Babatunde Fashola: the Loner of Sodom?

One of the earliest instances of the ubiquitous act of haggling in West African markets is recorded in Christian mythology. The iniquities of the city of Sodom having reached the ears of the Christian God, he decided to terminate the bacchanals by destroying the city. Fortunately, he had the good mind to seek the counsel of Abraham, his faithful servant. Abraham reminded God of the unfairness of destroying fifty righteous people along with the iniquitous majority. God answered: "if I find fifty righteous people, I will not destroy the city". Sensing opportunity, Abraham began haggling. What about forty-five? Forty nko? E no gree thirty? Baba God, how about twenty now? By now a Nigerian trader would have lost patience and exclaimed: "you dey craze? You wan spoil my market dis early morning? Go price your mama market like dat! Oloshi!" Not God. He was in the mood to indulge Abraham. Ten? Five? We know the rest of the story. Apart from Lot who was already on his way to safety, God found none. No not one. This story comes to mind as I try to account, tentatively and extremely cautiously, for the mind of Babatunde Fashola, the current Governor of Lagos state, against the backdrop of the kalahari of the mind we call leadership and public service in Nigeria.

Let me enter some notes before I proceed. I am one of those intellectuals who harbor total contempt for the quality of the minds in power – and in government – in Nigeria. Lest I be accused of trying to carve an Archimedean space of non-implication in the morass I critique, I am the first to admit that my constituency, broadly defined as the knowledge industry, bears enormous responsibility for either vacating the space of governance and leadership for minds only slightly equal to orangutans – the orangutans I encounter in my subscription to National Geographic are better organizers and envisioners of orangutan society than Nigerian leadership is of Nigerian society - or participating in governance in a much more disastrous fashion than the obtuse rulers who invited them to "come and eat" in the first place. Harvard and Yale-trained minds return home only to drink the strange water they drink in the corridors of power in Nigeria and become unrecognizable tragedies. They mostly become belly-driven jobbers, carrying important-looking briefcases all over Abuja. Professors "join government" to profess nothing or profess rubbish: a long list of Professors and public intellectuals professed a patina of legitimacy for moronic military despots in the 1980s-1990s; some were intellectual servicers of Obasanjo's third term agenda. Others still are currently professing theories to rationalize President Yar'Adua's personal philosophy of governance as an extended siesta. We – my constituency – have a long history of complicity in the rot that has become the lot of the state of Denmark.

We are thus saddled with a situation in which ideas and matters of the intellect are permanently banished from the space of governance and public service in Nigeria. Ideas. Matters of the intellect. We once had those. In the space of governance. As a teacher of African thought, it has become very difficult for me to teach the writings of the generation of Mbonu Ojike, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano and so many others. These were men who read. A lot. They read the books that must be read, to borrow a phrase from Odia Ofeimun. They fed and nurtured their minds. To enter into the epistemic world of these men is to stand in awed contemplation of the power of erudition and ideas instrumentalized for public service and the envisionment of society. It is to be in painful contemplation of the tragic aridity of the minds now in charge of our lives. Whenever I go through 1950s and 1960s issues of the influential journal, Présence Africaine, and encounter the powerful minds of Nigerian leaders and public officials exchanging ideas with the best from the rest of Africa and pan-Africa, the contrast with what we have now becomes insufferable. I squirm in pain at the huge joke we now present Africa and the world as the mind of Nigeria's leadership. The past generation authored books and trafficked in sophisticated ideas that were indicative of the level of their personal development. The current generation's romance with the intellect is always about hiring people in my profession to author degenerate hagiographies, which they proceed to launch with fanfare. Hence you have the tragic case of what used to be one of Africa's best critical minds making the transition from The Theory of African Literature to Prince of the Niger! This contrast is what makes it so painful for me to teach the works – and the minds – of our heroes past. To put it crudely, how did we transition from Ambassador Simeon Adebo to Ambassadors Sam Edem and Musiliu Obanikoro?

Reading was a subject of predilection for Chinua Achebe who once famously asked: "what do Nigerian leaders read?" If one's frame of reference is Nigerian leadership after the aforementioned nationalist generation, there is only one sobering answer to Achebe's question: nothing. They read nothing. Or so I thought until I encountered an essay on Babatunde Fashola authored by my good friend, the novelist and poet Tolu Ogunlesi. Published in The Guardian early this year, the essay tells the story of Ogunlesi's chance ‘encounter' with Fashola's car. Ogunlesi somehow got close enough to the Governor's car and was able to take a peep inside. He did not see a bevy of beauties requisitioned for night duty from the female hostels of the University of Lagos in the Governor's car. He did not see hundred-dollar bills stuffed in Ghana-must-go bags, ready for shipment to the Governor's Godfather(s). He did not see bottles of champagne struggling for space with bottles of imported French wine. He did not see a cache of Ak 47s sourced for distribution to political thugs. No, he did not see any of the trademarks of Nigerian government officials. He saw – wait for it – books! Books in a Nigerian Governor's car? Unbelievable! Ogunlesi was so pleasantly shocked by what he saw that he rushed an article on Governor Fashola's "reading list" to press.

Unlike Ogunlesi, I was not shocked, pleasantly or unpleasantly, by the possibility of the existence of a state Governor who reads in Nigeria. I was alarmed. Considerably. Ki lo de? Se ko si? "Hope no problem?" as we say in Nigeria. A Governor reading in an anti-intellectual national context where the average Nigerian "party chieftain" or "big man" can't even be trusted to spell the word "manifesto" correctly, let alone being expected to have read his political party's manifesto – where the Party even bothers to have a manifesto? Didn't a Governor in one of the southern states wonder what a Faculty of Arts was doing in a University owned by the said state? He was of the informed opinion that his subjects did not need frivolities like the Arts and the Humanities. Could it possibly be true that God would find one reader, one cultivated mind that feeds constantly on ideas and traffics in matters of the mind if he paid an unscheduled visit to Nigeria's Sodom of leadership and governance? I quickly called a few contacts who would know in Lagos, half expecting them to tell me that Ogunlesi was imagining things. They confirmed it! Governor Fashola reads. A lot. As folks gave me information on the phone, the expression "reading culture" had a strange ring to it, almost unnatural when placed in the same environment with our government officials. I decided to cautiously classify Fashola as one of the extremely rare public officials in contemporary Nigeria worth studying closely. Soon enough, I began to notice his articles in the op-ed page of The Guardian.

The Governor's Guardian essays offer not only an auspicious window into the quality of his mind but also into his philosophy of governance. As I read each essay, the teacher in me swings into action – I can't help it – assessing, evaluating, and gauging the quality of the intellect. Needless to say, these actions, borne of a pedagogic and scholarly instinct, have nothing to do with whether I agree or not with the Governor's submissions. What the essays I have read thus far reveal is an erudite mind in a love affair with ideas. This mind has been able to map out contact zones between governance, leadership, and the production/consumption of knowledge. To offer one's ideas for public consumption in the op-ed pages of The Guardian is to submit oneself to the critical judgment of the segment of society that is sophisticated enough to grapple with the opinion pages of a newspaper.

To trade ideas with the public – I am told that Fashola meticulously reads responses to and critiques of his essays – is indicative of a mind that sets considerable store by the instrumentalization of knowledge for public good. It takes a thorough grasp of the essence of the social contract for a governor to produce thought and submit it for consumption and evaluation in a public space that has become so hostile to intellection. Perfunctory noise about the notion of servant leadership may come from those who cannot tell pot from kettle in Abuja, it seems that the essence of that philosophy is currently being actuated in Lagos. That Fashola is a lawyer and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is beside the point. Nigeria offers far too many examples of trained minds rendered intellectually impecunious by the soporifics of power, intellects gone prurient after feeding continuously on offal in the corridors of power. Besides, President Yar'Adua's University training is sufficient indication that formal education is not always coterminous with visionary, progressive, and refined leadership. His somnambulistic and lackluster presidency is a tragic indictment of the University in Nigeria. Those of us who had argued for years that things should begin to change once a mind that has been humanized and instructed by the University got a shot at the highest office in the land now gnash our teeth and make animadversions in contemplation of Yar'Adua's unbelievably sloppy and visionless presidency. And lately, he was woken up from his slumber to continue tyranny from where Abacha stopped.

This is the context which makes the idea of one Governor's reading culture and quest for a cultivated mind worthy of more than passing interest. It also, sadly, raises the fundamental question of modes of access to and movement within political space in Nigeria. There are legitimate questions to ask about Fashola's road to office. It is a photocopy of Yar'Adua's route to Aso Rock: the route of brazen, nepotistic, and muscular godfatherism. Former President Obasanjo was the caterpillar who cleared brambles and every obstacle on Yar'Adua's path to a purloined mandate. For Fashola, the bulldozer was his immediate predecessor in office, Alhaji Senator Chief Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. In essence, there is currently no clean and decent way for a refined, cultivated mind, singularly enamoured of service, to accede to political office in Nigeria. Ask Pat Utomi. Ask Kayode Fayemi in Ekiti State. Herein lies the tragedy of ethics in Nigeria. Nigeria hardly ever presents a situation where you could engage reality on the basis of good and bad, ethical and unethical. There is room to rationalize only between bad and less bad, unethical and less unethical. For instance, had Tinubu not had his way by nepotistically godfathering Fashola into government house in Lagos and subverting democracy in the process, that state would have faced an even worse and and absolutely more corrupt scenario of an Obanikoro/PDP hijack. Of two venomous snakes, Lagos state is lucky in essence to have been bitten by the less venomous. Does one celebrate observable results and close one's eyes to the corruption of the paths taken to those results? The challenge lies in forging a scoiety where the decent, informed, and humanized mind, enamoured of service, does not have to travel on morally-challenged and ethically-tainted routes to office.