By Minabere Ibelema
To fully appreciate the significance of last Tuesday’s encounter between Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola and Col. K.I. Yusuf, you have to think of it as poetry.
Students of literature know very well that poetry is less about the rhyme and more about the symbolism. That is, it is about the imagery, the metaphors and the layers of meanings. There was no rhyme to the encounter, but surely, it was full of symbolism.
Think first of that photo that will stand the test of time. There was a governor leaving his car to accost a traffic violator, who turned out to be a colonel. The colonel, sensing that he was in trouble, jumps out of his Peugeot Sedan and salutes and apologises.
“I am sorry, very, very sorry,” Col. Yusuf said.
But Governor Fashola was not impressed. “Why, as a senior military officer, did you choose to break the law instead of preserving it?” the governor asked, knowing full well that the colonel had no answer. It was a rhetorical question, just to make a point.
The Fashola-Yusuf encounter reminds me of one that is told about U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s run-in with a highway patrol officer.
Both incidents are not at all parallel. In fact, they are thematically contradictory. But I will narrate the Johnson-patrolman story, anyway. If nothing else, the encounters have one thing in common: each was between an officer and a gentleman, sort of. So, here we go:
President Johnson was known to shed his secret service agents and drive around anonymously. Once, while visiting his native state of Texas, he was out driving at night and apparently exceeding the speed limit. A highway patrolman stopped him for questioning and probable citation.
When the officer bent over and looked into the car, what he saw startled him. “Oh, my God,” he exclaimed as he recognised the occupant.
“And don’t you forget it?” Johnson retorted and drove away.
This seeming apocryphal story is told to illustrate the reverence in which President Johnson was held. Even security personnel were in awe of him.
Unlike Johnson, Governor Fashola was not breaking the law, he was enforcing it. Like Johnson, his aura carried the day. The colonel wasn’t quoted as saying “Oh, my God,” but could you hear him saying so on realising that it was Governor Fashola who was approaching him. Yes, indeed.
There was a time when military officers thumbed their noses at civilian leaders, including governors. After all, they could unleash their boys and make life uncomfortable even for a governor. But things have changed quite a bit. So, if you still think that Nigeria is not a democracy, here is a reason to reconsider.
There’s still another layer of meaning in this incident. Governor Fashola is a big man, literally and figuratively. He could have sat comfortably in his car and sent his aides to go to interrogate the offending driver. But he chose to do it himself. That is quite symbolic. He is not just a governor, he is also a man of the law.
And then there is the governor’s point about “zero tolerance.” In acountry where every law is routinely broken — and with impunity — that would seem like an odd phrase to invoke. Of all the crimes that are committed in Nigeria, the colonel’s offence of driving on a bus lane is minor.
But when a governor is dedicated to ensuring law, order and probity, there is no such thing as a minor offence. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York used the same policy to drastically cut crime in that U.S. equivalent of Lagos from the mid-1990s.
If I hear a motion of ‘Fashola for president,’ I will second it.
– Minabere Ibelema