At a time religious, sectional and ethnic extremists have taken the centre stage in the West African nation, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State has compelled his countrymen to seek the common ground, to retrieve their collective destiny from partisans and provide a superior alternative to the prevailing national narrative of doom and fatalism.
Fashola is the public officer who profoundly touched the hearts and minds of the Nigerian during the 54th independence anniversary on October 1. Unlike other speeches which were virtually empty and boring, Fashola’s stirred and lifted the soul of Nigerian citizens with his anniversary broadcast: it will go down in history as one of the finest speeches by any Nigerian leader. Written with poetic density, the speech uncannily interpreted Nigeria’s often unflattering engagement with history in a way that made any person who heard or read it stop for a moment to think again about some popular assumptions about Nigeria.
The outbreak in July of the Ebola virus disease (EVD), a biological weapon of mass destruction imported into Nigeria by a Liberian-American national, Patrick Sawyer, tragic as it may have been, did provide an opportunity to galvanise Nigerians as one people and move in a new direction. For once, we did not underachieve. The result is the global acknowledgement of a national emergency well handled. From the World Health Organisation to The New York Times, the story is the same: Nigeria did brilliantly in containing the Ebola pandemic. The governor of Lagos State, the real theatre of action, in particular did provide inspiring leadership. Unknown to most people, Fashola was in Mecca on a spiritual retreat when First Consultants Hospital, a high-profile hospital in Lagos patronized by embassies, reported the matter to his government, and the next day he flew into Lagos. His health commissioner, Jide Idris, was also out of the country, and he, too, cut short his visit to return to his base within hours so as to take charge of events.
An Ebola centre sprang up overnight, complete with telephone hotlines, vehicles, medical personnel, etc. It was far from the characteristic Nigerian way of handling emergencies. Other states and the Federal Capital Territory Abuja followed suit by announcing similar centres. Yet, when cases of Ebola were reported in Enugu and Port Harcourt, the victims were not treated in their states or neighbouring states or even the FCT, but sent all the way to Lagos. They were treated successfully in Lagos with WHO’s assistance.
Symbolism is a critical component of leadership. In confronting the Ebola challenge, Fashola demonstrated more than symbolism. Apart from the Lagos State health commissioner, he is the only political appointee who visited the Ebola centre. The visit went a long way to lift the spirits of the medical volunteers and the patients, the way American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan felt any time top American leaders visited them on special occasions like Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day. Fashola’s visit was admittedly daring. It was at a time doctors at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital were running away from their female colleague, a female registrar at LUTH who volunteered to treat Ebola patients at the centre in Yaba, Lagos. Such was the fear of contracting EVD even by medical experts at a leading teaching hospital. Yet, Fashola, a non-medical professional, dared visit with his closest personal aides!
Even with the commendable Ebola containment in Nigeria, LUTH doctors are still scared of going near the female volunteer, according to the LUTH chief medical director, Akin Oshibogun. But such fear could not prevent the governor from receiving all Ebola survivors in his office on Thursday, September 18, where he spent considerable time chatting with them, enabling the victims to recount their ordeal in a detailed manner. Among the survivors who visited is Dr Morris Ibeawuchi, the first doctor to treat Sawyer, the index case. Also on the delegation is Dr Adaora Igonoh of First Consultants Hospital who attributed her survival and that of her colleagues to the gallant effort of Fashola and the Lagos State government. Not to be forgotten are the wife of the late Dr Kelechi Enemuoh, who furtively treated Sawyer’s companion in Port Harcourt; and Dennis Akagha, whose wife, a staff nurse at First Consultants, tragically attended to Sawyer. To stop the stigmatization of these heroic Ebola disease survivors, Fashola ensured that as many top officers of the state government were seated with him when the victims visited. The meeting was well publicized and it achieved the purpose, as the survivors have been testifying.
First Consultants has reopened, but quite a number of patients are still sceptical about its environmental integrity. Fashola recognizes that this fear is exaggerated. To restore public faith in First Consultants, one of the country’s very best, he visited the hospital on Friday, September 21, and spent a long period inspecting the state-of-the-art facilities in the place and speaking to the staff and management. He expressed satisfaction with the intensive and extraordinary effort made by the hospital led by Dr Benjy Ohaeri, a highly regarded American-trained medical expert, to ensure that it is absolutely free of EVD contamination. Ohaeri explained how, under supervision by the WHO, Centre for Disease Control and other key institutions, all the sewage in the hospital was removed and all the hospital’s personnel and equipment de-contaminated in a special way. The governor’s visit must have had a salutary effect on public psychology vis a vis First Consultants Hospital.
Another Nigerian leader who understands the value of symbolism in leadership is erstwhile Lagos State military administrator Buba Marwa. When a false rumour spread like a wild fire in the state in the mid-1990s to the effect that beans, a vital source of protein, had become infected by an extremely dangerous pesticide, Marwa went to a roadside akara seller and, before television cameras, grabbed a ball of akara, and chewed it. Before he could go for another ball, passers-by, who had hitherto avoided beans and all its products like a plague, swooped on the remaining akara balls and devoured them as though their life depended on it! This was how the akara health scare ended. Like John F. Kennedy, both Marwa and Fashola understand that the most important function of leadership is to inspire the confidence of the people. Kennedy was no engineer or scientist, yet he was able to put the first man on the moon. How did he do it? By inspiring the finest American scientists through action and words.
Fashola’s management of the Ebola virus challenge is exceptional. And, through words, he was able, in his October 1 broadcast, to fire the imagination of all Nigerian people. The broadcast was a call to arms, a call to service, irrespective of class, status and every other cleavage in society. Calling by name each and every one who “saw and defeated the Ebola virus disease”, including cleaners, nurses, nursing aides and other categories of people often forgotten when any pandemic of the EVD magnitude is fought successfully, the governor described them as true champions of public and humanitarian service and heroes of the independence anniversary being celebrated without any more EVD case in Nigeria. He instructively left himself and other high political officeholders in Nigeria out of recognition. This is not very Nigerian.
Having learnt some incredible lessons from the Ebola menace, the Lagos State government is sending out teams to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to assist the three West African nations devastated by the scourge, in the true spirit of African solidarity. Fashola has already set up a research team and provided it with a 145million naira grant to conduct research on EVD so as to get a final solution to this disease which began in Africa.
We invite all those Nigerians obsessed with all manner of sectional, ethnic and religious cleavages to reflect on Fashola’s uncanny management of the EVD outbreak in Nigeria and see if these parochial Nigerians, always driven by paranoia, do not represent a veritable anachronism, a throwback, a breed out of touch with realities of a new Nigeria. Babatunde Fashola is the face of an emerging nation. The nation needs more Fasholas.
– By C. Don Adinuba, head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting, Lagos.