Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande died on Thursday February 11. Twenty one years ago (July 1999), when he turned 70, he granted an interview to Nigerian Tribune’s Lasisi Olagunju and Debo Abdulai at his Ilupeju residence in Lagos. LKJ, in his Buba and Sokoto, sitting in his garage, on a mere bench, came forcefully across as a man of very simple means. Yet, he said he was very satisfied with life. The interview, originally published by the Nigerian Tribune on 25 July, 1999 is reproduced here, in part, in honour of his memory.
Your simplicity is very striking. For one, you don’t wear agbada and you don’t ride flashy cars except your Toyota Crown. What could be responsible for that sir?
Contentment with what God has given me. Very early in my life, I learnt of this saying: “I am content with what I have, little be it or much; And, Lord, contentment still I crave, because thou savest such.” So, at the end of the day, what is life? Take away service and it will be what Shakespeare called, much ado about nothing. I have taken the path of simplicity very easily in life. With what God has given me, I am contented. But I owe my contentment to my paternal grandmother from the days I lived with her very early in my life. One thing my grandmother used to do, even though we were living in a very big family compound, whenever things were not so good, when the soup in the pot was exhausted and we cried for more, my grandmother would tell us to wait a little, and she’ll put some water in the empty pot, use the spoon to stir it on fire and serve us. You dared not go to the next neighbor. In those days, we used to have sacrifices (saraa) and some people called children to come and eat. With my grandmother, you dared not go to the sacrifice, even if she had no food. When you came back, that mouth, she would squeeze it and warn you never to do such again. And anyway, if we were given anything outside, we were trained to bring it home to Mama. So, I think it is my paternal grandmother who must take credit for anything I am doing today.
So, you didn’t stay with your mother throughout your childhood?
No, my grandmother lived in the compound at Epetedo, my mother lived in another compound in Ajagun court. I lived in Jakande compound at Epetedo with my grandmother. I lived with my mother later in life.
Sir, you went into journalism at a very tender age. What could have been the attraction considering that your contemporaries read medicine, became lawyers or went into teaching?
It started from school. In my primary school, I was good in all subjects, particularly in English. I had a teacher who loved me. Rev. S. N. Nwagbara. I had my primary school in Port-Harcourt, Bama Memorial Methodist School, which was noted for being very academically sound but very frugal. From there, I was encouraged by Mr. Nwagbara who told me that I would make a good journalist and I never forgot that. When I got to Ilesa Grammar School, I established a Boys’ Literary Society which we used to train ourselves.
This society decided to establish a school magazine which we called the Quarterly Mirror, I was the Editor-in-Chief and I ran the magazine until I left school in 1949. So, when I left school in December 1949, having had all these foretaste of journalism and those were the days of nationalism when Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tony Enahoro (the youngest editor) made waves and they inspired me. So, when I was to look for work, my father who was a senior draughtsman in the Marine department (now known as Nigeria Port Authority) wanted me to go into the civil service but I pleaded that he allowed me to go into journalism. He warned me about the risk of journalism but two of his friends agreed with me and joined in persuading him to allow me go into journalism. When I applied for job in the Service Press which was publishing Daily Service, my editor Mr. A. B. Olumuyiwa took a copy of the Quarterly magazine and was impressed by the editorials I had written. That was how he sent me to Glover Hall to cover one of the court proceedings. He was pleased with my report and gave me a letter of employment as reporter. And I have not left it since then.
As a pen name, you chose John West. Why?
As you know, I was writing for the Tribune and the paper was in the West. But I had a favourite columnist in the London Sunday Times, the name was John Gordor. So, looking for a name, I took ‘John’ from Gordon and then added ‘West’ which was our area of operation. That’s how John West came about.
In your sitting room, there is the picture of Mahatma Ghandi, Is he your hero?
I have three heroes, Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln and Obafemi Awolowo. Ghandi was an apostle of non-violence, a man of great talent and again, you can talk of profile, perhaps the lowest profile. And he had a great impression on me. The way he led his people. Ditto Abraham Lincoln, coming from a very poor and humble background and getting to the highest office in the land and his attitude to life and to politics impressed me. He was in cabinet during the civil war and the American forces had just won a victory, so Lincoln was commending Grant, but one of the men said, Mr. President but Grant is a drunkard. And Lincoln asked, “is that true? What beer does he drink so that I can buy and give to the others to drink so that they can also perform,” He had problems, he had courage and led his people well. Once, his cabinet members were against his decision, but he said, “I respect your decisions and your views but the bulk stops here. I am the majority and the majority carries the vote.” So, his type of life interests me, he was not flamboyant, he was simple, courageous and industrious. Chief Awolowo I came across in 1951 before the Action Group (AG) was formed. At a distance, I had admired him as the Secretary of the Youth Movement in Ibadan. I had also thought at one time that I would join the Tribune. I wrote to him but I didn’t get a reply but that time I was already working with the Daily Service, so later he was to tell me that he could not take me away from the Service for the Tribune, that was why he didn’t reply my letter. It was 1953 that I got to the Tribune. By that time, the African Press and Service Press had been merged together into what we called Amalgamated Press of Nigeria, so we came under one management. Now, that company transferred me to the Tribune in Ibadan and that assisted me in no small way because I now came closer to Chief Awolowo and we interacted on a daily basis. But the thing about him in relation to the other heroes is that I had certain attitudes to life, certain ideas of what I would become if certain things happened. So, I found in Chief Awolowo a fulfillment of what I was trying to be. He impressed me a great deal as someone worthy to emulate. So, it is a combination of those three great men that made me what I become in that respect.
Your three heroes are men without flamboyance, men of simplicity. You took your distaste for flamboyance from them?
I like the way I am doing. I like the way I grew up. I like the men I have admired. I don’t hate the other man for what he likes. As a matter of fact, when Chief Awolowo came out of prison, his first dress was trousers and jumper and this was on for sometime before he took on agbada much later perhaps due to pressure. And as an elderly person, he succumbed to pressure.
Sir, your name is very rare to come by in Yorubaland. There are several other names that are popular but also common. What is the meaning of Jakande?
Good. Names are descriptions of things. My ancestor, his name was Aina and he was the great Ifa priest to Oba Kosoko of Lagos. You know Ifa priests wear ide (band) on their wrists. So, one day, one of the bands of my ancestor got cut, then ‘O ja ikan ninu ide, became his description.
This was later contracted to ‘Jakande’). To differentiate him from other Ainas, they called him Aina Jakande.
In your years as a politician, there must have been an occasion that strikes you as very memorable.
Oh, there are several. But the one that I rate highest is the introduction of free education at all levels in Lagos State. I rate that as the highest because of the tremendous effect it has had on millions of Lagos State indigenes who were able to go to school. It is memorable because I did it against the advice of my predecessor in office, Ebitu Ukiwe. We had promised free education in our campaigns but the schools in 1979 opened in September so I went to see Ukiwe in Apapa and asked him for a favour to tell the teachers not to collect school fees yet until the new government assumed office because I felt it would be messy for them to collect school fees now and on October 1st to return it to the students again.
Ukiwe told me that he was sorry for me and that he had “wanted to get in touch to see you because I heard that you want to do free education, free this, that. This state has no money.” He said “the favour you have asked for, you won’t get it because the Ministry of Education has asked me to increase school fees this year otherwise it (the state) will collapse. So, the answer is no, But, even in your own interest, these other promises you’ve made, I advise that when you get into office, call for the figures and you will discover that there is no money. And as you find that, tell the public that you are sorry, that there is no money. They won’t blame you because they know you were not in government.” I said thank you. He continued that, “what is even worse for you is that it is the NPN that controls the Federal Government, and you are UPN. And it is the Federal Government that sustains Lagos State. So, as soon as you start work, leave politics to your deputy, so that you can get money to run the government.” I said thank you and left. On October 1, 1979, after I had been sworn-in, I made the bold decision to make education free at all levels. Some felt it was a rash decision, some felt the state was going to collapse. Of course, I had to endure a lot of abuses. Some said the schools I built were not better than cow and poultry sheds and were not fit for human habitation. I thank God I went ahead. I abolished three shift system in the schools. What is more, these sheds they talked about in 1979, ’80, ’82, if you go round Lagos State, these cow sheds, you will find them where I put them and many school children are still schooling in these cow sheds, the number of children that has even graduated must run into thousands. That was the highpoint.
People remember you as the action governor of Lagos State and that’s because of the way you turned Lagos around. Is today’s Lagos your dream state?
It is not my dream state. There have been much waters under the bridge. There is a lot of mess on the road for example; the traffic hold-up, the congestion, the uncontrolled traffic, sometimes you have six lanes and nobody is complaining, maybe because the number of vehicles has overwhelmed the police. But that should not have occurred in the first place. That was why I initiated the metroline which could carry people, about a million or so in a day and what you’re seeing now is going to be worse next year, because the roads of Lagos are limited. That is why I did the metroline.
Even the expressways are congested. The Badagry expressway for instance, six lanes sometimes and the drivers have no control and don’t blame the police because they may be killed by the sheer force of the crowded roads. If we had metroline, this would not have happened. It was planned to start from Agege to Marina, another one on Badagry road and another on Ikorodu road. East, West, North. And I want to tell you that there is no alternative; either do it now or in the coming years.
The solution is the metroline.
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