Profile: Akinwunmi Ambode has declared ambition for a second term; will he get one?

Ambode

Political watchers with inside knowledge of state and party politics insist that despite his incumbent status, Lagos state Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode is good as finished politically.

Word on the street is that for some time now, Ambode has been locked in a standoff with his erstwhile godfather, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former governor and the singular most important deciding factor in who gets to govern Lagos state. After the electorate of course.

According to these sources, the relationship between Tinubu and Ambode has soured to the extent that Ambode is unlikely to return for a fresh term come 2019. If these forecasts go on to play out as outlined, Akinwunmi Ambode would be the first single term governor of Lagos state, since the start of the 4th republic.

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Ambode may be having sleepless nights about his political future, but publicly, he hasn’t shown any signs. He has chosen to carry on like a man with everything under control. “I want you to know that there is no fight anywhere. The national leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and my good self, we are not in any fight, we are not in any controversy,’’ he insisted in his native Epe area of Lagos while supervising the selection of delegates from the local government area for the APC’s national convention.

On Monday 11, September, fresh from accompanying President Muhammadu Buhari to China on a state visit, Ambode was at the All Progressives Congress (APC) secretariat in Abuja to pick up both expression of interest and nomination forms. Addressing supporters in Alausa, Lagos, shortly after as he kicked off his re-election campaign, Ambode stressed, ‘’In the last three and a half years, I have fulfilled my promises to you to make Lagos work for all.’’

As is the practice with these kinds of events, there was jubilant noise coming from excited crowds- probably compensated for their efforts- but the words rung hollow.

Eko o ni baje

The simple truth is that as chaperon of West Africa’s largest economy- government figures put the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at $136billion- Ambode has been mostly mediocre. And this is putting it mildly. Since 2015 when he assumed office, Lagosians have watched, in horror as the iconic city began to crumble at the seams. Every kind of challenge, even those assumed to have been relegated to history books came knocking once more. Infrastructure deficits, insecurity, traffic gridlocks all made massive come backs.

The eight years tenure of Ambode’s predecessor, Babatunde Raji Fashola- current Minister of Power, Works and Housing- demonstrated at least a reasonable level of competence in meeting the challenges of a sprawling mega city. Ambode’s stewardship on the other hand, has for the most part appeared overwhelmed by the same task of governance. Terribly unimaginative and worsened by a disappointing lack of ambition, Ambode has shown a poor grasp of modern city administration, especially one as cosmopolitan as Lagos.

A sorry example of the depths that Lagos state has descended into under Ambode’s watch was the April state visit by President Buhari. Ambode’s government declared an ill-timed public holiday on account of the visit, effecting a total shut down of the state, an occurrence unheard of for Lagos state, or any city worth its mega status claim for that matter.

Added to the millions in lost revenue, was the emotional and mental turmoil residents who had to be at work were forced to go through. And all for what? a celebration of mediocrity as Buhari was for lack of any serious projects, reduced to commissioning the still under construction Ikeja Bus Terminal, a flagship transport infrastructure under Ambode’s Bus Reform Initiative.

The scarcity of viable completed projects led Ambode and Mr President to a tour of the Eko Atlantic City, a legacy of the Fashola administration, inaugurated sometime in 2013 by President Goodluck Jonathan, then accompanied by United States of America President number 42, Bill Clinton. Due to misleading claims from the Lagos state government, the presidency was forced to put out a statement clarifying Buhari’s mission at Eko Atlantic City.

This unattractive style of administration and celebration of under-achievements would perhaps be ideal for states like Kogi or Imo where government is a farce, and decent leadership hasn’t been visible for a long time. For Lagos however, a self-styled pioneer that has in the past, delivered a suspended link bridge- at an exorbitant sum though- and conceived an ambitious if much delayed light rail transport system under former Governor Fashola, it was humiliating to descend to playing at Ambode’s level.

Warning signs

It isn’t that the signs weren’t there from the beginning, indeed they were. Everyone just chose to ignore them, but with good reason.

At public debates leading to the elections, Ambode was clearly outshined by the Peoples Democratic Party’s Jimi Agbaje as he could never quite box his way out of the defensive position other candidates were quick to shuffle him into. He was the stooge handpicked by vested interests. He didn’t do a good job of countering this.

But it was easy for Lagosians to put their faith in Bola Tinubu’s supposed knack for picking out talent, grooming them and matching them to areas where they shine. Even when Ambode’s antecedents weren’t widespread, Lagosians figured they could hardly go wrong with a system that produced Fashola. Simply put, Ambode’s electoral victory was more an endorsement of the APC and the Tinubu machinery than an embrace of Ambode’s competence.

As Fashola’s tenure was coming to a close, many familiar names were thrown up to replace him. Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu was one of the earliest figure heads to endorse the then unknown candidate. Ambode’s main claim to fame at the time was his six year tenure working with both Tinubu and Fashola as the state’s Accountant General. Ambode’s entire career was spent in the employ of Lagos state working in various positions across several local governments and state departments.

By this time, Ambode had retired into private practice, having set up Brandsmiths Consulting Limited, his own public sector finance management firm. His intimidating CV was brandished as qualifications for the demanding role. In the course of his stellar public service career, Ambode had been awarded the US Fulbright Scholarship for the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program, in Boston University.

Ambode also had his work speak for him.

He was identified as a key member of the crack team that revamped the state’s internal revenue generating system. This unit, which also included executive chairman of the Federal Internal Revenue Service, Babatunde Fowler at some point, introduced technological tools and went on aggressive campaigns that reintroduced confidence in the system and improved residents’ willingness to pay taxes.

The Tinubu administration started out with an internally generated revenue profile of 600 million Naira monthly, but as the administration wound down in 2007, IGR had grown exponentially to 6 billion Naira per month. This taxation drive was especially crucial as Tinubu and President Olusegun Obasanjo were locked in a bitter battle of wills over the constitutional legality of creating additional local government areas. This resulted in typical Obasanjo pettiness as he went on to withhold allocations due the state’s local government areas for about four years.

Inspite – or because- of Obasanjo, between 2006 and 2013, Lagos State was raising its IGR by 7 billion Naira monthly and by May this year, Ambode’s government was posting record numbers of 34 billion Naira. Over 70% of Lagos’ annual income comes from non-oil tax.

Interestingly the primary opposition to Ambode’s gubernatorial ambition back in 2015 was Fashola, his former boss. Unconfirmed rumors began to circulate during peak election period that Ambode hadn’t resigned voluntarily but was forced out by Fashola who was unimpressed by his service. Fashola made no bones about backing his own candidate, senior advocate and historian, Olasupo Shasore, incurring the wrath of Tinubu in the process. It was only when Ambode emerged as the party’s flagbearer that Fashola did a turn around and embraced Ambode’s candidacy.

Itesiwaju Eko

Akinwunmi Ambode clearly isn’t a man who forgives a slight.

Upon assumption of office, his primary preoccupation appeared to be the dismantling of Fashola’s legacy even after promising to build upon it. It would have been easy enough to just go with the flow and continue with the main policy thrusts, considering that they are both of the same party. Ambode chose instead to burn the house down without first acknowledging his own limitations as a builder.

The across board dissolution of boards of parastatals and agencies in the state, an exercise that claimed Fashola loyalists, including the former governor’s sister, Olayinka, general manager at the Lagos State Residents Registration Agency was expected. And some of them, like the dismissal of Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) from state roads as well as the replacement of the Kick Against Discipline (KAI) with the Lagos Environmental Sanitation Corps were well received. But there was also the curious decision to halt work on Lagos HOMS, Fashola’s home ownership mortgage scheme. The Ilubirin leg presents a particularly sad portrait of the project.

The earliest signs that Ambode was determined to go in a new direction surfaced when he reclaimed the popular Fashola administration slogan, Eko o ni baje, one which told a certain story of ownership and preservation and replaced it with his own Itesiwaju Ipinle Eko which placed the focus on development.

Three years in and Ambode and his team have barely made a dent in terms of real and proper development. In the annual ranking of the world’s most livable cities published this month by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the World Bank, Nigeria’s commercial nerve center, Lagos was ranked 138th of the 140 countries measured. Scoring only 38.5% based on criteria such as stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure, Lagos, the fifth largest economy on the continent, Lagos fared only better than Damascus and Dhaka, two cities dealing with challenges of war and migration.

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Upon resumption, Ambode positioned himself as an inclusive governor, a description that even Fashola’s biggest fans would not use to describe the current minister for power, works and housing. Ambode made some populist moves like decentralizing the annual Lagos countdown celebrations, making sure underserved communities like Ikorodu, Epe and Badagry got in on the action.

Ambode made a show of carrying every corner of Lagos along with projects like the 114 Roads project that constructed two roads in each of the 57 Local Government Areas and Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs). From Bariga to Ojokoro, communities largely ignored by Fashola were starting to feel the presence of government. Flyovers and laybys sprung up in Abule Egba and Ajah as a response to chronic traffic bottlenecks and some attempt was made to expand the BRT corridors.

Ambode adopted a pro-grassroots stance and some of his biggest wins as governor include the establishment of the N25bn four year Employment Trust Fund (ETF) headed by Akin Oyebode to grant loans to small business owners. Ambode’s hometown, Epe, long ignored on account of its distance from the city’s center has gotten a facelift with massive road construction and infrastructure renewal projects ongoing.

Still, Ambode’s administration will hardly go down in history as a truly inclusive one. Otodo Gbame remains a permanent stain on the government’s inclusivity claims as Ambode supervised a very violent (and illegal) property grab that resulted in the displacement of thousands of underprivileged citizens without a thought for proper compensation.

A statewide ban on street hawking was indelicately applied and became another chance to punish hardworking indigent people as the state’s anti-poor stance became increasingly clear. LGBT persons have on several occasions been rounded up and taken to court by police officers with support from state government institutions. There is also the horrid Lagos at 50 campaign that left out the Igbos and minority groups in its initial design?

Leave trash for LAWMA

Should Ambode’s tenure come to an end today, it doesn’t matter what else he has achieved, the single legacy that he leaves behind is not a pretty one.

Ambode’s Lagos is going down as the dirtiest in recent times, much worse than in 1999, when Tinubu’s decision to hire a foreign firm to tackle the city’s waste management backfired spectacularly. As a result the private sector was drafted in to complement the activities of the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). This arrangement worked quite well until Ambode decided to discard it in exchange for his big bad idea.

In perhaps the single worst decision to afflict a mega city, Ambode introduced the Cleaner Lagos Initiative, a state assembly backed misfire that took businesses away from the indigenous private sector and returned a large chunk of the waste management responsibilities to Visionscape Sanitation Solutions, a foreign firm with no demonstrated experience or competence in managing the over 10,000 tons of waste generated daily by Lagos residents.

Because this is Lagos, the financial details of the Cleaner Lagos Initiative aren’t public records but a letter signed by the Permanent Secretary/Accountant General of the state and obtained by BusinessDay newspaper but the extent of state commitment to the project at about 85 billion Naira in tax payers money over a ten year period.

Perhaps all of this might have gone unnoticed if Visionscape went about diligently doing the work it was contracted to. Lagosians were instead forced to watch with dismay as the state devolved into something from the distant past. Major roads, inner streets and public institutions are presently overrun by filth. It Is hard to comprehend really.

Waste management ideally, is a communal project that goes down to the individual level. Every single resident bears some responsibility for the filth returning to Lagos streets but Visionscape and by extension, Lagos state has encouraged this in so many ways. No one seems accountable for anything. Even when refuse has been gathered and stored for disposal, Visionscape trucks take forever to clear the garbage from the streets. From Badagry to Victoria Island, Lekki to Akowonjo, the city has taken up an ugly, fetid appearance, an eternal black mark for city administrators. Roundabouts and city monuments have become dumpsites. Business districts, city landmarks and commercial nerve centers are repositories of trash. No space is sacred. For this failure alone, it is hard to justify keeping Ambode and his team on.

Compounding matters are the lousy quality of roads that have come to be characteristic of Lagos state. While Ambode’s government is undoubtedly making efforts to fix the road infrastructure, the rate of decay far outruns whatever these efforts may be. Large portions of the state- from Oshodi to Iyana Ipaja- have turned to construction sites but there is neither structure nor rhythm to this work. Countless man hours are lost in traffic, dealing with the effects of the city’s construction projects.

For the first time since 1999, Lagos has aligned politically with the central federal government and while rapid economic progress and smoother reform processes were expected from this union, Ambode has not proven adept at taking advantage of this. The Apapa gridlock has progressively worsened and trucks have taken over the Oshodi-Apapa expressway going past Funsho Williams Avenue to Ikorodu Road. Ambode’s quick fix interventions- inaugurating a special squad comprising stakeholders and security agents, expanding the Orile-Iganmu truck terminal- have been merely a blip as the situation continues unabated.

Respite seems to be on the way though as the federal government in August, approved funds for the total reconstruction of the Oshodi-Apapa expressway. Earlier in May, Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo gave approval for the state to commence reconstruction work on the Lagos International Airport road, a federal government property.

Unreliable

Ambode hasn’t been the most reliable of politicians either.

His administration has been flippant, throwing up multiple deadlines to rid Lagos streets of filth. None of them has been met so far. Speaking at Buhari’s visit, Ambode pledged to introduce 820 ‘’environmentally friendly high capacity buses’ by September 2018 to improve the public transport system. Buses on ground presently are nowhere near that number.

The light rail project commenced in 2008 Light rail has now dragged to a 2022 ready date with multiple missed deadlines in between. Ambode also terminated a 844 billion Naira Memorandum of Understanding with a consortium of private firms to deliver the 4th Mainland Bridge citing ‘’slow pace of work’’ on the part of the contractors. The government promised to announce a new bidder by June this year with work projected to commence by year end. No such thing happened.

Despite his background in finance, Ambode has failed to bring transparency to the management of the state’s finances. Budgetary documents made publicly available have lacked detailed breakdowns and attempts by citizens and civic societies to get access have been frustrated. In June, BudgIT, a civic tech transparency group observed thus, ”Lagos and Kwara states have a history of opacity over the years and are notorious for resisting attempts by citizens to pry into the affairs of the state.”

On the political front, party loyalists have complained of Ambode’s failure to carry party people along and refusal to decentralize the award of contracts. ‘’Every single thing concerning project execution goes through the Governor or his wife. Most people have been sidelined. All we see are bus stops and poor quality roads.’’ a source claimed, pleading anonymity.

When enough is enough

Now it would seem that the same structure that brought in Ambode is all set to take him out. It is worthy to note that the ultimate reasons behind this may have little to do with the people, or with development but rather a dissatisfaction among the elite class that constitutes the Lagos political structure.

What makes Ambode particularly vulnerable this time around is that not only did he fail to build a political structure of his own- a virtual impossibility in Lagos state politics- he hasn’t particularly endeared himself to the electorate- either by delivering the goods or by good old charisma a la Fashola. Ambode has always been distant and hard to read, hiding his limitations behind a boyish smile and the formidable might of the Tinubu machinery.

That same machinery now wants him out.

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