For years, beginning primarily on the cusp of the millennium, Lagos has enjoyed a near-legendary reputation among Nigerians as our own under-recognised Eldorado. In informal conversations, among pseudo-elites and members of the free-readers association at the newsstand, Lagos is always referred to as that state where governance is elevated beyond the bar of mediocrity, unike the big-for-nothing entity called Nigeria and other states that make up the contraption.
But as is typical of such conversations, they are always devoid of contexts. The most potent part of the “Lagos is working” argument is built on saccharine, mixed with lazy references to some cosmetic achievements in urban renewal. And the Lagos political elites, astute and media savvy, have always, always capitalised on this lazy appraisal of a state’s performance to hoodwink the public, define perception, and direct public conversation.
Interestingly, the media played (and perhaps still struggles to play) the most significant role in the creation of the “Lagos is working” myth. Until recently when the all-powerful strength of the media in setting public agenda seems to have been weakened by the effect of social media and its rampaging crowd, the “traditional” media defined public perception of any public officer or the government. For years, a larger section of the media painted Lagos in fascinatingly endearing colours, its governors showered with questionable encomiums. A number of opinion shapers even bequeathed unto them, these governors, numerous patronizing nomenclatures, thus elevating sycophancy to a dizzying height.
In some ways, the 2015 success of the Buhari-Osinbajo ticket was influenced heavily by the “Lagos is working” myth. Having contested on three consecutive occasions without success, Buhari’s major strength in that election was his famed “integrity”—-which, well, many Nigerians would perhaps see differently today. The southern electorate was largely convinced to support the then opposition All Progressives Congress because of the belief (could it in retrospect be called an illusion?) that the “progress” recorded in Lagos could be replicated at the centre.
In any case, at least since 2015, there had been a tactical withdrawal of that claim that Lagos was better governed than Nigeria. A significant part of the famed Lagos crowd has since taken positions in Abuja and, well, as VP Osinbajo didn’t famously put it, “we are still where we were where… were.”
Equally important is that the veil put on Lagosians has finally been erased by time and technology and, like it is with whited sepulcher, everyone has seen the state for what it is: a glorified slum whose broken structures are made less conspicuous by media hype. Today, with the “traditional” media gradual loss of its monopoly of information dissemination, it is not unusual to read trending stories and pictures depicting the dirty bowels of a famed “Centre of Excellence”. Example is the perennial Abraham Adesanya flood in Lekki, the huge craters on Ikorodu roads, the mess that is the Agege-Abule-Egba road, among others.
Now, since the coming of the incumbent governor Babajide Sanwo-olu, there has been a near-unanimous conclusion among residents of the state that all structures of a modern society are broken. But to single out Mr Sanwo-olu who has barely spent a year in office for criticism over the rot that has every element of long-term degeneration is to be unfair to the governor. To be sure, the (infra)structural problems have always been there for long, even in the days of Bola Tinubu. But they became submerged in the waters of patronizing accolades in the days of Babatunde Fashola, turned out more conspicuous in the Akinwunmi Ambode years and, now, they appear hydra-headed. Of course, since the buck stops on Mr Sanwo-Olu’s table, he must tackle them head on. The fear now, which isn’t unfounded, is that the governor may have clues on everything under the sun but how to tackle Lagos’ hydra-headed problems.
And so, when he announced this week that he would prefer to be called “Mr Governor”, he may have confirmed the fear of many hapless Lagosians. Across the city, there is virtually no single road worthy of being correctly referred to as one as they are all littered with potholes. In effect, commuting around Lagos now appears like an act of self-torture. While the decision may not be necessarily bad in itself, it speaks to a deeper symptom of misplaced priority.
For SATIRE SATURDAY, it is equally one of the most evident signs of Mr Sanwo-olu’s own approach to governance by escapism. Every conscious Nigerian must by now be familiar with the ‘escapist’ style Nigerian leaders are known for. Aside his aloof and distant posture in the midst of unease even while in the country, for instance, Mr Buhari is renown for literally running abroad whenever the country is on fire. Mr Sanwo-olu’s approach to escapism, this column opines, be that desire to make trivial, often diversionary “pronouncements” in the heat of serious discussion on governance.
For instance, immediately after assuming office in June, the governor signed an executive order on six key areas of focus called ‘THEMES’, which covered road rehabilitation. He also directed the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority to run at least two shifts and work till 11pm. But it appears little or nothing came out of that and, by October, the public could take it no more. As though it was a circus show, amidst pressure and criticisms, the governor would later declare a “state of emergency” on Lagos roads. Since then, commuters around the state have not stopped grumbling. And here, we speak not about health and education and its flood-prone environment. Such redundant attempt at escapism would have been laughable if it was not pathetic.
Lagos State output in 2017 was $136bn, more than a third of Nigeria’s gross domestic product. The Lagos economy is significantly bigger than that of the whole of Kenya. The population has equally doubled from 11m in 2007 as thousands of fresh graduates arrive each day to seek greener pasture. This in a way puts pressure on infrastructure but the city is equally the centre of most of Nigeria’s manufacturing and home to a pan-African banking industry, becoming the nation’s biggest revenue hub.
Yet the state is perhaps the most opaque entity in the country, with little or nothing known about its finances and its dizzying debt profile. Mr Sanwo-olu grudgingly said he would open the books but that is yet to materialise. And so beyond the issue of collapsing infrastructure, Lagos has a lot to deal with in terms of governance and openness.
For SATIRE SATURDAY, what’s most heartwarming in this renewed interest in Lagos’ infrastructure and the near-general consensus among residents that things are broken is the growing consciousness around that awful reality. These are conversations people wouldn’t have had years ago, even though the reality existed. It is a step forward; after all, the first step towards solving a problem is identifying that one exists in the first place. Hopefully, the accountability efforts would be better coordinated and eventually directed at the state’s financial records.
Last month, Mr Sanwo-olu was pilloried on Twitter for his inimitable style of “POINTing” at things in public, perhaps with very little to show for it. Pronto, pictures emerged days after showing the governor standing at different places with his hands tucked inside his shirts. This shows that beyond the humorous POINTs made in the tweets, he is a listening governor.
SATIRE SATURDAY therefore hopes that he would listen to this admonition, POINT out and tackle areas of challenges, abandon escapism, and get to work. The rot in Lagos is too pervasive and we do not need to POINT them out for “Mr Governor”. The social problems are POINTEDLY standing before him everywhere he goes.
Oladeinde tweets via @Ola_deinde