Sanwo-Olu and morality of power

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In a society characterised by the cravings for titles by eminent persons, Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has dropped the peculiar prefix: His Excellency, preferring to be addressed simply as Mr.Governor. What message is he trying to pass across? Deputy Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU writes on the essence of depersonalisation of power, humility in officialdom and modesty in governance

Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu, surveyor, banker and politician, commands great power and immense influence as governor of Lagos, the most populous state in the country.

In the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, he may attract envy as the governor of the economic capital of Nigeria.

Like his colleagues, he is shielded by immunity.

Governors are also strengthened somehow by the power of coercion. As controllers of undisclosed security votes, and other state resources. they elicit jealousy from detractors, particularly the opposition.

So powerful are governors in some states that they try to submerge the Houses of Assembly and the judiciary as if they are an extension of the executive arm. Critics have often decried that arrogance of power and executive recklessness.

But, Sanwo-Olu appears to be poles apart. He is conscious of the transience of political power and the limit of authority, which also underscore the inevitability of a tenure eclipse after four or eight years of political control.

Having operated on the corridor of power for unbroken 17 years as special adviser, acting commissioner, commissioner and managing director of a corporation, his election as governor was the crowning of his political career. But, the future is still bright.

He has been exercising power as chief executive since May 29. To many, power is sweet and alluring. However, conscious of where he was coming from, he is exercising caution.

Sanwo-Olu presides over a mini-Nigeria. Lagos is a highly complex and politically sophisticated state. It is a blend of diversity. The Lagos State House is not rosy all the time. The governor has to be at alert all the times. Sanwo-Olu affects, just as he is affected, by the forces of socio-political pressure.

The governor is ‘using’ power, based on a constitutional mandate. But a wise man, he does not want power to use him. The Lagos helmsman is not oblivious of the strength and weakness of his predecessor, and the perception of the people and the political family that midwife his administration about his place in history.

In a society where politicians, especially elected and appointed officers, relish being addressed as “Honourable Councillor, Honourable Chairman, Honourable Commissioner, Honourable Special Adviser, and Honourable parliamentarians, Sanwo-Olu wants to be an exception. He said he should not be addressed as His Excellency but as Mr. Governor.

The great lesson in leadership this season in Lagos is that Sanwo-Olu is trying to create a new standard of governance by depersonalising power. He is simply attempting to make a difference by putting on a garment of humility and decorum, by refocusing his agenda for good governance as dictated by his party manifestos and campaign promises, and by rededicating himself to the service of Lagosians.

Many may erroneously think that the governor is playing to the gallery.

But, to the discerning, Sanwo-Olu has prescribed for himself, or impose on himself, certain rules, conditions and restraints, which can always prick his conscience, whip him to the line and make him ponder on the unavoidability of life after office in the future.

In his view, history and posterity must be the ultimate judge. Therefore, what the governor of Lagos should be remembered for is not the arrogance of power, but the good legacies he leaves behind.

Sanwo-Olu is sensitive to the greatest encumbrance, which is the culture of praise-singing and unmerited adulation of big men in power by bread and butter partisan supporters and uncritical followers whose pretentious, false and misleading activities only draw wool across the eyes of unsuspected leaders.

For him, this is a moment of sober reflection. Five months after, the euphoria of victory at the poll may have withered. Reality may have dawned on Sanwo-Olu that governance is not a tea party. Time waits for nobody; it is always running out.

The governor inherited, not only the pecks of office but a monumental burden. In the last one year, Lagos has had the worst of times. The heap of refuse had returned the Centre of Excellence to the pre-1999 era. Traffic snarl accentuated by bad roads were an eyesore. During the raining season, it was not possible to quickly fix the roads. As the potholes were being filled, they were washed away by the heavy downpour. Predictably, impatient Lagosians were about grumbling.

Sanwo-Olu was concerned. He put on his thinking cap. Contractors were summoned and mobilised to site, not for symbolism. The budget he had just presented last week when it is implemented, will resolve some of the infrastructure challenges. Lagos will become a huge construction site as from next year.

Although his first 100 days were action-packed, and discerning Lagosians hailed his focus, resilience and resolve to make an impact, the governor only believed he was on the weighing scale.

Now, having conducted a realistic self-assessment, Sanwo-Olu surprisingly declared that he should not be addressed as ‘His Excellency,’ describing the prefix as a mockery of the mortal being. Only God can be addressed that way, he said.

To observers, the general interpretation given to that style was that the governor can only adjust to the title, following his conviction that he has accomplished many “excellent things” in the course of working relentlessly for the people, with time.

Sanwo-Olu observed that the office of governor may have been uncritically celebrated as the paragon of excellence, a temple of perception and a throne of purity.

In his Twitter, the governor adduced reasons for dropping the prefix.

Sanwo-Olu said: “Fellow Lagosians, I have come to the conclusion that for us to change the narrative of governance, we have to strike down this seeming symbol of executive arrogance that commands popular obeisance and underlines the democratic role of citizens as the master of those they have elected and appointed to serve.

“This demi-god mystique spreads over the entire machinery of the executive arm of government, symbolising an authoritarian disposition on the governed.

“It has defined the orientation of the elected and appointed persons who are paid from the taxes of the people to see themselves as oppressors who can do no wrong and must be served, rather than serving the people.

“Whatever might have been the reason for this myth, let us be honest, the office is occupied by a mortal who has been called upon to serve the electorate with humility and sincerity. The office of governor is a public trust that calls for sacrifice, modesty and willingness to add value to the lives of the people.

“Only God, the Almighty Creator, the protector is the Most Excellent. No man can share this external quality. Henceforth, I wish to be addressed simply as Mr Governor, a title that will constantly remind me that I have been chosen out of my so many compatriots to lead a collective savage of our political economy.

“It is a salutation that sanitised the paraphernalia of office and reminds us of all of our imperfections and mortality. To give official effect to this announcement, I shall issue an executive order that formally ensures full compliance with the new policy.”

Sanwo-Olu is just trying to maintain a clean break from the past. From time immemorial, the prefix, ‘Excellency, ‘ has been an honorific title given to certain top officers of sovereign state who are isolated from the pack, and representatives of the country in a foreign land. It is a mark of class, status and distinction.

According to historians, those who are entitled to the title retain the right to the honour or courtesy throughout their lifetime.

As incumbent officeholders, the title, which is attached to the particular office, is only held for the duration of the office.

In Bible times, Luke, the physician and disciple of Jesus Christ, addressed his epistle of Luke and the Act of Apostles to the “Most Excellent Theophilus.” The personality of that Theophilus cannot be ascertained. Biblical writers offered two opinions or assumptions; he was either a high ranking officer or governor, or as the name connotes, a “lover of God.”

In contemporary Nigeria, the title was cherished by colonial governors, who were representatives of the King or Queen of England. Then, while on tour of the hinterlands, they were carried on a mobile platform. They never walked on the ground like the natives.

Before and after independence, early political pathfinder, particularly Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Premiers Awo, Zik, Bello and Osadebe, were so addressed. Successive military and civilian Heads of State and governors also inherited the prefix.

Today, those addressed as “Excellencies” are the president, vice president, governors, deputy governors and ambassadors.

In the not too distant past, former Niger State Governor Babangida Aliyu tried to drop the title, saying he preferred to be addressed as the “Servant Leader.” Today, the anti-graft agency is still after him.

Also, in Kogi State, former House of Assembly Speaker Clarence Olafemi rejected being addressed as “His Excellency,” when he became the acting governor.

Historically, many Excellencies have bastardised the title by not living to its billing. At the helm of affairs, they perceived power as an avenue for primitive accumulation. They acted as lords of the manor. What is the worth of His Excellency who cannot be a role model in probity, transparency, rule of law and due process?

Military Excellencies, through their tradition of coups, crippled orderly political evolution. They murdered democracy, dethroned the federal principle and imposed Unitarianism. Also, they were reluctant to relinquish power to legitimate civilian authorities.

His Excellency the Evil Genius converted Nigeria into a political laboratory for dubious experimentation. He made history as the annuller of the best presidential election.

His Excellency the dreadful Abacha was a terror, who caged Nigeria for five years.

Once, His Excellency the President of the Second Republic won, or rigged, by moon slide.

His Excellency the Ota farmer once described the election as a war; a do or die affair.

Today, several Excellencies the former governors are in jail or on the way to jail. This makes the prefix very boring. These may be examples that are discouraging to the Lagos governor.

Whether he drops the prefix or not, Sanwo-Olu ‘s place in history will also be assessed by his performance later.

The import of his declaration is not lost on the students of the morality of power. If power is moral, then, there can be a limit to political obligation. And here lies the supremacy of the people’s power, which is collective, comprehensive and more potent, over the governor’s mandate, which in popular valuation, is delegated to him by the people. The greatest power of the populace is the power of choice, change and affirmation of leadership.

The governor of Lagos has conveyed the impression that he would not entertain frivolities, deceit, prevarication and praise singers whose pastime is adulation of power.

But, his name can only be written in gold, if he always connects with the people through diligent service.

But, does Sanwo-Olu not deserve the title? So far, according to observers, he is on course in Lagos. Having set up his cabinet of talents, the administration is not sleeping.

As part of activities marking his first 100 days, the governor commissioned the Olusosun Dumpsite Building. The facility is meant for the training and re-training of the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) staff. He has started getting rid of the heap of refuse that has dented the image of the state. Through his intervention, he has also started creating jobs in the sub-sector.

Sanwo-Olu has launched the State Blue Box Recycling at Simpson Transfer Loading Station, Lagos Island. It is part of the new initiatives and strategies to ensure a clean environment.

During the campaigns, Sanwo-Olu had expressed concern over the environmental condition of the city-state. The traffic snarl starred him in the face. In response to people’s yearnings, the governor signed an executive order on indiscriminate refuse dumping, traffic management and public works.

The order on indiscriminate refuse duping is being vigorously enforced. Information and Strategy Commissioner Gbenga Omotoso said the move has restored sanity. Also, the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) has been directed by the governor to operate a minimum of two shifts until 11.pm daily. The Office of Drainage Services in the Ministry of Environment has been directed to embark on aggressive cleaning of the secondary and tertiary drainage system to ensure the free flow of rainwater during the raining season.

Sanwo-Olu has directed LASTMA not to spare offenders on the road. The officials are also to shun indiscipline, particularly bribery and corruption. Since motivation is critical to efficiency, the governor has increased their allowances by a hundred per cent.

The filling of potholes on the roads has contributed to the easing of movement and reduced traffic snarl.

When he assumed the reins, Sanwo-Olu was inundated by complaints that the Apapa gridlock was wreaking havoc. He appealed to the Federal Government to come to the aid of the state. The federal and state governments put heads together on how to end the logjam. He was in the company of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (SAN), who was on inspection of the axis. The governor said: “Fixing the road in Apapa, completing the trailer park and deploying technology solutions that ensure we never have to experience the trailers nightmare again are critical for Lagos and the Federal Government.” The situation is better today.

Sanwo-Olu is not a vendetta-seeking governor. There is much to accomplish instead of succumbing to self-distraction. He is promoting the culture of inclusiveness. He also believes in a motivated workforce. Thus, apart from regular payment of salaries, he has fulfilled his promise of better welfare packages for a civil servant.

Sanwo-Olu has mobilised security agencies to sustain the prevailing atmosphere of security, curtail or prevent cultism, armed robbery, kidnapping and pipeline vandalism. The governor has held many meetings with security chiefs, with the permanent aim of securing Lagos. He has also mobilised traditional rulers, community leaders and community development associations to contribute their quota to intelligence gathering that is critical to security.

The governor is now recruiting more teachers for public primary and secondary schools.

Much is expected on Sanwo-Olu in the next three and a half years. His programme of action gives a ray of hope. During his inauguration, he promised to work for a “greater Lagos” through the implementation of “six pillars of development agenda.”

The pillars, which he described as the framework that encapsulates his vision, include traffic management and transportation, health and environment, education and technology, making Lagos as a 21st-century economy, entertainment and tourism, and security and governance.

Sanwo-Olu said: “These six pillars of development represent our response to the yearnings of the people. They constitute the foundations that must be restored for future generations. Should we fulfil our promise and deliver on these pillars, we are most confident that we would have succeeded in setting Lagos on a new trajectory of economic growth and development that would be unprecedented in our entire history.”

Above all, Sanwo-Olu is loyal to his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), its values, ethos and leadership.

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