He famously claims to be “just doing his job”. But in a land where politicians are known for doing anything but, that alone has been enough to make Babatunde Fashola, boss of the vast Nigerian city of Lagos, a very popular man.
Confounding the image of Nigerian leaders as corrupt and incompetent, the 51-year-old governor has won near-celebrity status for transforming west Africa’s biggest city, cleaing up its crime-ridden slums and declaring war on corrupt police and civil servants.
Next month, he will come to London to meet business leaders and Mayor Boris Johnson’s officials, wooing investors with talk of how he has spent the last seven years building new transport hubs and gleaming business parks.
Yet arguably his biggest achievement in office took place just last week, and was done without a bulldozer in sight. That was when his country was officially declared free of Ebola, which first spread to Nigeria three months ago when Patrick Sawyer, an infected Liberian diplomat, flew into Lagos airport.
Health officials had long feared that the outbreak, which has already claimed nearly 5,000 lives elsewhere in west Africa, would reach catastrophic proportions were it to spread through Lagos. One of the largest cities in the world, it is home to an estimated 17 million people, many of them living in sprawling shanty towns that would have become vast reservoirs for infection. To make matters worse, when the outbreak first happened, medics were on strike.
Instead, Mr Fashola turned a looming disaster into a public health and PR triumph. Breaking off from a trip overseas, he took personal charge of the operation to track down and quarantine nearly 1,000 people feared to have been infected since Mr Sawyer’s arrival.
Last week, what would have been a formidably complex operation in any country came to a successful end, when the World Health Organisation announced that since Nigeria had had no new cases for six weeks, it was now officially rid of the virus.
“This is a spectacular success story,” said Rui Gama Vaz, a WHO spokesman, who prompted an applause when he broke the news at a press conference in Nigeria on Tuesday. “It shows that Ebola can be contained.”
A school official takes a pupil’s temperature in front of the school premises in Lagos (Reuters)
The WHO announcement was a rare glimmer of hope in the fight against Ebola, and even rarer vote of confidence in a branch of the Nigerian government, which was heavily criticised over its response to the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram insurgent group in April. As a columninst in Nigeria’s Leadership newspaper put it last week: “For once, we did not underachieve.”
For Mr Fashola’s many supporters, it is also yet more proof that the 51-year-old ex-lawyer is a future president in the making, a much-needed technocrat in a country dominated far too long by ageing “Big Men” and ex-generals.
“He is the best governor we have ever had,” said Odun Babalola, a Lagos-based pension fund portfolio manager. “He’s made a lot of progress in schools, railways, and infrastructure, and unlike a lot of politicians, who are corrupt, he’s a good administrator.”
True, the successful tackling of the Ebola outbreak was not Mr Fashola’s doing alone. For a start, the doctor’s strike that was under way when Mr Sawyer collapsed at Lagos airport turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Rather than being taken to one of Lagos’s vast public hospitals, where he might have languished for hours and infected numerous fellow patients and staff, he was instead admitted to a private clinic. There he was seen by a sharp-eyed consultant, Stella Adadevoh, who spotted that his symptoms were not malaria as had been first thought.
She then alerted the Nigerian health ministry, and along with other doctors physically restrained Sawyer when he became aggressive and tried to leave the hospital to fly to another Nigerian city. Her quick thinking help stop the virus being spread more widely, but also cost her her life: she caught Ebola herself while treating Mr Sawyer, and has now been recommended for a national award.
Patrick Sawyer (AP)
But even by the time Mr Sawyer had been isolated, the virus was already on the loose. Knowing that he had passed through one of the busiest airports in west Africa, health officials had to try to track down every single person who had potentially been infected by him, including the other passengers on his flight. The list started at 281 people and grew to nearly 1,000. as eight others whom he turned out to have passed the virus to subsequently died.
That was where Mr Fashola stepped in. He broke off from a pilgrimage to Mecca, flew home and then helped set up an Ebola Emergency Operations Centre, which spearheaded the mammoth task of monitoring all those potentially infected. A team of 2,000 officials were trained for the task, who ended up knocking on 26,000 doors. At one point the governor was being briefed up to ten times a day by disease control experts. He made a point of visiting the country’s Ebola treatment centre, a way of communicating to the Nigerian public that they should not panic needlessly.
“Command and control is very important in fighting disease outbreaks, and he provided effective leadership,” said Dr Ike Anya, a London-based Nigerian public health expert. “He also said exactly the right things, urging for the need to keep calm. Regardless of whether you support his politics, he has been very effective as a governor and I would be happy to see him stand for leadership.”
Born into a prominent Muslim family but married to a Christian, Mr Fashola trained as a lawyer and went into politics after being appointed chief of staff by the previous Lagos governor, Asiwaju Tinubu, a powerful politician often described as Mr Fashola’s “Godfather”. But while he has long enjoyed the backing of a political “Big Man”, is his role as a rare defender of Nigeria’s “Little Men” that has won him most support.
Once, while driving through Lagos in his convoy, he famously stopped an army colonel who was driving illegally in one of the governor’s newly-built bus lanes, berating him in front of television cameras.
“The bus is for those who cannot afford to buy cars,” he said. “I want a zero tolerance of lawlesness, and those who don’t want to comply can leave our state.”
It was one of the first times Nigerians had ever seen a civil servant confronting a member of the security forces, whose fondness for committing crime rather than fighting it has long contributed to Lagos’s legendary reputation for lawlessness.
Armed robberies – sometimes by moonlighting police – used to be so common that few people ventured out after dark. Foreign businessmen would routinely travel with armed escorts, and the few willing to live there would stay mainly in a heavily-guarded diplomatic area called Victoria Island, a rough equivalent to Baghdad’s Green Zone. Add to that the suffocating smog, widespread squalor and regular three-hour traffic jams, and it was no suprise that the city had a reputation as one of the worst places in the world to live.
Today, much of the problems remain. But members of the vast Nigerian diaspora say they now notice big changes whenever they go back. “When you return you see an absolute difference – things have improved 100 per cent,” said Nels Abbey, a London-based Nigerian journalist and businessman. “Traffic is not what it used to be, bus lanes have been introduced, and it feels a lot safer. Fashola has been like a Tory mayor for Lagos – he is trying to make it attractive to the well-off.”
Lagos, Nigeria (AP)
Styling himself as Lagos’s answer to Boris Johnson has not endeared him to everyone. As well as laying plans for a vast offshore business park intended as an “African Dubai”, he has accelerated programs to clear the ever-expanding shanty towns, ordering their occupants to return to their homes in Nigeria’s poorest east and north. That has led to criticism from human rights groups, although others say it is hard to see how Lagos will ever improve otherwise. “Do I endorse it?” said Mr Nels. “I am afraid it is a bit of a necessary evil.”
Another big achievement has been increasing tax revenues, vital in a city where the GDP of $43 billion makes it the fifth-biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Mr Fashola has tried to sweeten the pill by putting up signs on all new infrasructure projects, saying “paid for by your taxes”. It is a rare acknowledgement of gratitude in a country where a guaranteed stream of state oil wealth has historically allowed rulers to remain aloof from the ruled.
However, despite being relected with 80 per cent of the vote in 2011, the main hailed as Nigeria’s brightest political hope in years is far from guaranteed a life in office. Having served two terms in office already, he is not allowed to run as Lagos governor again. And as a member of a minority tribe and the country’s opposition All Progressives Congress, he currently lacks the political backing to go head to head against Goodluck Jonathan in next year’s elections.
In the meantime, fresh from ridding Lagos of Ebola, he is focusing on an arguably even tougher challenge, launching a new initiative to stop motorists stuck in traffic jams from blasting their horns all day. As he put it: “If we can overcome Ebola, then we can overcome noise pollution.”