At death, 45 years after he was governor of the state of Aquatic Splendor, Nigerians have continued to pay glowing tributes to the architect of modern Lagos State, the late Brigadier General Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson, who passed on in the week, writes Shola Oyeyipo
Since Lagos State was created in 1975, it has had a total of 15 governors altogether. Out of this number, only five had passed. They are Commodore Adekunle Shamusideen, Navy Captain Okhai, Michael Akhigbe, Sir Michael Otedola and the latest on that list, the first military governor of the state, Brigadier General Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson.
The amiable late military General, who was first appointed as the military administrator by the late military Head of State, Major General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, and later as governor of Lagos State by his successor, General Yakubu Gowon (rtd) joined his ancestors on Wednesday, October 30 at the age of 83.
Immediately after his son, Deji, confirmed his demise, notable Nigerians, including President Muhammadu Buhari had started pouring in tributes for the deceased soldier and gentleman, who remained a significant part of the history of Lagos State till he breathed his last. Born February 9, 1936, Johnson came to the saddle as Lagos governor from May 1967 to July 1975, during the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon. His wife, Funmi, had died in 2016. He was however survived by many children and several grandchildren.
In 1966, after the abortive coup d’etat that put paid to the first Nigerian civilian administration, he became military administrator of Lagos State before he was named governor in 1975.
Johnson was born to the family of Joshua Motola Johnson and his mother, Gbemisola Johnson (née Dudley-Coker). His father was of Egba heritage and was a member of the Royal West African Frontier Force during World War II.
President Buhari was one of the early mourners. In a statement by his spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, Buhari condoled with government and people of Lagos State over the death of the late Johnson.
President Buhari also commiserated with family members, friends and associates of the former governor, whom he said: “Had a distinguished career in the Nigerian Army, starting as a cadet in 1959 and retiring in 1975,” as a General.
According to the Nigerian leader, who was also in the military, the late Johnson “laid solid foundation for the development of infrastructure in the state and provided a good framework for the civil service”, adding that “Johnson’s footprints in promoting education and building durable health system will always be remembered.”
While President Buhari prayed that God would accept Johnson’s soul, he called on all leaders of the state and the people to uphold the legacies of discipline and the selfless service bequeathed on the state. The incumbent Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu was rather sad over the death of Mobolaji Johnson after a brief undisclosed illness.
Sanwo-Olu’s Chief Press Secretary (CPS), Mr. Gboyega Akosile, in a statement signed on behalf of his principal, described the late Army General as “a complete gentleman and officer.”
The governor, who went back memory lane to revisit Johnson’s era as the first military Governor of Lagos State, also underscored the fact that it was a period that laid the foundation for the infrastructure development of the state, stating that he was “A dedicated Lagosian.” According to Sanwo-Olu, “General Johnson contributed immensely to the development of Lagos state in particular and the nation in general.”
“Although General Mobolaji Johnson has gone to be with his Lord and Creator, the memories of great accomplishments he left behind will linger on forever. One remembers how the late General Johnson’s administration worked with other seasoned professionals to establish five Government Colleges and Housing Estates, which were commissioned by the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, within one year of his administration. This, to me, is the hallmark of service and has remained a benchmark for successive administrations in the state.”
Describing him as a man of vision with a mission to see a modern Lagos evolve, Sanwo-Olu said the vision had started to manifest in what is seen today as every successive administration strives to build on the developmental structure and foundation of good governance laid by the late General Johnson.
Urging Lagosians to immortalise the deceased by ensuring that good governance spreads to every facet of the society, the governor stated that, “We must ensure that the people enjoy the dividends of democracy. Development must touch the lives of the people directly. This is the best way to immortalise the late Mobolaji Johnson, because this is virtue he lived for.”
On his part, a prominent Lagos politician, who has held various offices in the state and the country, Senator Musiliu Obanikoro, said, “It is indeed a big loss to Lagos, Nigeria and humanity. A fine soldier and gentleman, he was one of the founding fathers of modern Lagos State.
“A state they fought for and created in order to give indigenous people of the state a sense of pride and ownership within the Nigerian state. He set a standard of service that became a model for all his successors. He was a man of cklass and decency. He will be missed dearly”.
It wasn’t a ruling party or government affair all alone, Johnson belonged to every Lagosian and as such, when the tributes started coming in, a chieftain and governorship candidate of the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Jimi Agbaje, joined others to express his deep sorrow over the death of the General.
He said he was a man of impeccable and unassailable character who laid the foundation for modern Lagos.
Describing his death as painful, Agbaje said, Lagos State was blessed to have at its inception such a visionary, selfless and creative mind that helped to nurture it.
“He was a unique administrator with a catalogue of enduring structures and legacies during his tenure as the military governor of a place that served the twin capacities of a brand-new state and the nation’s Federal Capital,” Agbaje recalled, stressing that “He will be remembered as a gentleman’s gentleman and a benevolent officer, who refused to abuse his office. His laudable achievements in Lagos will forever remain memorable. General Mobolaji Johnson leaves behind a good name indeed.”
He said further that the late Johnson was, “A sympathetic soldier, an astute businessman, a philanthropist per excellence, who was in a class of his own,” and prayed God to grant the state and his family the fortitude to bear the pain of his demise.
According to him, despite Johnson’s vantage position and vast resources at his disposal, the General remained an incorruptible, altruistic and creative administrator, a fact attested by probe panels that cleared him after the military putsch of General Murtala Muhammed swept away the General Yakubu Gowon regime that appointed the former governor.
The PDP chieftain reckoned that, “He engineered many of the enduring infrastructure and roads that remain the hallmark of Lagos State in these five decades of its inception.”
Urging the country’s political class to imbibe the selflessness that earmarked Johnson’s regime, Agbaje lamented that the country would have recorded greater developments had leaders continued along the patriotic paths laid by the likes of the late General.
The late Lagos military governor, for instance, has recorded against his name, the construction of 60.7-kilometre international express road (Lagos–Badagry Expressway) linking Nigeria with the neighbouring countries like Benin, Ghana and Togo; the Toikin Bridge that links Epe to Ikorodu, the Eko Bridge, and several other network of roads and bridges that constitute immensely to making Lagos one of the most developed states in the country.
He also embarked on the reclamation of the Lagos Bar Beach shoreline before the Murtala Mohammed coup of 1975.
As much as he may be commended, one of the low points in his days was the decision to demolition the Ajele cemetery and the consequent disinterment of people buried at the cemetery.
Notable among corpses affected by rather unpopular decision were, that of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, James Pinson Labulo Davies, Madam Tinubu, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and several others. The action was met with stiff opposition and lots of criticisms by many opinionated Lagosians back then.
The likes of Prof J.D.Y. Peel contended that the demolition deprived Lagosians, not only of a precious green space in the heart of the city but of the memorials of their forebears.
Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka tagged his government’s action as “the violation of that ancestral place” noting that “the order came from the military governor (Mobolaji Johnson): ‘Dig up those dead and forgotten ancestors and plant a modern council building – with all its lucrative corollaries on that somnolent spot.”
In any case, Mobolaji Johnson will remain a name to be reckoned as a former governor in the annals of the history of Nigeria and Lagos in particular. He would forever be recognised as a development-oriented leader, who some present leaders, especially governors, should emulate, because despite the fact that he left the saddle about 45 years ago, his imprints are yet indelible.