Nigeria: Challenges Abound but People Want Results - Fashola

Babatunde Fashola
26 October 2015

The International Crisis Group, a global, Brussels-based NGO dedicated to preventing and resolving conflict, selected seven individuals to receive six awards in marking its 20th anniversary. Africa-engaged honorees include Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and co-founder of The Elders, as well as Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi and Nahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi who are jointly honored for efforts, together with the National Dialogue Quartet - this year's Nobel Peace Prize winners – to reach "consensus on a peaceful and inclusive transition." Recipient of this year's Stephen J. Solarz award – named for the late ICG co-founder and former New York Congress member – is Babatunde Fashola. A former governor of Lagos, Nigeria's most populous state, and current ministerial nominee by President Muhammadu Buhari, Fashola is cited for "his commitment to building a just and vibrant society." Interviewed by telephone from Abuja before his departure to New York for the October 26 ceremony, Fashola spoke to AllAfrica about his eight years in office (2007 – 2015) and how his country can move forward. Excerpts:

What do you regard as your major accomplishments as governor?

First, I want to say it was a team effort. We had an outstanding team of public servants and political office holders, and we worked together to strengthen law enforcement, build infrastructure and encourage inclusion. The most defining thing was to invest the people of Lagos with a sense of ownership and pride in their own state. We had challenges of urban crime, and we turned those challenges into opportunities. We also expanded opportunities for young people in education and in agriculture. We were able provide people with more opportunities to work – to make income with dignity.

How did you tackle the transformation of broken neighborhoods like Oshodi and is what you did sustainable?

I knew Oshodi as a child and it was a very pleasant community, but it fell into disrepute. People traded in unapproved places so they obstructed traffic. Crime was increasing because of the disorderly nature of activities there. It was dysfunctional. We went in to clean it up. We relocated the traders and we built a new market - that took some time, but it was finally done. The results were outstanding. Traffic moved. Crime dropped. Property values soared. The entire stretch of road in Oshodi is about 10 km. We put patrol vehicles and law enforcement agents on alternate sides of every kilometer of the road to insure that people obeyed rules and regulations. If that continues, I don't see why it wouldn't be sustainable. This created work for people to be law enforcement agents, and they went with pride to their work because they were earning a living.

What led you to launch the 'Green Lagos' initiative?

The seeds were sown by what I had read and saw when I visited Singapore. The compelling reasons for embarking on it were the realities of global warming and climate change and what a greener environment can do in terms of quality of life for people. There was the health issue and also the calmness that a green environment brought on. This calming affects the way people behave. We set up small gangs of people for cleaning and maintaining abandoned spaces - spaces where people were choosing to dump refuse. They planted seedlings. That created economic opportunities. Plumbers became busy because they were fixing sprinklers to keep the places green. Horticulturists began seeing a demand for their seedlings, their trees, plants and shrubs. A lot of people of people got involved, and I am told about five million trees were planted by the time my tenure ended. Hundreds of parks had been rebuilt, reclaimed and beatified. About 92,000 people were involved in the massive work of keeping those places running and using their skills and talents to earn a decent and dignified living.

During your Senate screening (as a presidential nominee), you were asked about expulsions of people from Lagos while you were in office. How do you respond to that criticism?

First, I think it isn't appropriate to classify it as an expulsion. It wasn't. We had citizens who had no address and probably migrated from God-knows-where to our state. They were living as destitutes. Some had psychiatric problems. Some had other health issues. We rehabilitated them. When they got rehabilitated, they had to leave because it cost a lot of tax-payer money to keep feeding them on a daily basis, year-in, year-out. In some cases, they said they wanted to go home. And as I said during the screening, we didn't know where home was except for where they told us. We wrote three letters to their home governments. None of them was acknowledged. We had to do something. As I said during the screening, we took them to the boundary of the state they called home, in the belief that they would be able to reintegrate themselves back to their communities. Perhaps we could have done a little more. But we were not assisted by their state governments.

There is a misconception that people can move freely and do what they like. The laws and the constitution that guarantee the freedom of movement for citizens across the country impose obligations not to constitute themselves as a nuisance in whatever other state they move to. Just like any law that guarantees freedom of speech does not guarantee you the right to defame people. And so those rights can be curtailed in order to protect the rights of other citizens. As I said during the screening, they went to court, and the court took the view that [they had] an unmeritorious claim.

How did you tackle corruption as governor?

My approach was to see that we got value for money and that there was good governance and the supremacy of law and order. Human beings will fall short of standards their society expects of them, and whenever that happens, what needs to done is to enforce the law and insist on compliance. That is what I have sought to do. But we must be careful. There are some instances where people levy allegations when they have no shred of evidence or they misapprehend the way how the system works.

There are reports that you spent 78 million naira on a website (U.S. $400 thousand) and another large amount on boreholes (water wells). How do you respond to those criticisms?

First of all, the reports are untrue to the extent that they accuse me of any wrong doing. Specifically to the boreholes, it never happened. But I have chosen not to continue to defend myself on the pages of newspapers because that is not the place to resolve allegations of criminal wrongdoing. [You do it] in a court of law. These are institutions of state who have the authority to ask me to answer. As far as the website is concerned, first of all it was I, as governor, who insisted that every procurement be published on our state website. So if we had anything to hide, it would stand logic upside down to be publicizing our wrongdoing ourselves. And as I said during the senate screening, as governor I headed a network of institutions. If we wanted anything that had to do with computing, science and technology, we had consulting ministries. In this case, the ministry of science and technology was the consulting ministry. They vetted the proposals and approved the prices. There is also an independent procurement agency that validates procurements. All I did as governor was to sign off and approve expenditure after the procurement agency approved.

It is important to also make this point: I wasn't elected with any limitations of powers of expenditure. It was I as governor who set limits on what I could do and what procurement agencies do. I want to add that some of these allegations come out of a misunderstanding of how our processes work. As I said during the screening, I didn't sign checks and I didn't fix prices. And so if you wanted to accuse me, the only thing you could perhaps say, which is still very debatable, is that our pricing mechanisms were wrong.

This was not only a website upgrade. We installed applications to allow smartphone users to download applications. We had an application for android phone users, one for Microsoft and [several] others. The advice we received was that, if we asked users to pay for those applications, we would not have the kind of traffic and footprint that we expected from people who wanted to know what government was doing. So we paid for the different applications. We also paid for hosting overseas, and we had a contract for a web master to manage all the information - videos, speeches, executive orders and more.
It wasn't just a website upgrade that cost 78 million naira. In any case, all the documents are with the government so they can be examined.

There was great excitement after the March election and President Buhari's Inauguration in late May. Are those high hopes continuing?

I would think so, but human beings being what they are, people expect rapid results. The easiest way to sustain optimism is to continue to show results. It has been a very challenging one-and-a-half years for the country. We spent a lot of time preparing for elections and, globally, when elections are coming, things generally slow down. Ours took 15 months. The economy has been challenged as a result of that. We need to get back to production and productivity, and people need to see their institutions at work.

It has taken President Buhari longer than many expected to nominate people to serve as ministers. Do you expect things to start happening now?

My sense is that people are waiting to get a clear direction. I am optimistic that the president will begin to show results. The time frame is the challenge: how much more time will Nigerians afford him? Having been a governor before, I know that the first 6-to-9 months are defining. At the level of national government, which is a behemoth, it takes time to get a grip on it. The president has picked people to assist him, some of whose experience and reputations are quite inspiring. I think when the budget comes out it will signify a clear direction about what the government will do, where it will be investing energy and resources. I think people will respond accordingly.

What do you regard as top priorities for the new government?

Security is one. The economy is the other. Within the economy, you have components such as infrastructure - transport infrastructure [and] energy infrastructure particularly. If transportation gets better, goods and services and people will move much more efficiently and that can only lead to productivity and the prosperity and quality of life that people want to see. The President is clearly focused on security. We have seen some results, and it will get better. Dealing with the criminals who now terrorize parts of our country in a faceless manner poses challenges for our security apparatus, who were trained to deal with conventional opponents rather than these unconventional methods where soft targets are their victims. And government really, with all its best intentions, can't be in every home and every corner of our society

Can you tell us which ministerial post you will hold?

Only the president can tell. He nominated us, so he would have a very clear idea what role he wants each of us to play. I believe he must have had deep reflection on who will be in what position.

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