While the Presidential elections are taking centre stage in Nigeria, some will argue that the gubernatorial elections, which follow in March, are more significant as governors have much more leeway to effect change and have a greater impact on the day-to-day life of people in each state. New African spoke to Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the APC candidate for Lagos State.
Taken on its own, Lagos State would be Africa’s 5th largest economy and it remains Nigeria’s economic engine, as well as an industrial and innovative hub and the country’s financial centre. It has an estimated GDP of $137bn, or a third of Nigeria’s GDP.
To put it into perspective, Kenya’s GDP is $50bn – with a population of 50m, two and a half times Lagos’ – and that of neighbouring Benin is $10bn, with a population half its size.
Given that Lagos State manages to raise more revenues than it gets from the Federal Government – the only one in Nigeria to do so – not only does it have more autonomy, but it has also been lauded for being better run and pushing through public investments at a faster rate than those states more dependent on disbursements from Abuja.
According to Babajide SanwoOlu, the APC candidate for the gubernatorial elections in March, Lagos accounts for over 50% of VAT receipts nationwide, highlighting the importance of Lagos within Nigeria.
Lagos state has historically been led by the APC since 1999, when Bola Tinubu became the first democratically elected governor. He is credited with setting the foundations of the state administration during his tenure, between 1999 and 2007. Tinubu, a former Mobil Oil executive, is often described as a political godfather and was touted as a potential successor to President Buhari until the latter presented himself again.
Tinubu was succeeded as governor by the current Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola (2007-15) – an effective administrator who was known for his rigour and for getting things done. He in turn was followed by the current governor, APC’s Akinwunmi Ambode.
Ambode will not run for a second term as he lost the APC ticket to Sanwo-Olu. However, Ambode can be credited for continuing on his predecessors’ path and greatly increasing public investment in infrastructure.
Babajide Sanwo-Olu has the arduous task of convincing the population of the state of his ability to deal with the many socioeconomic problems that Lagos continues to grapple with. He also has a vocal opponent in Jimi Agbaje,
the opposition candidate for the PDP, who is seeking election for the second time in a row, and for a third time altogether.
During our interview, SanwoOlu came across as measured and affable. He preferred to focus on what he can do rather than what made him the APC’s candidate. Observers describe him as mild-mannered with an inclusive style.
Lagos, being the economic nerve centre of the country, brings with it its own challenges. The state’s population, estimated at 20m, is projected to increase to 30m in the next 20 years. The city is already congested and traffic, not only on the roads but also at the ports, is a real issue.
Sanwo-Olu said that in a recent study he commissioned, waste management emerged as Lagosians’ major concern. Other priority issues include the need for more largescale investments in infrastructure, education and health. He expected that this will consume the bulk of the state’s revenues.
Lagos has the challenges of many mega-cities. There is rising inequality and affordable housing is also a major problem, with almost half the population estimated to live in poor and overcrowded areas.
Why does Sanwo-Olu believe he is the right person for what must be one of the most taxing positions in Nigeria? He says he brings a unique blend of private and public sector experience, is focused on using technology to run a better administration, and will harness the innovative and can-do spirit of Lagosians. BOS (as he is known) talks like a private sector executive, wanting to measure and track progress.
But his real strength, he says, is his ability to listen and relate to people and also engage from the bottom up, to not only run a better administration but deliver on the people’s greatest needs.
Despite the state being credited for having taken its destiny in its own hands, the system can appear dysfunctional. Infrastructure, for example, is the responsibility of both the state and the Federal Government. So the two need to work in tandem to deliver on certain projects, such as roads.
It gets even more complicated when it comes to power, where the state relies on the national grid – although one way of getting round it is to circumvent the current network and create self-contained grids. With this in mind, SanwoOlu says tough discussions need to be had with central government around the issues of power and infrastructure. Having his own party in government should in theory make things easier, but one gets the impression this has not been the case during the current Buhari administration.
He wants a much more collaborative relationship with Abuja, not only within Lagos State but also to enhance networks with other states. It’s not necessarily an issue of clashes over the way forward but rather, Abuja understanding the specific needs and challenges.
Private investment is the key
The state’s success has been built on its ability to attract private investment across several sectors, especially infrastructure. One example of large-scale investment is Aliko Dangote’s $15bn oil refinery project. As well as the construction of Africa’s potentially biggest refinery, an hour from Lagos, it involves massive infrastructure development, to service the refinery’s power needs and enable the distribution of its products.
Other investments include a $300m venture by Shell and Shoreline Energy, aimed at distributing natural gas to a number of districts in the capital. A number of toll-roads have also been constructed through private capital.
Sanwo-Olu believes that the private sector needs to be the engine for growth. But his biggest challenge is to ensure that the city does not become one of haves and have-nots. He wants to ensure that civil society, youth and other stakeholders all have a voice and a participating role in government, saying his government must be collaborative, one where access is open. At the just-concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, he reportedly secured $5bn-worth of investment commitments to capital projects for the state.
He is adamant that the people of Lagos want to be engaged. He believes that what Lagos has been able to demonstrate is that you can build a compact between the people and government. The people will pay their taxes if they see that their money is being put to good use.
He thinks that technology will help bring even more efficiencies to the way government is run, and also to enhancing governance. Although he says government needs much more in terms of resources to be able to accommodate the city’s needs for education and healthcare, he does not mention tax increases, but rather, more efficient tax collection.
The current governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, was criticised over a housing tax he instigated in early 2018, the Land Use Charge, which some say may have cost him political capital.
Anyone who’s been to Lagos will notice its unique energy and can-do spirit. For Sanwo-Olu, the difference between Lagos and New York is primarily one of infrastructure. “Once you enable this entrepreneurial spirit with adequate infrastructure, there’s no reason why Lagos shouldn’t be able to compete with other international cities,” he adds. The city’s success is fundamental not only for the state but for the country as a whole