A Portrait in Peerless Selfless Service

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Moses Ekpo

Moses Ekpo, Deputy Governor of Akwa Ibom State honours the memory of the first civilian Governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, the man who helped to hone his skill in journalism

Even in death, the first civilian Governor of Lagos State and former Minister of Works and Housing, Alhaji LateefJakande, has continued to stir the hornet’s nest.

Since his passage on the February 11, 2021, at the ripe age of 91, the media has been agog with reactions to his transition, the common thread in the commentaries being his unique brand of selflessness, which borders on self-abnegation. For Nigerians to adopt the standard which Jakande set for himself, they must first come to terms with his philosophies and world-view.

What, precisely, were the beliefs which resulted in his austere life-style and penchant to continuously empty himself in bold and audacious service to God and his fellow man?

“John West” – as was then his pen-name – hired me as Proof Reader-In-Training at the renowned Daily Service Group of Newspapers on Apongbon Street in March, 1960. I am who I am today because I cut my teeth in Journalism under his strict and caring watch.

That privileged mentor-protégé relationship between us, puts me in good stead now that he has passed on to attempt a reconstruction of what constituted the spark-plug for his peerless performance in public service in particular, and unprecedented life in general.

There is a wide consensus that evil in man is a consequence of ignorance. The selfish, for instance, ignorantly thinks it is in his best interest to corner everything for himself. In his myopic vision of the world, he misses the point that selflessness is the ultimate key to happiness. And this is because on the surface, selflessness appears to him to run contrary to the very notion of happiness -come to think of it, isn’t the pursuit of happiness by its very nature selfish, considering that the “happiness” in question is the happiness of the individual self?

“No, pursuing the happiness of our individual selves does not have to depend on selfish means,” said Joshua Becker, the American motivational speaker and author, who has gone further to explain that though some form of happiness may come from selfishness, such is hardly enduring. In his words, “nobody seeks the counsel of the selfish person; nobody is willing to give himself up for one who desires his own kingdom above all things.”

I knew and worked with His Excellency, Alhaji Lateef Jakande at a time when the principles which later became the lodestar for his life were taking root. For him, the individual, as a fraction of the social whole, can best guarantee the adequate protection of his true interest only within the context of that whole.

He believed that we are uniquely drawn to those who selflessly give of themselves; that those who love and give generously find a sort of fulfillment that extends beyond position, title and stature. Jakande believed that “those who act selflessly possess a kind of authority that reaches into the heart and soul of the people – their examples are studied; their counsel is sought; their stories are told in positive terms; and their happiness is truly lasting,” quoting Becker again.

There is, indeed, a correlation between a leader’s belief and his socio-economic-infrastructural out-put. In Western socio-political thought, the leader is an architect of society. He conjures up a design in the heavens, and his job is to as much as possible replicate that model on terra firma in order to create a paradise on earth for his people.

The out-of-this-world infrastructural wonders of the ancient world, such as the Hanging Garden of Babylon; the Colossus of Rhodes; the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, etc, are all products of the radical beliefs and ideologies of intensely visionary leaders who, in the grandeur and sophistication of their output, anticipated the wizardry made possible by the science and technology of today.

It is not only in secular scenarios that we find instances of unprecedented leadership heroism fired by belief and faith. From the scriptures we read that “by faith the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made by things which appear. By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death, … by faith Noah moved with fear and prepared the ark …. By faith Abraham … obeyed God, and went out, not knowing whither he went … for he looked for a city which had foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

In like manner, Jakande by faith – following in the footsteps of his mentor – the legendary Chief Obafemi Awolowo, envisioned himself as a socio-political engineer. His radical belief in the possibility of an egalitarian society propelled his hands to prodigious outputs; proving again that when the passion is right, other things fall into plate.

By faith he built, in just four years, all that constitute the infrastructural essence of modern Lagos – beginning with the State Secretariat, which houses all the state ministries and the Lagos State House of Assembly Complex. His government built the Lagos State Television, Radio Lagos, General Hospitals in zones all over the state. One of the legacies that endeared him to the people of the state was the massive construction of low-cost houses in diverse places in Lagos, such as Ijaiye, Dolphin, Oke-Afa, Ije, Abasan, Iponrin, Ipaja, Abule Nla, Epe, Amuwo-Odofin, Anikantamo, Surulere, Iba, Ikorodu, amongst others.

His government established the Lagos State University, a Teacher’s Training College and the College of Education. Fulfilling the UPN’s promise of free education, he instituted a singular school system that ensured genuine free education in Lagos state. It is acclaimed that he raised the number of primary schools in the state to 812 with 533,001 pupil population (as against 605 primary schools with 434, 545 pupil population which he met in 1979) and secondary schools to 223 with 167, 629 students (as against 105 schools with 107,835 students in 1979). He constructed 11,729 classrooms with a maximum of 40 children per class between March and August, 1980. By 1983, when he left office, he had constructed over 22,000 classrooms.

Capturing the fruitage of Jakande’s boundless energies as governor of Lagos state, will amount to documenting the entire Lagos. And in accounting for the enigma which he represented as an administrator, an undeniable factor would be his idealism as a journalist who had carved out a niche for himself.

He began his journalism career in 1949 at Daily Service, and joined Awolowo’s Nigerian Tribune where he rose to be the editor. He later established John West Publications and began to publish the Lagos News. He was the first President of Newspapers Proprietor’s Association of Nigeria. He helped birth the Nigeria Union of Journalists as well as the Guild of Editors, aside from the Nigerian lnstitute of Journalism, Ogba-Lagos. He was the first Nigerian to head the International Press Institute.

Jakande’s gravitas was legendry, and in all the areas he decided to venture into, he operated with an unusual horse-power. Whether on the spur of the moment, or out of genuine rhapsody over his legacies, the avalanche of reactions to his death is indeed an indication that an “iroko” had fallen and a major vacuum has been created. Nature abhors a vacuum, meaning that even for the larger-than-life persona of Jakande, an appropriate replacement would have to be found to continue the mystical tramp of progress.

A similar need probably arose at the passage of Jonathan Swift, the 18th century Irish poet and author of Gulliver’s Travels; most likely also against the background of the kind of decadence afflicting our country today. It elicited this own epitaph from Swift – “Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where fierce indignation can no longer rend his heart. Go, traveller, and imitate if you can, this earnest and dedicated champion of liberty.”

Like Swift, Jakande was a first class wordsmith and champion of liberty. Misunderstanding – even from his kinsmen – and the traducer’s diatribe dogged his life. With necessary modifications, I therefore beg to borrow Swift’s epitaph as my epigraph for the monumental life and times of this man of goodwill, my mentor and boss.