Will Fashola make a rebound? By Ayo Olukotun

Mr. Babatunde Fashola

We are living in a very interesting time. There is an air of repugnancy everywhere, most especially in Lagos State where the immoral stench and the dark odium of Mr. Babatunde Fashola’s administration is daily being unearthed”

–Bode George August 21, 2015.

A former National Deputy Chairman of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Olabode Gorge, referred to in the opening quote, may be regarded as a somewhat hostile witness in matters that relate to the former Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola. But his statement in this instance has more than a ring of truth. The mess around Fashola once fondly regarded as ‘the governor of example’ has risen to an all-time high. In the last couple of weeks, the public space has been seized by allegations of corrupt transactions by the former governor; a relentless process of demystification of a widely idolised political personality has acquired momentum, raising questions concerning his survival chances

At the heart of the palaver, are charges made by two non-governmental organisations concerning the spending profile and allegedly shady dealings of the former governor. For examples, Fashola is accused of having spent N78m to upgrade a website owned by him, frittered away N139m to construct two boreholes as well as awarded inflated contracts for the pedestrian bridges along Eti Osa/Lekki/Epe Expressway for N1.2bn all at public expense. Interestingly, those who have written petitions to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission are not politicians but civil society activists such as the Conveners of the Socio- Economic Right Accountability Project and Budg IT Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders. That notwithstanding, there are several who will bet their last dime to insist that the snowballing Fasholagate is an offshoot of his disagreement with the All Progressives Congress leaders, in particular his mentor and former boss, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. Before fully analysing this unhappy development, I crave the reader’s indulgence to digress by entering a short take.

“This is the first time in the history of higher education in the country where one university would maintain its position as the first and best in the country for more than four consecutive times.” That remark was made last week by the Vice-Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Prof. Tale Omole, on learning that Ife has been rated for the fifth consecutive time as the best university in Nigeria by Webometrics.

To be sure, the universities of Lagos, Ibadan and Ilorin have at one time or the other emerged as Nigeria’s best university in global league tables. What is unique about Ife’s achievement is its recurrent dominance on Webomertics as Nigeria’s best. That distinction in Nigerian terms can be related to the construction of an Internet Technology-led Knowledge Park connecting electronically the various research and academic activities on campus. Considering that visibility and impact on the web are cardinal indices, it is logical that Ife is being rewarded for assuming the cutting edge in this dimension of knowledge creation and generation.

The university’s designation by the World Bank as a centre of excellence in software engineering underlines its emerging status as an institution increasingly wired to global knowledge centres. Having said that, however, and as Omole correctly recognised, there is much more road to travel for the university to become a continental and global player. For example, South African universities continue to dominate continental league tables principally due to the fact that the major universities are embedded in first world infrastructure and are better connected to funding from big corporate spenders. This raises the question as to what extent academic excellence is a function of the diligence and foresight of university administrators and to what extent it derives from location in better endowed climes. What is required for the university to consolidate its new status therefore, is for the Federal Government to redesign it along with other high flyers as an institution with world-class potential and fund it as such Massification which spreads the benefits of higher education obviously has its place; but if Nigeria is to realise its dream of building universities that can compete globally, it must endow knowledge centres in those universities that have greater potential of becoming so than others.

To return now to the Fashola controversy, it is obviously in his interest to have the marsh that has gathered around his reputation cleared more so as he has insisted on his innocence. It is not helpful that so far the former governor had tended to wave aside the allegations rather than defend himself in the court of public opinion.

There is no doubt as some observers have commented that in a context of mediocrity in governance, he stands above the crowd. I recall his party projected him as a role model in both the 2011 and 2015 elections in order to illustrate what a progressive government is capable of achieving. It will be difficult to forget his remarkable imprints in such areas as infrastructural renewal, efficient public transportation as well as innovative strategies for freeing Lagos from the strangle hold of violent crimes.

To be sure, the ovation that he received may have been lower had his achievements been subjected to a debate that relates them to their cost and the spending habits of his government. That is a way of saying that in the context of the relatively well-off state of Lagos, and given the enormous debt overhang that he drew up, his governance strides look less remarkable. There is the additional fact that the policy framework for many of his interventions was developed by his predecessor in office who had actually started implementing them. In other words, he deserves applause more for executive energy than for strategic insight and policy engineering.

That notwithstanding, the combination of a technocrat’s grasp of details with the capacity to follow through stages of implementation came close to fulfilling the craving for someone who could marry intellect with flourishes of executive energy. The point must be made however, that leadership is a more embracing property than the ability to deliver results. It includes teamwork, carrying others along, as well as the skills to navigate the delicate contours of power relations. If Fashola failed in these crucial dimensions of leadership, he cannot blame his deficits on others.

It is possible that the timing of the allegations made against him has something to do with the attempt to abort his future political career; but that assumption cannot be made in the absence of evidence to justify the postulation. Even if that were so, such matters are very much the stuff of politics. From the point of view of the public interest, the fact that a leader was effective in several respects does not shield him from public scrutiny. The APC rose to power on the wave of the need to sanitise a corrupt polity. Fashola as one of the leading lights of that movement must demonstrate that he truly belongs. For him to bounce back in public reckoning, it will be necessary for him to dispel the fog that has gathered around his record in office.