So give them a passing thought
those men and women of earlier day,
the people who paved the track we tread.
The people who laid the way.
The common sights, sounds and smells of Lagos Island’s neatly swept narrow streets, yes the town had street sweepers, public water pumps strategically located at corners and intersections, the streets were lit and you would typically see the fortunately placed office workers in white short sleeves, and the wealthier merchants arrive in traditional well embroidered attire; the traders returning from markets as they approached home frontages with intricate agboles where branches of families lived hidden behind; the waft of freshly baked bread greeting passers by.
Elective democracy had been introduced in Nigeria, a new constitution (known as the Clifford Constitution, after Governor Hugh Clifford) was promulgated. General elections were to be held in Nigeria for the first time in 1923.
This was the Colony province of Lagos in British Colonial Nigeria, the land of his birth and so it was, on a Sunday the 22nd of July 1923 when Alfred Babatunde Coker the eldest son of S. Alfred Coker a merchant of Balogun Square Ereko in the famed Olowogbowo area of Lagos who had married Eudora Remilekun Coker had: Nathaniel Folarin, one of their five children.
The five children Stella, Bode (Theophilus Olabode) and then the third Nathaniel Folarin. After him was Emmanuel Jonathan Olusegun and the fifth child was a girl Oluwatoyin (later Mrs Toyin Animashaun).
Folarin was a ‘Lagos boy’, a product of his environment, as every child is. His was the beautiful Lagos, where everyone on the island new one another, streets had meanings and local home government, was the only thing you knew and feared. The Lagos that did not tolerate the not -acceptable, or nonsense; ‘eko o gba gbere’.
This Lagos, in 1923 was the place of his birth and Oke Popo was his ‘area’, in days when the term ‘area boys’ was merely a description of where you came from. Popo is fairly central on the map of Lagos Island and Joseph Street runs like an artery from the Marina, to Broad Street, Campbell, Igbosere, Bamgbose to Ricca streets – it was at number 28 Joseph Street on the 22nd of July 1923 that Nathaniel Folarin Coker was born.
Baptised at Christ Church Marina, he was a regular Sunday school boy, served in the choir and enrolled in many church activities for the youth such as ‘The Kuramo Campers’ for young boys, where he was an award-winning swimmer. His strong church grooming saw him breakfasting with Bishop Leslie Gordon Vining and living at a time at Cathedral House with Bishop Howells.
Eleven years later he was enrolled at CMS Grammar School where he was described in his school leaving certificate on 30 May 1942 as follows:
“Coker is a lively intelligent and thoughtful young man whose presence in the school has been a pleasure to pupils and staff alike. He has shown himself, trustworthy and loyal. I can commend him to any he meets or works with, with confidence.”
He then voyaged to Exeter in England, where he attended the university college now University of Exeter from 1948 -1950. There he obtained a Diploma in Public Administration. While he was in the UK, he consummated a friendship that had started from back home in his school days, a love that matured and travelled across the sea, which led to marriage in 1951 to Miss Larvinia Apinke (‘Auntie Pinkie’) Vaughan.
And then to the Inns of court, where he was called to the English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn on 12th July 1960.
His appetite for pioneering work was just beginning at the time when Nigeria was contemplating its future, Coker enrolled for and obtained a Higher Standard Certificate in Hausa, which he became a fluent speaker of, and joined the Public Service of Sokoto Province Northern Region as an Administrative Assistant in 1951. He moved to Kano province as an Assistant District Officer (Administrative class) in 1954. He struck many friendships as he rose through the ranks of northern public service and was fondly called ‘Bature Coker’ meaning ‘whiteman Coker’ by both friends and colleagues, like Alhaji Ibrahim Aminu (Uban Aiki) later Tafida of Sokoto and Muhammadu Maccido then Ciroman Sokoto and later Sultan of Sokoto.
Public service was his calling and once regionalisation took hold in Nigeria he moved to the Western Nigeria Public Service to be again – a pioneer – in that service. There he served as a senior Assistant in the Ministry of Justice, then led by the Attorney General & Minister of Justice Chief FRA Williams. Always a pioneer, he was in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Information when that ministry ushered into creation the Mid–Western region. Ultimately becoming deputy permanent secretary in the Western Nigeria Ministry of Education in April 1964. His last posting in the West was Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance till 1968 when he was called to the ultimate pioneering work – the creation of a new public service in Nigeria’s oldest former colony but newest state, Lagos State.
The Governor of Western Nigeria, Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo agreed with the new Military Governor of the new Lagos State, Major Mobolaji Johnson to despatch ‘three of the best’ Mr. S A Thomas who was assigned to Local Government and Chieftaincy affairs; Mr. A. B. A Johnston who took up Works & Planning and Mr. Folarin Coker who took up two ministries – Agriculture & Natural Resources as well as Trade & Industries! He struck a good working relationship with the Commissioner, Alhaji Ganiyu Dawodu and cut the path for national and international trade fairs. No surprise that he was sent on to create the new ministry of Information and Tourism. As fate would have it, his son, Folorunsho, would later be appointed Lagos State Commissioner for Tourism, the same ministry his father created. He is now Director General of Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation.
Folarin Coker was still to cut new pioneer paths yet again in the Ministries of Sports and Social Development under the first Naval Military Governors of Lagos State Navy Captains Shamsudeen Lawal and Ndubuisi Kanu.
He retired from civil, but not public service in 1989 at the statutory age of 55 full of vigour and miles of pioneering still in him; he went on to several national appointments. Becoming a fellow of the National Institute of International Affairs and conferred with the status of Officer of the Most Distinguished Order of the Niger (OON). In 1993 he was appointed Pro Chancellor and Chairman of Council of the University of Port Harcourt. In befitting honour the Lagos State Government named the Lagos State Clinic at the state secretariat Alausa after him.
His best known and most famous moniker is Baba Eto, the title became so coveted that it has been emulated by many in social circles; but in fact it was a formal and solemn title ‘The Baba Eto of Lagos’ as official spokesman and master curator of ceremonial occasions was conferred on him by Oba Adeyinka Oyekan II the revered Oba of Lagos; HRH Ooni Sijuwade Olubuse II later titled him Baba Eto of Yorubaland ensuring that only he held that moniker as of right.
He was socially conscious with a heart for community affairs – leading to his conferment with the title Bobagunwa of Ijede Ekiti; he was a lovable sociable grandee, a self described ‘social heavyweight’ and therefore a leading member “Elderman” of Yoruba Tennis Club and Island Club. In later years he would be often immaculately turned out in white traditional attire with shoes that were the envy of any gathering.
He was a boardroom and corporate guru participating in many large invested private and quoted companies. In one dispute he battled, the now well known locus classicus court case GLOBE FISHING INDS. LTD. v. COKER (1990) 7 NWLR (PT. 162) 265 – all the way to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Which I appeared in as counsel, albeit on the opposing side.
He was an avid writer, in one of his many books (‘Salute to Stewardship’) he quoted what must have been one of his favoured sayings: “Of mans legacy to eternity, the greatest is the written word” from Plato in Utopia.
I am particularly proud that I share more than one vocation with Chief Baba Eto; he was a senior lawyer, writer, biographer and therefore historian, his many books include ‘A Nigerian Hero: Sir Adetokunboh Ademola’; “ Iya Eko: Oyinkan Abayomi”; and ‘The life of Bishop Kale’.
By his own admission one of his favourite homilies in his own voice was: ‘Well well; I think I would say to you all – do thou always your best and leave to God the rest. For God is our paymaster’
The gift of longevity is, at the end, Gods gift but he left us with some other tips, he never used his installed air conditioning, never had a mobile phone and often ate amala and ewedu. Habits to be emulated perhaps?
He passed peacefully at 97 years, on Wednesday 12th of August 2020, with church hymns he requested for, playing softly to his ears. His memory will always be a blessing to his family and his nation.
He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed by ‘Mama Foli’, Alhaja Humuani Olayinka Agoro, and by Folorunsho and Aisha and his grandchildren Feyintola, Folayinka, Feyiseye Femi & Fife.
Chief Folarin Coker will be gratefully remembered by his beloved Lagos State and Nigeria-at-large for his pioneering work and by the Nigeria that he traversed without bias. He will be eternally remembered for his pioneering noble public service, which led to a long joyous ‘beautiful life’.
•Shasore, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), is a former Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Lagos State