By Babajide Sanwo-Olu

Quite honestly, I am going to leave my speech and speak to you from the heart.
Having listened to the man from Singapore, Gregory Vijayendren, former President, Law Society of Singapore, I think if there is nothing else and if indeed we are serious and sincere about making change in this country, there is something we need to take away from here.

Singapore, like he said, is a tiny dot on the world map; you hardly know where it is, but like he said it is a city state that has earned its place in the world.

Lagos, by sheer coincidence, also is like a dot in the country; it’s less than 0.4 % of the size of this country. So, technically, it also can be a dot and of that 0.4 %, 1/3 (one third) of it is water. But, by sheer coincidence, it is the commercial, economic nerve centre of the country. Singapore holds its place too as a major economic hub worldwide today.

Lagos is home to so many things – our international businesses, a lot of start-ups  businesses that are all the best names we have in Africa today, all the unicorns, the creative industry, the entertainment industry;  they are all sitting here in Lagos and, by some coincidence, we have also acknowledged that Lagos also is taking a lead in the judicial sector reforms and access to justice. But guess what, Singapore that is a tiny little country have also done so, but they have done it more.

So, we have gotten good comment from the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation. Everybody has spoken well about Lagos, but I am not satisfied yet. Lagos now needs to take this to an international scale.

We cannot sit back and expect that because we are the best in our country that equates us to being one of the best in the world. Singapore is less than five million people, maybe six million today and we are 224 million. They don’t have two heads. They don’t have the kind of the minds and strength we have in this state and this country. The question is, what is wrong with us?

The man said to us that the three big pictures are: the rule of law (there is no nation that wants to earn its beef anywhere and does not have rule of law as one of the beacons for deciding how it engages). They were small and there is a likelihood that they can get extinct. Guess what, Lagos is also small, Lagos indeed is very small and so we need to be able to think out of the box.
They have no resources, we have no resources as well, but we have said we are the commercial, economic nerve centre, but we cannot sit back and hope that is the best we can do. Because in 1965, less than 60 years ago, the per capita of Singapore was about $500; now the man says it is $88,000. Where was Lagos and where are we now? Where is our country? Are we just going to be the giant of Africa for nothing? Do we just want to take that accolade that says we are the largest black nation; in what sphere?

He mentioned to us that Singapore is what it is today because one: ease of doing business. You can register a business in less than 30 minutes. Maybe we have improved a little bit; it used to be like two-three months. Maybe we can do it in three days now in Nigeria. They clear a container in Singapore in seven hours. In Nigeria, it used to be three-four months. Now maybe it has reduced to a month or three weeks now, but we are not near where it should be. They have one seaport, we have two seaports; now we have a deep seaport, but they have several.

And one of the other things they have also done, they ensure that the very best of their citizens work in the public service. All the best that go to Oxford, Harvard in Singapore find themselves in the Public Service. We also have a Public Service that we can be proud of in Lagos, but we need to be able to raise the bar, we need to be able to do a lot more than where we are today. Maybe the only thing that Singapore have over us, which they have the bragging right and we don’t is that they are a Sovereign State and we are a subnational.

We are constricted and restricted by a bigger name called Nigeria and so maybe we cannot fly as high as we want to; so maybe we cannot walk as fast as we want to, maybe we cannot think as quick as we want to but that cannot be an excuse for us. And that is why when we come to summits like this we need to ask ourselves, “do we just want to make it a rhetoric or we want to change a life and the opportunity God has given to us for the better?”

Leadership is all about what you put in your heart and the sense of purpose that you bring to it and by sheer coincidence this Government has given the opportunity, in less than five years I have appointed 24 new Justices into Lagos State Judiciary, the highest ever and, later in the week, we are going to add additional 13 to it. From 63, we are going to go to 76. It’s not the clap; it is how you use the opportunity that has been given to us; it is how we bake the cake to be big enough for everyone to share. Of course, there are issues; of course, there are challenges, but guess what, the man that we brought here to be the guest speaker has challenges.
Singapore was just a fishing village. The colony of Lagos had been in existence in the 19th century. There was a tram in Lagos in the 19th century; there was a tram on Lagos Island. So, what is wrong with us? Maybe some people constricted us to reduce our level of growth, but that cannot be an excuse; that cannot be a reason for us not to be able to fly high, think out of the box, and do things quicker, faster and smarter.

The man left us with a few actions; he said to us that Singapore has one of the best judicial systems in the world, a tiny country. They are respected internationally on issues around mediation and dispute resolutions.

Yes, we have them; thankfully, we can clap for ourselves; we have Office of the Public Defender, Citizens Mediation Centre; we have Alternative Resolution. Yes we do; how well can it compete globally? As your governor, it is not just to be a local leader.  They say he is a king in a country, city or community of the blind he who has one eye. But now our eyes are opened, we even have glasses. So, there are four that we have.  We need to be able to think local but act global. The global space is available for us to pick. To my Lord Justices, it’s not about excuses; it’s about what are the core that we need to do here today?

It’s about the bench and the bar. How do we collaborate? How do we ensure that the opportunity that this space has given to us, all of us are using it to the best of our capacity because I am not sure we are driving at that capacity well enough? And he left us with some unique features – there has to be collaboration with the government, which is where I stand; the Bench, the Bar; it’s not by lip service. We need to understand that there is a clear separation of power; we need to respect each other, but everybody has to bring something to the table.

He says to us that we need to think fast; we need to move very quickly; we need to be able to tweak things; meaning we need to think out of the box, challenge the status quo and ask ourselves, “is this the best that we can get?” The best you can get does not necessarily have to be like my brother the President of the Nigerian Bar Association said in road construction and the rest of it. The best can be in our intellectual property, in our capacity to think and do things right.

And, of course, he also said to us that technology is a strong enabler and yes, we also can pride ourselves that during that very difficult time of COVID, we were able to use Zoom like other people. Our cabinet was able to do a lot of things virtually. Yes, we have a lot of those things, but my take this morning is the fact that we have gone to a territory. We’ve gone to a territory that needs to challenge us. Singapore is a tiny city State and that is why I am comparing it with Lagos, I don’t want to use Nigeria as a big excuse. I do like for like and we need to be able to raise the bar.

And the things that we can do are not so far off. And that is why I am not touching the speech that the Attorney-General has prepared. We all know it, we are this and that; we are doing this, No! Constitutional things. We want State Police; we have been on this conversation for how long? Just as simple as what we all swore to, the protection of life and property. And how do we need to do it? What are the things that must be in place for us to do that? Decentralize these things, let us have State Police. We are still making politics about it; we are making it political; it is right, it is not right. Everybody is just being careful in today’s age, and you can curb all the criminal excesses that we see. It is not rocket science.

And by the way, even when we get the State police, how prepared are we? How many correctional facilities do we have? How well have we also unbundled that to ensure that even the Justices and Milords that are working. I know that it is filled up.  How well have we unbundled to ensure that we can actually build more correctional facilities; rehabilitation centres, because that’s a part of the rule of Law? If there is meant to be a punishment, there is need for a facility where it will be addressed. I am not learned so I will be very careful, just educated. I know too well that there is a wide difference between access to justice and implementation of it, but I know clearly that when we come to engagements like this, sessions like this, it shouldn’t just be talk shop; it should be an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves to speak truth to power, to push ourselves so we can make the best of it and we can leave here a lot better.

As a government, what are the kind of things that we also are doing to see if we can catch up with the likes of Singapore? For example, we are planning to make Lagos an International Financial Centre, where Lagos can be a destination for investments, a safe haven for investments worldwide, but for us to do that we need a strong judicial system. That will be one of the strongest points that anybody will be looking for; that will be one of the strongest protection that will be required and will be needed.

How well do we ensure that people who do not have access to justice still have a fair hearing and the belief that the Judiciary is the last hope; how well? And how well, even me as a leader, political leader or whatever it is that I am called, do I use my office to the best to ensure that the greatest good is always for the greatest number? This, for me, are the pertinent questions that we need to ask ourselves as a country. And this morning, the conversation is still about you, the Judiciary, like Mr. President said yesterday, “Oba di meji ni ilu kan”. I won’t talk much. Now everybody is waiting for a legal interpretation of who should be the Emir or not. The buck stops right at your desk again. Everybody will be pulling you here and there and that is why fairness, equity must come to play.

And it is very interesting, because even in the news today, the Honourable Attorney- General of the Federation sued all the 36 States because we are not giving autonomy to the third tier of government. Though the only mistake is that some of us are in compliance. So, the Honourable Attorney-General’s Office should have done due diligence to know which States are not in compliance so that you don’t carry all the 36 States, and be able to show example that out of the 36 States, four, three, two are exempted; it’s 31 that I am taking to the Supreme Court, and that is part of the back work that we need to do.

You can see that the conversation is about you today, Judiciary, because those are the two principal conversations that are out in the news today. You are the last hope of the poor man, middleman and rich man. Let’s use this engagement to really be able to reform this sector.

Mr. Sanwo-Olu is the Governor of Lagos State. He spoke extempore at the Justice Reform Summit 2024 with the theme “Enhancing the Administration of Justice for Growth, Investment Protection and Security in Lagos State” on May 27, 2024, at Marriott Hotel, Ikeja.

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