Fashola, his Lagos, and the ‘bottom millions’ By Tolu Ogunlesi

Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, turned 50 last week. Not unexpectedly, it went without fanfare, in keeping with the man’s character.

What better time than now – on the occasion of his 50th birthday, and midway into his second and final term as Governor of Lagos State – to reflect on his impact on Lagos, and on the place of the city in the Nigeria of the 21st century.

Lagos is Africa’s second most populated city – estimates range from 12 million to 18 million, depending on who you’re asking – and one of the fastest growing “megacities” in the world; expected to add another five million inhabitants by 2025.

It remains Nigeria’s commercial hub, two decades after the relocation of the seat of government to Abuja; according to the Central Bank of Nigeria, 50 per cent of the cash in circulation in the country is in Lagos.

I’ve seen two different figures for the size of the Lagos economy; The Economist magazine, in a 2011 article, quoted $45bn. Renaissance Capital, in its most recent Nigeria report, put the Lagos economy at $32bn – the equivalent of the entire Kenyan economy, and larger than Ethiopia’s. (It is important to note that most of the Lagos economy is informal; artisans, market women, taxi drivers, domestic servants, and hawkers, among others whose financial transactions take place outside of formal banking and taxation systems).

Lagos is also the only state in Nigeria whose Internally Generated Revenue about doubles its allocation from oil earnings, and is the model every other state is copying in the drive to improve tax revenues.

But Lagos is also a deeply dysfunctional city – the accumulation of years of government neglect, while the city grew like a cancer. Someone pressed “Pause” for infrastructure and did “Fast-forward” for population, creating a 1970s’ city expected to cope with the challenges of a 21st century world.

Sometimes, one needs to listen to foreign commentators to get a sense of the intensity of the city’s malaise. Lagos conditions us to no longer notice these things – a classic case of familiarity breeding a false, dangerous, and strange comfort.

Of the city, a visiting foreigner said (quote taken from “Diary of a Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager” – a 2010 book inspired by the global economic meltdown):

“Lagos looked to me like a city where aliens had come and built the city and then left, and then just sort of let it decay […] You’d go one block off a main thoroughfare and the road is dirt.  You go to a nice neighbourhood, all the houses are behind walls and outside the walls, there’s somebody cooking on a garbage fire, right outside the walls of some big house. It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else.”

That aptly summarises the Lagos that exists – a city of paradoxes best explained in the startling, random, insistent juxtapositions of wealth and poverty.

It is this sprawling, festering metropolis that Fashola is expected to manage, and transform. As he himself acknowledged in a 2010 interview: “The deficit of infrastructure of about three decades can’t be turned around in just two years or eight years.”

Fashola himself brings to governance an intensely cerebral air (he seems more suited to a university classroom than an assembly of political chieftains), an understatedness that we do not typically associate with public office in these parts, and a knack for creatively talking and thinking about the solutions to the city’s problems (he has himself said all he’s doing is implementing the manifesto of his party. And indeed, many of his achievements should be seen in the light of structures rising atop foundations laid by Bola Tinubu, his predecessor).

Sometime in 2008, a year after he was first elected Governor, I happened upon his official SUV at the Civic Centre in Victoria Island, and caught a glimpse of a pile of books and newspapers on the back seat. I was able to make out three titles:

“Planet of Slums” (by Mike Davis), “Giving” (by Bill Clinton) and “Economics For Dummies” (by Sean Masaki Flynn and Peter Antonioni).

I found the choices of the books instructive. Take “Planet of Slums” as an example – the message I got from seeing that book in the Governor’s car was this: An administrator concerned by the reputation of his city as a slum-factory (according to the Social and Economic Rights Action Centre, there are 120 different slum communities in Lagos today, a 3-fold increase from 30 years ago).

The Economist magazine’s 2011 profile of Fashola is titled “A rare good man”. It’s hard to disagree. But dogging that good man is an albatross, and quite a big one at that: The outlook of his government on Lagos’ poorest people – the “Bottom Millions”, to use the term made popular by Prof. Paul Collier.

It’s not that the governor has a pathological dislike for the poor – at least, I don’t think so. Listen to him talk about his realisation that there’s a place in the Lagos he envisions, for the not-so-well-off (in the 2010 interview quoted from above):

“I don’t see how we would have a Lagos without the man selling meat by the roadside. All we insist is that he cleans it up. I cannot imagine Lagos without those women peeling their oranges, that’s also part of the character of Lagos. You cannot imagine Lagos without the suya man at night, in Obalende, if you want to go there to eat barbecue meat.”

Alas, the road to the actualisation of that vision has been paved with broken dreams and lives and shattered hopes. Let me share a true story – an encounter I had a year ago, somewhere on Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, as I waited to be picked up by a friend. This is how I narrated it in a column I published shortly after:

“Last week, I stood under an umbrella in Victoria Island, watching Lagos rush beneath a rain that couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to stop or not. Next to me were two elderly women, petty traders from what I could see. They were discussing Fashola, in Yoruba.

‘Fashola is wicked,’ said one. ‘He terrifies me.’ They shared stories of the state government’s sustained assault on the city’s poorest; the demolitions and evictions everywhere from Oshodi to Amukoko. They compared it to the wiping out of Maroko (in the early ‘90s). ‘When this rain is done, ‘they’ will find fresh victims, claiming that the houses are sitting on drainage channels,’ one of them lamented.”

Since that encounter, the Lagos demolition train has moved on to Ijora Badia, and who knows where else? In its body language, the Lagos we all know advertises and represents itself as “No Place for Poor People”.

From street hawkers consistently terrorised by Kick Against Indiscipline operatives to taxi drivers priced out of business by the government’s decision to phase out the trademark yellow-and-black taxis in favour of brand new cabs, to dumpsite dwellers at the mercy of a government that has no plans for them, to the multitudes forced out of the city into the hinterland under a puzzling ‘deportation’ programme. Are we asking ourselves this troubling question: All those former okada riders now out of work – where are they; what are they doing; how are they surviving?

There is what seems to be a disproportionate government focus on the wealthier sections of the city, at the expense of the poor, which disregards the fact that twice as many Lagosians live on the Mainland as on the Islands. On the low-income mass housing front, it doesn’t seem that the government is doing enough, compared to the attention being focused on developing, say, Eko Atlantic City. The impressive bid by architect Kunle Adeyemi to regenerate Makoko through innovative housing solutions is now in limbo, threatened by a state government that has declared it “illegal”. Yet, this is perhaps the only state government in Nigeria that can boast having an “Innovation Advisory Council”.

There’s also the fact that Lagos is not the most transparent of state governments, fuelling suspicion that there’s much more that the state could be doing with the resources it has. And then I don’t think the state government is putting enough pressure on the local government(s) – who are grandmasters of revenue collection but utterly hopeless at governance – to justify their existence.

I acknowledge Fashola’s dilemma. On the one hand is the vision to speedily subvert the decay and dysfunction that have long plagued the city, and set it on the path to becoming a city that stays ahead of its needs; on the other hand is the need to ensure that the envisioned Lagos is not leaving anyone, no matter how poor, behind. Fashola needs to temper the “Eko O Ni Baje!” vision with a “No One Left Behind” philosophy.

It’s very tricky, no doubt: On the one hand, Oshodi needed to be sanitised; on the other hand is the fate of its displaced masses; they can’t simply be wished into oblivion.

It’s a fine balance, and the way Fashola handles it will go a long way towards determining his lasting legacy when he steps down as Governor about 700 days from now.

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