By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
Two weeks ago, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media, Mr. Femi Adesina, reeled out what most people already knew about the Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN. Mr. Adesina took us through the Federal Executive Council meeting of that week, whereat Fashola displayed brilliance and excellence in the portfolios assigned to him as a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in the areas of road infrastructure and housing development. We were told by Mr. Adesina that Fashola dazzled the President and all his colleagues at the said meeting, with video evidence of his spectacular performances across the length and breadth of Nigeria. That is vintage Fashola, now better known as The Omoluabi of Lagos.
If you were to read about Fashola in the news alone, you would most probably mistake him to be an astute politician, to be able to muster the kind of influence that he has wielded since 1999 when this new phase of democracy started. How wrong that is, because Fashola was actually what you would call a novice in politics, whose character and diligence advertised and catapulted him. I was privy to the Fashola story as told by none other than the Vice-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo. That story has its firm root in Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and it goes thus. Fashola was a young lawyer in the law firm of Tinubu’s uncle in Lagos and he put Fashola in charge of all the assets of Tinubu to manage same on his behalf.
Over the years, the June 12 1993 election annulment came, with all the consequent struggles for its restoration. Tinubu was deeply involved with the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO and when the battle became too hot, Tinubu had to relocate from Nigeria. The lot fell on Fashola to manage all the assets of Tinubu on his behalf.
Fashola had control of the management of Tinubu’s assets and he kept detailed records thereof to the admiration of all. Fashola would transmit the records of account to Tinubu constantly, with no single kobo missing, to the extent that he was using his own salary for transport and other expenses associated with the management of the assets. So, for all the period that Tinubu was abroad, Fashola combined the management of his assets with his legal tutelage and it would shock Tinubu himself that such a person still exists, who would be so transparent and honest with resources, even without any supervision.
Fast forward to 1999, when the time came for civilians to take over from the military and Tinubu secured the ticket as governor of Lagos State. His immediate task was to turn around the State as a model to showcase the progressive agenda. He set up a think tank of professionals across the tribes and people from States, to develop a comprehensive agenda for Lagos of the new millennium.
But there was still a vacuum for someone to coordinate his cabinet and be the engine room of his administration. Then he remembered Fashola, the young lawyer that wouldn’t touch a dime from other people’s sweat. That was how Fashola became the Chief of Staff for the eight years of Tinubu’s administration.
One thing led to another and eventually, Fashola became the governor of Lagos State after Tinubu, against all odds. Upon assuming the mantle of leadership, he picked the Lagos Masterplan and enlarged the vision exponentially, embarking on very daring projects that made Lagos the centre of attraction all over the nation.
A professional was excelling in governance, for the very first time. He didn’t go the way of the regular politicians, as he developed an intellectual think tank in his Executive Council, such that meetings were usually very stimulating and tasking. A Commissioner must study his proposals well, undertake thorough research and be ready to defend them under the probing mind of Fashola and other Exco members.
Fast forward again to 2015, when upon the merger of several political parties to form the All Progressive Congress, the lot fell on Fashola to help coordinate the finances for the campaign of APC’s presidential candidate, which he executed excellently well without looking back. Fashola would then take charge of the three most important portfolios of Power, Works and Housing, virtually becoming like the Prime Minister of the Buhari administration.
In the past, repair works on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos consisted mainly of painting and decoration of the sidewalks and the dividers, usually in green white green colours. This was the lot of the notorious FERMA, which would take weeks of traffic obstruction, just to paint the expressway and then licence advertising companies to dot the street lights with adverts which could only be seen during the day as the street lights were never functioning at night.
Suddenly one day after Fashola assumed office as Minister, I noticed that special earth moving machines were being deployed to scrape off the broken asphalt surface of the Third Mainland Bridge, extending even to Carter Bridge and other Bridges in Lagos. At the end of the exercise, the usually bumpy Third Mainland Bridge had regained some smoothness for a pleasant driving experience.
Then the Second Niger Bridge, which we thought was just the usual propaganda of government, started taking shape, slowly but steadily. I had cause to travel to Akure recently, navigating through the Ijebu-Ode/Ore Expressway and I was pleasantly surprised at the level of work done on the road. As soon as we drove past Ajebamidele and approaching Akinfosile area, I was suddenly confronted with a long expanse of a smooth road network, spanning several kilometres, with road signs and even an expansive setback. I could not hide my shock as I had stopped traveling through that axis for sometime, due to the terrible state of the road. So, I brought out my phone to take photographs as we kept driving on kilometres upon kilometres of smooth expressway and just gliding away as if it was a Formula One motor racing event.
And I’m told that this is the experience all over the nation, where some major roads have been earmarked for complete transformation. Then back to Lagos. I was again driving to the airport and I decided to go through the Apapa-Oshodi expressway route. Alas! Hitech engineers had changed the Oshodi axis of the road, with a novel German foundation of iron rods and concrete as the base.
In the course of my trip I heard over the news also that the government had awarded the contract for the reconstruction of the Ibadan-Ilesha expressway for about N98B. So, it is possible for a lawyer to take over non-legal jobs such as road construction and still excel in it? Little wonder they are called ‘Learned’, with the uncanny ability to navigate through very unfamiliar terrains with exceptional mastery.
Back to Fashola. It would seem however that he wants to export the Lagos narrative of tolling to the federal level. That indeed would be a very big challenge, as not a few people considered his tenure in Lagos as elitist, without much regard for the less privileged residents of the aquatic city. Why would Fashola ever dream of tolling federal roads in this season of increase in Value Added Tax and increase in electricity tariff amidst dwindling economic power? Why? Is this the first time that roads will be built in this country? Why add to the burden of the people?
The Constitution in section 38 guarantees freedom of movement to all citizens, to which a roadblock on the expressway for the purpose of collecting toll fees constitutes great hindrance.
Under and by virtue of the Taxes and Levies Act, it is illegal to impose levies and taxes by way of toll fees on the expressway, upon the people. In particular, section 2 (2) of the said Act provides as follows:
‘No person, including a tax authority, shall mount a roadblock in any part of the Federation for the purpose of collecting any tax or levy.’
By virtue of Part 1 of the Schedule to the Act, the Federal Government has no legal authority to collect Road Taxes, which is listed as Item No. 6 in Part 2 of the Schedule, as part of taxes to be collected only by the State Government, if at all. Much as we have seen and witnessed the progressive transformation of several roads across the country, it is only good for the Honourable Minister to be mindful of the times and season that we are all going through in Nigeria presently. And if I may add, there is a particular Road Levy being collected from truck drivers and all oil-bearing tankers. That should be deployed to good use for the sake of repair and maintenance of the roads.
The Honourable Minister is a very senior member of the Inner Bar, who should lead by example, in the observance of and compliance with all laws in force in Nigeria. It will be illegal to mount any roadblock on any expressway in any part of Nigeria, by way of toll plazas, for the purpose of collecting road tax or levy, by the federal government. The portion of the Tax and Levies Act reproduced above grants absolute prohibition against such policy and I humbly urge the Honourable Minister to look through the law and undertake strict compliance.
It is stated clearly in the Manifesto of the APC that:
‘APC will embark on a National Infrastructure Development Programme as a PPP that will ensure the construction of 3,000km of Superhighway including service trunks.’
The road construction efforts of Fashola as stated are not PPP driven, but they are all inherited highways which are only being patched and modernized and they cannot in any guise be described as Superhighways in the manner stated in the APC Manifesto. If we get to the point when we are to forced to pay toll fees on the roads built with tax payer’s funds, then we shall explore all judicial options open for redress. Presently, Nigerians are tired of taxes and levies, even though that will not derogate from the sterling performances of Fashola, the lawyer who has become a social engineer.