Sanwo-Olu: How COVID-19 defined my administration
Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, told a team of TheGuardian Editors how the COVID-19 pandemic tried and tested his administration, stressing that having a team of technocrats, including his wife, helped him to make a way out of the tempest. LEO SOBECHI was there.
• My Wife Aided Our Quick, Smart Decisions
Coming into office at a tough time due to the COVID pandemic, how much did the challenge help, especially given that by then people were still asking who the Governor of Lagos State is?
One of the things that you learn in life is you do not put a crisis to waste, as tough as it is, the crisis could be a time to define yourself. Like you said, we came in at a very difficult time, you can imagine getting sworn in during the rainy season, we came when traffic gridlock was at its highest, it was almost on a daily basis and you had to settle in very quickly and on the bed of that as we were ending that half year in 2019, COVID was announced in China and by January, it became global.
I would say two things that toughened was the fact that you cannot fail yourself. A failure to oneself is the biggest disservice you can do to the teaming number of people that believe in you. Those who believe in you are not necessarily about your power or your strength, but the fact that there is something inherent that has been part of your environment that you need to come up and showcase. And so, when COVID happened, I listened and I listened very well. I listened to experts, to science and to what makes a lot of sense and that helped me to be able make quick decisions. Something we have never seen before would demand decisions that are quick and smart so that, even if it was a mistake, you cannot afford not to make a mistake.
At the peak of it we were dealing with a health issue, an economic issue and a security issue, all three woven up together and one of the early things like I said apart from listening is that you need to flip your listening to communication. You have to bring out the ability to transparently tell people what is going on, that communication helps for people to know that it is bad but it is not all over yet and so that will calm a lot of nerves down. I believe we did and every other thing was just learning from it as we went on. We could say that our strategy worked and we are thankful that people believed in us to have listened to the things we were saying. It is just like a crash programme; get wiser and older almost immediately.
Some people actually said, thank God, this governor has a medical doctor as wife. How much did that help?
You know my wife is an anaesthetic, those that make one to sleep. So, she understood very quickly the respiratory issues, ventilator, intubation, because the virus was affecting the lungs and that is where she has expertise. And so, in the very quiet night in bed, she offers her suggestions and her own views about what we should do and that is why I said one was able to listen to science, that is medicine. But, the security and the economic part of it, maybe I got it somewhere else, but I listened to science and it helped and part of the team we put together. We were also lucky, because my commissioner for health, I must give him the credit; he is also a biosecurity expert, meaning he is an expert in infections, virus and pathogens.
So, he understands that when you have something close to this, you need an incident command system; it is like a war. You must have a very nimble command and control chain, where you can take decisions quicker and faster. I do not need a whole 40-man cabinet for example, for us to take a decision. So, we crashed the cabinet to just Eight of us. And they gave us the mandate, as we needed to have quick turnaround and decision-making capabilities and the authority to make those calls. I think it helped us, so there were no bureaucracies and bottlenecks.
Still on emergency, what mileage did your administration cover in the area of capacity for disease surveillance and the parity between health infrastructure and human capacity?
We did a lot around the surveillance part of it. Why do I say this? The Ebola incident in Lagos in 2014 also gave Lagos a bit of an edge. That was also a highly infectious virus. So, there were epidemiologists, there were virologists that had been developed in the system and the initial review of it shows the same, but they needed leadership that can encourage them to do what they think they know how to do best. That leadership was what I was able to offer very quickly, that is one part.
The other question you asked was about infrastructure and how were we able to develop capacity and like I said, these are some of the positive things that the virus had allowed to happen because Lagos has realised and almost every part of the country and internationally that we need to develop local capacity.
Everything has to be domesticated, so we also had the opportunity to train and recruit even more doctors and nurses than we used to do, because they were the frontline health workers. We needed more people, because they were also breaking down. We had to recruit a lot of them, put them in hotels, because they could not go home, so as not to infect their family.
So, we had to reassure them, ensure that we provide the needed facilities for them and they can only talk to their families on phone and recruit more people, there were loads of people on volunteer that we had to ensure that we made them safe for themselves.
Training and capacity was done on daily basis, then infrastructure will not happen overnight, but it taught us a lesson to ensure that we needed to develop it. That is why are ensuring that we develop both real hard-core and brick and mortar infrastructure and soft skill infrastructure.
Lagos promised Lagosians that apart from the vaccine from the Federal Government, the state was equally arranging one, but what we learnt is that even the one they are administering now is inadequate?
You are right. The challenge that we faced is that a lot of the manufacturers are willing to discuss with the sovereignty. CONFABS, which was the one AU was using were dealing with nation to nation so it was sovereignty to sovereignty they were dealing with.
When they realised that we are sub-national, we did not have that quick access that we were expecting to get. Secondly, Federal Government sees it as a national health issue, thirdly, NAFDAC (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration), which is the only certified regulator that can give you a clear bill of health to say that this vaccine is proper or not is a federal government agency.
So, we cannot do anything without them else we will be running complete foul of the laws of the land whilst we were been very tactical not to run foul, we are also ensuring that they also test other vaccines apart from the Astrazeneca that we currently have to ensure that there are other vaccines that they have tested and can validate and say these ones are good and once all of that is available for us, then we can deliver here.
There are some private sector people that we were talking, especially in critical industries and they are also having that direct conversation. To say, because of the critical component we have in the country, they want to vaccinate and they are saying they will support us once they get it. We are working on those two prompts, but we realised that we cannot go fully as Lagos State because they will say we are dealing with Nigeria, WHO does not deal with sub-national, they with national and same thing with the multilateral and bilateral agencies.
Continuity is one area, where Lagos has done well in terms of continuing projects from previous administrations. Before you came in there were fears maybe, because of what happened within your party, that you may not continue some ongoing projects, but gradually, we are beginning to see a lot of such projects being completed. How much of the continued projects is your administration undertaking?
For me, it is the people that will suffer if you do not do that (complete projects). These are resources that have been set aside to do x, y, z. The minimum you can do is to ensure that people do not suffer. Why are we in government?
We are in government, because we want to make life better for our citizens, which are what we swore to secure and make life better for them. For me, it is not about who started it, but it is about how functional it is and how quickly do we get to the finish line, so that we can handover to the citizens.
That is the greatest thing that I believe any leader of note must do, because you are not hurting yourself, you are not hurting the party or you’re predecessors or something. You are hurting the citizens, because they are the eventual beneficiaries of what you do or what you do not do. So, it will be unfair of me not to want to put that very quickly for them to enjoy the use of those infrastructures. It is something that I had a closure on very quickly, because you take over both assets and liabilities of whatever you incur so forget about complaints, go get the job done and let the citizens get the benefits of what we are talking about.
There is a video on social media displaying how Uganda has been able to build electric luxurious buses locally. Given the huge investment in transport in Lagos, when are we expecting locally made electric luxurious buses in Lagos?
I saw the video, I am not so sure if it was made there but they are beginning to utilise electric buses. As nice as it is and as efficient as it looks, we also need to be in a position that we have solved our electrical problems largely, because you can imagine you having a lot of electric cars and there is no electricity to power them. But, be that as it may, it does not take away the importance, relevance and benefit of it, because it reduces carbon emission and climate change, that is the future, that is the way to go.
Like I said, that is one of the things we are exploring on our mass transit buses. In fact, one of the things we are doing is that some of the buses we are now buying, they must be CNG convertible meaning that they are using gas as against diesel reducing emission once it gets to CNG, which is about using gas, then you are very close to getting to using electricity.
There are issues about second term, how much distraction is it or does it weigh on your projections for the next two years. The other aspect is the issue of the Governor’s Advisory Council (GAC) and all those little political issues, how are you addressing them?
We are in a political environment and we cannot claim ignorance of it. You will do it at your peril. You know politics is also an interesting thing. Interest will always be there; people always emerge with different scenario building. The GAC are an advisory body and they are men that have been around for 30, 40, 50/60 years and so you cannot throw away those years of experience. Even in terms of governance and advice they can bring to you. They are people we respect and revere very well.
About distraction, like I said, it is four years that the citizens of Lagos have given to me and I cherish those four years, I cherish it so much and I am just half way. It will be playing God for me to imagine that you have an Eight-year mandate, when you have four years, but it is not a distraction.
I am focused on the four years. When it gets to the time to determine or aspire for another four years, I can assure that right decisions will be made and it would not be anything for you to be worried about.
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