Sunday, August 28, 2016

How Fashola Transformed Africa's Largest Megacity of Lagos - Financial Times

Fashola: The man who would tame Nigeria’s megacity
~ By Matthew Green (first published on August 7, 2009 3:25 pm, FT Magazine when Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN, was Lagos State Governor from May 29, 2007 to May 29, 2015, He is currently the Federal Minister of Power, Works and Housing.)

One Sunday afternoon in Lagos, a man leapt out into Akin Adesola, the main street on Victoria Island, and flagged down my car. He yanked open the door, swung into the front passenger seat and barked “drive”.

Anger radiated from him like heat. He wore no uniform and carried no gun, but desperation imbued him with an iron authority. All the pent-up frustrations of the megacity seemed to flow through him like an electric current.
He whipped out a tattered paper and jabbed his finger at a list of violations – I had failed to stop at a white line. He said I had better pay the fine now or go to the station where his superior would be less inclined to leniency.

“What makes you think you can come to my country and break our laws?” he spat. His eyes bulged and beads of sweat glistened on his shaven head. He stared through the windshield at the passing cars. “I should not be out here directing traffic,” he said. “I am a graduate.”

A hostage in my own car, I groped for the most obvious response to this piece of news.

“What subject?” I asked.


“So you know Freud?”

“Yes!” he said. “The founding father!” My captor had cracked a smile. The mask slipped. We talked for another 20 minutes and I learnt his name was Olabode – Ola for short. He let me go, gave me his mobile number and waved me on, smiling. As I pulled away, he resumed his vigil from a kiosk on the central reservation, waiting for another chance.

Such encounters are the stuff of everyday life in Lagos, a city defined by hustle. You can see it in the traffic cops shaking down drivers for bribes, in the legions of youths braving the fumes of the “go-slow” traffic jams to sell scratch cards for mobile phones, and in the armies of motorbike taxis careering through the streets. The fabric of the city seems to defy order. A seemingly infinite low-rise checkerboard of mottled concrete, rusted tin roofs and bus-choked, cratered streets, the city of perhaps 18 million ­people – the biggest conurbation in sub-Saharan Africa – appears to have ­succumbed to the early stages of a virulent urban disease. The vast ­majority of people in the city lack access to adequate housing, sanitation or jobs. Travelling relatively short distances can be a teeth-grinding, hours-long ordeal. One Nigerian blogger put the case in eloquent, if extreme, terms in a January post: “A landing in Lagos … is an entrance into Dante’s city of Woe.”

The slumscapes of Lagos are a powerful portent of the extremes of ­poverty and overcrowding to come as the trend for rapid urbanisation continues across the developing world. Nigeria’s commercial capital will be the third-largest city on the planet by 2015 after Tokyo and Mumbai, according to UN projections. Already, half of humanity lives in cities, and within two decades, it will be almost 60 per cent. Millions of people may find that their home towns start to look more like Lagos, before Lagos looks more like the rest of the world.

Yet it is this beast that Babatunde Fashola, the new governor of Lagos State, has made it his mission to transform. Since coming to power in May 2007, the soft-spoken lawyer has launched a programme to build new highways, clear chaotic markets and encourage multi-billion-dollar investments in real estate. A swelling army of floppy-hatted sweepers is ­sprucing up the streets. Former street toughs have been given jobs as traffic wardens. Fashola wants to turn Lagos from an urban dystopia into a model of civic pride. He hopes that even its notoriously frenetic inhabitants will start to feel a little, well, calmer.

Lagosians have heard such plans before. What is remarkable this time is that many people – rich and poor – believe that Fashola could really take the city’s destiny in hand.

A few months after meeting Olabode, I gave him a call. Most ­foreigners in Lagos live among the enclaves of privilege at the tips of irregularly shaped peninsulas abutting the Atlantic shore – the Victoria Island business district and the colonial-era suburb of Ikoyi. Ola lives in Oshodi, one of the hundreds of interlocking neighbourhoods that sprawl across the Nigerian mainland. Fashola has chosen his area as one of the first targets in his plan to bring the megacity to heel.

To get to Oshodi from Ikoyi, you must cross the Third Mainland Bridge, a 12km concrete serpent that swerves around the edge of the city and over Lagos lagoon. On weekends, when traffic is light, riding this stretch of road is like plunging on to a rollercoaster; the sudden expanse of sea and sky feels almost sublime after the crush of the city. From its crest, you can see Makoko, a slum-on-stilts, spilling into the water. On the bridge above the smoke-shrouded rooftops, a trio of Fashola’s cleaners swept the gutters.

My taxi reached the other side and swerved around three tyres placed in the road to stop cars running over a body – a dead man was curled into a foetal position on the tarmac, and was Unclad. Unfazed by the sight – not uncommon in a city where environmental services are, to say the least, overstretched – the driver, named Jimoh, extolled Fashola’s achievements. ­“Fashola, good-oh!” he said. (Lagosians often add an “oh” sound at the end of a word for emphasis, a spillover from the Yoruba language.) “Lagos is now changing-oh, because of Fashola. Everywhere is clean. Before, road is not good at all. Now, no hold-up from the main road, no hold-up at all!”

We turned into the labyrinth of Oshodi. For years, the area was famous as a hang-out for thugs, hustlers and thieves. Battered yellow buses, ­hawkers, motorbike-taxi drivers and thousands of people would crowd on to the highway in a scene resembling a slow-motion riot. Ola lived in a two-storey block located a few minutes’ walk from the maelstrom, sharing two rooms with his wife and two children. To enter, you crossed a plank over an open drain and climbed a dank staircase.

Ola was relaxed although seemed a little embarrassed by the circumstances of our first encounter. His eyes still looked weary, but he was a different man from the enraged official I’d confronted during my brief abduction. He led me from his home to the highway.

The Oshodi of old had vanished. Gone were the market stalls that once crowded the central reservation, leaving a scar of bare earth. Traffic flowed freely. Ola pointed at a stream of people walking in an orderly line over a pedestrian bridge where once they would have hurled themselves pell-mell across the road. On the flyover above, passengers waited by special lanes that ensured the shiny new buses avoided the “go slows”. Blasts from horns still rent the air, but the once-permanent jam had cleared.

“Before, very dirty, stinking!” Ola said, sweeping his arms on either side of the expressway as the buses and cars roared past. “You see it is very neat now!”

The faster flow had some unfortunate side-effects. A crowd gathered around a man who sat panting on the ground after being knocked down by a motorbike taxi. Further along, youths were manhandling an old woman into a bus commandeered to take her to hospital after a similar spill. Ola was disappointed with the casualties. “They failed to realise that this place is now an express,” he tutted.

Oshodi’s transformation was not due to some spontaneous outburst of civic duty. As we watched, a convoy of nine new Toyota Hilux pick-ups swept up the road, executed a U-turn, and parked under the bridge with military precision. The words “Lagos Clean Up” were painted on their sides. Police bearing AK-47 rifles – and some wearing battlefield-style webbing – jumped out. One officer carried a long cane. They would ensure that none of the stallholders crept back.

Out of sight of the police, a trader named Austin Igbegbu described how the security forces had arrived before dawn to raze the market. Some ­hawkers had found space in a newly built precinct, but he was now selling shirts from a sack. “I’ve been in Lagos for 31 years, we’ve seen both military regimes and civilian regimes; people in Lagos never experienced such hardship,” he said. Obi Ifedinma, a woman trader, agreed: “Fashola has ­forgotten the people that voted for him.” Then a group of men, suspicious of my note taking, began to walk towards us and Ola hustled me away.

Fashola likes to tour his city. He conducts frequent inspections of the sites where bulldozers and mechanical diggers are busy bending Lagos State to his will. Given the level of brute force required to realise this vision in places such as Oshodi, I was curious to see what kind of reception he would receive. I fell in at the back of the governor’s motorcade for one of his excursions.

Fashola has banned the use of the sirens that the high-rollers in ­Nigerian business and politics often employed to push their way through traffic jams. His convoy of some 19 vehicles, including pick-ups full of police in bulletproof vests and helmets, sped through the city in silence. He rode in a black Range Rover with the plate “LasGo-1.”

Sweeping through a typical Lagos landscape of ramshackle homes and smouldering rubbish, the entourage reached the site of the new Agboroko-Igboelerin road. Diggers had ripped the façades from breeze-block houses, exposing living rooms to the sky as they cleared the way for the new highway. Dressed in a white kaftan and a cap, Fashola stepped on to the dirt to meet dozens of waiting locals. Waving their arms, the crowd chanted “Baba Oh, Baba-Oh”. One man wore a T-shirt bearing the words: “Fashola – Mega Governor”. Surrounded by a gaggle of reporters and photographers, the governor made a show of rapidly consulting a chart proffered by his commissioner in charge of roads. Minutes later, the convoy rolled away.

A pair of young men squeezed on to the back of a motorbike-taxi to provide a makeshift escort. “We like him very well,” said Raman Akibu, who was among those giving the most vigorous cheers. “He constructs a lot of things for us.”

Fashola’s popularity is directly proportional to the amount of concrete his workmen have poured. His very visible achievements in terms of ­starting roads and bridges have created a sense among many Lagosians that – finally – they have a leader who is capable of delivering lasting, positive change. This is a novelty in a city with a sometimes difficult ­history. A staging post for the transatlantic slave trade, contemporary accounts described the original settlement as a festering, malarial heap plagued by intrigue, fetish worship and human sacrifice. Captain John Adams, in his Sketches Taken During Ten Voyages to Africa Between the Years 1786 and 1800, wrote of one “horrid custom” in particular: impaling a young woman on a stake – alive – to placate the rain goddess.

. . .
I met Fashola in his office in Ikeja on the mainland. A wall-mounted plasma TV screen was tuned to CNN. Piles of documents crowded his desk, as well as a recent copy of the journal, Foreign Affairs. Unlike many Lagosians – whose rapid-fire pidgin English itself seems to reflect the city’s helter-skelter pace – Fashola speaks in measured, lawyerly tones. He eschews the kind of flamboyant hand gestures employed by many more boisterous politicians, yet is publicity-conscious: a government camera crew filmed the interview.

“The dream would be that it will be a much more functional city, a more business-friendly city, a safer city, and where people can find not only work, but also leisure,” he said, when I asked him what he hoped to achieve in Lagos. “The philosophy that guides this government now [is] how to make the infrastructure catch up.”

The roots of Lagos’s problems are easy to diagnose: explosive ­population growth has far outstripped the city’s ability to cope. Post-independence political turmoil and long periods of military rule stymied effective planning. The oil boom of the 1970s, which flooded Nigeria with petrodollars, spurred a temporary surge in public works, but the pace soon slowed. A magnet for migrants from across Nigeria and west Africa, Lagos ­developed organically, oblivious to planning.

Counting population in Nigeria is a controversial and often highly subjective exercise, but Fashola believes the city was home in the mid-1970s to about 2.5 million people. Figures vary widely, but the UN says that by next year the headcount could hit 20 million. ­Fashola dropped the following bombshell so calmly it would have been easy to miss: he believes the city’s optimum population is 40 million.

For an outsider, it can be hard to grasp why so many Lagosians have so much faith in their governor’s ability to transform the city given the manifest depths of its problems. The answer lies in a confluence of personal and political factors that perhaps reveals as much about the way Nigeria works – or doesn’t – as it does about whether Fashola can succeed. The son of a prominent family from the Yoruba community that dominates Lagos, ­Fashola has acquired a reputation that embodies the very qualities ­Nigerians often complain have been lacking in their leaders: technocratic ­competence, commitment to results and, above all, integrity. While no administration in Nigeria is immune from allegations of ­cronyism and subterranean deal-making, Fashola has managed to avoid the whiff of grand-scale corruption that has tainted many of Nigeria’s former state governors.

His personal appeal should not, however, obscure the fact that the general elections that brought the current crop of state governors to power in 2007 were among the least credible ever conducted in Nigeria, with many voters choosing to stay at home rather than risk violence at polling ­stations. Contests in many parts of Nigeria were essentially rigging competitions held between rival groups of thugs. There were fewer reports of abuses on polling day in Lagos, which is dominated by Fashola’s opposition Action Congress party. Yet as in other states, powerful political ­figures tend to play a prominent role in ensuring the emergence of their successors. After being anointed by his predecessor, Bola Tinubu, for whom he served as chief of staff, Fashola’s ­victory seemed assured.

Read the full report on
Matthew Green was the FT’s west Africa correspondent. He takes up a new post in Pakistan this month. For more on Nigeria, see the FT’s Nigeria special report 2009,
LAGOS in MOTION: A Photo Album of Africa's Largest Megacity (LAGOS: Africa's Largest Megacity) (Volume 1)
Paperback US$20.00

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