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Meet Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the new governor of Lagos State

By Eromo Egbejule, in Lagos
Posted on Monday, 11 March 2019 16:00

Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the banker-turned-political man elected to govern Lagos State. Reuters/Temilade Adelaja

Lagos State, if it were an actual state, would be Africa’s seventh largest economy. It has been run for two decades by the same political machine, controlled by former governor Bola Tinubu.

The weekend’s gubernatorial elections did not deviate from this pattern.

Babajide Sanwo-Olu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the third governor to emerge from the Tinubu establishment, was elected with 739,445 votes, trouncing Jimi Agbaje of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who scored 206,141 votes.

Let’s rewind:

  • In 1993, Bola Tinubu was elected a senator in polls that were widely judged to have been Nigeria’s freest and fairest ever => though they were annulled by the military.
  • In 1999, when democracy returned, Tinubu finally become governor.
  • In the years that followed, Lagos was starved of funds as a fight with President Olusegun Obasanjo raged on.
    Led by Yemi Osinbajo – then the state’s attorney general (and now Nigeria’s vice-president) – Lagos dragged the federal government to court.
  • In the interim, Tinubu was forced to innovate to fund governance in the short and medium term.
  • By the end of Tinubu’s second term, in 2007, Lagos was comfortably outperforming every other state in internally generated revenue thanks to an effective corporate tax agency – and a network of road transport unionists enforcing a bevy of levies. It had also become Africa’s seventh largest economy.
  • Ever since, a series of hand-picked successors has followed, either kowtowing to Tinubu or bent into shape by the godfather and his army of loyalists.

So who is Babajide Sanwo-Olu?

It’s been a long road for the governor-elect, who had never run for political office before. The 53-year-old’s selection as candidate for the APC was a melodramatic climax to an episode in which the incumbent governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, was embarrassed, isolated and eventually dropped for allegedly not performing well enough to deserve a second term.

The party machinery aligned with Sanwo-Olu and his campaign team went into overdrive.

  • He pretended to learn how to fix faulty smartphones,
  • got his hands dirty changing fatigued tyres as a makeshift vulcaniser,
  • replaced engine oil as an auxiliary mechanic
  • and even braided hair in random female salons.

Sanwo-Olu is a technocrat, in the tradition of Lagos State governors, and party stalwarts say he is better placed to implement the APC’s blueprint for a greater Lagos than Ambode, who was a career civil servant.

  • Back in 2003, the former banker became an adviser to Tinubu’s deputy, Femi Pedro. Over the next 15 years, he would be shuffled across a variety of roles within the state structure.
  • While in cabinet, he headed the ministries of economic planning and budget first, then commerce and industry before later ending up in establishments, training and pensions.
  • He has two degrees from the University of Lagos and some of his peak years were spent working for two of Nigeria’s current biggest banks.

That private-sector experience could be crucial in attracting partnerships to resolve the megacity’s deep problems.

  • The nation’s commercial capital has no proper drainage or sewage system, no mass transit system and is constantly choking with traffic jams.
  • In 2009, construction of a light rail began under Babatunde Fashola, Tinubu’s immediate successor and current minister of works, housing and power; it remains far from complete.

Closed book accounts: Sanwo-Olu will also bear the burden of endless questions from civil society about the notoriously opaque records of the supposedly progressive state. And about one contract in particular: the suspicious multimillion-dollar waste-collection contract handed out by his predecessor to Visionscape, which, earlier this month, defaulted on debt repayments towards a N27bn bond guaranteed by Lagos State.

Bottom-line: the briefest of honeymoons is likely for the incoming governor.

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