Between Lagos And The Economist

By Alabi Williams   |   22 November 2015   |   12:41 am  
Williams

Williams

IN the last two weeks, the well-rated and well-believed London Economist stoked some trouble in Lagos, when it featured a report of what has become the redoubled traffic nightmare of the past few months. Lagos, Nigeria’s former administrative capital and still the country’s economic heartland, is synonymous with traffic and that has been so for ages.

What is anybody going to say about Lagos traffic that hasn’t been well captured over the years? What is a supposedly far-off report of the traffic situation here going to say to rankle authorities and even provoke a deluge of rebuttals? Even for purposes of routine reportage, in order to put the matter in the public domain, you still have to capture the story with a special lens for you to record lasting memories, and perhaps, demand quality responses.

So what did The Economist write that others have not written about Lagos traffic? I did not get to see the original story the time it was published in early November. I probably wouldn’t bother because I think I know enough of Lagos traffic than any offshore publication could tell. But it was the large amount of knocks on The Economist by the Lagos government and its friends in the media that attracted me. Ordinarily, what I saw could have been a reporter’s brief back page impression of a side issue while pursuing a bigger story. At a glance, you wouldn’t know why the report should cause uproar.

Titled ‘Urban Traffic Paralysed’ the article tried to find answers to why movement within Nigeria’s largest city has become unusually dense and stymied. That suggests to me that the writer is not unaccustomed to the regular commuting challenges of Lagos. It then went on to adduce reasons of population, which make Lagos one of the ‘notoriously congested places in the world.’

The brief article then went on to announce associated security challenges, such as robbers taking advantage of the entanglement to harass and rob motorists, which the local media have reported widely of late. Taking advantage of his familiarity with Lagos, the writer tried to compare the present government style with that of the recent past when Babatunde Fashola “was lauded for improving traffic and security.”

Still referring to Fashola, the article said; “He curbed dangerous motorbike taxis and brought local “areas boys” (street children) under control. Cars were terrified into order by a state traffic agency, LASTMA, whose bribe-hungry officers flagged down offending drivers.”

As for the Akinwunmi Ambode’s government, The Economist said, “is full of excuses, but few solutions, for the worsening gridlock. Traffic is always bad during the rains, he says. Nigerians are migrating to Lagos en masse in search of work in a worsening economy, his office adds. Yet the root of the problem is in policy. Mr. Ambode cut the power of traffic controllers by banning them from impounding cars. In retaliation, officers have refused to enforce the rules.”

I’m sure there is nothing in that report that a good number of Lagosians do not already know, long before The Economist came to town. It is a fact that Fashola used to be governor; and that while he was here, as far as traffic was concerned, he did his best to rein in troublers of Lagos, which he did through severe traffic law enforcement, fixing of roads and incrementally advancing the transportation infrastructure of the state.

That did not mean that there were no challenges in traffic management while Fashola was in charge. It was never a perfect situation, but there was rigorous engagement of the issues, with the full complement of transport regiments in place. In addition to his personal grit, Fashola enjoyed good media while he was Lagos governor. To some, the man could never do wrong and they used the media to protect him from prying eyes of faultfinders. That was the heritage Bola Tinubu, his predecessor left for him. Tinubu himself was a good friend of the media, long before he ventured into media ownership.

Indeed, after Fashola’s exit, there has been an undeniable lull. The traffic situation The Economist gave a marginal mention had been widely feasted upon locally. The loss of verve by LASTMA had become a serious worry for many Lagosians, who were forced to romanticize the Fashola era, contrasted with the present governor’s slow takeoff.

Even before the 2015 general elections, governance had slowed down in Lagos. Traffic management had taken the backseat, with LASTMA officials becoming spectators at critical moments. The impression was that Fashola’s government needed to relax its high-handed style in order for the All Progressives Congress (APC) to be seen as friendly with voters, including lawless Danfo drivers and Okada riders. In the campaigns the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) used Lagos’ crackdown on motorists as evidence of the APC’s insensitivity.

Ambode inherited that lull, and prevaricated in unveiling his own style. He was also enmeshed in the murky waters of Lagos politics, which was beyond his control. Tinubu, the leader of APC in the Southwest had issues with his godson, Fashola, a lot of which the media that once protected Fashola angrily dropped in the public space. Whereas Lagos APC promised continuity, we saw Ambode’s government working hard to distance himself from Fashola and his policies. In traffic management, which is the topic for today, the impression was that while Fashola was stern and did not take nonsense from unruly Lagosians, Ambode would govern with smiles and a human face. That perhaps informed the policy that relaxed the impoundment of erring vehicles by LASTMA officials and replaced it with the policy of booking, so that offenders can drive home and pay the fine for their infraction at a later date.

Being an era of body language, some Lagosians must have misinterpreted this recourse to civility in traffic management as endorsement to misbehave. The months between June and October were indeed hellish for Lagos motorists. After a container bearing truck lobbed down from the flyover at Ojulegba on Wednesday, September 2, the Lagos government attempted to enforce an old rule restricting long and articulated vehicles to nighttime drive, but the move was rendered feeble by a defiant transport union. The defiance became protracted when the truck drivers’ union decided to occupy Lagos roads, refusing to move. Lagos became locked down and perhaps it was at that miserable period The Economist elected to visit. Lagos eventually backed down and status quo returned.

Lagos is a big issue when it comes to governance. It is not like any other state. It is in Lagos you have the excesses of all other states coalescing in an awful monstrosity. And you need a firm hand and capable team to deal with it. It is fair to imagine an Ambode without a cabinet struggling to figure his way out of the traffic mess. Like many state governments, Lagos could not put together an early team of commissioners to debate his new transport policy and communicate it to Lagosians. Lagos sure has money to hire commissioners, but the governor alone could not have done that while Tinubu was not in a relaxed mood. Tinubu was bogged down by issues of political survival, in the National Assembly and with Buhari’s endless search for saints for his cabinet.

Ambode’s failure to hit the ground running in his first five months, to me, could be hinged on political factors, far more than on issues of capacity and competence. As the rains dry out and with a cabinet in place, the Lagos government should know that there would always be the Fashola benchmark. It was not perfect, but it was good work in progress. Admitting this and building on that could enhance Ambode’s ranking in the eyes of Lagosians.

The Economist did well to have provoked Lagos government the way we local media could not, not that we did not try, but for the fact of familiarity, which they say breeds contempt or see finish as they say in Warri parlance. I remember that Ambode, in one of his early outings charged the media to criticize him fairly, but some prefer to overindulge in protectionism. That was how they did it for Fashola, until they used their own hands to attempt a de-robing of his sterling qualities. They did same for Kayode Fayemi. Both are now serving at higher levels.

The Economist does not owe anybody any explanation. They have done their job and moved on. We are the ones that are trapped. Around February, when campaigns were at deafening top roof, this same The Economist pronounced candidate Goodluck Jonathan unelectable and expressed its preference for Buhari. APC was well enhanced by that endorsement and their media celebrated it. Why will you hail The Economist in February and rubbish its findings in November? Can’t we get more serious out here?
The good thing is that Governor Ambode has now hit the grounding and running too!



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