Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson: Still “Standing Tall”

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BACKPAGE BY OLASUPO SHASORE

It is Lagos State, Nigeria of today, but imagine if there was no Badagry Road, that 57 km artery, that takes Lagosians and Nigerians alike to the international borders to Benin, Togo and Ghana; what if there was no Ikorodu Road, Road, the eight lane highway that for many years took Nigerians to the west of the country and beyond or no Oworonshoki- Oshodi-Apapa the 10 lane expressway or no third axial ‘mainland’ bridge and the ring round around Lagos metropolis.

The whole concept of ‘What if ?’ A counter-factual history, something that is practised in order to consider alternative routes that a people or organisation would have taken, if an event didn’t happen.

With existing infrastructure gaps that yawn today in Lagos State, we should not have to imagine ‘what if’. What if, on the 4th day of June 1967 the then Major Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson had not been appointed the first Governor of the newly created Lagos State? With the legacy of development his tenure has bequeathed to Lagos – the alternative history would have been sad indeed. Fortunately, history did give us Governor Mobolaji Johnson with a start–up capital of a mere £10,000 from the Federal Government. After setting the course with A. E. Hawson – Wright as secretary to the government cabinet; F.C.O Coker Financial Secretary; M. Idowu Agoro, Legal Secretary and J.O. Adeyemi-Bero Principal Secretary (Chief of Staff), the journey of Lagos State to the apex of national performance commenced. ‘The four Musketeers’ as they were then known were later joined by Dr. O.A Soboyejo, Alhaji F. A Durosimi-Etti, Mr. Folarin Coker, Mr. C.O Bajulaiye, Mr. M.O.K Williams, Mr. Akin Johnston and Mr Bayo Amosu in an official working unit.

With the civil war raging on, Johnson commenced building a structure for Lagos as a state; with the handpicked-picked team, a handful of ministries led by Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya (Justice), Rev. Akin Adesola (Education), Chief I. S. Adewale (finance),Finance) Chief S.L. Edu (Health & Social Welfare), Dr Babatunde Williams (Local Government & Chieftaincy matters) and Mr B. S. Hundeyin (Works & Transport) – he grew a culture of both a deep sense of belonging and dedication to his vision for the newly created Lagos State. .

Johnson morphed from Military Administrator to Governor within just under one year and thereby translated the shared vision of Lagosians like Dr. Taslim Elias, Sikiru Shitta Bey, Femi Okunnu and a cohort of other agitators for a separate and equal state of Lagos within the Federation of Nigeria. A state befitting of its status as one of the three component entities (Southern Protectorate, Northern Protectorate and the Crown Colony of Lagos) that were the end product of the involuntary amalgamation to create Nigeria in 1914. The transformation to a state government was to be a herculean task but Johnson, an honest broker to the core and consummate soldier at all times, was up to the task.

In that task specific mention must be made of ‘Eko Hotel’ till this day one of the most successful investments ever made by the state government, it now has the country’s leading convention centre and is easily the largest hotel in West Africa, Johnson had infrastructural vision for the state. He sought to reinvent his old school Methodist Boys High School (MBHS) Lagos by relocating it to Ojo. This effort provided the foundation for the present day, Lagos State University (LASU) actualised by the later Jakande administration.

Thanks to his excellent autobiography and the efforts of his co-author Kola Olutimehin; we have a corpus of knowledge about Johnson in Lagos State – “Lagos State- My life of service with integrity ‘The making of an ICON’”, a brilliant and forthright autobiographical work which was driven to final publication in no small way through the efforts of then Governor of Lagos Babatunde Fashola, SAN in 2010.

It all started at the heart of the busy Garber Street on Lagos Island on the 9th of February 1936 at Dr Maja’s Clinic established by Dr. Akinola Maja, ‘Baba Eko’ as he was then known. That day Mobolaji was born to Joshua Motola Johnson and Emma Gbemisola Johnson (nee Coker). Dr. ‘Baba Eko’ should also be well remembered as one of the founders of Egbe Omo Oduduwa and along with T.A. Doherty, Alfred Olatunde Johnson and Hamzat Subair were the founders of National Bank of Nigeria. Johnson’s roots were well-placed, comfortable, but typical of a rising, well- heeled homestead in colonial Lagos making his devotion to the eventual Lagos State unshakable in the extreme.

For instance he was asked by a senior federal judicial officer from the then Western State to accept that officers son onto the Lagos High Court bench. Johnson’s response was a firm no; the reason being that the candidate was not resident in Lagos and had especially openly chosen to be identified with another state – otherwise the appointment would have been merited and proper without external influence. Johnson also took courageous exception to being ‘instructed’ by the Federal Cabinet Secretary to the Supreme Military Council to hand over portions of the newly reclaimed Victoria Island to the Federal Government without due reason or process, stressing that as Governor of Lagos State, he was in charge of state lands. A position unique for its time and indeed for military hierarchy, he stood tall for Lagos.

He stood tall for Nigeria as well, after training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst he opted to serve in Congo and played a key role in the creation of the Lagos Garrison within Lagos being the capital and seat of government, in a radio broadcast to the people of Lagos he once said: ‘uprightness and integrity are qualities we must all cultivate’

I personally recall meeting him for the first time, having spent a childhood and adulthood in awe of his achievements. The meeting was at State House Marina on an evening in November 2008. It was at a time when the Lagos State Government was doing what it then did best – pressing for its constitutional and legal rights. Then Attorney General of the state, the Governor had made several demands of the Federal GovernmentGovernment of the day, seeking to redress the violation of both statutory and constitutional rights in matters relating to Federal GovernmentGovernment / Lagos StateState property and some Lagos heritage sites.

That meeting evening in November of 2008 at State House Marina, Governor Babatunde Fashola called a meeting of ‘Elders & Eminent Citizens of Lagos State’ also referred to as “Eminent Citizens” of which former Governor Mobolaji Johnson was not only a leading but proud member. Despite having gone to school with his nephew, it was there, that I met him for the very first time. He was still ‘Standing Tall’ for Lagos State. He became the leading signatory to the petition addressed to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. The representations in the petition metamorphosed into a standing committee for the resolution of the several disputes between the Federal Government and the Lagos State Government – a very useful platform in dousing tension and providing results for both governments under the co- chairmanship of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation , Mahmoud Yayale Ahmed and myself (as Lagos State Attorney General) both of us acting for our principals President Yar’Adua and Governor Fashola respectively.

In the eventual letter, Johnson and others boldly stated that as far as Tafawa Balewa Square and other heritage sites in Lagos were concerned:

“Lagos State Government …holds the legal title of ownership in trust for the good people of Lagos State…(therefore)Your Excellency, we were however shocked to learn that the Bureau of Public Enterprise has gone ahead to “transfer” the Tafawa Balewa Square (to private interest)”

Till the very end, the Sandhurst- trained illustrious first Governor of Lagos State – Brigadier General M O Johnson ‘stood tall’ for Lagos. He lived through and survived a tumultuous time in Nigeria’s political history and development. In terms of public life, he left with his integrity and record intact. Which, in Nigerian public life, is no small achievement.

Above all, he will be sorely missed by his immediate family. But in equal measure, he will be missed by his beloved and grateful Nigeria and especially his family of millions of fellow Lagosians who will, with gratitude for a life of service to them, forever remember him for his commitment and ability to ‘Stand Tall’ for them.

He was after all, one of us. We are many – yet that’s all it takes – One!. “E pluribus unum”; ‘out of many – One’. Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson had the power of that ‘One’

Olasupo Shasore is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Partner at the law firm ALP Nigeria

November 2019