The outgoing Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, speaks on his eight-year administration of the state, non-payment of salaries by states and sundry matters in an interview with journalists from select media houses. KAYODE FALADE, KEMI ASHEFON and LEKE BAIYEWU were there.
What are the things you are going to miss the most when you leave office?
I cannot think of missing anything. This is a public trust; it has a beginning and an end. And it finishes when it is finished. My life did not change when I took this job; not in any way that I know. My food has not changed; my clothing has not changed. Perhaps, the only thing I had to do more was travel, and now I will travel less. This is not something to miss; this is something to say that you have done your bit, get off the stage and let the next manager take over.
Does it mean you are going to be relieved after leaving?
I will not use the word relief. I will just be done.
Are you leaving a fulfilled man?
Yes, to the extent that I was able to deliver substantially on everything I promised, and more. I have done my bit. You must contextualise fulfilment with the nature of the undertaking. It is an undertaking that never ends; it is a job that never finishes. The question is ‘did you add value?’ Yes. ‘Did you make an effort?’ Yes.
It has been said that you are leaving behind about N418bn debt and one wonders what is responsible for the huge debt profile despite the huge revenue generated by the Lagos State Government.
I have answered this question many times and it seems people just dwell on debt but in the context of debt, let us look at the assets too. I am leaving behind hundreds of kilometres of roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, courtrooms, social services, skill centres, streetlights and traffic lights. I am leaving behind also people who now have jobs, who did not have jobs seven years ago. I am leaving behind a stronger security force; a stronger LASTMA, a stronger KAI. That is where the money went. I am leaving behind a rail system. I am leaving behind so many assets for the continuity of life. I am also leaving behind a bigger workforce – a better equipped workforce. I think we should talk less about debt and more about development.
Lagos State Government still has to continue to raise more money and this takes me to the Internally Generated Revenue that you are talking about. The IGR – standing on its own – is averagely N20 billion. Let us do the math. Some months it is more than that, some months it drops. The monthly allocation from the Federation Account is averagely N10 billion; sometimes it goes up to N11 billion, sometimes it drops to N9 billion. Let us use an average of N10 billion, even though in the last few months it dropped to six and half (N6.5 billion). If we have averagely N30 billion, do the math, divide it by 21 million people. You will get one thousand four hundred and something naira per person in Lagos. It is easy then to say let us collect the IGR you think is big but you are seeing the IGR alone and not seeing the responsibilities.
Our population has also grown by forced migration in terms of the Internally Displaced Persons across Nigeria. I just sent a team to somewhere in Apapa where there are people displaced from the North-East of Nigeria in camps. We have to go and intervene; we cannot leave them there without help. The sanitary condition there is horrendous. If we want a government that only deals with what is available, then every month is the government going to tell everybody, ‘go and take your N1,400; go and build your roads, go and build your schools, go and build your hospitals, manage your security?’ But we have to be futuristic, we have to think ahead. The IGR that you also talked about does not come as N20 billion to us. It comes when somebody pays N1 million for land today, somebody pays for his vehicle registration tomorrow, and somebody pays his ground (land) rent. It is because we are accountable that we always announce at the end of the month, ‘this is what we got.’ If we wait for 30 days for the money to accrue, it means we won’t do any work.
People should understand that we won’t do any work because the money has not accrued. What do we do? We borrow against it. The banks which we collect it from know that we will pay because the money (IGR) comes through them. So, we take a loan. But we don’t borrow to pay salaries; we don’t borrow for recurrent expenditure, we borrow for capital investments. I cannot go and tell the person who is waiting to take his child to the hospital and there is no hospital space; that they should ‘wait, I am waiting to collect money.’ If I give you the contract to build a hospital, I cannot tell you ‘take one naira today, I am waiting for two naira tomorrow.’ It is not a way to plan construction. You must gather your building materials and you must move men to the site. We borrow from the banks. When the monies come, the banks deduct them.
The borrowing you are even talking about, measure it against the assets. We took N275bn bond over eight years. The first thing we had to do was to repay the old bond of N15 billion because the Lagos State Government drew N15 billion out of the N25 billion bond. We had to repay that so that we could take the full benefit of what we were planning to do, which was going to be issued in series. And we did all these in public. What did we use these monies to finance? We used them to finance infrastructure. As the monthly IGR is coming, we are returning 15 per cent of the IGR into a consolidated debt service account. We can’t touch it. Take out 15 per cent of N20bn. We have over a N100 billion in that account to pay the debts. Those who are saying we owe, the system for paying bond is secured. We just paid the second bond, which was the first that I took. We paid it last year. The next bond will be due in 2017 and it is about N60 billion or N70 billion but we have N100 billion in the account. In any event, we have over-secured our liabilities as far as the bonds are concerned. As far as the local short-term loans from banks are concerned, we were able to pay.
If we don’t want a life of debt, then Lagosians must agree that we reduce our budget to what we earn. We have a budget of about N489 billion. Let us use our IGR as an example: N30 billion multiplied by 12 months is N360 billion. We are already in a hole of about N119bn. If Lagosians want us to reduce it, then will Lagosians agree to stop demanding more services? Certainly, no! Thus, this is the context. And when you look at the countries we aspire to be like: America owes $16 trillion – they owe the whole world – but they have the best space ships, aircraft and army, and they can decide what our military does with the debt they owe the world.
What is the biggest problem you are leaving behind for your successor?
I did not govern to leave problems for my successor. Let me say, first of all, that government loses its relevance when there are no more challenges. The only reason why government exists is to solve problems. I inherited my challenges; my predecessor inherited his challenges but I can say that what we expect to see is that the job gets easier as we move on. All we have done here is to improve the quality of what we met in order to make it easier for the next person. We have built stronger institutions, we have strengthened ministries; we have increased revenues in order to meet increasing demands, we strengthened government capacity to respond to services. We just set up a citizens’ relation management platform on the Internet so that the government will be able to more efficiently respond to issues, using current communication methods with Internet and telephone. But every problem that we solve creates a new problem. That is life.
About 200 years ago – I’m not sure precisely, the average life expectancy in Europe was less than 30 years. You got married; you had a child; you would be expecting to die. But what did the government do? The government started to expand the frontiers of health care. Today, life expectancy is about 70 or 80 but it has created new problems. They have won on health, they now have social problems. People are not dying quickly enough and no government can come out to say it wants people to die quickly. What that has created is huge pension bills. You saw the debate in the last British election – the pressure on the National Health Service is largely by the ageing population. But that is the price of the success of health care.
The Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said states are responsible for their inability to pay salaries. Do you agree?
I won’t want to have a public debate with the Finance Minister because if it was a matter she was willing to debate, let her call a meeting and we will have a public debate on it. I think the sense for the public to understand is that the country made a budget on the basis of certain assumptions. There was a national budget. Those assumptions have become unrealistic. If you are leading a family, and your children or members of your household trust you or trust your leadership, and you say that these are the things that you expect to happen; that this road is safe, let us walk it together and that road turns out to be unsafe because the nation did not earn enough, so your assumptions were faulty and what the nation earned is mired in debate and controversy about how accurate the accounting has been in terms of oil proceeds and sales. Is it morally right to say it was the fault of the children that they couldn’t go to school when the revenue and resources to go to school had been halved because you led them to believe that this amount would come in?
I think the time has come when people must take responsibility for their actions and to say ‘you know what, I got this wrong. I am sorry.’ It is possible for the uninformed members of the public to misunderstand that statement and think that they couldn’t pay salaries because they didn’t want to pay. But the admission you must first make is that their income has declined. Let us go forward and all of us must understand this: the money that goes to each state from the federation account is for the entire state, not for the public service. Let us understand that. It is for water, for road, for security, for this and that. It is not to pay salaries alone. What number does the workforce constitute and what proportion of that money do they take every month? After paying salaries, government cannot fold its hands to security and it cannot close its eyes to health care issues. It seems to me that if there were more revenue, the states would not be in this position. That does not suggest that all the right choices have been made.
I think the larger issue that I want to address is that it provokes us to rethink the viability of the current state structure. When the debate for the creation of more states started, one of the things I said was that I did not think we should have more states. One of things I said – and I think I was the only one who said it – was that it was time for people to think out of the box; that the states that felt they were not viable on their own could merge. Some people had some scathing words for me on that matter. But the way I view life is that if you unbundle something and it does not work, you must have the courage to put it back. And we cannot entrap ourselves that there is no other answer. The same way that we put back the decentralised Police Force many years ago, we are now afraid to unbundle it again. But it is not working. This is the way that I think public trust and even our private lives should be.
How can we say a state is not viable when the state executive has up to 2,000 aides being paid?
We must really decide what we want. It is important that we own our government. How many of the people that we call aides are, just for example, the immediate family members of the governor that we can fairly accuse him of nepotism? They are members of the society who want jobs. They are your friends, your cousins, your brothers. The man (governor) does not advertise that he is looking for workers. I still got a CV this afternoon of somebody looking for work. It is always a top-line thing to keep on your head: how does this add to my cost of running government? Suddenly, you will see the numbers. The man does not advertise that he does not have aides; he probably has more than he needs. Somebody like you and me put the pressure. Therefore, we are using employment as our social safety net; employing some people in some instances that we really do not need. That is why whenever I hear that there is no social safety net in Nigeria, I just chuckle and laugh. In some organisations, privately, and in some organisations, publicly, you will see that one person can do the work three people are doing but we cannot afford to lay off people because we will only create more social problems.
We speak to ourselves and I know the burden. ‘Please, help me; please, help me.’ And even when I could not employ, I have met people in the private sector, ‘Please help me to place this person.’ And when I don’t hear a reply, I know what the reply is – that ‘we are watching our balance sheet’ because they are there for profit and the profit is cash and dividends. The profit of government is the welfare of its people. And so, one more person who can go to work, the government can say ‘I have created a place for this person.’
During your years in office, can you recollect some of the wrong decisions you took and what things you could have done differently?
As for things I could have done differently, hindsight is always 20/20. As I said recently at an event, our job is like that of actors on a public stage but the stage is live. We are making videos; live production of cinemas on any production. Unlike the great movies in which you can edit and retake, we don’t have the opportunity to edit and retake. It is done, it is done. In that sense, for two thousand nine hundred and something days – every minute of the day – I am called to act either on a file, on the phone, through text or in a meeting. If you do that from morning till night, almost 16 to 17 hours every day; I have taken hundreds of thousands of decisions. Can I think that I would have got all of them right? Certainly, not. I acted in the circumstance of what I understood the problem to be; I acted in the circumstance of what time of the day it was; I acted in the circumstance of how tired I was. I will rather make a decision than postpone a decision. I will rather make a wrong decision than be found not to have decided anything. In that sense, I cannot get everything right. And I will never know how any people were adversely affected by my decisions. I always make people to understand that this is a public trust; it is not personal.
President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat at the presidential election and that step has earned him commendations worldwide. Do you think that action elevated him?
I won’t join the debate because it is a raging debate; some say he is now a statesman, some say he is now a hero, others say he is not a hero as he did what he was expected to do. I will just say that first you must understand what we have become. All of us are looking at an election. Do we normally, as a people, accept that we have been defeated? Let us ask ourselves that question. Let me animate it a little: can you remember how many times in football that we lost – we can’t qualify – and some people will still be saying ‘no, if somebody beats somebody by 20-0, we will qualify?’ And they will continue to raise hope where, clearly, hope is gone. Logic says to you ‘this is over.’ That is us. We don’t accept that it is over. It can be a positive energy somewhere else, to fight to the last. But in that context, I think we should acknowledge what President Jonathan did as the right thing. If you lose, you should concede that you have lost.
I won’t join the debate on whether he is a hero or a statesman, people will have their views. But was that the right thing to do? Yes. And I hope that from there we can pick an example. Was it courageous? I would think so in the circumstance that I have created. He had to go and tell a party that wanted to rule for 60 years that we have lost and I have accepted it. There is a saying that while it seems ordinary to praise people for doing what is right or what is good, we must understand that it is not just for doing what is right or good that they got the praise or acknowledgement. It is because they avoided evil. And the kind of evil we could have seen is unfolding in Burundi now. The question is to ask the many ifs; ‘what if he (Jonathan) had said no?’ That is my final word.
The National Assembly was on the verge of amending the nation’s constitution but the executive stopped the process through the judiciary. Do you think it was right for the executive to do so?
My general disposition is to first say that the constitution is the supreme law of the country and it is not a law you want to easily change as if you are changing your underwear or as if you are amending the minutes of a village meeting. There must be very serious and compelling reasons to amend a constitution. And to see that our constitution has been amended in the last eight years – we have had all sorts of amendments to the constitution – the first question I am asking myself is that those things that we have amended in the constitution, are they things that probably should are been put in a law – an Act of the National Assembly?
Something is wrong with a nation that amends the constitution almost in every parliament. We probably put too much in there. We are putting dates for elections, dates for this and that; they should not be in the constitution. We have ‘over legislated’ our lives and put everything in the constitution. Sometimes, it is very difficult because constitution amendment is a major event in any country. The whole nation almost comes to a halt on what is going to change. Now they are amending the constitution and we are just carrying on with our lives. Constitution amendment is a very serious business, if you ask me.
The question I ask is ‘is it the constitution that is the problem or is it us?’ Let us look in the mirror and see whether we like what we see. I have argued publicly that when there is a common purpose; when there is candour; when there is a shared value, even a bad constitution will work. And no constitution will ever be perfect because it is made by men and women. And when there is something that looks like a “perfect constitution,” with the bad values, without candour, without a shared purpose, it won’t work.
The APC merger was not without the shared value of the people who formed the APC was united by a common purpose – to take the PDP out. And that was why people were willing to compromise even if they were not comfortable. They did not get everything they wanted. The ACN went into that merger with six governors; it lost its colour, it lost its name. Therefore, you don’t need a constitution to put us together; we set up the merger before the constitution came. That is the sense. It is a shared purpose – it was us. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to get the nation going? Is everybody going to say ‘this is my position and I am not moving from it?’ No constitution can supplant that.