First, let’s deal with the praise, the plaudits, before ending this piece with the questions, the posers. Before I watched and heard him on television conduct an extraordinary “town meeting” with the business community in Lagos this last Monday, I hadn’t known much about Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State.
As a matter of fact, the very little that I knew about him was not exactly flattering, to say the least: the razor-thin margin of only 150,000 votes – out of over 2 million votes cast – in his electoral victory over his PDP opponent in the gubernatorial race of 2015; and in 2016, the ugly spats between Ambode’s wife, the First Lady of Lagos State, and a state-employed chaplain of a church that had led to the rather highhanded sacking of that man of the cloth.
Moreover, when the governor had come to Harvard last year to give a talk, I had been absent from my “duty post” at the time and thus missed the talk. All of which serves as the background to the pleasant surprise of the following things that I now report about Ambode’s televised meeting with the leaders of the business community this past week. It is a well-known secret that most of the governors and high officeholders in Nigeria do not write the speeches they deliver in public.
In addition, in general, once a speech is delivered, most of our rulers and politicians do not, indeed cannot, effectively field questions arising from speeches they deliver.
This is one aspect of the foul underbelly of democratic governance in our country, this fact that our rulers are in general incapable of conducting meaningful public dialogue with the citizenry, especially in the English language.
As this is a huge subject, we cannot deal with it in this piece. Coming back to Ambode, I do not know if his speech on Monday was written by speechwriters; what I do know is that from his passionate and eloquent delivery, one can conjecture that he must have had a hand in writing the speech – if in fact he did not himself write it in its entirety. The speech was masterful in its combination of technocratic prowess with social vision. Within five minutes into the speech, I recognized that I was watching and hearing something extraordinary and I immediately started taking mental notes. This essay is written entirely from those notes.
The formal delivery of the speech was followed by “Question Time”. Again, Ambode acquitted himself brilliantly on this point.
The proof of this came from the extraordinarily impressive manner in which the governor dealt with all the questions posed to him, questions that went to the heart of the problems, challenges and crises confronting Lagos as one of the buoyant but festering megacities of the world. Here, I place emphasis on the word all – that is to say, all the questions without exception. As the questions were posed, Ambode took notes, copiously.
There were two sets of questions. The first set of questions were over a dozen in number; the second set had slightly fewer questions. In any case, as questioner after questioner after questioner had his or her say, Ambode did not stop taking notes. After the number reached 12 in the first set of questions and the questions did not stop but continued, the teacher in me became attentive and I asked of no one in particular, “why doesn’t the official directing the programme limit the questions to one or two at a time and how is the governor going to be able to respond meaningfully to all these questions”?
Needlessly and wordlessly, I answered my own question: “of course, he is not going to answer all the questions – he is a politician”!
But Ambode did answer every question – and painstakingly so! Please bear in mind, dear reader, that although all the questioners were from the business community as a very influential social group, the assembled audience of the governor’s performance at the “town meeting” came from an impressive diversity of interests and loyalties. And then, there were the women who spoke on behalf of SMEs, the small-scale enterprises. Please note, dear reader, that I say women.
There were only two of them, this made their under-representation at the forum rather coincident with the gender inequality that is so prevalent, so constitutive of economic and social power in our country and our continent. Significantly, both women spoke about industrial activities linked with the recycling of waste products and the training and retraining of our unemployed and putatively “unemployable” youths. In other words, of all the business people who posed questions to the governor, these women were the most upfront, indeed the most insistent on the social good that their industrial and business activities and products entail.
For this reason, I admit that I watched the governor’s response to them with much greater attention than I did with his answers to the others. I can report that the governor did not condescend to them and that his response to these two women, these two representatives of SMEs, was of the same passion and eloquence with which he engaged all his interlocutors at the forum.
An astonishing feat then, that Ambode responded fully and robustly to all these interlocutors equally.
Having been a teacher and a speaker at public forums for large segments of my adult life, I know what this implies: only she or he who is filled with passion, focus and dedication can respond to more than a dozen interlocutors with diverse interests, constituencies and loyalties as if every issue matters and everybody counts. But every experienced teacher, every gifted public speaker knows that although all pupils and all issues and their representatives matter and count, they do so differentially. I saw this knowledge, this intuition played out astutely in Ambode’s responses to a good number of his interlocutors. For instance, to the CEO of a company who posed a question about her and her company’s “tax fatigue”, Ambode was respectful while slyly justifying the crucial importance of taxes and even more taxes for a state like Lagos.
To big entrepreneurs who wondered about the logic behind the bloated number and scope of workers on the public payroll in the state, Ambode was polite, even deferential in his endorsement of the logic of rationalization on which big companies are run; however, he insisted that governments cannot, indeed should not, be run exclusively or even primarily on the same logic; human and social interests, the governor argued, should override logics of rationalization and profit maximization that drive the activities of big corporations.
I have stressed the fact that the interests, perspectives and constituencies represented by the governor’s interlocutors were quite diverse. I must now observe that it seemed to me as I took in the whole performance that Ambode felt that as diverse as these interests and forces were they not conflicting and whatever tensions and conflicts might exist between and among them could be reconciled to the advancement of the progress and development of Lagos State. The old Marxist term for this idea is “non-antagonistic contradictions” as opposed to and in contrast with antagonistic contradictions.
Ambode did not use these terms, but I was deeply moved by two particular instances when he expressed a passionate advocacy for contradictions especially characteristic of the city of Lagos in the apparent belief that they are nonantagonistic contradictions. Permit me to briefly relate these two cases. People think that one of the worst present and future nightmares of life in Lagos pertains to the number of cars plying the roads, relative to how many cars the roads, the streets, can take. Not so, argued Ambode passionately; the worst problem of street life, the governor argued, is the number of people on the streets with absolutely no provision for them to be on the streets in safety and comfort.
No pavements, no sidewalks, no margins at the edges of the asphalt for people to walk on in safety, relaxation and even leisure. You hear talk about cars and congestion all the time, Ambode declared, but who speaks for people without cars, people that happen to be the overwhelming majority of Lagosians?
As a columnist who has in the past both humorously and seriously argued for a “Pedestrians’ Bill of Rights” in our cities, I was particularly moved by Ambode’s eloquent and impassioned restatement of this issue. Even more moved was I by the governor’s playfully ironic joke that serves as the title of this piece: “We’ll keep them off the streets so that we can sleep at Banana Island!” The “we” here apparently refers to Ambode and his audience, his interlocutors at the “town meeting”, the crème de la crème of Lagosian society, the economic, social and political elites of the city and the state of Lagos. What of the “them” that are to be kept off the streets? These are the talakawa, the denizens of the “Other Lagos” none of whom was present, indeed could be present at that encounter between the governor and the business elites.
Of the 25 million that constitutes the population of the city and the state, “they” happen to be the vast human and demographic majority whose internal majority is a whopping 65% that are under the age of 35.
If we can find gainful employment for “them”, if we can keep “them” busy and engaged in productive activities that keep “them” off the streets, Ambode was in effect saying, then we, the elites, can sleep at night without being haunted by the spectre of their invasion of our homes, our rest, our peace, our security, our conscience. I do not think I have heard or read of a more powerful expression of the social contract between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless from any of our rulers and politicians in a long, long time, in fact since the days of Obafemi Awolowo and the People’s Redemption Party. In conclusion, I now go, briefly and succinctly, to my questions for Governor Ambode and indeed for all of us. I have only two posers.
The first one pertains to the forces and interests involved in the realization of the social contract. Basically, I ask: who is present and who is absent, who is included and who excluded in the adjudication of struggles over the social contract? At the “town meeting” of the governor with the business elites, the poor, the talakawa, together with their representatives, were absent. Would it have made a difference if they had been present and had also been vocal about their interests? Please note that as I stated at the start of this essay, Ambode’s electoral victory was about 150,000 votes out of over two million votes cast.
The two million was itself only a fraction of the population of the state, which is 25 million. Will Governor Ambode correct this massive disenfranchisement of the majority of the people of his state? Will he bring the “Other Lagos” directly to the table and not only raise their presence as a spectre that to disturb the peace and the good conscience of the rich?
Second poser: In the 1990 and 1999 Constitutions, Second Chapter titled “Fundamental Objectives and Directives of State Policy” it is clearly stated that it is unfair, as all previous Nigerian Constitutions had assumed, that the goals of development and social justice cannot be pursued simultaneously and indivisibly, that “development” must take place first before economic redistribution can take place. Both constitutions made it mandatory for the Nigerian state to pursue both goals together; however, this was made non-justiciable meaning that the Nigerian state and its functionaries cannot be legally forced to observe or actualize this provision, this clause in the Constitution.
From his speech last Monday, especially in the segment wherein he fielded all those questions, I conjecture that Ambode is on the side of this constitutional clause. Will he step forward now and say so? More to the point, will he state what forces, what allies, what coalitions he, his administration and his political party intend to mobilize to realise this objective? •Jeyifo writes via [email protected] edu.