We started Lagos State with only 10,000 pounds — Mobolaji Johnson

Mobolaji Johnson, Lagos State
Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson (retd)

The first military governor of Lagos State, Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson (retd), in this interview granted a specialised publication in respect of the 50th anniversary of Lagos State, Matters of Heritage, a copy of which was obtained by SATURDAY TRIBUNE, relives the birth of Lagos State and the challenges of its early stages of development.


What was the feeling when you became the governor of Lagos State at such a young age of 31?

The appointment came suddenly upon me as a young man and I had to take it. I took it as a challenge and faced it squarely. The challenges were not difficult to face and overcome because of the upbringing I had under my father, Pa ‘Motola Johnson, who was a strong character and raised all of us his children to be equally strong in character. While I was governor, my father was always reminding me not to tarnish the name and image of the family. That kept me focused and steady throughout my tenure. No wonder after the investigations of the Murtala Muhammed government that came after the government of General Yakubu Gowon, in which I served as governor, I was one of the governors given a clean bill of health as free from corrupt practices. I must say that a major problem in our political life today is that we have many in positions of authority who never had good home training. I am eternally grateful to God for the good upbringing under my father, which shaped my life for good.


What were the challenges you met on ground as the pioneer governor of the state?

Lagos State came into existence as a child of circumstance. The country was on the verge of civil war and one of the masterstrokes General Gowon applied was the creation of states, which pulled the carpet off the feet of [Chukwuemeka Odumegwu] Ojukwu. I came in first as the administrator of the Federal Capital before states were created. The feeling of Nigerians was that Lagos was a no man’s land. I had to face the challenge of correcting that erroneous impression. There was the need to let people know that the territory called Lagos belonged to a people with their distinct historical background, culture and tradition. Again, quite a good number of people thought the creation of Lagos was a ruse, that it could not be; that it could not work. So, we had to make sure it worked. We had to work round the clock to ensure that Lagos became a reality and I am happy to say that 50 years down the road, Lagos State is a reality, a model state waxing stronger.


What major problems did you have to contend with?

Our brothers in the West did not like the creation of Lagos State. They believed it should be part of the West. It became a ding-dong affair. Don’t forget that Lagos at a point in history was part of the West before it later became the Federal Capital, which brought about the parlance ‘gedegbe l’Eko wa’. The West was bitter, claiming that they had all their industries in Ikeja and how can we come to take them (the industries) away? I had to go on a peace mission to the West with my officials to see the late General Adeyinka Adebayo, the governor of Western Region, in Ibadan.

Again, skeptics never gave us a chance. They were calling us names, wondering how we were running government without commissioners. But I knew it was more difficult than that. All the functions being done by the Federal Government were being taken over by the new state, which was still in its infancy. A lot needed to be done at that time – the legal backing to the new state and part of the functions to be taken away from the Federal Government by the emerging new government in Lagos State would take some time. There was also a noticeable friction between the elders and youths who were trying to write off the elders as those responsible for the woes of the country; that the fall of the First Republic was caused by them. They were agitating that it was now time for the youths to be at the helm of affairs. Before long, I became the subject of all sorts of editorials in national newspapers that I surrounded myself with some of those who spoilt the country. I had to call a conference of the elders at the old City Hall. I told them in Yoruba parlance that: ‘ogiri to ba la ni alamo nkosi’ (it is when you have cracks on your wall that lizards have the opportunity to get inside). I didn’t want to bring the elders and the youths together without first taking care of the rough edges. I had to convene a separate meeting with the youths. A grand final took place at the City Hall where I brought the elders and the youths under one roof and I said to the assembly that I could not conduct the meeting alone; that I wanted six representatives from each side to join me on the high table. A lot of fundamental issues were resolved at the meeting and in a way formed the background to the emergence of Lagos State. When things improved, particularly after my peace mission to the West, some of them had a change of mind and returned to Lagos State. Folarin Coker and Shamsudeen Thomas were two of the early highly-ranking civil servants that returned to join the service of Lagos State. I should also mention here that civil servants of Lagos State origin were reluctant to leave the West, because Lagos to them was not yet a reality. They were not sure of their future, so they remained in the West.


What was the first budget like?

I had a one-line vote which I was using as the administrator of the Federal Capital. It was a modest sum of 10,000 pounds. That was what I used in starting Lagos State. Okuyiga and Coker set up a board that was responsible for revenue generation. Pools betting generated money for the state and once we were sure we could pay the salary of our workers and civil servants by the first month, we began the march to transforming the state. Those who never gave us a chance were surprised that we could achieve that feat with our meager resources.


Before you became the administrator of the Federal Capital and later the first governor of Lagos State in May 1967, where were you?

I always tell people that if you are good, you are good, and if you are bad, you pay a price. I had a rapid promotion in the military. Before the first coup of January 15, 1966, I was already a Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster General of the Headquarters of the 2nd Brigade in Apapa, Lagos. I was in charge of the troops in the West, Mid-West.

The DAQG job involved everything from boots and bootlaces to armoured tanks and accommodation of career officers and men under my command. As Brigade Commander, I was, working as number two staff officer. My Brigade Commanders in the brigade were Aguiyi Ironsi and Maimalari. When the coup took place, the commander of the First Battalion, Major Largema, was killed at Ikoyi Hotel and the troops marched on Lagos, insisting on seeing their commander and, of course, we knew he was dead. I stopped the invading troops and received them, telling them, ‘look, it is not by fighting that we can do justice to the memory of the late Commander of the Battalion’. So, I asked them to go back and rest assured that everything would be done to immortalise the fallen officer. It didn’t come as a surprise when, after things had settled down a bit, I was posted to the 4th Battalion, Ibadan, as second-in-command to the late Joe Akahan. In my new posting, I was able to change the attitude of my officers and men and move their concentration from coup plotting to games, sports and training programmes. We came to Lagos for Army Sports Competition and we won the competition. Soon, I was posted to Benin without troops. Benin was never a military zone. So, I was again called upon to go and set up a military station in Benin under Ejoor and I became second-in-command to Governor Ejoor. I must state here that Benin provided the opportunity for me to have my first stint of political administration. I was in the cabinet that had people like Mariere, who was adviser to the governor. I learnt a lot from Benin. It was there in Benin that Ejoor returned to his duty post after a Supreme Military Council meeting in Lagos and instead of me saluting, he was saluting me sharply and then gave me a signal that I was wanted in Lagos and that when I get to Lagos, they would tell me the details. That was how I moved back to Lagos and was received by General Ironsi who told me that as from that time on, whenever he was receiving visitors or conducting interviews, he would want me to be there because, he wanted somebody to come and look after Lagos, otherwise, he wouldn’t move an inch: he couldn’t do a thing outside solving the problems of Lagos. He said he wanted somebody and that was how they came up with my name. They wanted somebody born and bred here in Lagos and that was how I became the head of the Federal Capital.


Earlier, you mentioned the four musketeers who were saddled with the responsibility of running the newly created state with you at the helm. If you had to look back, who were the personages that came on board and at what point in your administration?

The four men I called the musketeers were civil servants. Howson Wright was Secretary to the Military Government; F.C.O Coker was Finance Secretary; Agoro was the Attorney General while Adeyemi Bero was the Administrative Secretary. In the enlarged cabinet, which was constituted later on, I had the simple luck of having credible men around me and the right people for the right job. The men who came on board my administration included L.S. Adewale; Adeniran Ogunsanya; Reverend Akin Adesola; Babs Williams; Johnson Agiri; Ganiyu Dawodu and other men and women of integrity whose names I cannot readily recollect now.


As a governor operating from the seat of the Federal Government, how much autonomy did you enjoy?

I must give it to Gowon. He created states and ensured that they operated as autonomous states. Although some officials didn’t let go, I went ahead to form my own Civil Service Commission overnight, headed by Norman Williams as chairman, Oba Alaketu of Ketu and Mrs Femi Pearse were commissioners in the Civil Service Commission. I was given a free hand by Gowon to operate while I got my cabinet working. We took steps to ensure that the new state stabilised.


With the ever increasing population of Lagos State, what were the major problems you had to contend with?

I remember when the civil war came to an end, there was so much hardship; increased cases of armed robbery and Lagos become chaotic. That was when I made an edict to the effect that if you were caught as an armed robber, you will be sentenced to death. This stance became necessary because I believed that the law court would be too slow for me. I believe in punishment being immediate for it to have desired effect. If someone does something, punish him or her immediately and let the people know. That was why we made that edict. But then I found out that my edict was not strong enough to override the constitution of the country that says that anybody that’s going to be sentenced must be tried in a court of law. But was my tribunal a court of law? So, I put up a memo to General Gowon telling him to give backing to my edict by creating a decree that could override the constitution. I didn’t get a reply from him. One Monday morning, a lawyer was killed in the Yaba area. His death at the hands of armed robbers made headline news. The lawyer’s mother had come from up country. My blood went cold on hearing the news and I phoned General Gowon and that was the only time I think I was rude to my Head of State. I called him on the red-hot line telling him, ‘Have you seen the papers this morning, sir? Have you seen the front page of Daily times?’ I went on to tell him that since the time I wrote a letter to him that my edict be backed with a decree, I never heard from him. ‘I want to tell you, sir, that the people being killed in Lagos are human beings. Are you waiting until one of your commissioners or governors comes to Lagos and gets killed before you will deem fit to take action?’ And I banged the phone. Gowon got my message and acted fast. He sent Graham Douglas to come and confer with my Attorney General and that was how a decree came up.


It is on record that your administration also came up with an edict to check the skyrocketing house rent in Lagos, especially in the metropolis. Could you give us an insight into the edict on house rent?

I was quite close to the people and felt for them. I also knew then that the landlords were shylocks; they were exploiting the explosion in population by demanding high rents for accommodation. The landlords were charging very exorbitant rents on their properties. So, we sat down and formed a committee that looked into categories of houses and accommodation as well as the locations. Of course, for obvious reasons, you cannot compare a room in Ajegunle to, say, a room in Victoria Island or Ikoyi. So, we came up with an edict, stipulating categories of houses and what landlords will take as rent on their buildings. One musician, Ayinla Omowura, actually waxed a record and the lyric of the song goes like this: ‘aye e ma tapa si’joba, e fara mon omo Bolaji’ (it is fruitless kicking against the government, abide by the housing edict of Mobolaji Johnson). Omowura did it on his own as his social responsibility; we didn’t ask him to promote the rent edict. We set up a tribunal where an aggrieved tenant who felt aggrieved could take his or her landlord. The tribunal was to ensure that the common people were not exploited. The edict worked for some time, but I don’t know what happened when I left office as governor.


What were the projects you planned to execute during your tenure but for reasons of time and financial constraints, you could not?

I wasn’t happy with the transportation system in Lagos, and I particularly felt bad about the waterways that we could not fully exploit. I sent a delegation abroad to look for flat bottom boats that could take passengers across the waterways. I wasn’t happy with the transportation system and would have loved to see a better system in place. One of the ideas I had was to construct the 3rd Mainland Bridge. Don’t forget, the 3rd Mainland Bridge was a creation of the government of Lagos State and not the Federal Government. The Federal Government only took it over at a point in time when we didn’t have enough money and, therefore, included the project as part of the state’s contribution to second Five-Year Development Programme of the Federal Government in 1972. I went abroad and was surprised to discover that the headquarters of Julius Berger was located in the same area with the hospital where I went for medical treatment. I met Mr Whitman who later served as vice chairman on the board of Julius Berger. His first job in Nigeria was the construction of the Itoikin Bridge that links Lagos with Epe.

During my meeting with Mr Whitman and his team of engineers, I showed them what we were planning for the ring roads around Lagos. I believe people getting out of Lagos should have free ways that they can use. The concept I had for the inner ring road and outer ring road was to have pillars erected to the middle of Herbert Macaulay and Murtala Muhammed Way with the pillars supporting a network of highways on the top like the ones I saw in Tokyo, Japan. I believed we could achieve same in Lagos. The Julius Berger team looked into my concept and came up with a blueprint ready for my submission to the Federal Government. That was how Julius Berger and an army of officials came all the way to Lagos. Work began in earnest with the engineers in boats and canoes crisscrossing the body of water over which the 3rd Mainland Bridge and its ring roads would be built. At Marina, they proposed sand filling as the best option so as to be able to gain more useful land, in addition to solving the traffic problem on that axis. I was thinking we could use the idea of the 3rd Mainland Bridge to sand fill a sizeable portion of the water front of the University of Lagos and adjoining areas and create a big motor park where a park-and-ride system of transportation would be available to take passengers from the Oworonshoki area into Lagos, where you will equally take a taxi or a bus to wherever you are going on the Lagos Island and when you are through with what you came to do on the Island, you will be taken back by boats across the water to where your car is parked at Oworonshoki. That was one major project I would have loved to accomplish but couldn’t. To date, our waterways, I must say, are still largely underutilised.

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