Sanwo Olu, Lagos State Governor, leads to serve, writes

Olusegun Akinpelu

In many climes, leaders are adulated. Praised. Worshipped. It comes with the endearment of having someone to spearhead things, to become the thinker, the voice, the doer. It’s a way of everything with life. Think the alpha dog, queen bee and the queen ant. There is always that moniker to distinguish the leader.

From time immemorial and in different societies, bestowing of titles on persons to show some form of reverence has been the norm. The philosophers were considered sages, thinkers. Some were through physical strength while others through old age. It is noteworthy that the Greek gods all had discerning qualities that earned them a place in the pantheon.

In different spheres of life -social, economic, political, religious, military – such exist. It is the culture that birthed His Majesty, His Holiness, His Excellence and many others. It is practiced all over. And in all walks of life. With colonial rule, the British also brought along their devotion to their monarch to Nigeria. And across all the lands the British ruled, the British monarch was touted as supreme.

The British have through their systems established the usage of Lords and other forms of peerage to distinguish personalities. Such exalting titles as Your Majesty, Your Lordship, Your Highness and Your Excellency, to mention few, have been a way of life where the ruled feel their rulers should be addressed. But to think this practice is only a thing on Britain would be wrong.

Nigerian royalty have had their own share of adulations from their subject. They continue to enjoy it. From the north through the east, west and to the south of the country, stories abound of how great personalities have been reverently addressed. The role of the Obas, Obis and Emirs in Nigeria cannot be dismissed. Likewise the god-like reverence which they enjoyed. There was a time when their word was law. Endearing words were used to revere them. Their titles suggested their powers. For instance, ‘Kabiyesi’ in Yoruba simply means that the king cannot be questioned.

With the transfer of political power to politicians, words of endearments were bestowed on successful politicians. And in Nigeria’s political circles, the governors became ‘Your Excellency’ immediately after taking their oaths of office. It was a transition that all parties segued into.

That the office of the Nigerian governor is huge is real. Aside being the CEO of a region, he has access to huge sums in terms of security votes, access to internally generated revenue and others. By his actions or inactions, he affects and influences the lives of millions. In a rich state like Lagos, the governor assumes much power. And with a population of over 20 million, the governor surely exerts much influence. It is such stature that makes people adulate governors. It is for that reasons they are largely referred to as ‘His Excellency.’

Curiously, Lagos State governor Babajide Sanwo Olu doesn’t want that.

Hence, when Sanwo Olu said he was dropping the traditional title of ‘His Excellency’ in November, many Nigerians thought he was high on some cheap drugs. How many Nigerians dare address a state governor without the usual fawning from nearly all their followers? How many can hold a conversation without the barrage of ‘Sir’ and ‘Your Excellency’? Hence, in the minds of some Nigerians, the request by Sanwo Olu was seen as preposterous. A whole Lagos State wishing to be addressed as ‘Mr Governor’.

It was unheard of that a Nigerian governor that boasts of so much power would want to be addressed as a normal citizen. You see, governors have come to enjoy a larger than life existence. They move in big convoys, have big spending ways, control a large retinue of staff and access huge security votes. To the ordinary people, they are demi-gods. And they are addressed likewise on a daily basis with much fawning.

“The office of the Governor has been celebrated as the paragon of excellence, a temple of perfection and a throne of purity,” said Sanwo Olu.

“This demi-god mystique spreads over the entire machinery of the executive arm of the government, symbolising an authoritarian disposition on the governed. It has deformed the orientation of elected and appointed persons who are paid from the taxes of the people to see themselves as oppressors who can do no wrong and must be served, rather than serve the people.”

Singing the praises of leaders is not unique to any particular set of people. Nearly everyone and every culture do it. From royalty to elected and non-elected officials to priests, traditional title holders and PhD holders, there seems to be a craving for titles – all to varying degrees. It is on record how a former Ugandan president and dictator, Idi Amin, gave himself a ludicrous title. He was addressed as: ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.’

While the Idi Amin titles were a result of delusion, back home, titles like Baba Oloye, Igwe and Ranka de de are all familiar terms known to Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo people of Nigeria. It is merely praising a man, in the same way as other non-indigenous titles. Across the country, the various groups of people have their ways of endearment reserved for their governors. For such reasons, many governors find it difficult not to embrace the title, ‘Your Highness.’ In fact, like some people, some governors seem to take note of those who do not refer to them as ‘Excellences’ or those that say it in contempt. Ditto for their wives, who go by the grandiose title of ‘First Lady’, another western import. Followers, supporters, bootlickers and sycophants know all this and act accordingly.

Yet, it is the responsibility of the leader to be able to feel the pulse of the people, to connect and pay true allegiance to the people.

And Sanwo Olu said: “Only God, the Almighty, the Creator, the Protector is the Most Excellent. No man can share His eternal qualities. Thenceforth, I wish to be addressed simply as Mr. Governor, a title that will constantly remind me that I have been chosen out of so many fellow compatriots to lead a collective salvage of our political economy.”

Mr is a common term for everyone. Hence, the term ‘Mr Governor’ addresses the high office and still accommodates the ordinary man. This is so because the ordinary man – the farmer, teacher, bank manager, driver, pilot, civil servant – is addressed as Mr. In Osun State, former governor Rauf Aregbesola also toyed with this simplicity when he said he should be addressed as ‘Ogbeni’ which simply means Mr in Yoruba language.

Good leaders should seek to break the barriers between them and the people they lead. Sanwo Olu has gone a good first step to simplifying the way he would be addressed. Lagosians are likely to connect with him more as one of them with the title, Mr Governor. He needs to keep that touch with Lagosians.