Tested in many ways he never could have imagined on assumption of office, the Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, isn’t just getting better at what he does as the Chief Marketer of the State of Aquatic Splendour, he has also shown that beyond theoretical misgivings, nothing really is esoteric about governance, administration and leadership. With a little over two years in office, Sanwo-Olu has learnt to deal with the heat in the kitchen without appearing disturbed or overwhelmed and yet, he gets the work done without shifting blames or side-stepping responsibilities. In almost two hours of interaction with THISDAY, he shares his experience about the journey so far, the challenges then and now, the progress reports, plans for the future and why being Lagos governor is not a job for small minds. Excerpts:
It’s over two years since you assumed office, and most of that time have been defined by challenges. Indeed, more of challenges than opportunities, so to say. How have these affected your initial enthusiasm?
You’re right. It’s been over two years. Indeed, it’s almost 58.3 per cent of my 100 per cent four-year tenure. You know, it’s supposed to be 1,460 days and to date, I think we’ve done slightly over 850 days, which means that indeed, we’ve crossed well over half of the time. And you’re right with the observation that there’s been a whole lot of challenges than opportunities. But, this is it: this is how to govern the biggest economy in the country.
It’s the biggest city that has the largest population in the entire black race. This is how to govern a place that is less than 0.5 per cent of the total landmass of our country, in which over 10 per cent of the population resides. To imagine that you want to come and run the shop called Lagos State; you want to be the chairman and chief executive of Lagos State, you need to think twice.
You need to know that it’s not going to be a tea party. This is where the real movers and shakers of thought process, a well-informed audience, are. So, it’s not something that you’re going to carpet under the rug and believe that nobody is looking. No! People are going to ask questions. People are going to ask you difficult questions. So, to be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting less.
But, not that I was expecting a pandemic from hell or I was expecting a security issue. But I know that to run a state given the challenges and complexities, that I just talked about, I will indeed need to continually roll up my sleeves, have shorter nights, and burn the midnight candlelight and be ready to appreciate what your people want. And you have to be up to it. But, it’s all about taking your people to a better level from where you met them. It is what leadership is all about.
The question is what should be your own commitment to ensuring that you leave the place better than you met it. So, it’s going to take something out of your body and at the end of the day, it’s a position of honour. It’s a position of grace, when your people believe and see that you have deliberately and consciously made an attempt to improve their lives. We are just trying to make an impact in the lives of Lagosians who gave us the sacred mandate to govern.
I think it’s only generations and historians that can write the script of how you fared, and how your life and your time had turned out while you were in government and what belief and what people believed was the outcome of it. But, I’m grateful to God for giving me the energy, for giving me the strength, for equipping me also with people that are on the same page with me and understanding that what we’ve promised as citizens is that we will not shy away from every bit of energy that we have to make this place better than we met.
How much has the pandemic disrupted that promise to the people of Lagos?
It has actually, and it’s not localised. It’s a global thing. It has because what it meant was, for example, all throughout last year, we couldn’t mobilise as many contractors as we’d have wanted to. We couldn’t supervise as many projects as we’d have wanted to. We couldn’t see the real brick and mortar growth as we’d have wanted to. That’s not to say that we didn’t do anything at all. But, wanted to do a lot of things quicker, faster and smarter.
So, in terms of our deliverables and timelines by the second end of the second year, we thought we’d have rolled out a lot of schools, a lot of hospitals and all of that. So, in that sense, it has disrupted our workplan. It also affected the revenue or the proceeds that would have helped us and our ability to raise enough funding, because businesses were not on. When life had been all threatened, so, everybody just needed to slow down, you know, and reappraise themselves.
Last year, for example, we had to take about a 30 per cent cut in our budget, but, we couldn’t take a cut in the health budget. We couldn’t take a cut in some critical sectors, where we needed to help people out of a very difficult time and ensure that we support even the organised private sector. One of the things we said to them during the pandemic was, do not retrench people, or lay people off from your payroll.
So, for us to have asked them to do that for us you can imagine what that means and appreciate the extent we were willing to go to keep people employed – things around delayed payment in remitting pay as you earn (PAYE); things around delayed returns in terms of their taxes. We also needed to be gracious and not come with a big stick and ask them to continue to do this, when we knew that indeed, it’s been a difficult time for everyone; for all of us and for all of them. It’s also been a learning point.
Like people say, you never let a crisis get bad, or you never lose the lesson of a crisis. It taught us how to think very quickly and very smartly. For instance, we were able to wrap up infrastructure in health sector very quickly. For example, in health training, we were able to wrap that up rapidly, not wasting time, thinking about what to do. We needed to identify the skills we required in some of those places and get them in place – up and running. But then, like people say, we’ve learnt what we’ve learnt. It sort of toughened us in some areas, but, at the end of the day, you will also see a human face to everything that we’re talking about, and doing.
How has lessons from the first and second waves, helped to prepare you for the third wave of the virus?
To be honest, I think we’re a bit lucky. We’re luckier, because we understand how the virus moves now; we understand what we need to do, and I will tell you some. We believe that the graph is coming down. It has actually tilted up, and we have begun to see it come down. I’ve had a lot of things that we were able to do with this. We have telemedicine and a platform that is working well, which means you can call people twice daily to know how they’re doing to respond quicker.
That’s number one. Number two, we have stocked up all the medicines we require. Everything is sealed up in a pack. So, we can give it like a goody pack but, it’s a COVID-19 pack. Also, our first responders know all of the symptoms better. Thirdly, we also have a ramped-up stock of oxygen. We’ve done three oxygen plants, you know, like in the second wave, when we didn’t have anything at all. Now, we have three oxygen plants on our own. We produce almost three hundred bottles of oxygen every day. I mean the Lagos State government owned. This is apart from the private sector.
We understand that the virus affects the chest when you’re heavily infected, so, it’s really good to have oxygen to continue to breathe. So, in terms of our response, we understand the virus better. However, they talk about the Delta variant that is more potent, and it’s true. It’s a lot more potent but, the bottom line is that we have studied how the virus itself moves. We know how it evolves and then, there’s been a lot of communication; there’s been a lot of community engagement. We did not stop at that at all.
We continue to communicate with our citizens in the various communities, and we’ve also ramped up testing. Now, in Lagos, I think we have almost 30 testing centres from a year and half ago, when there was only one or two. So, there’s been a lot of investments by the private sector side. So, basically, we now have a load of testing centres and PCR laboratories. In terms of infrastructure, it has been extensively improved. Communication has been ramped up, medicine and response have been improved. We can indeed nip it in the bud, as it were.
Can you put a cost to all that?
I’ll give you an example. To date, the state has done almost 400,000 free tests. If you calculate at the rate of N50, 000 per test and we have done 400,000, that is almost like N20 billion, that’s on testing alone. If we monetise the cost of testing, because that’s what the private labs charge, and Lagos State had to do that number free from the beginning till now. We have had to carry all of that free. So, that is just one expense line.
By the time you talk of the three oxygen plants that we have built, the training and retraining of the staff that we have done, the isolation centres that we have done and when we begin to look at the numbers, in a very strict sense, are massive. But, because it’s health, it’s a public health thing. We want to keep our people well. We want to keep them alive and in good health. In that sense, we are not bothered by the cost. Lagosians must be safe and we are willing to go any length to achieve that.
And, numbers in terms of expense, there are things that we can work back but, I just wanted to give you just that one single line. By the way, we’re still paying all of our frontline health workers. Maybe we owe them one month in arrears as critical frontline workers that are dealing with COVID-19. But, we’re still paying allowances, and the allowances are a lot of money, so, all of that we’ll continue to do; we’ll continue to help; we’ll continue to ensure that we keep the state safe and secure.
Away from health concerns, the Rivers State government recently took the federal government to court over VAT collection and won. Lagos, too, has applied to be joined in the case even though the FIRS has opposed your application. But Rivers has also gone ahead to enact its VAT collection law. What took Lagos, a state that usually leads in things like this, so long to be prompted by Rivers? Why did Lagos drop the ball?
We did not drop the ball. Go and check the history. This whole war actually started during Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s tenure. Incidentally, the current Vice President (Prof. Yemi Osinbajo) was the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice then. If you had studied the case, it’s his case in 2004, that is, the sales tax case that they used as a reference in the court of appeal right now, even as we speak. What happened then? I was in that same government. We took the FIRS to court, and the decision at that time – the ruling was that we should go and settle out of court.
They didn’t care. Mind you, the Lagos State government was in opposition at that time. So, it’s like they threw you under the bus when they said we should go and sort it outside the court. They also now said something: the federal government at that time said Lagos didn’t sue the federal government. It was an agency of the federal government, the FIRS, so, if Lagos State court gave a ruling – Lagos State went and now tried that federal agency in a Federal High Court – go back and go and start all over at the federal high court.
So, it’s like they hung it. We couldn’t make a lot of movement at that time. There was nobody ready to sit at the table. That is the real fact. It’s the same Prof. Yemi Osinbajo that led the case for Lagos State at that time. Lagos State was like an orphan (at that time). It was alone, as it were, and nobody wanted to take it up or talk to them further, and the FIRS at that time did not even listen to them. They said no, it was an abuse of court process for us to have gone to Lagos State court, because we won and wanted to go forward, they said no, go and start it all over again.
When we got to the Court of Appeal, the court said, ‘go and sort it out yourselves.’ So, they didn’t make a pronouncement. What does that tell you? It shows that, indeed, we didn’t want to get around it. That was what happened, and that has been there. If you remember, we now set up a sales tax shop. We now said okay, if you guys are good, we now set up a sales tax. We won that one at the Court of Appeal. I think that case is currently in the Supreme Court. Some people are still fighting us on that. We have actually made progress, because when they said we couldn’t touch VAT, we went to sales tax. So we never for once stopped in the championing of fiscal federalism.
Let’s step back a bit. What we’re talking about is really not about, who collects VAT or how VAT is collected; it’s about the fabric of federalism. If, indeed, we’ve agreed to stay together as a federation called Nigeria, that fiscal federalism or federalism, as it were, is important for us to continue to engage and live. A component of fiscal federalism is monetary control from resources generated from the states. Which include revenue from taxes. These are things that should be controlled by sub-national government in the spirit of true federalism.
It is not in the constitution that it is an exclusive tax. It’s not there that it’s a concurrent tax. So, meaning that it’s a residual tax and so if we’re talking about fiscal federalism right, this is one of the two tests of fiscal federalism and coincidentally, at our Asaba first declaration, we made it clear. If you remember, the communique that came out of that meeting, was that we all believed in federalism, restructuring. It was clearly stated in that very first much-talked about Asaba declaration.
Three meetings after that, we now have a real test of what we had just spoken about eight months ago, and we will not now be able to push it? No. It will amount to flip-flopping, and a lot of us are very decent gentlemen to say if this was what we said six months ago, what has changed? Let’s stay the course and continue to push about what we’ve talked about, and this is one case of testing what we have all seen, and that’s what we’re doing.
What, really, is the difference between sales tax and VAT?
If you listened to an interview and it’s very recent, and I think it was also on ARISE TV by a famous tax practitioner, Chief Ijewere, he was the expert that during the military, I think it was President Babangida, that set up a tax regime and listening to him a couple of days ago, I also got a lot of answers and closure for some of the things. It was meant to be a sub-national tax at that time, and because they wanted to improve, they added some luxury items to it.
That’s why they now use the updated VAT regime. That’s how it’s done in other lands in which VAT is charged. Go to America that we all talk about, there are different value-added taxes charged. It’s really the same thing as a sales tax. But, sales is just for sales. VAT takes charge of goods and services, not just consumption. It takes care of also goods and services and other services like import transaction and all of that.
That is why the listed items have been increased, but, essentially, it is supposed to mitigate the challenges: the problems that emanate from the sub-national or the entity or from the area, where all of that services and activity had taken place. That is the overall understanding of it. It was meant to help the sub-national, locality, or entity where that transaction took place.
The argument of FIRS is that this is not a tax that sub-national governments collect and that it could lead to multiple taxations if states collect VAT as well as affect foreign direct investment. Are there some merits in that submission?
Essentially, there are two or three fundamental issues around maybe multiple taxes. There would, indeed, be for us, for example, a closure on some of the conversations, because we have got experts to review that and be sure that everything has been done. So, that we don’t have any overlap or double taxing, but the fundamental thing is the test of the fabric of our constitution. It is not there. It is not stated. It is a residual thing. It is not even a concurrent thing. So, it’s there fundamentally, and that’s why we need to look at it.
You and I can now sit and say, okay, how do I collect it? What are the things that I need to do? We’re speaking with the organised private sector. We’re speaking with everybody that is a stakeholder in this. We’re not just irresponsible and unreasonable with it. And like you said, if I choose and say someone should collect it on my behalf, it’s a different conversation. But, let’s first understand that it is me that owns it. That’s the point that we’re trying to make for closure.
By the way, when Mr. Ijewere was also speaking, the only reason they got involved at that time was because they said, okay, we’ll help you collect it and now, to help you collect it, and the deviation coming out of it has since changed. Some people might say, ‘okay, continue to help me collect it, but, wait a minute, let’s agree that it is we that should be collecting it. you. It’s interesting for us, even as a nation, to continue to sit together, not political now, try and get the very best for our people at every point in time.
Based on the Asaba declaration and the different tunes coming from some southern states, are you sure the southern governors are united on this? Governor David Umahi is opposing the stance of Rivers and Lagos on the VAT issue. Some governors did not even show up at the recent Enugu meeting, sending their deputies. Are the southern governors united?
It will be a bit presumptuous for me to know the reasons their governors were not there and their deputies sent. Among ourselves, we raised the question, and the response we got was that these are joined mandates. They had the full support of their governors to be at the meeting. So, all of that we needed to respect, as to all of us being together and this is the beauty of democracy, and this is the beauty of everybody sitting in a room – everybody would have a say. I don’t want to use the word majority will have their way, but it’s also an engagement that we all need to continue to have, going forward.
It’s really around understanding and appreciating. What is the real essence of what you are trying to drive at? VAT is being talked about today. There might be other things around fiscal federalism or federalism, as it were, that may come up tomorrow that might affect these other states that’ll come up in a seemingly more positive manner than some other states. The question will be that because it’s not also Lagos. Lagos is the smallest state, for example. If we’re now going to be talking about natural resources and the rest of it, it’s almost certain that Lagos can never be comparable to other states with bigger land areas, where they can have a lot of natural resources.
These are some of the things that we need to look at, that sometimes, some of these things might not be 100 per cent in the same way and manner, but, we can all be gracious and sit on a table to discuss. We can all be very statesmanlike. It’s unfortunate, but, we’ll continue to engage ourselves. We’re brothers, and we’ll continue to ensure that we speak to ourselves and sort out whatever differences we have.
There’s growing insecurity across the country, and either by design or accident, Lagos tends to be lucky. Is there something you’re doing in particular, or everything is left to providence?
To imagine that we’re leaving everything to providence will mean lighting gunpowder and closing the entire doors to the house and expect that it’ll not explode. Far from it! We’re doing a lot. We’ve started from the very first thing, when we came into government. What are the things that we have set for ourselves to do? Remember that we’ve always had a working Lagos State security trust fund that has continued to help out in terms of resources, equipment, allowances, and logistics that security operatives across the line will require, not only police, also the military and other paramilitary agencies.
This also includes immigration and correctional centres. So, that has been a model that I was privileged to have set up in Lagos several years ago. Therefore, it wasn’t very difficult for me to further engage it, widen it, and give it a lot more depth. So, that is going on. Secondly, we also have that, whilst we are gradually part of the Southwest security formation, we have about 7,000-strong neighborhood watch complementing policing. They go into various communities and bring back intelligence.
They’re feeding this back to support the main security operatives, which means things can happen faster if they’re sharing information quicker. These are in terms of the background that we have working for ourselves. But more important, security is also not too far off from the economy and poverty. We say to ourselves that we need to be deliberate at ensuring that we can make the environment in which our people work, we can make it a sort of. We can create a sort of livelihood for our people in that environment, where people can’t get something to do, and move away from any act of criminality.
We’re ensuring our communication engagement with various stakeholders. Regularly, we talk among ourselves and ask questions, what is going on in the community? What are the things we need to do differently? All that information is plugged with the security architecture in the state, allowing us to go around very quickly. Maybe the other thing that is also working well for us is that we don’t have many border posts. Apart from Ogun state, the only border that we have, apart from Benin, which is an international border, is really the Atlantic Ocean.
If we can protect our waterways well, the inland border is only one state. We have a working relationship with Ogun State. We have a joint commission. We have security movement. We have a planning approval movement. We have a traffic management movement. But one that is peculiar to us, I will not shy away from it, is cultism demonstrated in some neighbourhoods. In the past six months, cult-related activities have actually come down. What we’ve done is that we’ve engaged them extensively at the community level. We’ve picked up some of the arrowheads, and we’ve sat with them to say what exactly the issues are?
They’re fighting around, who controls the street, who controls this and who controls that. We sat down and engaged with them: ‘Let’s give you a source of livelihood.’ All of that is going on and it’s because we always have a means of engagement. I can tell you that some of them are even working with us. So, all of those security issues are being attacked, taken up, and dealt with at the grassroots level. But we’re not dropping our eyes on the ball. We’re not complacent. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re also checking. We’re monitoring. We’re ensuring that even at the community level, there’s relative peace through the cooperation of all.
There are assumptions that the federal government is handling insecurity with laxity. Will it be right to say that could be undoing your efforts in Lagos?
I feel it’d be unfair to assume that things are not happening extensively at the federal level. I might not have all indices and parameters of the local issues in various states. I might not have, but I certainly know that, on a broad basis, given the information and what we read, things are really up for it. For example, the Chief of Army staff probably would be meeting with me on Monday (today). It’s also part of their engagement at that level. You could see that they’ve also made it a duty among themselves. I believe that their eyes are on the ball.
How are you dealing with the growing influx of people into Lagos, especially, those difficult to identify their origin and may pose security risk to the state?
These are real facts. These are real challenges. If you noticed, in the last two weeks, we’ve actually heightened our call on picking up miscreants and beggars on the street. There are social media videos that you see claiming that we are just deliberately picking people. We’re not just picking, we try to identify them and know where they come from and if there’s a means of rehabilitating them. That is actually going on. Many people flood Lagos for economic reasons and for prosperity. We do not have a problem with that. But if you are here with criminal intentions or security challenges, we would make this place uninhabitable for you.
Where are you on the Lagos rail project?
We’re actually on track. We’re on budget. There are two rail projects that we are doing. There’s the red line, and there’s the blue line. Outside of the State House, Marina, here, is the blue line. And you could see while you were driving down that there is more piling work now than in the last three or four months than has ever been. It’s because we are driving straight to completion. The completion time that I gave a commitment to at the beginning of the year is the last quarter of 2022. We’re on track regarding the delivery date, ensuring that phase one of the blue line. The blue line is from Okokomaiko to Marina.
The phase one of it is from Mile 2 to Marina. We’ve done the C-crossing. We’re doing the final piles; we’re doing the final piers for them to now have the columns that will stay on top. All of the columns have already been fabricated. Then, we’re building the Marina station. All the standing piles that you’re seeing, Marina station is going to be an elevated station. It’s going to be an iconic station, a station we’ll all be truly proud of. That’s the blue line. We’ve ordered the coaches; the maintenance and other things have been signed.
The red line is from Ebute Meta, on the old corridor that the federal government is also doing the Lagos-Ibadan rail, up to Alagbado. That one is also on track, and what are we doing? The federal government is running from the big Ebute Meta station to Ogun state every two hours. We have some rail tracks that we need to build. Our own rail station at Ebute Meta is in Ebute Meta proper, not the old Alagomeji. We’re building seven stations, as we speak, concurrently.
We have in Yaba, Ilupeju, Oshodi, Ikeja, Agege, and Agbado Oke. We’re not just building stations. We’re also building overpasses. We’re building four overpasses concurrently. There’s an overpass at Ebute Meta as you enter Apapa road. There’re overpasses at Yaba, Ikeja, and Ayoola Coker by Iju – all of them have been awarded, and contractors are on site. So, we believe that by the third or last quarter of 2022, we’ll also be meeting our target. We’re very excited that the infrastructure will be delivered before the end of our administration in 2023.
But let me quickly use this opportunity to talk about the transportation master plan. The whole idea is that those are two rail lines. The plan is to have seven rail lines. So, the expression of interest and the documentation, and the five others are going on concurrently. We have international consultants and financial advisers helping us develop the PPP model that we have. One of them is on the Lekki corridor. There’s another one that will take you on Ikorodu and Abule Egba. That’s on the rail. But the master plan for transportation in Lagos is what we call an integrated master plan, including rail, waterways, and road infrastructure.
We’re building 15 jetties as we speak on the waterways – small terminals and jetties concurrently. About eight of them should be completed this year. We’re dredging. We’ve bought more ferries, about 24 with various carrying capacity. So, we’re pushing a lot of traffic on the waterways. We’re investing in the command and control centre for the waterways and buying security equipment, including emergency and safety boats. We’re trying to motivate our citizens to use the abundant waterways in Lagos.
The third component is the road. We’ve done the large-capacity buses, and we have done the medium-buses and the last-mile small buses. Finally, we’re going to do the taxis as well. On the road too, we give you options: you can go the 60-seater, the 30-seater, the 10-seater and the one-seater, which is the taxi. We’re providing options for the citizens: options on the road, rail, and the waterway. At the end of the day, you’ll have one payment system.
Any option for the air space?
We’re actually going back to our Lekki airport project. We’re actually having an extensive conversation. We’re bringing the Lekki airport project. We’ve done extensive study on it, and we believe that it’s a viable project given all the investments that we have at the Ibeju-Lekki corridor. The airport will complement the refinery, which is the biggest in the world. It will complement the deep seaport.
It will complement all of the investments and companies. And the road, being a six-lane highway on the Lagos-Epe expressway, will complement all of that. The study on the airport is ongoing, and we’re checking the numbers. Maybe we’ll make an announcement in another three or four months as to the partners we intend to work with. All of that will help to develop Lagos into a megacity that’s resilient, competitive, and can be equated with other big cities across the globe.
Where in all of these is the fourth mainland bridge?
Like we did promise, it has been a very extensive and elaborate process. For the bidders, we started with about 32 international firms, now it has come down to about three. So, the final three are going to get their final request for proposal (RFP) and the final analysis of their bid document would be done. We are hoping that before the end of October, that should come in. Once that comes out, we would be able to identify in November, then we go into final negotiation with that person.
So, there will a preferred bidder and a reserved bidder. And, with the preferred bidder, we can go into negotiation. If we are able to complete the negotiation in one or two months, we should do ground-breaking immediately. So, I have committed to doing groundbreaking by December this year. Latest, by January, we should have done the groundbreaking.
Is it going to be a fully private sector-driven project?
Absolutely, it going to be private sector-funded. It is 37 kilometres. It has bridge and it is going to finally terminate on Lagos-Ibadan expressway.
When is the completion period?
Those are some of the things the builders would push in. But I think they would take it like in two phases and it is a safe thing to say in two or two and a half years, it should be completed. There are a lot of benefits to derive from that project, especially, the traffic that is going to be addressed. So, for you to embark on a project like this, its viability is very important and so you need to have extensive social impact assessment. And we are also going to be throwing in some real estate around there and there would be some land acquisition so that there would development on both sides.
The Dangote refinery is the biggest in the world right now, and the NNPC is taking 20 per cent equity. Why is Lagos the host state not taking equity, too?
It was dealt with as a pure commercial conversation at that time. What Dangote said he wanted at that time was a purely commercial transaction, where he would fully be in charge. But as you’ve seen, it’s now live, and that’s why I think he’s selling down gradually to investors. For us, we’re landowners; we’re the landlords, and we’re the stakeholders around this. I believe that on a CSR basis, there will be some conversation that he also would be thinking about. So that there will be that community protection and acceptability. We’ll have a conversation with him, possibly about just having a peep into the room, a small peep. It is a conversation worth having.
There’s so much going on in terms of projects in Lagos. These cost a lot of money. How is it affecting the state’s debt profile?
What we have done is to continue to make sure that Lagos sustainability indices are one of the lowest in the country. Given the size of our GDP, given the size of the budget that we have, if you look at our sustainability ratio, the World Bank at least would expect you to have almost 40 per cent sustainability ratio, but we’re still below 30 per cent even with the debts incurred.
But the question we should ask ourselves is: what’s the quality of the debts taken? What are we using the debts for? If a debt is being used for infrastructure, it means that you’re just building a future, bringing it to reality today. You’re building a future at a cheaper cost. Indeed, it will pay itself back, because of the economics and the benefit that it will give your general citizens over the life of that infrastructure. You’re not borrowing to pay salaries. You’re borrowing to develop infrastructure like rails and roads. These are some of the drivers of the economy that will make a state and city more sustainable.
Fitch Ratings recently upgraded Lagos from AA+ (nga) to AAA (nga) in terms of its debt sustainability and resilience. How did you receive the news?
We are very excited about the Fitch rating, because it is the best in the country. It is an ‘AAA’ rating by the foremost rating agency in the world. It looked at our debt ratio and our bond. Last year, we raised the biggest sub-national bond which was N100 billion and the utilisation was 100 per cent on capital project. And we are going back to the market again. We are trying to do an 8-year or a 10-year bond. But we did something very creative during the year. What we did was that for the first time in history of this country, we pulled the call option on our existing bond.
So, we have bonds that were running, and there was an option in which you can do what we call an early redemption of those bonds. We recalled it because we realise that we can re-price the bond at a cheaper price. When we called those bonds and we saw how the market was moving, we were able to save almost 500 to 600 basis points from what it was to what we are able to re-price our borrowing to. It means that over the next couple of years, we have saved interest expense that goes into billions.
From the calculation, it could be between N10 billion or N14 billion that was saved from that exercise. So, we have a team we are working with and these are people that are very cerebral. We did not default, it was just an option that was available in the bond programme and we took it and we are able to pay. So, we did for about N85 billion. We paid early and re-priced ourselves and we were able to make savings of about 5.56 per cent to six per cent on the interest expense, which is helping us to even clean up our books.
So, we are very excited about how we are managing our debt and we are believing that everything that we are doing are things that can bring about infrastructure development, improve the quality of life, improve the economy of the state so that people can do a lot more, have reduction in the time they spend on the road and have better property valuation on their investment. That is how economies are grown everywhere in the world. So, we have both internal and external consultants that are working with us and are doing a great job. I want to continue to thank them for that.
And we’d continue to assure our citizens that we will never be irresponsible with the finances of the state. It is something that I personally take responsibility for and I continue to look at it, given my personal experience in the finance industry. You also talked about something very top in my heart and it is something that last year was taken up seriously. It is the unfortunate incident of October last year, the #ENDSARS.
First, is to tell you that we still have the judicial panel working and I can say that we are the only one in the country that still have an active panel, which you all see on daily or on weekly basis still working. I must quickly add and I am saying this with all sense of responsibility, that since we inaugurated that panel, I have not seen the chairman of the panel for one day. I have never called her, not that I don’t follow what is going on, but I don’t have any form of interaction with anybody on that panel.
All they bring to me is that they need funding to continue to run the panel, they need funding to get experts, they need funding to pay their bills and we give to them. That has been my only engagement with them. Moving forward, they asked for an extension, which I think they have said to us that they will be ending sometime in October and they will be able to bring up their recommendations.
At the National Economic Council (NEC), we have given a small note to NEC, because all state governments that have a panel were asked to submit report, so we had to report to NEC that our panel is still active and working and we requested that they should give them time to finish up. But for the lessons from this, there are several things that we can take away.
First, is to say that even the men of the Nigeria Police Force, in my reckoning, now understand their responsibility to the citizens better. I even helped them to ensure that they become better officers and men, who understand that they are there because the citizens are the ones they are protecting. And so, we continue to have extensive community engagement with them. We have also seen and understand that we need to continue to engage our youths at various levels and that we have done extensively with all channels available to us over the last one year.
In tourism, art, sports and in community engagements, we have continued to open up the space and engage them. Part of the problem that we saw, studying the effect of it was that the lockdown had a lot of psychological effects on everyone. People were held back for months and so, it brought out a negative response at that time. And so, we have learnt about the psycho-social effects of a pandemic and a lockdown and how it affects the economy. But, more importantly, is to say that at the end of the day, whatever are their recommendations, we would take them seriously and we will ensure that we deal with all of the issues they are going to be telling us about.
The government would face them squarely and ensure that we have a mechanism in place to ensure that we do not have to repeat of the unfortunate incident. And for us, it is to continue to appeal and appraise ourselves. We all need ourselves and we can see things from different sides of the same coin, but the bottom-line is that we are all in this together and at the end of day, we all can build a bigger, stronger state and economy for everyone, create space for all of us to sit and resolve issues.
You recently launched a Joint Development Commission with the Ogun State government, what is it all about?
The only neighbour that I have among the states is Ogun, so, it makes economic sense to have such an arrangement. The joint commission is for us to look at areas of common interest – security, fiscal planning transportation, public transportation, especially, road infrastructure, boundary issues and land. And we have started. And I will give you several examples.
As recent as two weeks ago, when the Governor of Ogun had a huge traffic in his state during the burial of his father, the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA),for example, based on the engagement that we have, moved beyond Berger Bus Stop, into Mowe, which is in Ogun State, to help. So, we were able to deploy towing vehicles, men, bicycles and all that, and we are able to push the traffic and eased congestion on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway so that people could move.
You can imagine moving officers from Abeokuta to control traffic at Mowe or on that long bridge, because both are in Ogun State. But because it is closer to Lagos, we are able to do it quicker, better and faster. But we can only do it if we have this kind of Commission. At the end of the day, our citizens really don’t know the difference; they just want traffic to move and not be held down. So, it makes sense for both of us to sit back and develop this Commission.
Security is also another thing. We have joint border patrols by our police officers, neighborhood watch, Amotekun and they are all speaking with each other by exchanging information. Another one is infrastructure. If you go to Epe, Lagos, we have done the road from Ibeju Lekki to Epe, to the border town of Ogun State, going towards Ijebu Ode. The Ogun State governor has also done same thing, and we used same contractor.
So, you would see a seamless ride moving from Epe to Ijebu Ode – first class road, which has been done very well and there is a toll plaza that has been put there. The revenue coming out from the toll plaza, we are having a conversation to see how we would share it because both of us have done different parts of the road and so, we just have to share the resources. There are several other engagements like that such as in transportation. They want some of our buses to be getting to Ota. So, these are some of the things that the Joint Commission is working on.
Has the disagreement over Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE) tax between both states been resolved?
We don’t have any problem with that. We are actually paying Ogun state. There has been some reconciliation of accounts. So, we don’t have any problem at all.
By this time next year, preparations for the general election would have started, are you seeking re-election and if yes, why do you think you deserve to come back?
This is September 2021. Like I started this conversation with, I have done 58.3 per cent of my 100 per cent of four-year tenure. Lagosians need all of my energy and strength to continue to provide security, public transportation, carry refuse and ensure that I make their lives better and deal with issues of Okada. I swore to a four-year tenure, I didn’t swear to two and a half years; I didn’t swear to do 58 per cent of my term, I swore to do 100 per cent.
But I am not naïve and I am not politically unaware that there have been several drums coming up. But Lagosians need me to focus. What I will plead for is let me even do 75 per cent of my four years first. I test myself on a daily basis. Let me get to around 75 per cent of my time and I can now go back to Lagosians and say, see, what do you people think? Do you think I should come back? Do you think I have done enough job? That conversation has to happen. I cannot imagine that it is right here for me to just pluck and take them for granted.
So, you are saying Lagosians will decide for you?
Yes, Lagosians will determine my fate.
Let’s put it differently, do you think you have done enough to deserve a second term?
To be honest, I think so and I say this at the risk of rating myself, because I am a humble person. And why do I say this? You do not see leadership being put to test back to back as what we have seen in Lagos in the last two and a half years. It happened so often and so quick, that one could be stretched to its limit. And it is like a question you need to ask yourself: if you have a crisis, who do you call?
When you guys came in here some minutes ago, I told you that the only thing I check in the morning is if my emergency general manager has called me; If my Commissioner of Police has called and if my Transportation Commissioner has called me. That is because this is what I live and dream – to see how I keep the state and the city alive and well – working for the citizens.
And this is an experience that is only when you are in the eyes of it that you can get it. People can talk, people can assume, but indeed you need to be on the seat for you to appreciate and see. As I said earlier, you don’t throw away an experience that is so critical and so forceful – you certainly cannot throw it away. I never imagined it is going to be this tough, but with God and all the people I have been surrounded with in terms of support, and Lagosians giving me the full backing, I think we have done a fairly good job.
What is the COVID-19 vaccination percentage in the state currently and are you impressed with it?
To be honest with you, we can do a lot more. The vaccination percentage is still very low. It is about two per cent now and it is a function of how much we have taken in as a country. It has to do with availability. So, part of the things that we are doing is to be able to continue the advocacy and get a lot more people in to get vaccination. I want us to have piles of people waiting to take the vaccines such that as soon as additional vaccines are gotten in, you have a huge influx of people, who need to take them.
But why are you waiting for the federal government to give you vaccines?
Not only in Nigeria, but in most countries, it is a national health issue. That is, it is a primary national health issue. And a lot of the nations have taken it up nationally as a sovereign. We have also done same. However, we are at a stage, where we are having conversation with the Presidential Task Force (PTF) to see see if we can make an in road as a sub-national and see if we can actually engage the private sector, quicker and faster in terms of access to it. But, fundamentally, when you have a pandemic like that, it is usually a national response everywhere in the world.
So, we cannot outrun Nigeria. We needed to stay under a national health response so as to deal with it nationally. But like I said, getting vaccines and all of that, we are having that conversation with the PTF and also trying to see if we can engage more of the private sector and the private hospitals. As we have been able to reduce the pressure on testing by engaging the private labs, let’s also do the same thing with vaccines by engaging some of the private hospitals.
Aside availability, are there concerns about hesitancy?
Oh, well, it is latent somewhere. So, it is more of advocacy and continuous communication that people need. This is a fairly mature state and citizens, but sometimes people need to be nudged on and encouraged. So, sometimes you just need to tell them that it’s available and it is not costing you anything. But it is not as if people are running away completely, there are lots of people that want to have it.
Recently, the FIFA President, Infantino, came to Lagos and you met and even hosted him many people had wondered what the meeting was about. Is there something in the offering…?
Yes, we were excited that FIFA President and also the CAF President were around. So, everybody that is involved in football in the entire world were in Lagos earlier in week. We were lucky to have been asked to host the maiden edition of the Aisha Buhari Cup, which is for female national teams. It is a six-nation invitational tournament for Nigeria and five other African countries. It brought together their female national teams to have like a round-robin competition among themselves. By the way, it is a FIFA-rated competition, so, it is going to count for the countries’ ratings.
But it speaks to our own deliberate intention to improve our interventions in sports for our youths and for our citizens. And what do I mean? You have seen that we have consistently signed something with the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), where the last three matches of the Super Eagles games are to be played in Lagos. So, you are going to see that all the qualifying matches are going to be played in Lagos, due to the deliberate investment that we have made, not only because Lagos is home to football in Nigeria, but we also want to use it to wrap up our infrastructure.
So, concurrently, we are building about nine mini stadia. We are revamping the Teslim Balogun Stadium and we are building eight new ones in different nooks and crannies of the state, so that we can have our youths go to all of these facilities, expend their energy, grow the future of football, tennis, and every other sporting activities and take them to their various communities and make sure that organically, they have infrastructure and amenities and they can be the future world players. But we needed a competition like this to be able to put Lagos on the map and to be able to activate all the investments we are making in sports for our citizens to know that it is a deliberate attempt for us.
We are very excited about this and the female national teams that are in the state are extremely excited. We have got pitch and I dare say one of the best in the country is the Mobolaji Johnson stadium at Onikan. We believe that in the next three to six months, the Teslim Balogun stadium will have similar quality in terms of the grade of the pitch. So, it is part of our deliberate intervention under our T.H.E.M.E.S agenda. We have got stadia coming up in Igbogbo, Epe, Badagry, Ibeju Lekki, Ajeromi, Ifako Ijaye, and so, it is everywhere.
Lagos is the richest state in Nigeria, why is it so difficult to build a world class healthcare centre in the state to stop people from going abroad to seek good medical care?
For us, as a government, we are spending more on health than ever before. Last year, as I did mention, during COVID-19, we reduced the entire budget by about 20 per cent, but only the budget for health and education increased. So, year-on-year, we have increased our budget on health from 10 per cent to 11 per cent, 11.5 per cent and this year it is almost 13 per cent. We are currently building four brand new hospitals; we are renovating six general hospitals concurrently. We are building the biggest child hospital in Africa; we are building a health rehabilitation facility at Ketu; we are building a renal cardiac hospital at Ojo. And these are major infrastructure.
And as I said, the general hospital here at Lagos Island, in fact, on your way out, go there and you will see the level of infrastructure and the new development there. You can put me to test, go there and take pictures today. So, deliberately there are infrastructure that we are developing. But the next question you ask yourself is affordability? Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) today is the foremost tertiary health institution in the country. Well, LUTH used to be, but unfortunately LASUTH has over-taken it.
If you go to LASUTH at 6am in the morning and do a demographic statistics of where patients are coming from, a lot of them are coming from outside the state. Some will take night bus, come into Lagos, just for medical care at LASUTH. And by the way, we are recruiting more doctors than we have ever done in the history of the state. Concurrently, we have approval to recruit about 700 new doctors and there is a standing rule of a quarterly replacement if you have any exit of either retirement or for whatever reason. It is unfortunate that the resident doctors nationally are on strike, but we have managed our own case in Lagos.
All of their issues – that we should build residency accommodation, we have started building it in LASUTH; we should pay residency allowance, we have signed it off, and we have paid; that we should pay outstanding on some federal government allowances, we have paid. So, really, we are doing our best. But back to your question, which is why don’t we have a first class international health facility? The question we ask ourselves is, who are those to be using these facilities, because it must be something that is comparable to anywhere in the world? What we are looking at are people that travel so that we can stem medical tourism and be able to give them the facility they want to see here?
I am glad to announce to you that the old school of nursing at Awolowo road, Ikoyi, we have gone through an extensive appraisal and pre-qualification process, and we have just identified, a concessionaire on a Public-Private Partnership model that is going to build an international first class medical park. I don’t want to announce the name now, because I signed it off during the week. So, we have identified a partner that is going to build it.
And if you drive through there, you will see that the place is becoming ground zero and all the buildings are being taken down. So, it is going to be an international medical park, where the wealthy can have a place to go. But based on the model that we are working with, they are going to give us a percentage that will be subsidised so that the poor and the middle class can also access it.
Where do you stand on the agitation by the separatist groups in the country as seen in those clamouring for Yoruba nation and others for Biafra?
Nigeria, as we have seen, is big; it is complex, but we believe that we are stronger together. I believe that we can deal with all of our problems if we are sincere and we come to the table and solve the issues. There are classical cases in the world that we have seen. All agitators come back to the table at the end of the day. Agitations never end. You will see people that even beyond the South-east and South-west, go to the clans and tribes and still say for example, let’s divide Lagos into seven and some will tell you that Awori is different from Badagry; Badagry is different from Ijebu Epe and all that.
That is how myopic we could get when some people are saying that some places are for some indigenes. These are all rubbish. On the one hand, we celebrate when we see Nigerians appointed abroad as ministers in the cabinet of Joe Biden in the United States and some people will be here saying it must be indigenes only that should get appointments. It won’t work. So, for me, it is for us to be sincere. Yes, we have problems, but let’s deal with them. It might appear as if it favours you today, but another one will favour another person tomorrow. All we need to do is to understand and appreciate the skills and strength we all have. Let’s appreciate it and be able to genuinely resolve our problems and give responsibility to everyone and we will all be bigger and better together.