Babatunde Fashola, Governor of Lagos State, Nigeria, delivered a speech at SAIS yesterday that was notable for its detailed (although somewhat rambling) account of his administration’s successes and challenges as well the issues facing the greater Federal Government of Nigeria. He was critical of the excessive power of the central government in Abuja and also appeared to revel in nostalgia for the supposedly more orderly Nigeria of his youth in the 1960s, which I understood him to attribute to its closer temporal proximity to colonial rule.
Had Fashola not been 20 minutes late to his speaking engagement, or even apologized for the delay, I would have felt even better about the prospect for Lagos’ future governance. Nonetheless, I enjoyed his relatively candid remarks that provided a great deal of specifics. I found it somewhat ironic that one of his greatest achievements has been alleviating traffic congestion on Nigeria’s road and that traffic was attributed as the reason for his delay in arriving.
Fashola opened his remarks by stating that he enjoyed speaking at education institutions and connecting with youth. The Governor claimed to be of the opinion that developing the infrastructure of the mind is more important than physical infrastructure. He ended the talk by praising the progress made at Lagos State University under his administration (at #11, it’s apparently the highest ranked non-federal university in Nigeria) and saying that he’d be delighted if a US institution, such as Johns Hopkins would establish a formal partnership with it.
The Governor’s remarks began on a rather curious note. He stated that his thoughts were with America in the aftermath of the tragedy in Boston, which he had followed very closely and took notes on (presumably in the concern that Lagos may one day have to respond to a similar attack). Fashola had apparently considered cancelling his visit to the US out of concern that customs procedures would be too difficult given his country of origin and muslim faith. Nonetheless, he persevered and the vocal complaints of an elderly female US citizen upset with his expedited passage through customs was the only difficulty that he encountered.
Fashola then appeared to indicate that he would devote the rest of his remarks to immigration and the diversity of Lagos. He compared Lagos to New York City and referenced the city’s immense population bloom. Peter Lewis, the Director of SAIS’ African Studies Program had stated in his introductory remarks that Lagos has 18 million inhabitants, but Fashola said that the correct figure is 21 million, a tremendous increase from a population of 300,000 in 1960. While this growth has led to much unplanned urban sprawl, Fashola appeared to be generally optimistic that “Lagos remains a magnet.” In his view, immigration led to more resources, better talent, and is an attribute that is a historic characteristic of prosperous societies.
The Governor shifted away from immigration and then spoke on improvements in the security of Lagos during his administration. He was particularly pleased to note a major decline in successful bank robberies under his watch. Displaying a sense of humor, Fashola noted that the police in Lagos had traditionally been very slow in responding to crimes. This was partly because they had no patrol cars, but he added that as they did not have any guns either, their delay was a prudent matter of self-preservation.
The final topic he tackled was unemployment. Fashola argued that “one success leads on (sic) to a new problem”, namely that gains in healthcare are responsible for a rising population and the associated issue of unemployment. The Governor took this opportunity to praise his administration’s role in expanding access to housing.
Fashola’s remarks then became a little less focused, but he adopted a polemical posture, in a discussion on the devolution of authority between Nigeria’s federal government, its 36 states, and local government authorities, he came down clearly on the side of greater resources to the state and local governments. He complained that efforts to improve water provision and rehabilitate roads were hamstrung by forces in Abuja and called for a “truer federal union”. Fashola suggested that Nigeria’s constitution is a product of military rulers who believe in direct, centralized control.
The Governor of Lagos believes that his country’s “golden age lies ahead”. I certainly agree, but the troubling question is how far ahead.
* Per my usual disclaimer, I left before the Q&A.