PROFESSIONALS IN POLITICS: PANACEA FOR SUSTAINABLE NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Delivered by the Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, at the UNILAG Faculty of Engineering 3rd Alumni Lecture, at the Main Auditorium, University of Lagos, on 12th December 2019.
I am delighted to be here with you today, to deliver this Alumni Lecture. It is always a pleasure to return to events organised by my alma mater, and in particular the Faculty of Engineering from which I graduated.
I am also somewhat relieved that you have not asked me here today to provide an update into the latest thinking in Sequence Stratigraphy, or to venture into the venerated realms of Spatial-Temporal Analyses.
Of course, if you had done that I would not have complained, I would just have taken it as an assignment to be handled with the same seriousness the University would expect from any of its students.
You have instead asked me to share my thoughts and reflections on a very interesting theme: Professionals in Politics: Panacea for Sustainable National Development.
There are a couple of keywords in there: professionals, politics, sustainable, national development. The most loaded of these is no doubt, Politics.
Politics is an umbrella term that captures multiple shades of meaning and interpretations. I am sure if I asked everyone in the room to define it we would get as many definitions as there are people here.
Some will associate it with noble aims and ends, some will frame it in negative or dismissive terms, while others will argue it is a neutral concept that only acquires positive or negative connotations by association.
What is however not in doubt is that politics is a big part of our everyday lives and our existence, as human beings. Very often we make the mistake of assuming that politics is about colourful campaigns, and the trappings of power and authority, but nothing could be further from that notion.
Politics exists not only in the grandest of things but also in the mundane; it is played at many different levels, small and big, everywhere from the home to the workplace. It is not out of place to say that to be human is to be political, and to be political is to be human.
Any discussion of politics will necessarily throw up a number of questions and contentious arguments, such as “Who is a politician?” or “What qualifies a person to be a politician?” Is it merely a matter of self-perception, or are there some criteria to be met and fulfilled before one can qualify to be recognised as one?
At this point, I think I should bring myself into the picture, and use my personal story to illuminate some of my views and thoughts about this very interesting theme.
I graduated from this great University in 1988, with a Bachelor’s degree in Surveying and Geo-Informatics. My earliest years were spent working as a Surveyor, and I also tried my hands at entrepreneurship, launching a Dial-A-Plumber Service here in Lagos in the late 1980s. (Time will not permit me to share the full details of that very interesting entrepreneurial period of my life here).
From there I joined the banking industry in 1994, and worked there for almost a decade, until 2003, when I was appointed Special Adviser on Corporate Matters, first to the then Deputy Governor of Lagos State, and subsequently to the Governor.
From that role I was appointed Acting Commissioner for Economic Planning and Budget, in 2007, and then substantive Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, and after that Commissioner for Establishment, Training and Pensions, during the first term of Governor Fashola.
When I left Government in 2011, I went back into the private sector and entrepreneurship, and then returned to public service in 2016 as the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Lagos State Development Property Corporation (LSDPC).
Let me point out that all of these public sector positions I’ve outlined above were appointed offices, not elective. It is worthy of note that during this period, which lasted over a decade, I did not consider myself a politician.
I don’t know whether other people definitely saw me as a politician or not, but I must say I saw myself purely as a professional – a technocrat – in politics and public service.
I did not begin to consider myself a politician until around 2018, when the opportunity emerged for me to step up to contest for the Office of Governor of Lagos. A bigger responsibility than anything I had ever done, and, unlike everything before, not a role to which I could be simply appointed. I can say that it was at that point that I became a politician.
First, I had to submit myself to campaign and contest the Primaries of my party, the All Progressives Congress, for the Governorship ticket of Lagos State. Then an even bigger challenge followed: I had to campaign and contest for the seat of Governor. I had to sell myself and my party to the people of Lagos, the most populated and most sophisticated State in Nigeria, and hope that our message would resonate over and above that of all other contestants.
To the glory of the Almighty God, and by dint of the hard work that my campaign and our party put in, Lagosians gave us their mandate, in March of this year.
So, today, I speak to you as a full-time politician.
Having established this point, however, I must again go back to my earlier point about politics being all around us, even in the private sector; an integral part of the human existence. You will all agree with me that politics is present in every office, in every boardroom, in every social club. That’s why we speak of the concept of “office politics”. In publicly quoted companies, shareholders and board members vote often, to take important decisions. A CEO can be voted out by the company board.
Even here in the Ivory Tower, politics is not an alien concept to you. You have a Senate, which often makes decisions by casting votes. The selection process for Vice Chancellors often includes a campaigning process and an election.
Occupying the position of a Faculty Dean or a Vice Chancellor anywhere in the world – not just in Nigeria – is typically the outcome of a political decision – there are competing or alternative candidates and decisions need to be made after taking various factors into consideration.
You will all agree with me that even to become an executive of the Alumni Association that is hosting this event today requires politics and politicking.
I therefore do not subscribe to the view that there is a rigid and distinct line between a “professional” and a “politician”. This is why I refer to my time before being elected Governor as the ‘professional-in-politics’ stage of my life.
This is a very common trajectory for many people. We start out as professionals in various fields of expertise, and then naturally, along the way, the lines blur into the territory of politics. Not everyone ends up becoming a full-blown politician as I have; but many will comfortably occupy the professional-in-politics segment, like I did.
Think of many of the greatest politicians that Nigeria has produced; they have come from various professional callings and walks of life.
For example, many of the founding fathers and first generation of political leaders in Nigeria were journalists, who had made their name with their pens and writing skills: I’m thinking of names like Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ladoke Akintola, Anthony Enahoro.
Even in the generation that followed, a good number of political leaders were from the media: Bisi Onabanjo, Adamu Ciroma, Bola Ige, Lateef Jakande, Segun Osoba.
Accounting, Law, Engineering, Business are all professions that have supplied and continue to supply considerable numbers of people at the highest levels of politics and political service in Nigeria.
There is indeed also a case to be made that politics itself can be viewed as a professional calling – similar to a religious calling, but that might possibly be the subject for another lecture another time.
With these thoughts as backdrop, let me go on to outline some of the things I’ve learned from my time as a professional-in-politics, and, I should add, as a professional politician.
First is that I think we must not shy away from embracing our political natures. We are all political creatures, regardless of whether or not we ever get involved in partisan politics. In any case, the act of voting in elections, which we all partake in from time to time, is a very political act.
I believe that we must reclaim the word ‘politics from negativity. It is often given a negative coloration that it does not deserve, and that is misleading.
As many people as want to go into partisan politics must be encouraged to do so. We must stop seeing people as “sell-outs” when they choose to fly the flag of partisan politics.
Many centuries ago Plato said that one of the penalties for declining to take part in politics is that people end up being governed by those inferior to them.
We must acknowledge the power that politics has to shape our lives and our societies for good or ill. It is arguably the most potent tool that exists for influencing the course of a society. We owe, to a great extent, our happiness or unhappiness to the way politics is played on our behalf.
We must educate ourselves about the way politics is played in our society – from the smallest level all the way to the top. We must stay engaged at all times, and resist the strong temptation to stay aloof or give in to despair when things don’t happen the way we would like them to.
Politics in Nigeria definitely needs more professionals, more ‘outsiders’, not less. Politics thrives best in the face of diversity. Different professional callings bringing different skill-sets and perspectives to the table.
If we complain that it is politics that has robbed Nigeria of many opportunities in its history then we must also be willing to concede that it is politics that will redeem us and set things right.
Nigeria’s development will not happen outside of politics and political activity. All of the countries we look up to, deployed political leadership to take the decisions that set them on the path of development. And this did not happen overnight.
But it is very important for us to prepare ourselves for politics. As professionals working outside the sphere of partisan politics, it is not enough to go into politics armed only with your professional skills.
The first thing any professional who comes into politics realizes is that the technical and professional skills acquired outside of politics are mostly of limited usefulness in the sphere of partisan politics and public service. That you are the most published or cited Professor in your field or the most brilliant and high-flying accountant, banker, lawyer or doctor will not automatically translate into success in politics.
Politics takes a lot of learning and unlearning. As an Engineer or Doctor or Banker your training makes you take precision very seriously. Any hint of ‘compromise’ in any of these fields would immediately suggest professional misconduct.
But in the field of partisan politics, compromise is not only acceptable, in many cases it would be a necessity, a condition for progress. Let me quickly make it clear here that I am not referring to ‘ethical’ compromise, but instead, to pragmatism – what the German politician and statesman German Statesman Otto von Bismarck had in mind when he said, and I quote, that “Politics is the art of the possible.”
Many of the decisions you will be faced with will not be clear-cut choices between good and bad, but instead more complicated scenarios. Politics is the art of making difficult decisions; foregoing present comfort for future progress.
It is never about insisting you must have your way, but instead about considering the often-incompatible wishes and desires of large numbers of stakeholders and forging an acceptable course of action out of it.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, politics requires different skills and strengths and abilities, many of which will have to be learnt and imbibed, some the hard way.
Successful politics requires tact, it requires humility, it requires empathy. You will have to give some and take some, even when you feel like you deserve to take everything and give nothing.
You require people skills, you have to be comfortable with people, you cannot afford to be arrogant or impatient. Politics is more about emotional intelligence than it is about intellectual and technocratic knowledge.
People will not always understand; in many cases they will misunderstand motives and intentions. Often, it’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Politics is not a turf for self-pity or for the faint hearted.
It is about having the confidence to make a decision, having satisfied yourself that you have sought counsel and you are acting for the good of the majority.
It is about seeing the long-term even when the short-term threatens to be distracting. Here in Lagos I can boldly say that my administration is benefiting from the existence of a blue print that has been laid out since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999.
That blueprint has made governance easier and more seamless. Lasting change takes time, and we are privileged in Lagos to have inherited a culture of innovation and service that we can build on.
And it is my sincere hope and desire that I can build on the solid foundation I inherited and carry the vision forward such that tomorrow, my successor will be as grateful for it as I am today.
Let me say again how happy I am that the topic of today’s lecture tries to connect politics and development. Let me share a few thoughts on development, as I see it.
Nigeria, like every other country around the world, is on a journey in search of growth and development. At Independence we were classified as a developing country, but sadly, sixty years later, we are still classified as developing.
In that same period of time, a number of other countries that were in the same situation as us in 1960 have since left us behind. The countries that regularly get mentioned in these comparisons are Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, but even a European country like Norway was in the same category as Nigeria in the early 1960s.
Today those countries are all way ahead of us, in terms of industrialization, life expectancy, human capital development indices, per capita income, infrastructure, and so on. And we all instinctively understand that this is what development means – consistent forward movement. And this is what seems to have eluded us in Nigeria over the decades.
But we also need to realize that we cannot afford to be discouraged or complacent. It is important to look at what has worked for us in the past, or is working in the present, and see what we can learn from it, to better guarantee future growth and development.
We must be deliberate and methodical about development, it cannot be left to chance. And this is where our training as professionals will come in handy. In our various fields of study and career, we have been trained to follow procedures, to pay attention to standards, to measure things, and to anticipate risks and manage them. These skills must somehow be carried over into the space of politics and governance, alongside the ‘soft’ skills of empathy, negotiation, humility, compromise, generosity that I touched on earlier.
So, this is the edge that we have as career professionals – we are able to bring to bear on our politics extra skills and capabilities that can make a difference in governance. We can combine political skills with professional skills and use this combination to add value to governance.
We must realize that the professional skills and habits and ways of thinking that we have picked up and honed over the years can be useful not just in the lecture theatres, research laboratories or the boardrooms, but also within the corridors of power. I have no doubt that the training I received as a surveyor and subsequently as a banker has made me a much better public servant and politician than I would have been without that training.
And this I think is the final lesson I would like to leave with you, as I conclude this address. The best politicians will bring to their work a combination of hard technocratic and soft political skills.
The political skills are of course always the most important elements; no one can succeed without them. But the value that a technocratic background also confers must never be taken for granted or underestimated.
On this note, I hope that I have been able to enlighten on my ideas regarding the place of professionals, or technocrats, in politics; and the interplay of politics and technocracy.
I do not claim to have all the answers or insights, of course. I would certainly not mind if my lecture today has raised as many questions as answers. I hope that the conversation can continue beyond here and now, and that there will be further enriching additions and contributions to follow.
I thank you once again for inviting me to deliver this lecture, I am truly honored.
God bless the UNILAG Faculty of Engineering Alumni Association.
God bless the University of Lagos.
God bless Lagos State.
God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
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