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Fashola and the State of Mind

May 31, 2009

They call it “the centre of excellence”. As Mr. Babatunde Fashola, the Governor of Lagos State, continues his civilized quest to translate that excellence into greater excellence, we are reminded not only of the example that Lagos has always constituted to the rest of Nigeria in the last two centuries, but more important, of the inherent possibilities of the Nigerian genius – particularly when allowed to thrive by the combination of factors that have rigged Nigeria against excellence.

Lagos is historically destined to be the pace-setter not only for the rest of what eventually became Nigeria, but the whole of West Africa. Lagos is a city whose citiness, as the great poet, Odia Ofeimun, so elegantly captures it, “lies in the absorption of its many parts into a common whirlpool”, a great conurbation whose “core experience intimates a civis”. From her humble beginnings as, Oko - the settlement of the Awori, through the take-over by the Benin Kingdom – from which she got the name of Eko, the arrival of the Portuguese - who gave her the modern name of Lagos, and her annexation by the British in 1861, to the period of her political developments in the 20th and the 21st century, the historical role of this city in the fate and fortune of the black people of the world has been noted in history.
The historical backdrop is critical to placing Fashola in context, because, as Harold J. Seymour stated, “leaders are the ones who keep faith with the past, keep step with the present, and keep the promise to posterity”. As a breath of fresh air in a country of ruling bad odours, Fashola is proving to be such a leader. Yet, in a seemingly contradictory sense, he also stands as an indictment to our national, collective enterprise.

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In her modern history, Lagos has been redefined by party politics. From early 20th century when Herbert  Macaulay’s NNDP sought to raise the tempo of political activities in the city through the period of the NCNC-AG struggle for the control of the city - with its attendant ethno-regional recriminations, to the Second Republic, under the leadership of one of Nigeria’s most consummate public administrators, Alhaji Lateef Jakande – despite his self-mortifying political actions since the Abacha days – the city-state has constituted the greatest reflection of the ingenuity of the Nigerian totality. It is no wonder that H. O. Davies, long ago described Lagos as the “genius of the country”, while the West African Pilot insisted that Lagos was the “cosmopolitan city inhabited by a more politically advanced people drawn from all sections of a federated Nigeria”.

This city long described by Sir Richard Burton, the veteran traveller, as “the Queen of West African settlements”, and the “future emporium” of the rest of the country, is the envy of the rest of Nigeria. Since the end of military rule in 1999 when Senator Bola Tinubu assumed office as the governor, Lagos has struggled hard to return to its pride of place. However, Tinubu spent the better part of his time adroitly ring-fencing Lagos against the irresponsible behemoth, President Olusegun Obasanjo’s federal government. By delivering Lagos to what has turned out to be the very competent hands of Babatunde Fashola, Tinubu, unlike virtually every other major political decider in other parts of the federation during the 2007 change of guards, became part of the greatest justification for the excellence of Lagos.
Hugh Newell Jacobsen says “when you look at a city, it's like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it.” As acknowledged by all, Fashola has taken these hopes, aspirations and pride upon which Lagos was built and has turned them into the ingredients of re-designing the city and civilizing it anew. Fashola links the challenges of urban renewal with the necessities of modern public transportation system; he seizes the technological possibilities of the 21st century and put them in the service of enhanced cosmopolitan life; he takes the humility of high office and marries it elegantly with the grandeur of public appeal; he imposes grace on public office, thereby returning to public office its needed dignity; he seeks beauty for the damaged and crowded city, but insists that the city must show its denizens a measure of decency with an outpouring of charity. Fashola is beyond the road that he is constructing or repairing, the bridge that he is building, or the streets that he beautifies. He is, primarily, a state of mind, because everything starts at the level of the mind.

It is unfortunate however, that, in all of these, Fashola is also a standing indictment of Nigeria - that abstraction that continues to challenge us all. First, Fashola reminds us that an engaging mind and competent public administrator has no excuse for non-performance even after only twenty-four hours in office, let alone after two years. Second, and this is even more critical, the fact that Fashola is an exception rather than the rule, ought to be a disgrace to Nigeria. What the Fashola example represents therefore is a challenge to us all on what is to be done to ensure that a country whose blessings are so over-whelming will not continue to produce and reproduce rulers who are of unsound mind – such as the clueless wastrel in the neighbouring state who recently unfairly accused Fashola of dumping Lagos tramps in his state.

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While we are at that, given his excellent capacity to turn the reflections of a civilized mind into practical social good, let it be said that even though they still call it the centre of excellence, Fashola is proclaiming Lagos a State of Mind.

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