Governor, Governor, Let My People Go.

I should have been in the library today; instead, I went to the Lagos State gubernatorial candidates debate. I should have been in the library pouring through contempt of court cases, trying to collect all the examples of executive disobedience of court rulings, attempting to connect the dots between the written down law and judges’ rulings and finding too few dots. As we say in pidgin: “we no dey hear word.” I am, of course, exaggerating. Nigeria is not a lawless country; not everybody disobeys the law and it may be that in a significant number of the cases where they do, there is good reason – maybe even grand philosophical reason. So here I am at the governor’s debate, keeping my fingers firmly crossed that the participants will not make me regret leaving the archives today.

Under the auspices of the Cosmopolitan Women’s Club of Lagos, Victor Adegboyega Adeniji of the Kowa Party, Akinwunmi Ambode of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and Olujimi Agbaje of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) convened to inform the largely female audience of what they can expect should either candidate be elected to office. Dr Olurotimi Olulana from the Labour Party was also meant to attend but was a no show.

Abgaje looks like a leader. Even in his modest and simple grey attire, he looks like a man who is used to standing out in a crowd. His legs are neatly crossed in his chair. His posture is impeccable and his hands are held together with clever grace. These personal attributes, one would think, should all be to Agbaje’s advantage; particularly when compared to the other two men on the stage. Ambode sits huddled over himself, his legs wide open, his hands messily strewn across his lap, and a pleasantly engaged look unwaveringly planted on his face. He is the very picture of ordinary man. The Kowa party candidate Adeniji, on the other hand, spreads his entire body out over the rather wide leather seat and you wonder if he will not soon request that the moderator provide him with a bed on which to rest his wandering and tired looking eyes. He seems fundamentally uninterested in his surroundings.

I am, thus, hoping that Mr Adeniji will redeem himself from my first impressions by saying something extraordinary. The Kowa party is, after all, the only party that has put up a truly different presidential candidate in the form of Professor Remi Sonaiya. The likelihood of Professor Sonaiya’s being elected as president is as the proverbial snowflake in hell but her candidacy is something different, and the party she stands with, largely a grassroots movement, is something different. And difference, if nothing else, is refreshing. So, with the Kowa name behind him I am expecting a truly revolutionary, if somewhat idealised, speech from Mr Adeniji. Something to lift the souls of the young and raise the hopes of the disgruntled.

Adeniji began by saying that he was going to eradicate “lateness” in Lagos. He was the most tardy of the bunch arriving a full hour after proceedings started. Much of what he said after that was either bemusing or irrelevant. It was a shame. The debate was largely congregated around women’s issues – getting greater recognition from the political powers that be on gender equality in the work place, securing women and girls from domestic abuse, greater female political engagement, equal opportunity in education, and better female health care.

No one said anything stupid. That women are important, our society literally does not exist without women, society needs women to be more politically engaged, and the fact that there was a strong connection between the status of women in society and poverty levels, were platitudes all acknowledged by each candidate. There were even some interesting promises made: Ambode pledged to provide greater security for women against domestic abuse. He also vowed to implement child abuse laws and a sex offenders register, should he be elected. For his part, Abgaje committed to filling 20%-25% of political appointments to his cabinet with women; he also intimated that at least 10% of state government contracts would be reserved for local companies.

Despite the relative semblance between all the candidates- so far as actual policy was concerned- there was a stark and observable difference between them in a no less important aspect that concerns their electability. Jimi Agbaje, by my reckoning faces at least 3 rather large problems. The first, and least significant, is that he is running under a party banner that is deeply unpopular at the national level. And for some reason I cannot fathom, since there are no electoral laws that demand it, he has posters all over Lagos with his face side by side with that of his party leader and current President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Simply by visual association, Agbaje seems to have shot himself in the foot. His second problem is that he is up against a man who knows what it means to present oneself as a man of the people. Even clad head to toe in ridiculous APC paraphernalia (he was apparently on his way to a street rally), Ambode manages to exude a common touch that Abgaje seems unable to find within himself. It is not so much that Abgaje believes himself to be better than his people, but simply that he would not know how to hide his difference even if he tried. And while people often do not want to be led by someone who is exactly like them, they also do not want to be led by someone with whom they appear to have nothing in common. Agbaje is not a man about which ordinary people will ever say: “yes, I could have a beer with him.”

If that was his only problem, a simple change of campaign manager might solve it. But the dirty very open secret in that debate room today was just how much money Ambode has behind him in the form of former Govenor Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Every time Ambode spoke, the number of cameras suddenly focused on him seemed to be twice that trained on anyone else. His entrance into the room alone, was enough to alert the audience that Tinubu’s man had arrived. The presumably paid supporters in APC hats and t-shirts led by Ambode’s own wife were adamant that the room have no independent choice on what would be the focus of their attention. Ambode is Tinubu’s man and so Ambode will win. Jimi Abgaje is NOT ok.

That Tinubu owns Lagos State is so well known a fact that people are no longer ashamed to say it out loud though it demeans their very own integrity as Lagosians. Indeed, another of Abgaje’s ill-fated posters questions: “A Lagos for all?” as if he is asking us whether we believe it can ever belong to anyone but Tinubu, rather than affirmatively declaring that he, Agbaje, will make it so. So yes, Tinubu owns Lagos and if that was not clear when he was himself governor from 1999 to 2007, it was abundantly so when he all but planted our current governor Babatunde Raji Fashola into office.

To be sure, Fashola has been about the best governor Lagos has ever had. As of 2010, Lagos’ GDP was fourth among all cities on the continent after only Cairo, Johannesburg, and Cape Town; and it contributed 35.6% to the national GDP and 62.3% to non-oil national GDP. Fashola made international headlines late last year when his government effectively and efficiently eradicated the handful of ebola cases in Lagos and prevented their spread across the country. But Fashola has not done everything that could have been done. Economically, he appears to have swallowed the Anglo-American kool-aid that says that there is only one way to operate market capitalism and that that way will be successful regardless of time and place. There is not and it will not. As is the case with individuals that it is best to spend some time figuring out who you are, building to your strengths and working on your weaknesses as opposed to attempting to imitate someone on whose strengths you may not be constituted to capitalise and whose weaknesses you may not be able to bear, so it is also with states.

In cities like Nairobi, vast geothermal energy development is ongoing to increase electricity supply and encourage clean energy consumption because Kenya happens to sit on a fault line that allows it relatively easy access to the heat from the earth’s core. Kenya’s GDP per capita is $1,800, Nigeria’s is $2,800. In north east Vietnam, what were once poor eye sores are now stable, productive, and vibrant floating fishing villages holding over 400 households on the waters of Halung Bay that also attract thousands of tourists each year. Meanwhile, Fashola’s solution to Makoko – which is about the highest testament to the ingenuity and hard work Lagosians are capable of as it is possible to find – is to attempt to demolish it whilst he carries on in foreign investment led areas of economic growth that the absolute majority of the local population cannot and bears no interest whatsoever in sustaining.

If Fashola did not have to live under the strangle-hold of his “godfather”, he might have made even more decisions better suited to the strengths of his state. And that is something that should concern all Lagosians including all those whose lives appear to be so bountiful with luxury that they believe the democratic privilege of voting in the elections for governor to be beneath them. Ambode may indeed be a credible candidate, but it ought to fly in the face of everything every proud Lagosian believes in to be autocratically commanded and controlled by a man who they have not elected to office. For while it may be Ambode whose voice we hear after February 14, just as it is Fashola’s we hear now, it will be Tinubu that is actually speaking; as it has always been.

I asked somebody who can only be described as an “ordinary Nigerian” what would happen if every body voted for somebody else and not for Ambode. He responded that Tinubu would not agree, he would frustrate that person’s entire agenda and make the job of governor unsustainable till that person left office. Tinubu would just not agree. This sounds like many things to me, but love of country is not one of them.

There is an aspect of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s philosophical logic that can be loosely interpreted as: the meaning of slavery is not to be handcuffed, chained, and prevented from physical movement, the meaning of slavery is for a man to walk as free as he may under the sun, and yet have his thoughts and ideas in the control of another. For a people who do not like being told what to do we sure do take to slavery with ease.


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