By Hakeem Bello
“One admirable thing about Fashola is that he executes every assignment as though his life depended on them. He is, to a considerable extent, the face of what the Catholic Church has in recent decades popularised as common good.” – Modestus Umenzekwe, President of Adem Commercial Complex Lagos, and a frequent road user, wrote in The Cable (8 September 2016).
With yearly tributes over the past decade focusing on various attributes of Babatunde Raji Fashola, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Commander of the Order of the Niger, it is almost tempting to ask: what is left to be said?
But, for a devoted public servant who, in over two decades, has left his imprimatur of dedication and single-minded pursuit of excellence as Chief of Staff and Commissioner in the administration of the current President as Governor of Lagos sufficiently to earn his support as aspirant, candidate and two-term Governor of the State and then capturing national attention as a Minister of the Federal Republic for two terms, the ink can never go dry on his essence.
But BRF, as he is commonly known, at the outset, did not find public service attractive. Indeed, before being literally conscripted to serve as Chief of Staff to now-President Bola Tinubu, he had put in 14 years of private legal practice with his career starting out in the law firm of Sofunde, Osakwe, Ogundipe and Belgore, where he engaged productively in general litigation in various areas such as company law, land, labour and commercial disputes, criminal law, matrimonial causes, chieftaincy matters, administrative law, and intellectual property.
He also had a stint as Managing Partner with his friend, Wale Tinubu, in a new law chamber set up by both but retaining the name of the latter father’s chambers – K. O Tinubu – to meet the rising obligations of a young man who was then about to start raising a family with all the anxieties and sacrifices of running a private outfit.
If BRF left indelible marks in his eight-year tenure as Governor of Lagos State and offered leadership, in the truest sense of the word, for which he got recognition locally and internationally with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in October 2015 presenting him the Stephen J. Solarz Award for his “commitment to resolving social, economic and security challenges in one of the world’s most challenging urban environments,” in his two-term tenure as Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he was no less a “torrent of activity.”
Taken from a tribute by Douglas Martin to the person after whom the ICG Award was named, Stephen J. Solarz, a former nine-term New York congressman, whose “torrent of activity” was then appropriately listed, Fashola’s activities and accomplishments as Federal Minister would fill pages.
Unpacked in numbers, it would include the completion of the construction and rehabilitation of 13,117km out of the over 19,000km of Roads and Bridge infrastructure as well as other Housing Sector activities being worked on in 1,712 contracts and 1,649 projects being supervised as at May 2023; presenting and receiving approval for 336 Federal Executive Council Memos; touring the country fully by road to conduct inspection on 206 projects; visiting the National Assembly for legislative accountability over 90 times; and the activation of the economy of quantities supplied by sub-contractors in bitumen,laterite,sand,diesel and other inputs for road construction and other building materials at an unprecedented level.
The outputs include cracking the most difficult road projects in our nation’s history and the initiation of a season of completion, commissioning and impact across the country. This was climaxed by the virtual commissioning by his former principal, President Muhammadu Buhari, of seven projects on Tuesday, 7 May 2023, a historic day when according to Fashola, “the Federal Government in collaboration with all Nigerians, have come together to open the Second Niger Bridge in Delta and Anambra States, the Ikom Bridge in Cross River State and the Loko-Oweto Bridge in Nasarawa/Benue States and completed section of the Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano Dual Carriageway as well as the Federal Secretariats in Awka, Anambra State, Yenagoa, in Bayelsa State and Gusau, Zamfara State.”
The occasion provided an opportunity for BRF to explain why another major project which should have been delivered on the same day – the expanded and reconstructed Lagos–Ibadan Expressway – was not ready for commissioning.
“…We have delivered 114km of the 127km Lagos-Ibadan highway. Mr President, please permit me to pause here by those who may wonder why the Lagos-Ibadan highway is not being commissioned also today. There is a critical section in the 4km last mile to Lagos; and though it’s technical, what has really delayed is that we found black cotton soil under the pavement and we have decided that we would remove it and we would replace it, so that we would do a proper job instead of a hurried commissioning. So that would be deferred till the next Administration and the expected completion date would be 30th June.”
Overall, the economic impact of the exertions of BRF and other ministers responsible for infrastructure under the former administration is that the stock of our nation’s infrastructure to GDP has doubled from 20 percent in 2015 to 40 percent in 2023.
However, while this is commendable, Fashola believes that infrastructure is a means to a bigger end in terms of its multiplier effect and impact in creating prosperity among the citizenry. “… During the period, the people I interacted with, the workers, the artisans, the people asphalting our roads, the food vendors, the suppliers, painters, people who roof houses those are the people for whom those things are initiated. But people don’t see them, I saw them. I have data on many of them in terms of the numbers we impacted, how many small businesses got to supply sands, roofing sheets, paints, cables, asphalt, and all of that, because that is really what infrastructure is all about; driving the economy, creating jobs, creating livelihoods for families. So, for me that was the big thrill.”
As one who never let fear gets in the way of pushing the frontiers in the art of making things better, BRF is one who would also not shy away from issues of the day which requires elevated discourse. Hence, from issues around national security, restructuring and its variegated connotations, rights and duties across generations, the import of voting at elections, but most importantly questions of law and order and the place of the nation’s constitution, BRF’s clarity of thoughts are well documented.
Indeed, being an unapologetic patriot and firm believer in his country, BRF has consistently been advocating that his fellow compatriots familiarize themselves with Section 24 of the Nigerian Constitution which spells out the duties of citizens.
He took this campaign to the convocation of the Lagos State University on 22 June, while rendering his brief appreciation to the institution, where he was once a Visitor, for conferring on him a honorary doctorate, which he had earlier written to say would be accepted only after completing his tour of duty.
“… The matter for today is just to say that from Professor Olumide to Professor Olatunji-Bello, from Governor Lateef Jakande to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the dream to create and keep LASU alive has been a matter, not only of personal sacrifice but also a lot of service and public duty. And my central message today is that from here, we must rise and cease to be a nation of rights and become a nation of duties because we all seem to know our rights, but how many of us know our duties. For those who have search engines on their phones, please just Google and read Section 24 of the Nigerian constitution.
“It imposes duties on each and every one of us. As a new Government settles in at State and Federal levels, I implore us to familiarize ourselves with our duties and to do our duties. This is particularly with reference to Section 24(b), and I am not quoting law here, but I am just stating that our most important duty at this time is to positively project the good name, the image and the prestige of our country. And that for me is a duty we must all own….”
As the administration of former President Buhari wound down, BRF intensified his focused activities towards fulfilling his ministerial mandates and also making important clarifications.
On the last but one working day of the Administration, BRF was at work in Akure to carry out his duty and push forward the frontiers of public discourse while flagging of the Akure–Ado Ekiti Road’s expansion and reconstruction having finally overcome the “procurement” hurdles of source of funding and redesigning of the vital road to the people of Ondo and Ekiti States. He prefaced his remarks with an apology that he would take some time having been subject of a malicious campaign by those who misunderstood the huge effort going on to get the project to a solid and sustainable course and then dwelt on the paradox of infrastructural development like the road being flagged off, governance and public debt.
He also spoke on the then ongoing debate over whether the then outgoing Administration should have continued “working” or should have drawn the line and waited patiently for 29 May to hand over. Again “breaking it down,” that the projects being commissioned or coming to fruition are the end products of proposals and Council memos which procurement processes started much earlier, he then added the poser on whether vital infrastructure delivery, like the one being flagged off, and governance should cease on account of a mandate that was then yet to extinguish.
As a ringside observer and participant since our first meeting sometime in 2006, I have often wondered about the driving force(s) behind this unrelenting hard worker who is also ever unyielding in his principled stand on law and order, rectitude and uprightness, preparation and planning among other leadership qualities. Some of these I have discovered are the products of parental upbringing, training as a lawyer and, most importantly, an unsparing self-discipline and self-development that activated itself upon finding himself as a “free” undergraduate at the University of Benin after being a “handful” in his childhood and teenage years.
Of course, from loathing public service as a young adult and passing through the tutelage of the one who eventually drafted him into it – Governor Bola Tinubu – he has come to appreciate the importance of public service as he recently told Niyi Babade, a former CNN correspondent and film maker, who sought him out for his views on the annulled June 12, 1993 Presidential Election in relation to the 2023 Elections.
“My best days in government are those days when people walk away from my office with a smile. Those are my best days – a problem solved….”
Also having become somewhat of a veteran in the challenging task of Election Planning and Monitoring, he has come to the personal conviction that power is only meaningful when deployed to serve the people. “For me, the purpose of power, the purpose of winning elections is to express the fullness of the superiority of thoughts into a developmental agenda. Power means nothing if it does not improve the quality of human life, of our environment, of our people. And that is why as public servants, we take our work very, very seriously. We do it with everything that we have and we hold nothing back.”
Resisting every attempt to get him to speak on the acclaimed accomplishments of his administration in Lagos and downplaying the feedback to the effect that he is being celebrated among a cross section of the citizenry, BRF insists that the aspiration of every leader should be to improve on what they met and then move on. “We must all ensure that the standard is not lowered,” he told Mr Babade who had quipped about not all his colleague public servants believed in his concept of the essence of power.
Back to the matter of driving force, I found my nearest answer recently in yet another end-of-tenure interview for the programme, “Conversations with History” on NTA. The probing anchor of the personality programme, Thecla Wilkie, had towards the end, and seemingly out of the blues, opted to revisit his 2015 screening by the National Assembly and the famous statement, “May your loyalty not be tested…” thinking that it had to do with bending the rules for some personalities for the sake of “loyalty.” Rather than getting upset, BRF used the opportunity to offer his most profound understanding of “loyalty” and why he has chosen to live “loyally” to any chosen rather than pledge it.
He declared: “I don’t pledge loyalty, because you don’t know how that loyalty will actually be tested. So, I am loyal to you as my sister or my brother, will I take a bullet for you? So don’t even pledge it, do it when it comes because you don’t know how it will come. And that was the context in which I said what I was quoted to have said.”
BRF then exemplifies his stance with a most touching experience he witnessed on his tour of duty as Governor. “I have seen, and this is a very humbling story of life for me. There was a family who had a parent who needed medical help. First, they struggled to get the financial means. Having now got the financial means, it was now who among the children would donate a kidney to save their mother’s life. And they fought to the bitterest end. ‘She’s your mother, No she’s your mother too.’ That was their test of loyalty to their mother, but they loved their mother. I saw that first hand as Governor. I went back and asked myself what’s happening here. That was their loyalty call, they failed to the mother that gave them life. It was something I reflected on and I look back again at all of the stories of loyalty and all I see really is that life is a story of betrayals. But it’s a story for another day.”
Having done so much in your 60 years, another decade, indeed decades of wonderful memories and accomplishments beckon from today to a man who is Almighty God’s gift to humanity, nation, family and friends. Sixty hearty cheers to a man who is tested and trusted, not by mouthing loyalty but by living loyally to his chosen noble causes.
For me and the b.diRect Team , we say thank you for being an impactful part of our lives, and Happy Birthday Sir!
- Mr Hakeem Bello, FNGE, is Special Adviser, Communications to the immediate past Hon. Minister of Works and Housing.