Since his swift rise to governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu has shown more interest in promoting APC’s mythical Lagos Master Plan than in establishing his own path, a situation that has made him politically unexciting.
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Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s ascent to the Lagos State House in Marina was arguably the most coordinated campaign drive in Nigeria since 1999. After his predecessor, Akinwunmi Ambode, fell out with former governor of Lagos and political godfather, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, in rather inexplicable circumstances, Sanwo-Olu was selected from the fringes to contest for, and eventually serve as governor. An erstwhile chief executive officer of the Lagos State Property Development Commission, Sanwo-Olu harnessed his academic experience at the Lagos and London Business Schools to thrive in the murky business of executive governance. Prior to running for governor, he cut his political teeth in 2003 when he was appointed as a special adviser on corporate matters to the then deputy governor of Lagos State, Femi Pedro. He was made the acting commissioner for economic planning and budget in Lagos in 2007, after which he was appointed as the commissioner for commerce and industry in Lagos by then-governor, Tinubu. However, it was the deft manner in which Sanwo-Olu campaigned for the governor’s office that truly showed his political mettle. Lagosians reflected on his campaign for turning him from a complete stranger into an ‘omnipresent daily acquaintance’. People swore that they saw Sanwo-Olu’s faces in their bathrooms in the lead-up to the 2019 Lagos governorship election.
In under four years after his meteoric rise to the number one office in Lagos, Sanwo-Olu seems to have lost the factors that made him politically exciting—from the topsy-turvy nature of his emergence as APC’s Lagos gubernatorial candidate in 2018, to the all-pervasive campaign that followed. The Nigerian digital media sphere is replete with snarky disdain for him. Not only is there is an irreverent account on Instagram with the handle @ogunpunishsanwoolu, the search entry ‘God punish Sanwoolu’ on Twitter, reveals a barrage of spiritually related invectives directed at the sitting governor of Lagos, a uber-religious metropolis. A-list Lagos celebrities have spoken of being repulsed by the governor; and some other stars have told the governor his rallying cries are a ‘disrespectful joke’.
It is not that Sanwo-Olu has not recorded considerable gains as Lagos’ governor, however his public profile has deteriorated in the 43 months that he has been governor of Lagos State. The highlight of Sanwo-Olu’s administration is considered to be his ‘methodical handling’ of the COVID-19 breakout in Lagos, when he acted swiftly to institute the ‘Incident Command System For The Novel Coronavirus’ more than three weeks before Lagos recorded its first case of COVID-19. During this time, the governor drove the COVID-19 response capacity of the state by increasing the isolation centre bed capacity, drumming up vigilance for strict screening and improving contact tracing, case management and public order efforts. Lagos also rapidly enacted the Coronavirus Pandemic Emergency Law (2020) to legally stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state and the state’s public outreach through relief packages and media campaigns during this time were commendable.
A lot of the general contempt for Sanwo-Olu can be traced to his fence-sitting during the #EndSARS protests of October 2020, and the attendant Lekki Toll Gate shootings. Other contributory factors to the governor’s rising unpopularity, especially among Lagos’ youthful population of savvy digital natives, include the mounting evidence of the scale of state capture being perpetuated in Lagos, concerns around the state’s ‘weaker’ financial risk profile amidst a rising debt burden, the deepening Lagos culture of disregard for the rule of law by state, non-state and extra-state actors, the reverberating grim legacy of the Lekki Toll Gate shootings and, perhaps the worst of all, the growing fallibility of Bola Tinubu—Lagos State’s established political godfather and the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC)—who is up against mounting allegations of frailty and drug trafficking.
As Sanwo-Olu contests for a second term as governor of Lagos State with a backdrop of starkly differing narratives and perceptions, to what extent can he maintain the political gravitas necessary to avoid a similar fate as his predecessor?
‘THE MAN WHO SPENT FAKE DOLLARS IN A US NIGHTCLUB’
Sanwo-Olu’s fated governorship campaign hit full steam in 2018 when 55 of the 57 Local Council Development Association chairmen in Lagos threw their weight behind him, in an event heralded by Cardinal James Odumbaku, Tinubu’s political forerunner. Building on the momentum generated by the endorsement, Sanwo-Olu would go on to win the state’s APC primaries and the gubernatorial election, albeit in an election cycle dogged by a lack of internal party democracy and notable incidences of ballot-box snatching.
Sanwo-Olu would not have become the Lagos State governor in 2019 without the untimely removal of his predecessor, Ambode. Described by Odumbaku as ‘the first commander that left the stage prematurely’ in 2019, Ambode came to office highly recommended, having spent 27 years in the Lagos public service, rising to the exalted offices of permanent secretary and accountant-general of the Lagos State Ministry of Finance. Ambode was envisioned by APC, the ruling party in Lagos, to be the man who could competently continue with the actualization of the APC ‘Lagos Master Plan’—a controversial synopsis purportedly detailing how the party would run Lagos for the benefit of its citizens.
Armed with a resumé that includes enviable feats like improving Lagos State’s budgetary performance to an average of 85 per cent annually, Ambode brought the same fervour that made his career outstanding to the office of governor. As governor, he moved his official residence from the palatial Marina State House to the administrative Lagos House in Ikeja, in a bid to ensure punctuality and inclusive governance. And inclusive governance he ensured. By his second year in office, Ambode had implemented many large-scale reforms, establishing the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency to address consumer complaints and issues, and capitalizing the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund with ₦25 billion to reduce youth unemployment in Lagos. He also made significant progress in the area of infrastructure development, exemplified by his commissioning of multiple road networks in the Alimosho area of Lagos and the Oshodi Transport Interchange Project, amongst others. The culmination of these efforts led Tinubu to acknowledge publicly that ‘Ambode is silently achieving, religiously executing and brilliantly giving results for Lagos State.’
Yet, silent achievers can also be loud disruptors. In his urge to rejig Lagos, Ambode unravelled many threads that previously held the fabric of the office of the Lagos State governor together. In under three years as governor, he revoked concessions awarded by his predecessor, relieved long-standing bureaucrats of their roles, exposed inflated contracts within the state procurement agency, overhauled key ministries and agencies, forcefully evicted residents along waterfront communities in Lagos’ highbrow areas and unnecessarily mixed the affairs of the church and the state.
Ambode’s coup de grâce finally came when his actions began to constitute a direct affront to the sensibilities of major power brokers in Lagos. On the eve of the 2018 Lagos APC gubernatorial primary election, he organized a press conference at the Lagos Marina House where he claimed, among other things, that Sanwo-Olu, the party’s appointed challenger, was a mentally unfit man who spent ‘fake dollars’ in a US nightclub. With this, Ambode burnt the bridge that led to any sort of rapprochement with his political sponsors. This unguarded act was the final nail in the coffin to his many previous ‘sins’, not least his alleged nebulous dealings with Cranberg Construction amounting to the grant of a $300 million contract; his ₦45 billion ‘Bus Reform Programme’ which lacked the backing of the Lagos State House of Assembly; his scandalous multi-million dollar deal with Visionscape Sanitation Solutions Limited, which put private waste managers in Lagos out of business and destabilized the existing waste management system; and his alleged beneficial ownership of multiple bank accounts for money laundering purposes.
It would seem that by putting together a press conference and using his podium as governor of Lagos to launch personal attacks at his challenger, Ambode finally crossed the line and deviated from the APC’s Lagos ‘blueprint’, crashing almost as fast as he took flight. He lost the state primaries through the same well-orchestrated plot that brought him to power and escaped being removed from office by the Lagos State House of Assembly only by a whisker. The same power brokers who masterminded his ascent supervised his removal and sought to minimize the tension with claims that he was Lagos’ first ‘one-term’ governor. Sanwo-Olu was then brought in to continue with the actualization of the Lagos Master Plan—however mutilated the plan may have been.
‘WHO GAVE THE ORDER?’
Having replaced Ambode as governor of Lagos, Sanwo-Olu’s sternest test came during his second year in office when he had to handle the #EndSARS protests which quickly spiralled from a quiet resistance to a loud revolution against bad governance.
Nigerian youths had amorphously mobilized to protest the extra-judicial terror committed by officers of the Nigerian police force’s ‘Special Anti-Robbery Squad’ in the early days of October 2020, until events at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, on the night of 20 October 2020, when protesting youth were killed by officers of the Nigerian military. In actual terms, the #EndSARS protests sit alongside the Aba Women’s Revolt of 1922, June 12, 1993, presidential election protests and the Occupy Nigeria protest movement of 2012 as the most profound refusal of abusive policing and governance in Nigeria.
Sanwo-Olu’s role as the governor of Lagos during the #EndSARS protests is best described as spiritless. He imposed a state-wide curfew on the morning of 20 October 2020, warning that ‘nobody except service providers and first responders must be found on the streets’. In the days after the massacre, Sanwo-Olu absolved himself of any responsibility and laid the blame for the killings on ‘forces beyond his control’. The governor also declared in an interview with CNN that only two protesters were found dead from the military shootings. However, the Nigerian military, after initially denying reports that it was at the scene, soon revealed that it was Sanwo-Olu who invited them to the scene of the Lekki toll gate. Further investigations by the Lagos State EndSARS Panel On Restitution For Victims of SARS Related Abuses And Other Matters also revealed that nine people were killed and 33 others were shot by the Nigerian security forces at the Lekki toll gate, contrary to the governor’s initial claim in his interview with CNN that ‘there is no scratch of blood anywhere there’.
SANWO-OLU: CUSTODIAN OF THE LAGOS MASTER PLAN?
Ever before Sanwo-Olu became the governor of Lagos, there were possibly a few terms more venerated in Lagos than the words ‘Lagos Master Plan’ or the ‘Lagos blueprint’. Widely referenced as a significant document by all the major political actors in Lagos, including by Bola Tinubu, and his political supporters and detractors, the Lagos blueprint can stand toe-to-toe with the Lagos constitution in any argument about the state’s grundnorm. But, contrary to the popular notion that APC’s Lagos blueprint is a ‘document’, it is not an entire document of plans made by the party for the administration of the Lagos State. Instead, it largely consists of disparate ideas conceived and coined by Tinubu, Lagos’ first executive governor under Nigeria’s Fourth Republic (1999-present), on the ways and means of developing Lagos. Included in this blueprint is the initiative to develop an urban-mass transit system for Lagos which Tinubu spoke fondly about sometime in the early 2000s but which continues to remain in development even after 23 years of unbroken APC rule in Lagos.
To underscore the reality that there are many APC ‘blueprints’ in Lagos similar to the one Tinubu created, successive APC state governors in Lagos have since gone ahead to create their own developmental master plan for the development of Lagos; including the Babatunde Fashola administration’s ‘Lagos State Development Plan (2012-2025)’ and the Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration’s ‘Lagos Innovation Master Plan’. There is also the ‘Lagos State Government Transportation Dealbook’ which was created by the Ambode administration in 2018 and the Lagos Strategic Transport Master Plan (2005-2025) which was created by Tinubu. These are only a few amongst many other master plans, blueprints and development plans that have been idealized by successive APC governments since the party first came to hold sway in Lagos in 1999.
In effect, there is no singular master plan or blueprint by APC for Lagos and the idea that the APC governs Lagos through one is misleading. Sanwo-Olu’s posture as the current ‘custodian’ of APC’s Lagos Master Plan refers to the fact that he is the current upholder of APC’s plan for developing Lagos—a development plan that follows many trajectories, encompasses various written and unwritten codes and is beyond the complete grasp of the average Lagosian. Little wonder, some political analysts have argued that the Lagos master plan is a ‘parasitic master plan personal to Tinubu and his family’.
Observers of Lagos’ political sphere will not be remiss to dismiss the categorization of the APC blueprint in Lagos as a singular document. In fact, the idea of a specific APC blueprint for developing Lagos is oftentimes a crutch usually clung to by the party hierarchy to sway Lagos voters during election cycles or to justify the party’s internal political machinations, as was used by Tinubu when the party ousted Ambode. Thus, APC’s specific plans for developing Lagos remain at large, and Sanwo-Olu continues to govern Lagos on ill-defined parameters.
A SANWO-OLU SECOND TERM: LAUNCHPAD OR POISONED CHALICE?
While Sanwo-Olu has begun his journey to serve as the governor of Lagos for a second constitutional term, it is unlikely that the Lagos voter will be caught unaware by the ubiquitous nature of his campaign in this electoral cycle. It will not be hard to deeply question the legacy of Sanwo-Olu’s first tenure and his role in upholding the APC political apparatus in the state, especially in light of events in the governor’s first term.
Lagos is one of Nigeria’s most entrenched one-party states and APC has never lost a gubernatorial election in Lagos since 1999. Still, the political fortunes of the citizens of the state will undoubtedly meet significant progress if other political parties joined the fray and reduced APC’s influence in the state elite. The situation is not helped by the near comatose position of the opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which is in a state of disarray and continues to bewilder voters with choices including the handpicking of Funke Akindele, a previously non-political movie star, as the party’s deputy governorship candidate in the 2023 general elections.
Lagos, a frontline state in Nigeria, ranks low on many notable global human capital development rankings. The state is currently ranked as the second-worst liveable city out of 172 cities in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit in its Global Liveability Index of 2022, a metric that takes into account a city’s stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. The outcome of the report is a damning verdict on the APC administration of Lagos since 1999, and one that calls into question the efficacy of all the ‘blueprints’ previously developed by the APC governorship administrations in the state.
Residents of Lagos on average contribute more than ₦267 billion to the state coffers every six months, a concerted civic duty that is overshadowed by the mounting evidence of public embezzlement. Lagos also continues to pile on more debt, despite its weakening financial risk profile. Culturally, Lagos has grown poorer. A disregard for the rule of law by state, non-state and extra-state actors persists and the state is currently bursting at the seams as homelessness spirals. The continuous suppression of democratic rights has also become a cause for concern in the state as highlighted by the dark legacy of the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre.
Given the evidence, Sanwo-Olu’s second term run as governor of Lagos portends as a launchpad for him and APC, and a poisoned chalice for the people of Lagos. The plethora of master plans by successive APC governments in Lagos has clearly not translated to any sustainable development for the life of the average Lagosian. An ideal place for the Lagos electorate to begin rectifying any perceived wrongs would be by exercising their franchise at the March 2023 Lagos governorship election without fear or favour⎈
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