By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, there is nothing more critical and important to us than the issue of electricity. Any country that continues to sleep in total darkness 57 years after attaining independence is indeed a backward nation. The matter of power failure is reminiscent of a time when Nigerians believed in the concept of Abiku (the Igbo call it Ogbanje), a mysterious child prodigy who dies shortly after birth and continues to return and die repeatedly to the eternal torment of the parents. The case of electricity in our country has thus become like that of Abiku, with no solution in sight.
It is with this sorry state in view that many of us rejoiced when the highly celebrated former Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola, was given the fattest combined portfolio ever in the history of the Nigerian State, as Minister of Works, Power and Housing by President Muhammadu Buhari.
For the record, it must be noted that Fashola was a natural and perfect successor to the brilliant Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, in Lagos State. He took Lagos to the next level after a solid foundation was laid by his former boss, under whom he had served as Chief of Staff. It is to Tinubu’s credit that he is able to recognise great leaders from his stable of political acolytes and push them to the fore. Such is the successor to Fashola, Akinwunmi Ambode, who has taken Lagos further than his predecessors did in the short space of two years.
Buhari must have been a great admirer of Fashola’s good work and great development in Lagos State. It was even rumoured that but for the furore over a likely Muslim/Muslim ticket, Fashola was one of the preferred choices of Buhari for the Vice Presidential candidacy. But Buhari was not ready to risk another round of castigation and conspiracy theory linking him to the possible Islamisation of Nigeria so he opted for a Redeemed Christian Church of God Pastor, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, also a product of the Tinubu School of Politics. Recent events have demonstrated that Buhari’s choice of Vice President had the seal of approval from God as Osinbajo has proved to be a remarkable, astute, competent and dependable leader with a vision for Nigeria.
I did not envy Fashola at all when his appointment and multiple assignments were announced, knowing how complex and complicated Nigeria is. I knew each of those Ministries was big enough to weigh even a King Kong down, talk less of a mere mortal. Some had likened the appointment to that of a de facto Prime Minister. Well, to whom much is given, much is expected. Fashola’s situation was dicey and precarious. He was expected to perform some of the miracles of Jesus Christ, either by turning water into wine or raising a dead Lazarus from the dead, as contained in The Holy Bible. Finish. How he was going to accomplish it was nobody’s business. But those who should know knew he was going to meet a brick wall thicker than the ignominious Berlin Wall, in those ugly days gone by. And that was exactly what happened.
Somehow, Nigerians are yet to see any appreciable or significant improvement on the infrastructure deficit of Nigeria. Naturally, they have pounced on Fashola and wondered why his magic wand seems to be failing this time around. Though I knew some of the obvious reasons why things were not running and moving positively, I needed to contact the main man and seek answers to so many nagging and unanswered questions. I was particularly worried about electricity and the roads. This is because I had seen first hand how the former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, had added over 800 megawatts of electricity to the national grid, ensured several thousand kilometres of roads were tarred or rehabilitated and got a few world-class housing estates built in record time. What then was stopping and messing up the forward march of the giant of Africa, Nigeria?
I made a call to Fashola last week and the cerebral Minister was gracious to grant me access and appointment under short notice. This was not the first time we will discuss politics and the challenges of leadership. He’s been a fastidious reader of my Pendulum column and had called me from time to time, formerly as Governor and lately as Minister, to discuss in a very civilised and positive manner. This is unlike others at his level who tend to take offence at any criticism and see writers as enemies in the figment of their imagination. I’ve since become a great admirer and respecter of his uncommon brilliance, exceptional performance and remarkable example of patriotism.
Right from the main gate, I saw his famous signature of efficiency and thoroughness. My names had been put on every list at every checkpoint on the way to the Minister’s Office. They didn’t have to make endless phone calls to invisible masquerades. I did not encounter the usual ubiquitous hangers-on that normally litter our corridors of power. Anybody who was visiting or waiting to see the Minister had business to do there. Any casual observer would have noticed and noted that Fashola is a stickler for perfection and excellence despite the fact that his current assignment was almost destroying and demystifying his famed efficiency and efficacy.
I was ushered into his office pronto by his Chief Protocol Officer, Mr Oladimeji Sofowora, my friend of several decades. The Fashola I met was as cool and calm as a cucumber. He stood to welcome me as we exchanged pleasantries. Our discussions soon dovetailed into the chronic problems of infrastructure in Nigeria. In recent time, he’s been known and recorded as lamenting and bemoaning the dearth of quality infrastructure in Nigeria.
I fired the first salvo: “why are you not able to perform the same wonders you did as Lagos Governor at the Federal level?” It was meant to be an ordinary visit, meeting and general chat but trust the journalist in me, I was not going to allow this opportunity to slip away like that.
I obviously did not catch Fashola unaware. The Senior Advocate of Nigeria (the equivalent of a Queen’s Counsel in England), ostensibly knows his onions and was always prepared and ready to defend his territory like the true footballer he is. I had hosted him in the past in Accra, Ghana, while he was on his playing expedition. “While I do not like to give excuses for challenges or failure, I must establish a few facts quickly…”, he thundered. I listened with rapt attention, like a diligent schoolboy. I was captivated and enthralled by his thorough and vast knowledge of his subject and Ministries.
Fashola took me on a tour de force of his tenure as Governor of Nigeria’s richest State and the fundamental difference between being a Governor and a Federal Minister: “As Governor of Lagos, I controlled a budget of close to half a trillion naira; now I think Governor Ambode has superseded that. All my three Ministries today combined control about N500 billion only. So I’m expected to spend what alone I spent on one State on all the 36 States of Nigeria and in three major Ministries rolled into one…” I sighed, heavily.
That was not all, he exclaimed! “In Lagos, I had the Executive Power, and interference and protocol and processes were minimal. the Federal government is totally different…” Wow, I also exclaimed, loudly. I could sense his frustration and feel his pain. On top of this, he was facing tough obstacles in the National Assembly. He said he respects the oversight functions of parliaments but was truly troubled that he was not on the same page with some of the National Assembly members. He believes that they have the same objective but it is just the way that they have not been able to agree that is seeming to demonstrate that there is discord.
I saw some of his preparations for his summons and visit to the National Assembly the following day to report and answer tough questions and queries from members of the Federal House of Representatives. He explained in great detail how he has had to undergo a rigorous tour of every part of Nigeria by land to truly study, experience, understand and decide on the most critical areas to tackle in stages by order of priority. Unfortunately, this did not sound palatable to some powerful and influential Nigerians. According to him, everyone wants him to do their roads first and that was not feasible and not going to be possible in the foreseeable future, given the current financial constraints of government.
The stories are virtually the same in all other Ministries; lack of funding, excessive bureaucracy, budget conundrum, political nepotism and even endless turnover of Ministers. For example, the Ministry of Works must have had about 36 Ministers in about 57 years, out of which Chief Femi Okunnu served the longest for about six years. There is no continuity. Each Minister comes with new ideas and starts afresh. Fasola has worked assiduously and tirelessly in the past two years and has now mastered his Ministries. If you remove him today, the next person selected would, more than likely, jettison whatever Fashola has started. This is a major factor militating against some of the reforms that a genius like Fashola is willing and able to activate and actualise with his team. But, unfortunately, not everyone in government understands that time is of the essence of projects and development and that all problems cannot be fixed at once. We must learn to have targets and priorities. The time and energy we expend on bickering on irrelevant and often trivial matters would have been better spent tackling and solving some of the seemingly intractable problems.
For Fashola, all hopes are not lost. He is determined to succeed where others have failed. He has fortified himself with the greatest weapon, KNOWLEDGE. He says you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know or understand the nature and cause of the problem. “A Doctor must first diagnose what is wrong with the patient before knowing what medicine to prescribe and at what dosage…”, he said, matter-of-factly. I couldn’t but agree with most of his submissions. The reality of governance is always different from the substance of armchair criticism. Seeing is believing and doing remains the biggest deal. Nigeria is fortunate in that Fashola is a committed patriot who has great faith and confidence in his abilities. He is a man who just wants to do his best for his country and let posterity be the judge thereafter. With dedicated and capable Ministers like Fashola, this government is still likely to deliver on the huge promise and expectation of the people who voted for President Muhammadu Buhari and the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo in April 2015.