Gbenga Omotoso is the Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State. As the man saddled with the responsibility of informing the world of the policies and programmes of the state, he has to ensure that there are no misconceptions as regards the true position of government on pertinent matters. In this discourse, the man who has spent about three decades as newspaper editor, talks about the proposed 4th Mainland Bridge project, the Light Up Lagos initiative, the cleaner Lagos initiative, influx of people into the state vis-à-vis insecurity, the Blue and Red Light Rail project, achievements of the Sanwo-Olu government, challenges of moving from the newsroom to being the spokesman of this administration, among other sundry issues. BENJAMIN OMOIKE reports.
There is an influx of people coming into Lagos especially from the North. Considering the number of people already in Lagos, which this government has described as a challenge. How is your administration addressing this issue in the face of insecurity in the country?
Lagos is a sub-national and part of Nigeria. As a state, we do not have the power to stop anybody from any part of Nigeria from coming to Lagos. There is no law that says that Lagosians too cannot go to any part of Nigeria. All that we can do is to ensure that anybody who comes to Lagos is law-abiding. The most important aspect of it is that facilities and infrastructure in Lagos are overstretched.
We don’t even have data to know the number of people we have to care for. When asked to take LASRA card, whenever they come to Lagos, they always feel when you asked them to do it, you are talking about how to tax them and they don’t want to pay tax. Such people cannot be captured within our data bank. There is nothing the state government can do for now than keep an eye on these people.
Like I usually say, security is not just the government’s job, it is essential. Of course, you get to know your neighbours, you have to know your co-workers, you have to know your neighbour. So that if you see anything very suspicious, you report to the right authorities. Some of the things that we hear happen in other states, they don’t happen here and it’s because the government and security agencies are on top of their games and they deserve kudos for that.
So what you are saying is that in light of the security reports that have been getting in from the federal level about the infiltration of insurgents into Southwestern part of Nigeria, that Lagos is on top of the game?
Of course, even before the coming of Amotekun, which is still in its infancy, Lagos had Neighbourhood Watch, which is alive and kicking. It is a security mechanism that has been activated for years. These guys are there to complement what the police are doing. All the military formations are cooperating.
So if people are coming from the North or East to Lagos, once the government has no power or the law to stop them, they can come in. So all we can do is to keep an eye on them. And we are doing that. And I think Lagosians don’t have anything to fear.
But we should take responsibility for our own safety, for the safety of our loved ones and for the safety of friends. We should be able to know who and who are moving into our area, who they’re dealing with and their activities. All of us should keep our eyes open to see that our environment is secure. Security is the job of everybody, not just the government.
How would you rate the performance of the Sanwo-Olu’s administration in since assumption of office?
The governor appreciates the understanding of Lagosians because when he was coming in, it was as if they were expecting a miracle but when they didn’t see the miracle immediately, they were trying to be unhappy but as God would have it, things started taking shape.
By the time he came in, so many roads were bad and unfortunately at that time, it was raining, nature was not friendly. He said after the rains, he was going to fix the roads. Some people were sceptical about the promise but as God would have it, the rains subsided and he summoned construction giants, about nine of them plus Public Works Corporation. They started fixing the roads and till now, roads are being fixed because they work day and night.
There are over 6,000 of roads and they have done as many as possible. It has shown that even if they are not yet at your place, they would get there sooner or later.
So, I think if we look at these 400 and something days, it is nice, just to be modest. Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu has done well.
If you are to compare his administration with his immediate predecessor, how will you rate it?
I will not like to compare Mr Babajide’s administration with any other. Every administration has its style but Lagos has a masterplan to improve the living conditions of Lagosians, a masterplan that will improve infrastructure, a masterplan to improve security, that improves education, that will improve health care system and that is what Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu has been following and I’m happy to say it has been so far so good.
What do you think the government can do to ensure a cleaner Lagos in line with the Sustainable Development Goal, SDG?
The government has invested a lot in LAWMA, Lagos Waste Management Agency. The government has bought them more equipment and the management has been changed. About a week ago, LAWMA opened an academy and if you go there, you see the kind of things that have taken place there You will be happy, because now they can do welding, they can fix so many things on their own. People in the academy are being trained on waste disposal equipment.
You will agree with me the streets are no longer as dirty as they used to be, though there is room for improvement. But you can see that when our streets are not as bad as they used to be. And what I feel is that no matter how innovative the government is, the people will want to be carried along because they are the ones who generate waste.
If the system is generating waste, and they are disposing waste in a manner that is not acceptable, it is a bit tough. Recently people were arrested and asked to do community service and some people believe that those who are dropping wastes indiscriminately that the government should find a way of being brutal with them.
I keep on saying that the style of the government is that we should step up our advocacy, and Lagosians should be made to understand our environment was handed over to us by God to take care of, to tend, to manage and run in a way that will be better for us and our children. I do not believe that Lagosians should be caned or brutalised, not only in the matter of waste but in any matter. But some people are saying our people are too tough and they need to be treated with iron hands, but I do not think so.
What we are trying to do is to step up our advocacy. We begin to drum it into their ears that indiscriminate disposal of wastes is bad and that the result of such action is poor health and environment and sicknesses, I think someday people will hear and change their attitudes.
This administration is seen as being soft. Don’t you think adequate and more enforcement needs to be done to deter people from indiscriminate waste disposal?
There are two standing committees in terms of enforcement in Lagos. There is Governor’s Monitoring Team and there is Task Force. These teams are alive and kicking and they are doing well. All the time, they are trying to make enforcement, you see people coming out to say human rights have been trampled upon. That is why the government tried to do advocacy. It’s only in extreme cases that you find people being physically restrained to obey the law especially in this time of coronavirus because those who are to enforce the law, the government would not want to risk their lives.
I do not still believe our people need to be caned or threatened with guns or to send the police after them. What I believe is with time, they will get used to it. But that is not to say the government should be so soft. The government has not made it a matter of policy, the government has pronounced it that nobody can drop waste anywhere.
I mean, the laws are there, and anyone that drops waste indiscriminately will have to face the music. So nobody is permitted to do anything wrong because the government has been soft on the people. I do not also expect the people to take advantage of that but If you are to be brutal on them, that means you are lowering the standard of Lagosians as first-class human beings that they are. They are great people who are quite understanding and intelligent.
Let’s look at some of the projects in the state. What is the progress on the 4th Mainland Bridge, when is it kicking off?
About nine companies have been selected now to move to the next stage or the process of awarding contracts. Before there are so many of them bidding for it, construction giants who feel they can do it. We put out an expression of interest and they showed interest, and that many companies showed interest, is a pointer to the fact that Lagos economy is still as strong as ever, is still growing in a manner that we have envisaged that it will be growing.
It’s still very healthy, strong and sturdy and resilient, you know. So now about nine companies are pre-qualified to move to the next stage. The next stage is that they are now going to check whether these guys actually have what they say they have and have what it takes to build such a road. And I think very soon the result will be out and the company will be asked to go and do the job.
So presently, there is no specific date the project will kick off?
It has a process. We have to finish this process of getting somebody who can do it. It’s a very detailed, complex process. Anybody can come up and say he can do the road that will cost billions but you have to ensure that the person has the ability to do the road, you have to ensure that the financiers are ready to finance, you have to ensure that the company has the technical competence to be able to do it.
The Red and the Blue rail lines seem to be dragging too long. When will these projects be completed?
Work has not stopped on the blue line. The pillars have been put in the lagoon which is the hard part. There is one important fact I want you to know, which is, I do not know any other parts in the world where states are building railways. Railways are built by the Federal Government but Lagos is doing this and drawing money from its own internal revenue which is very tough to do. To do rail of that magnitude is a lot of money.
There is a financial challenge on the blue line that is being addressed. It’s not something one can say it’s not easy but the problem is being solved. Even with financial, if you go there you will see the job has not stopped, they are still working there because they know this is a project that is dear to this administration. And the governor said that come rain come shine, the project will be completed. But the good news is that just last week, we secured the funding for the Red Line. Because the thinking now is that the Red Line and the Blue Line will be ready at the same time.
The Red Line is the one that comes from Marina to Oyingbo, Jibowu, to Agege, Iju, Agbado. Now, just last week, the government secured funding for it and we are all excited about it, that the Red Line will move in about two years. So the red line and the Blue Line may be ready at the same time.
So it is a project that is dear to the heart of the governor and he is doing everything to see that we get funding for it. It is not small money. We’re talking about foreign currency, and for Lagos to have been able to find the people who can put down that kind of money, it shows that people still believe in the economy of Lagos State with confidence in this administration.
The last administration started the Light Up Lagos project. However, not much has been seen from this administration to continue with the project. Has this administration abandoned the project?
Nobody is abandoning Light Up Lagos, if anything, we are doing everything to boost it. There is no new road that is being constructed in Lagos now without streetlights. What we are doing is that we are refitting all the lamps. if you look at most of them, they are brighter than they used to be. They are now being fitted with special bulbs that are lighter, last longer and consume less energy.
The State government is spending between N400 and N600 million to buy diesel to power these lights. It’s not sustainable especially in this time of Covid-19 when everybody is hard up. Businesses are down, aviation has just reopened, manufacturing is crawling. All sectors are affected by Covid-19.
We can’t go after people now to say they should come and pay their taxes and do enforcement. So the government too has been running low on cash. So for you to be pumping N400million into diesel doesn’t make sense.
So all we’re doing is to see as much as possible these projects that can be connected to the public system so that you don’t need to buy diesel. All the new roads we are doing have streetlights and all the ones that have been there before, they are changing the bulbs.
So if you see around Third Mainland bridge, and so many other places, you see that they are brighter, they consume less energy and then they are more enduring. So, if anything, what we are doing is to boost Light Up Lagos, and the ones that have been done before using diesel, none of them has been stopped.
You have been in the media industry for years, you are referred to as ‘Editor of editors’. The day you were told you would be a Commissioner and would be leaving the newsroom to join the government, what went through your mind? Secondly, as an editor, you have been used to criticising government but now you are on the other side. What have you learnt?
A lot of things. First in a matter of style, when I was in the newsroom, you could make anything happens within hours. You can tell a reporter to bring a story in one hour and in 30 minutes you are asking him whether it’s completed. Here it is not so.
The process is a bit longer, not as simple as what we have in the newsroom. Also in terms of human relations, here you have to be more civil than the newsroom. You can’t shout on people here. In the newsroom, I used to shout on people. If you don’t move, I try to move you but here it is not so.
In the newsroom, there is no formality but here, too much of formality. So much so that it can be embarrassing. I can’t imagine I will enter a room and people would stand up. It’s strange to me. In the newsroom, it’s not like that. People can be shouting and when they see you, they continue shouting as long as they are doing it in a decent manner, they have nothing to fear.
But here when you enter a room, everybody keeps quiet. The system is slower than what you have in the newsroom. The newsroom is such that you have a deadline to beat and you must ensure that you meet up. Even though there are deadlines here too, things are not hypersensitive.
It’s not always that the media criticise. If you do something right, they commend you. We are talking about developmental journalism. If the media criticises all the time, they will lose their followership.
Are you enjoying your new job and do you miss the newsroom?
Yes, I’m enjoying it and I miss the newsroom. I miss writing my column. I was brought up in the tradition that an editor must not be seen but only be heard. I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t meeting people anyhow. The humour, the sarcasm with which I did my job, I enjoyed them. I miss all of that.
Here, I have to find new friends and find a way of addressing people. I have to follow the protocol that I wasn’t used to. I miss the fun, the noise in the newsroom and the race to meet up with information. Before you finish tackling something, another has come up. Also being in the newsroom when there is something of national and international importance and envisaging how your paper will be tomorrow. I miss editing copies when the story is big. I like to write it myself.
After your tenure, do we see you going into politics?
I do not know because what I am today, I never planned it. So, I allow God to plan my way. What I was thinking I could do after leaving as editor was to go back to school and acquire more certificates and go back to teach, that I could be able to transfer all I learnt in the newsroom to our colleagues. Yet this position came that I am doing today. I am not God so I will just let God direct my path.