Why Lagos is the best stop for govenors out to transform countries

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Nic CheesemanIn this bimonthly column for The Daily Nation, our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman argues that Kenyan counties can learn a great deal from the example of Lagos’ Govenors Bola Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola, Govenors, in Nigeria.



Devolution has changed Kenya’s political landscape. Before, citizens seeking development had two choices: They could encourage their MPs to lobby central government and hope — often in vain — that it would respond or they could get on with it themselves. After independence, this meant arranging harambee drives and pressuring MPs to personally fund local development. More recently it has meant putting pressure on the committee of the Constituency Development Fund to respond to local needs.

The creation of 47 counties complete with their own governors has transformed this picture. For the first time, Kenyans are looking to their county-level representatives for development. Responsibility for key services such as health is being devolved, along with a considerable share of government revenue. Exactly how much will actually reach the counties remains a subject for debate, but one thing is clear: never before have Kenya’s towns and cities enjoyed so much influence over their own destinies.

But what should governors do in order to make the most of this opportunity? How can they raise much needed revenue to fund their activities? And can county governments achieve anything if they are not supported by the central government? To answer these questions, Kenya’s new governors could do worse than to look to Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria. The transformation of Lagos over the last 20 years has been nothing short of remarkable.

Even the most proud Lagosian will admit that 20 years ago, the state was on the brink of collapse. Crime and unemployment were high; economic opportunities and hope were hard to find. The state’s infrastructure was crumbling under the combined weight of population growth and low investment. High levels of corruption dissuaded foreign investment, even though Lagos was the economic powerhouse of Nigeria. After decades of suffering at the hands of an under-performing government, Lagosians were reluctant to pay tax because they got so little in return for their hard-earned money.

Today, Lagos is very different. Roads have been cleared of hawkers so traffic can move. Schools and hospitals have been built and given makeovers. Major infrastructure projects have brought jobs to the state and have created the sense of a place on the move. Not only are Lagosians more willing to pay tax than in the past, but there are reports that some residents have even turned up at the offices of the Lagos Internal Revenue Service (LIRS) to volunteer to pay what they owe. As a result, the government has been able to collect more tax than ever before.

What has led to this change of fortunes? The short answer is leadership. Nigeria’s federal political structure means that state-level governments can make a massive difference in conditions on the ground. After a run of bad luck, Lagos found two political leaders determined to make a difference.

The first was Bola Tinubu, Governor of Lagos from 1999 to 2007. He began his time in office by promising to build 10,000 houses for the poor. He also invested in education, built new roads, and began to improve the performance of the LIRS. Having served his two terms in office, Tinubu stepped down and was succeeded by Babatunde Fashola, who had been his Chief of Staff. Fashola continued Tinubu’s reforms but went further, bringing private sector talent into the government, curbing corruption, and developing plans to deal with the state’s spiralling population.

Together Tinubu and Fashola gave Lagos a second chance.

But the short answer is never the full answer. The revival of Lagos was not just about leadership. It was about what leaders did to win public support for their agendas. Both Fashola and Tinubu recognised that they could not turn around their state without winning over the public. This was essential for three reasons. First, they needed to consolidate their political base so that they could secure re-election. Second, mass support helped the governors to persuade important interest groups who stood to lose from their reforms that there was no alternative. Third, demonstrating the overwhelming popularity of their policies strengthened their hand in battles with the central government.

The problem was that generating public support was far from straightforward. Lagos has long been an opposition stronghold willing to give the central government in Abuja a bloody nose. But even so, Lagosians were reluctant to fund their state by paying higher taxes. Like citizens in many parts of Africa, Lagosians had learnt the hard way that paying taxes rarely led to better services. Under the colonial government, taxes were enforced through coercion and were widely seen to be illegitimate. Decades of government failure after independence did little to improve things.

Tinubu and Fashola realised that rhetoric alone could do little to change this situation. As a result, they set about providing new public services that would make a concrete difference to the lives of ordinary Lagosians. Once the influence of these policies had started to be felt, the government publicised them through a targeted public relations campaign. Billboards explained to citizens that their taxes had been used to pay for schools and hospitals. A budget was produced and distributed to citizens that showed exactly what tax revenue was spent on.

At the same time, Fashola went to great lengths to point out that government resources were not just being used to reward his supporters — they were being spent where they were needed. Over time Lagosians got the message: the more tax revenue you pay, the more services you get, hence Lagos residents have been volunteering to pay more tax: they think it is worth it.

The lesson for Kenya’s governors is clear. Like Fashola, they must understand that actions speak louder than words. Government has often failed the people of Kenya, whether it be colonial, local, or national. Kenyans believe in devolution, but if they are going to invest their energy and resources at the county level, they will first want to see that county governments can deliver. Governors can achieve this by providing services to all citizens, and by making sure that citizens are aware of what their government is doing and the reason they need to pay their taxes.

But perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from the example of Lagos is that all of this can be achieved without the support of central government. In the case of Lagos, the hostility of central government actually served to inspire the state’s revival. Governor Tinubu first decided to reform the tax system in Lagos following a decision by the central government to cut off the flow of funds to his administration as a punishment for its failure to do as it was told. In response, Tinubu decided to make Lagos financially self-sufficient so that it could no longer be bullied by the national government. As his government raised more money, it was able to provide more services, leading to a virtuous cycle. Being forced to survive without resources from central government did not threaten the Lagos revival — it kick-started it.

Of course, not all of Kenya’s counties can survive on the basis of internally generated revenue. Some will remain dependent on transfers from the centre. However, the larger and more economically advanced counties can learn much from Lagos. Whatever happens with the disbursement of funds, they can still control their own destinies.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 30th August 2013.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

2 thoughts on “Why Lagos is the best stop for govenors out to transform countries

  1. Dear Mr.Cheeseman,
    I am not much of a reader then it comes to local news but your piece on why we should look at Nigerian governors to improve our counties intrigued me.
    I find that the piece failed to talk about the ugly side of Lagos.The society especially the media has painted Nigeria as another super city.I have an issue with how the big divide is on the extremely rich and extremely poor in Nigeria.The divide in Kenya is still there but not to that extent.
    Correct me if am wrong but our counties are slowly draining the finances and patience of the local people.My take on our governors is that they shouldn’t even be there at the rate that they are spending hard earned money.
    I am a graduate from United States International University and I would love to pick your brain further.

    Kind Regards,

    1. Thanks so much for your email. You are surely right that not everything is good in Lagos. But my sense – and I may be wrong – is that there is less corruption within the Lagos State Government than there is within the national government, and that public services in Lagos work better than they do in many African cities. This is important because many of those public services actually help lower income groups.

      It is also worth noting that the majority of money raised and spent by the Lagos government comes from PAYE – in other words, it comes from people in formal employment. This means that the “better off” are at least making an important contribution to the running of the state.

      So while inequality will remain a problem for some time to come, I have more confidence that the lives of the poor will improve in Lagos over the next thirty years than I do about most other countries that I have worked in.

      Thanks once again for your thoughts.


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