Lagos has always been a place of small beginnings. A small port town, a puny army, a humble royalty, a seeming patch of land, straggles of settlers. During the Yoruba Wars, it snorted under the shadows of valiant horsemen and kabooms of gunfire exchanges.
But it has not taken its smallness with humility. It is as though it is haunted by Prophet Isaiah: “A little shall become a thousand and a small one a strong nation.”
In the past century and a half, Lagos has dwarfed everyone. It has moved from a tiny port town to a towering harbinger of commerce. It hosts the banks and money, the entrepreneur, soldiers of destiny and the great bards. The nationalist twitted the imperialist, from Macaulay to Azikiwe to Awolowo.
Its heroes have always followed a trajectory from the unknown. I.K. Dairo, Fajemirokun, Gani Fawehinmi, Awolowo, et al. It is the place where Nigerians have patented their geniuses. One of such narratives is in the offing.
The story of Akinwunmi Ambode had such a heady start from when he became his party candidate. The PDP had its Jimi Agbaje, and he was in the flush of PDP largesse. His supporters said he was the one. Some young and some professionals and some ethnic stalwarts coalesced. They said Agbaje was the winning formula. They said he had the gift of the garb, a winsome look, a charisma that did not go beyond a nifty suit and rakish fila, or Yoruba cap. He spoke about grandiose topics like “ocean economy” and a murky agenda for the youth.
Agbaje wore the false garb gladly. He pivoted towards the idol of the tribe, and he raked up tribal hate among Lagosians. He said he was going to elevate the Igbo as a kingdom, at least fiefdoms, in Lagos by ranking their chief on an equal pedestal with the Oba of Lagos. President Jonathan rolled into Lagos to back his separatist and Balkanising agenda. In the heat of the campaign, they had decided to give phantom contracts and offices.
In fact, a crop of ethnic lawyers amassed money to throw a victory party a week to the polls to celebrate the “takeover of Lagos” as though it was some form of military encounter. Lagosians thought differently and voted for commonsense over clannishness, continuity over brashness, competence over showmanship.
But as governor, he did not slide into a party. A few stumbles happened early on. Crime smeared the city, and here and there we witnessed fear and trembling. A mere anarchy of hoodlums took over streets and some major arteries. Compounded by a heady traffic snarl, Lagos cast back to military-era melee. PDP critics leapt into the fray and thought that the Lagos voters erred. A temporary Agbaje nostalgia rent the political space. As Mahatma Ghandi noted, “we shall stumble and fall and rise again…”
So, Governor Ambode never expressed public alarm or rhetorical opprobrium. All he assured Nigerians was that he was working, and he soon would turn everything to rights. A few months later, he fazed the city with an unprecedented supply of security cars, motorcycles, helicopters, walkie-talkies and other gizmos. A new regime of safety suddenly burst into town. The crime lords retreated. Also in a short while, the traffic snarl was contained.
As he turns one as the helmsman of Lagos, few remember their grumbles. Even the critics have become grudging adulators. Following a tradition of Asiwaju Tinubu and Fashola, he has stamped his signature early. His appetite for development is big. I told a few critics who read this column that they should wait and they would be convinced. I said I had met him a few times before the election and knew he bounced with great zeal, ideas and competence. His resume, I said, was one of the best for governance we ever had in this country. Having worked in all parts of Lagos, he knew where the city hurt and healed.
Some of them wrote to flay him in the early going, and I counseled patience. Once he settled in, some of them drew my attention to some things he had done even before I knew.
Some of his early kudos have been in the area of rural Lagos. His infrastructure work, building roads with dual carriage patterns and opening some of the rustic part of the city have impressed citizens. I drove through the Third Mainland Bridge one night, and my car stopped when the security gadget tripped. I had no fear because the bridge was almost like daylight. The long, serpentine stretch of the bridge over the lagoon revealed every detail of lanes and automobile zipping by. No hoodlum could have menaced me without consequences, especially with police also at the ready. A friend once told me that right from work to home at night, all the streets are lighted.
One of his virtues is his knowledge of the economy. With the economy in bad straits, it now looks like serendipity that an Ambode should hold the state. And he has proved the man to do it. With deft management of the infrastructure of collection, Lagos is perhaps the only prosperous state in the federation today. In the United States, California and New York are regarded separately as world economies, just like Ontario in Canada. Lagos can stand today as an economy in Africa, besting most countries. In the first quarter of this year, the state curled in N101 billion as revenue. This is why Lagos can also boldly pursue grand projects. For instance, Ambode just signed an MOU for the fourth mainland bridge, which could be completed before his first term is over, all things being equal. He also has started what might be the medical mecca of West Africa in Ikoyi.
He has turned a whole community into a habitat of light, in Ibeju-Lekki where the government is paying the light bill until they get their metres.
He is doing all these and more without what some thought was his inability to give soaring oratory. Ambode is a man of policy, not a figure of speech. He acts and allows his work, not words, to tell his story. The narrative, so far, is turning him into the alpha governor of today.
It was in 1979 at the Tafawa Balewa Square, and I was a student trying to board a bus home. Suddenly, a crowd surged outside the façade of the stadium, and I looked. To my astonishment, the man at the centre was a light-skinned fellow of buxom build faking boxing exchanges with little boys who were ecstatic to return their own fake jabs. The man, with handsome look and dainty footwork, was Muhammed Ali. He was visiting Nigeria to campaign over some humanitarian issue.
That was my only sighting of Ali. The Greatest died, and I join others to mourn this great black man. He lived a life that is lacking today. A world where religion can be a platform for humane causes. A world where tribe and cant have replaced a multicultural bliss. We have BREXIT, Trump, ISIS, Boko Haram. He was a pugilist for justice. He fought against racism as a conscientious objector when others allowed themselves to die in an America that treated them as sub-human.