I thank the Vice Chancellor, Professor Oluwatoyin T. Ogundipe and the Senate for the singular and profound honor of addressing this convocation. The positive role the University of Lagos has played in Nigeria and Africa cannot be overstated. Through its halls have walked leaders and innovators in all academic disciplines; people who have devoted their knowledge and abilities to making our lives and this nation better.
Drawing students from across Nigeria, UNILAG is an institution fertile with the type of social and educational interaction and inclusion vital to forging a robust and progressive country.
To declare that UNILAG is the best school in the land, is not an empty boast nor is it a hopeful prediction to be left for future evaluation. It is a present fact. Thus, you, the graduating class of 2017, are but the latest inheritors of a lineage of academic and civic excellence.
In 1984, I attended a convocation much like today’s. On that day, I sat where you, now sit. I was an eager yet apprehensive young man set to graduate at 21. Although ready to tackle the world and make my mark, I was also a bit uncertain about what that world and life would bring.
I knew I was blessed to have attended this University with its sterling faculty, leadership and staff, fine traditions and robust student body. Now looking back, I realize that this school had prepared me better than I prepared myself for the challenges and opportunities that were to come.
If you ask me a thousand times if I would have matriculated anywhere else, a thousand times I would have said “No, I will stay right here.” I am forever grateful for the chance to have studied and learned here.
34 years later, I now look at you only to see myself. You are as I was, except for one important thing: You are better. Whatever my generation has achieved, you must go further and do more to build a new and better nation.
True, I stand before you as the first UNILAG graduate to become Governor of Lagos. I am humbled by this distinction and elated to be the first to walk this path. But I know I shall not be the last to walk it.
I will not be the last graduate of this excellent school to become Governor of this State that is the Center of Excellence of our beloved nation.
Yes, all of you cannot be State Governors. Yet, in your own way, you must be leaders that correct the direction of our nation by improving our social attitudes and by relying more on conscience than on cunning in the conduct of its affairs.
We must break down old walls in order to erect a better home.
Yet good things do not just happen. Bad and evil come easily because they are the product of common human failings and lapses left too long uncorrected. But good and fine things are more difficult because they always must be crafted with adept care.
Excellence is never by accident. It is the product of wise exertion.
For you to answer the call of this nation for your generation to be better than preceding ones, you must strap yourself to courage, you must peer beyond the immediate to envision a better future and you must have the enlightened decency to refuse to yoke yourselves to ancient and irrational biases and hatreds that have no place in the nation we seek to build.
We all must understand this important reality: None of us chooses the world into which we are born. Yet we can choose to make of that world what we want it to be.
None of us can influence the place and time we are born or of the family or nation into which we come.
Some will say that a person is of this or that ethnic group, nationality or faith by incident of birth as if these things occur by cosmic whim or the roll of dice.
I don’t believe in accidents. Instead, I believe we all have been placed here by God-given design and purpose.
If our presence is surely born of God’s hand then we have not been placed on earth to hate another person simply because they were born of a different ethnic or religious stock. We cannot allow ignorance to fuel hatred in us. If we do, then we shall hold fast to a damaging ignorance because we have grown comfortable in hating one another.
So comfortable in disliking others and so eagerly basking in our own ignorance, we do grave disservice to ourselves.
We have not been placed here to oppose, obstruct and destroy our fellow man.
We honor the God who made us and we honor ourselves by honoring the rights of others and being concerned with the welfare of others as well.
We are here to uplift and improve everything around us. This requires compassion for each other.
Sadly, human history is checkered with examples of peoples and nations that have taken the wrong path by embracing the lessons of injustice and meanness. These places too diligently studied war, prejudice and division even among fellow citizens.
Eventually, all such peoples and nations fade away, destroyed not so much by external threats but by their own strong but ignorant hand.
Fortunately, there are examples of nations and peoples that rose above pettiness to become great through unity, collective purpose and intelligent effort.
We, as Nigerians, have a choice. We can follow the path of folly or we can follow the road to our appointed destiny.
For me, there is no choice.
Yet, to assume the right course is also to depart from how we have misgoverned ourselves for much of our history.
Colonialism brought many groups together into one country but manipulated our fears so that we suspected the worst of each other.
We were wise and courageous enough to retire colonialism but we were too weak and imprudent to excise the divisive mindset that colonialism brought.
Thus, we live in the same house but not as members of the same family. We have known each other all our lives but behave as if we are abject strangers. In this house, we live in discomfort. We sleep with one eye open, one foot on the ground and our bedroom door locked if not also bolted.
The minute something happens, we jump to hurl the worse accusations at fellow citizens of other ethnic and religious groups.
This is because we have been taught to view the world as a zero-sum environment. According to this forlorn outlook, whatever one person gains must come at the expense of another. Your gain is my loss and vice versa.
Such a mindset is injurious to any household, be it a single family or a vast nation. It leads to constant bickering and battle. For it tells us there are no solutions that benefit all. There is only contestation about who shall win and who shall lose.
This mindset constructs enmity and friction as if it were a national monument.
This perspective implies things cannot get better. That people cannot work together to produce more wealth, prosperity and opportunity so that everyone can reasonably expect to get a larger share of an expanding flow of wealth as the future unfolds.
Cynical people tacitly believe the supply of wealth, prosperity and all good things is static if not diminishing. Thus, competition grows more intense by the day as more people compete for possession and enjoyment of static number of valuable items.
Dig deeper and this mindset reveals something terribly barren in those who hold to it. They believe we are not in possession of the intelligence, ability and vision to improve our political economy in order to create more jobs and elevate the standard of living for most Nigerians.
Things will always be as is they are is their motto.
Well this flaccid motto cannot be our motto and the cynical ways of these people cannot be our ways.
Instead, I hold to the proposition that we shall become the best of who we are.
We do this by keeping our fellow man in heart so that we do not end up lunging at each other’s throat.
Here, I offer Lagos State as an example of what is possible for all Nigeria and Nigerians when we practice the governance of inclusion instead of the old, malign ways of exclusion.
Since the return of civilian rule in 1999, Lagos has been a fount of economic progress and social understanding and tolerance.
Led by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a group of dedicated and committed Lagosians developed a blueprint for the transformation of the State. So much of the State had fallen down and decayed. The State’s glory seemed a thing of the past.
But we have steadily repaired it. First, the administration of Asiwaju Tinubu and then that of Babatunde Raji Fashola, moved the master plan from concept to concrete reality.
My administration is both a beneficiary of their work as well as a continuance of that work. We strive to go further because we have the opportunity to build upon what they have done.
Through the years, we have steadily repaired our State, modernizing and retooling things to the point where we now talk about turning Lagos into a Smart City.
In every way, our infrastructure is improved. Our roads are better, our mass transportation has expanded, hospitals give better care to the sick and afflicted, education is improving and more affordable housing is being constructed before our very eyes.
The face of Badagry is changing. The makeover of Oshodi will cause you to marvel at the transformation that can take place even in densely populated urban space when there is the political will and determined creativity to give the people the infrastructure they deserve.
We are improving and expanding the Airport Road so that a trip to and from the airport no longer takes more time than your flight itself.
The Lekki-Epe axis was once an isolated, inactive tract of land. Now it bustles with energy, activity and prosperity due in large measure to the roads and other infrastructure our State has constructed.
We have and will continue to build bridges linking parts of Lagos that have not been linked before so that commerce, transport and communication among Lagosians will be facilitated.
We aim to make this state fully integrated so that one part is well connected to any other.
All of this work is underpinned by the belief that Lagos belongs to all of us. Lagos is not an exclusive club. It is an inclusive family.
What makes you truly Lagosian has little to do with where you were born, the origin of your surname or which Holy Book, if any, you read.
What makes you Lagosian is whether or not you are of the right civic and individual spirit. If you want to innovate and make things better, then you are Lagosian in heart;
If you seek to establish business, give jobs to people, and enrich the world around you, you are Lagosian at heart;
If you do not mind if a person of a different group or religion prospers so long as you too have the fair chance to do the same, then you are Lagosian at heart;
If you don’t mind hard work for yourself but also believe that everyone has the right of quiet enjoyment of the fruits of their legitimate labor and toil then you are Lagosian at heart.
It is in this spirit that we build Lagos anew. It is in this spirit that we can build a new Nation.
The roads that are built are for everyone. There is no such thing as a Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa road. Everyone equally suffers a bad road and equally benefits from a good one.
In Lagos, there is no legitimate business or trade you cannot enter because of ethnicity, gender or religion. There is no place you cannot go. There is no section where you cannot live.
The door is open to all whether you come from North, East, West and South or just across the street.
As long as you seek to engage in lawful business, you will encounter no barriers from this government. If you have a good idea, we will encourage it, we will invest in you regardless of where you came from.
We care less about where you came from. We care more about where you seek to go.
You see, the inclusion I talk about is more than a pretty word to say; so that I sound like some type of enlightened politician.
Inclusion is a principle by which we put to constructive use the full industry and skills of the people; Rich and Poor, Old and Young, Men and Women, Boys and Girls.
This results in greater individual and collective productivity. Reform, change and growth come at a faster clip. Concerted effort and the visible benefits of that collective exertions further divorces the people from the zero-sum mentality that fosters stagnation because it pits us against each other in perpetual friction.
Inclusion is not only the moral thing to do, it is the smart thing as well.
Contrast it with societies that erect walls and impediments to keep certain people from entering important political and socio-economic fields of endeavor.
These societies squander vital energy and waste finite resources in order to hamper segments of their populations from making the optimal contribution to their personal and collective existences. The energy and resources could have been used to develop society and promote harmony. Instead it gets used to depress growth, mistreat people and foment discord.
In effect, much of society’s potential for growth and prosperity is used to ensure that growth and prosperity do not come to all.
A favored group seeks to deny another group the adequate enjoyment of its share of the collective work product for unfair reasons of religion, ethnicity or color.
This exclusive society is founded on the cynical premise that one man’s bounty must always come at the invitation of another man’s poverty. Again, the zero-sum mindset rears its ugly head.
This perspective is a tempting lure for it is simple to understand and it speaks to the element of selfishness that infects every human being to some degree.
But having gone through the rigors of education that this institution requires, all of you know fully well that you cannot accomplish anything of excellent and lasting value by surrendering to base impulses and shallow thinking.
Our duty is not to entertain and exalt the worst of human nature. Instead, we are ordained to cultivate the best of human ideals so that we can abide in fairness, prosperity and security.
This is our objective in Lagos. We have recorded some progress along this pleasant road. Yes, we still have much to do and far to go. Yet, I am encouraged by the fact that we will do it as an inclusive team linked together by a just and compassionate social compact.
It is my unyielding belief that the principle of inclusion which has served Lagos so well can be employed in other states with similar effect. In effect, our dear nation, Nigeria.
However, for States to give optimal service to their citizens the principle of inclusion first needs to be applied to the division of power between the Federal and State governments.
There recently has been clamor for devolution of power and true federalism. While much of this talk is good intentioned, I believe it misses the crucial point.
The linchpin of good governance is not found in the system deployed but in the quality of its administration.
We must implement the federal system as it was intended to be. Heretofore, too much power has resided in the National government.
This has been to the detriment of the authority and efficiency of both State and Local governments.
This has caused a governance vacuum of sorts. The Federal government is burdened with tasks beyond the reach of its best competencies. The States and Local government are dissuaded from treating many matters of a local nature that are better left in their hands due to their greater knowledge of local conditions.
We need to shift some functions/responsibilities from the national government to place more of it in the hands of the States. This is how we give federalism the best chance to work. Until we do this, calls to abandon the current system serve not to fix the underlying problem.
If people are imbued with the exclusionary mindset that power must be centralized, any structural reform will be distorted to serve the purpose of those who favor concentration of power.
Hence, I am concerned about the intense focus on wholesale change to our political architecture. Such a thing is inherently time consuming and costly despite the claims that money will be saved.
Additionally, such attempts at enormous and rapid political change causes economic uncertainty and dislocation. Given our tenuous relationship to prosperity, Nigeria cannot afford this self-affliction.
Prudence counsels that we first attempt a more equitable level of fiscal federalism before adopting drastic alternations that likely plunge us toward the unknown.
There is widespread consensus that too much power sits in the center. We can correct this imbalance by reallocating power and responsibilities between the States and Federal government by amending the list of exclusive and concurrent powers and duties of these governments to reflect current realities in the nation.
These changes will have beneficial impact visible within a short amount of time. The impact of these changes, though political in origin, will be economic in nature and it is in our economic life where the nation needs the most help.
Resolving the problems regarding federalism and the herdsman’s, as with so many other problems, requires us to look beyond prejudice and hatred.
Exploiting fear and bias is easy and sings well in the short-run. Over the longer-term, it is a bitter cup that cures nothing but ferments greater hatred and larger problems.
To the graduates, I ask that you refuse the old ways of ethnic, religious and regional bias that have plagued our national politics for so long.
If you knew the vastness of the common challenges that face us all as Nigerians and Africans, you would quickly jettison the ethnic pettiness and religious bigotry that threatens to divide us. The rest of the world sees us as Black, African and Nigerian and will deal with all of us in the same manner. That larger world cares little about the internal divisions we see as so profound. In this context, we are in the same boat and share the same fate.
Unless we join in concerted effort to help each other toward a better more united Nigeria, we all shall fail in our different ways.
Moreover, you did not attend this fine institution to fail either as an individual or as a nation.
You now assume the active stage of human affairs where what you learn must be put to use and practice. Employ what you have gained here for the good of Nigeria and hold true to the mindset that our ethnic and religious differences makes no one a lesser or better person.
We are linked together in common destiny. Thus let us work together in common purpose in order to make that destiny, the one we truly seek, which is an inclusive and forever just and prosperous Nigeria.