going to cope with such a huge population as Lagos, in spite of the battle for resources from all quarters. Some states have done it, and it has jolted up school enrolments.
On medical tourism, he makes a point often ignored. India, Europe and America are well-known for the quality of their medical care. But we have good hospitals, yet the law forbids any advertising. How, the governor asks, can we know that a hospital can compete with the ones in Asia, the United States and Western Europe unless people know about it? As a subnational government, Lagos State government does not have the powers to defy the law. He says it is a cause worth pursuing.
But he shows that Lagos has spoken with big equipment companies. He said in his recent trip to the United States he had parlayed with such firms as GE and Philips, and plans are afoot to ply Lagos with state-of-the arts gizmos. But he said this on a cautionary note. We don’t yet have the personnel to operate the equipment. So we need to acquire the human wherewithal first. It means training. Raining means time. Time means patience.
On what Pastor Oyemade calls technology flight, the governor torpedoes the premise of the question. Some countries are giving visas and tax incentives to retain and attract talents around the world. But Governor Sanwo-Olu reminds him and the audience that a governor cannot grant all those because they are in the province of the federal government. But he boasts about his special adviser on innovation and technology who is a young man in his early thirties and who is a techie.
Undergirding his outing was a governor’s attempt to tell a story of the beginning of what he sees as a transformational tenure. He spoke in a tone not of hectoring knowledge, but of a learner, a disarming trait in a man who evinces a mastery of his subject, speaking with reference to no document or any other prepared material. He coaxed, wooed, dissected, peering into the future. It was a show of proud humility, at times responding to the questions as though daunting but cutting them to pieces point after point. Rewane he called for help as though he didn’t have the answers. But he did, and with confidence. Many expect him to succeed, but the ball is on his court.
He was the first sitting governor to appear on The platform, and he has set a tone for others.
Ibe wrote from Lagos