One of my most revered friends rang me a few days ago after reading last week’s column. He wanted, first, to echo my criticism of Nigeria’s public officials who, despite loud claims to having delivered “the dividends of democracy,” are not ashamed to rush off to foreign countries at the slightest excuse, including grounds of ill health. But he also reminded me that my proposal to compel public officials to cut down on their foreign junkets was not altogether unfeasible. “I believe,” this friend said, “that Lateef Jakande did not once travel out of Nigeria during the four years he was Lagos State Governor from 1979 to 1983.”
I’m not able to swear that Mr. Jakande did not take a single overseas trip, but the odds are that he didn’t. At any rate, if he traveled out of Nigeria during his governorship, he did it rather sparingly. He was a man of Spartan habits, a man of great personal discipline and focus who, first as a journalist and later as a governor, knew that performance was of the essence. Despite his lack of a university education, he excelled in journalism, especially as an editor at the Tribune group of newspapers.
His tenure as governor was marked by the same results-oriented zeal. He shunned the trappings of office, abjured self-aggrandizement, and decided, instead, to set about the task of achieving certain goals. He promised free education for all school-age kids in Lagos State, and delivered on it. He pledged free healthcare, and made it happen. He said he would provide affordable housing for low and medium income earners, and he built more than 20,000 units.
As a governor, Mr. Jakande did not court the image of an intellectual; he was content to cleave to the idea of service. He did not come across as charismatic, and would not be favored to dominate a debate. He had his eyes set on the prize—delivering the goods to his constituents.
His achievements didn’t mean an absence of critics. Some questioned the quality of facilities at the majority of the new schools he built. Some argued that the hospitals in the state were mediocre. There was probably some merit to the criticism, but I doubt that the state governments that did not provide free education and free healthcare boasted of superior quality. Besides, no critic could accuse Mr. Jakande of hypocrisy as a leader, or of having two standards—one for himself, the other for the rest of the state’s residents.
In fact, he ensured that members of his family went to the same state-run schools and hospitals. That’s one way to gauge a leader who believes that he’s doing the right thing by his people. Many of today’s governors talk up a good game, but have no game. They declare themselves “icons,” proclaim that they have “redefined governance,” assert that they have “totally transformed” their state. But these haughty governors won’t entrust their children to the school system they have created, nor would they permit themselves or members of their family to receive treatment from the healthcare system they have designed. No, one of the first things they do, on taking office, is to register their children in some elite private school, preferably abroad. And, when they or their relatives take ill, they fly abroad, boosting Nigeria’s medical tourism to such countries as India, South Africa, France, Germany and the US.
Last December, the Punch newspaper interviewed Mr. Jakande. One of the questions the paper asked him was, “Your children attended public schools. How do you feel today that leaders send their children abroad to school?” The former governor’s answer was straight to the point: “I feel that it is wrong and unfair for leaders to educate their children abroad while other children are educated in Nigeria. It is not fair.”
Those are the words of a man of deep convictions. If you’re a president and insist you’re God’s gift to Nigeria, or a governor who contends that you’re the very definition of exemplary leadership, fine—prove it! Live the way most of the people you presume to govern live. Send your children to the chairless, deskless, often chalkless schools that are the lot of the great majority of the led. When you’re sick—or one of yours is out of sorts—ask for a spot on the floor of one of those ghastly, unequipped facilities you heartlessly call hospitals.
Here’s something else that Mr. Jakande did. He refused to move into the opulent comforts of the governor’s official residence. As a state governor, he lived in his private residence in Ilupeju, his modest home surrounded by other homes. And he commuted to work in his private Toyota sedan.
Today’s Nigerian governors and other public officials are notorious for their ostentation. They authorize the purchase of many expensive cars, mostly sports utility vehicles, for their use. In motion, their convoys are veritable murderous monsters, and seem out to declare wars on hapless motorists and pedestrians. These governors contrive all kinds of excuses to justify their too-frequent foreign escapades. One oft-used ruse is that their numerous trips abroad attract foreign investors. But hardly do they report how many of such investors they ever netted. Nor do they demonstrate that the harvest of investors is big enough to cover the cost of the foreign junkets.
Mr. Jakande was able to run Nigeria’s most complex and populous state (I’m sorry, but I don’t take seriously the census data that placed Kano’s population higher) without hopping on a flight for a trip abroad every few weeks.
The one significant blot on Mr. Jakande’s image was in his astonishing decision to serve in the cabinet of former dictator Sani Abacha. For that error, he was consigned by many to the wrong side of history. But it’s a mistake to total down the record of a man of such stellar ethical insight and impressive leadership to his most visible misstep.
He still represents a chastening example for the current crop of 36 governors, a rebuke to their wastefulness. So, to those who demand answers, I’d say, How about the Jakande example!
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