The remains of the first military governor of Lagos State, Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson, will be laid to rest this week. Deputy Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU writes on the achievements of the pathfinder, which his successors have continued to build upon in the Centre of Excellence.
At 31, he was appointed as military governor of Lagos State by the Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon. That was on May 31, 1967, having just been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. As a pioneer, he had no predecessor to emulate.
Lagos was a complex merger of the pre-existing municipality previously administered by the Federal Government and the four divisions of Ikorodu, Epe, Badagry and Ikeja administered by the Government of Western Region. It was among the 12 states suddenly created to weaken Col. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s resolve to make the Eastern Region secede from Nigeria.
“As the pioneer governor, I had the responsibility to build the state from scratch. We were to start with “a clean sheet”, for which there were no manuals or past records of state governance to refer to,” he reminisced in his book: ‘Lagos State: My life of service with integrity.’
Evidently, he only had a limited experience in governance, having been previously appointed by the assassinated Head of State, Major General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, as Administrator of Lagos.
Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson was catapulted into prominence by the displacement of legitimate civilian authorities by adventurous soldiers who imposed a unitary disorder on the young federation.
He was, judging by the military tradition, to rule by force. But, an educated and cosmopolitan Lagosian of Egba origin, the young governor employed tact and wisdom as he settled down for governance.
His first challenge was how to find a good office. He, therefore, proposed to convert the famous City Hall to his secretariat. To achieve his aim, he threaded the path of humility by holding consultations with the people of Lagos.
During the consultative meeting, the first Town Clerk of Lagos, Habeeb Fashinro, a lawyer who later served as senator, told the governor that the City Hall belonged to the council. Although another eminent public servant, Pa Coker, advised Johnson to take over the facility, the governor exercised restraint.
Recalling that the matter was settled amicably through the win-win approach proposed by the governor, elderstatesman Tajudeen Olusi, a prince of Lagos, said it was mutually agreed that half of the facility should be used as the ‘state headquarters’ while the other half should be used by the council.
That respect for community opinion characterised the nine years of the Johnson administration. It was a replica of ‘governance by deliberation,’ which he copied from the Supreme Military Council (SMC). The governor never soiled his reputation. Of the 12 governors of Gowon era, he and Brigadier-General Oluwole Rotimi were isolated from the pack of military marauders who pillaged the treasury.
Acknowledging his limited experience at the beginning, he ran to the fathers of Lagos and grassroots mobilisers, who had championed the agitation for state creation. He set up a representative advisory committee made up of Chief I.O. Bajulaiye, Chief T. Adebayo, Chief Doherty, Chief Imam Salawu, Alhaji M.O. Oseni, Mr. Kehinde Gbajabiamila, Dr. (Mrs) Abimbola Awoliyi, Alhaji Femi Okunnu, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Chief Sikiru Shitta-Bey, Alhaji Idris Animashaun, Justice Teslim Elias, Chief Fagbeyiro Beyioku and Chief Femi Ayantuga.
His first administrative task was the setting up of ‘an official Working Unit’, made up of the four musketeers: Acting Secretary to Government A.E. Howson-Wright, Acting Financial Secretary Mr.F.C.O. Coker, Legal Secretary M.I.O Agoro and Principal Secretary J.O Adeyemi-Bero.
Johnson had a a take-off grant of £10,000 pounds and N400,000 inherited as balance in the account of Ikeja Treasury Cash Office of the defunct Western Region. The governament generated money from pools betting. Surprisingly, it was not difficult to pay workers’salaries in the first month.
The government created a Coat of Arms for the new state. It also designed the ‘yellow, blue, red, green and white colours.’ Johnson was operating from the late Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh’s house on King George V Road, Onikan. The council chamber was at the present Zone 2 Command of the Nigeria Police, opposite the Onikan Stadium.
Hostility came from the Western Region, which had objected to the separation of Lagos from the old region. The West feared that its industries in Ikeja would be taken away. Lagos leaders came up with the slogan: ‘Gegegbe l’Eko wa.’ To pacify the West, Johnson and his officials embarked on peace mission to Military Governor Adeyinka Adebayo at Ibadan.
Johnson had to resolve the friction between elders and youths who accused him of surrounding himself with old politicians who, in their view, were responsible for the fall of the First Republic. The youths wanted greater participation. They said the governor was too slow in appointing commissioners. Yet, federal and Western State civil servants of Lagos origin did not want to transfer their service to Lagos. Johnson had to persuade them to have a change of mind.
The governor set up a cabinet of talents and patriots. The commissioners included former Housing and Surveys Minister Ogunsanya(Attorney-General and Justice, later Education), Alhaji ‘The boy is good’ I.A.S Adewale (Finance and Economic Development), Dr. Babatunde Williams (Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs), B.S Hundeyin (Works and Transport), Chief S.L Edu(Health and Social Welfare), Alhaji Ganiyu Dawodu (Agriculture and Natural Resources), and Rev. Akin Adesola( Education and Community Development).
Other commissioners were Chief Rasheed Gbadsmosi, Prof. M.O. Seriki, Alhaji Alade Odunewu, Mrs. Kofoworola Pratt, J.A. Johnson Agiri, and Mumuni Adio Badmus.
Within one year, the administration established five Government Colleges. It established a housing estate, which was commissioned by Gen. Gowon. Later, an industrial estate was established.
Johnson’s watchwords were integrity and credibility. He later sacked a commissioner who was found wanting. He advised another commissioner to resign, following corruption allegation.
“My stand against financial impropriety was clear to all that were around me. No one ever dared to approach me with any intent of bribery because they knew of my financial astuteness. Furthermore, I did not take lightly any case of financial impropriety that came to my notice,” Johnson said.
The governor built the council chamber at the cost of N280,000. He formed a Civil Service Commission hurriedly headed by Norman Williams, with Oba Alaketu of Ketu and Mrs. Pearse as Commissioners.
The governing of post- civil war Lagos was challenging. Hardship led to armed robbery and murders. Johnson proposed the setting up of a tribunal that could slam death penalty on offenders. Initially, there was resistance, until Gowon told his Attorney-General, Graham Douglas, to liaise with Lagos Attorney-General Bankole Oki to fine tune the proposal.
Johnson set up a Central Tenders Board to deliberate on contract awards. All contracts above N100,000 cannot be awarded by any head of government institution. “Some people felt that I had placed too many hurdles in the way
They blamed this for the slowxpace of some of the implementation that we had expected. I was not exactly popular with some of these people, but we did not give room to temptations,” he reminisced.
Johnson led by example through the diligent use of estacode by giving a full account of how the money was used and returning the remainder to the government’s coffers.
The governor constructed the Lagos-Badagry Expressway, using tax payers’ money. He recalled: “I named the expressway ‘Route Achievement’ and I placed a huge signboard up, at the beginning and at the end of the expressway, which read: ‘Route Achievement-57km of Nigeria’s first ultra modern highway built with the Lagos State taxpayers’money. Pay your tax, more can be achieved.’
Johnson constructed the Falomo Bridge, linking Ikoyi to Victoria Island, the Rowe Park Sporting Centre, hostel for nurses and doctors at General Hospital, Marina, and Falomo Shopping Complex. Ironically, the government was criticised because of its compulsory acquisition of some residential houses for public facilities.
To check the skyrocketing rouse rent in Lagos, he came up with an edict, stipulating categories of houses and rents to be collected by landlords. A tribunal was set up, which gave tenants opportunity to complain. A musician, Ayinla Omowura, waxed a record praising the initiative and advising Lagosians to comply in their own interest.
Reflecting on the edict, Johnson, in an interview with ‘The Cabinet Digest,’ A journal of the Office of Secretary to the Government of Lagos State, said: “I was quite close to the people and felt for them. I also knew then that the landlords were shylocks. They were exploring the explosion in population by demanding high rents for house accomodation. The landlords were charging very exorbitant rent on their properties.
“So, we sat down and formed a committee that looked into categories of houses and accommodation as well as areas of location. You cannot compare a room in Ajegunle to a room on Victoria Island or Ikoyi. So, we came up with an edict, stipulating categories of houses and what landlords will take as rents in their buildings.”
In 1972, Johnson brought Julius Berger to Nigeria, after discussing with Mr. Whitman, one of its officials. Its first job was the construction of the Itoikin Bridge linking Lagos with Epe. Although he had proposed the construction of the Third Mainland Bridge, it could not materialise due to lack of funds. The initiative was later accomplished by military President Ibrahim Babangida. Also, Johnson proposed a major park at Oworonsoki/Waterfront of University of Lagos, it never came into reality.
Johnson reorganised the education sector. He gave priority to health. After building infrastructure, he emphasised maintenance culture. Many times, he had few moments to attend to his nucleus family, which made responsibilities for the upbringing of his children-Deji, Lanre, Yomi and Seyi-to largely reside in his beloved wife, Funmi.
Johnson had a rapid promotion in the Army. But, his retirement was also sudden. Following the military coup of July 29, 1975, which ousted Gowon, the curtains were drawn on military career. The new military leaders accused many federal commissioners, federal permanent secretaries and governors of corruption. Although the new Head of State, Gen. Murtala Mohammed, asked him to join the new administration, Johnson declined, saying that he had received a red card already from the coup plotters.
Although he was given two weeks to leave the Government House, he moved out within three days. No condition is permanent. At that time, civil servants, except Adeyemi-Bero, had distanced themselves from the governor. Also, Gunther Hawranke, head of Julius Berger Nigeria, sent trucks to assist in packing. Johnson had no private residence to go.
“After over eight years in office as the military governor of Lagos State, I had no house of my own to move into. It was my late brother, Femi, who came with his car to pick me and my family and took us to his home in Ibadan,” he recalled. His return to Lagos was later facilitated by Julius Berger.
The Assets Declaration Panel set up by Gen. Mohammed investigated the displaced public officers. It found 10 governors guilty.
“It was in later news that Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi and I were mentioned as the two that were proclaimed as ‘not guilty’. My father was still alive at that time, and he told me how proud he was of me,” Johnson added.
In retirement, the former governor claimed that he was harassed by his successor, Navy Captain Adekunle Lawal. He had to report him to the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Brigadier Olusegun Obassnjo. In 1981, he had a fatal accident that nearly claimed his life. In 1987, he lost his illustrious brother, Femi. In 1995, he became Chairman of Julius Berger. He retired in 2008.
Born on February 9, 1936, Johnson faced a serious life hurdle at infancy. In the forward to his book, Gowon stated that “a childhood illness threatened his early survival.” His father, “Pappy J” Joshua Motola Johnson, wrote to the healing department of the Rosicrucian Felllowship in Oceandide, California, United States, to seek counsel. A sympathiser brought a native doctor from Urhobo land. His mother wrote to the Christian Science Organisation in United States. The child survived.
After his secondary education at Methodist Boys’High School, Lagos, he enlisted in the Army, thereby taking after his father who joined the West African Frontier Force during the Second World War. He passed the recruitment process at Ibadan and was trained in Zaria, and later, Teshi, Ghana and Sandhurst, United Kingdom. At secondary and military school, he was a sportsman. Military postings took him to Apapa, Lagos, old Midwest State where he set up troops and was a member of the cabinet under Governor David Ejoor.
However, he was recalled to Lagos by Ironsi, who wanted an officer born and bred in Lagos to serve as its first military administrator.
Paying tribute to the deceased, Chief Kemi Nelson, Yeyesewa of Lagos and Southwest All Progressives Congress (APC) Woman Leader, described Johnson as an officer and gentleman, worthy of emulation.
She said: “I want to pay a special tribute to the late military governor, Brig-Gen Mobolaji Johnson. He had an illustrious career in the military. He was an officer and a gentleman. I want to say that he led a purposeful and honourable life and he was an inspiration to many people.
“In power, he was humble and he believe in mobilising human resources for State development. As governor, he gave a face to Lagos State. He was a man of foresight. Most importantly, he believed in a collective journey to progress. He encouraged many of his classmates from primary school, of which my uncle is one, to spare thoughts for their future. He encouraged them to buy pieces of land on Lagos Island. Many of them own properties at Ikoyi and Victoria Island today. Mobolaji Johnson believed in governance for service.”
Nelson added: “He laid the foundation for the infrastructural development of Lagos which those after him have continued to build on. He served Lagos State meritoriously. We should emulate his good virtues. He left good legacies in Lagos State.”
Olusi, Second Republic House of Representatives member and former Lagos State Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, said Lagosians who appreciate his diligent service will always remember his good deeds.
Describing him as a great administrator, he ssid: “The late Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson was a devoted Lagosian and one who was committed to the cause of justice and development of Lagos State.
“As a military governor, he performed excellently. I remember that as the first military governor of the state, he summoned the people of the state to a conference at the City Hall at the inception of his administration to listen to their suggestions.
“He stood against injustice. When the military government was about to take over the City Hall to use it as their administrative headquarters, the first Clerk of the Town Council, Habeeb Fashinro, raised an objection, pointing out that City Hall was the property of the local government. A treasurer of City Hall, Coker, who was his cousin, was on the side of the take over when Fashinro gave a defense in favour of the council. Brigadier Johnson turned to Coker and said he should put himself in the shoe of Fashinro.
“The matter was later resolved. Half of the City Hall was granted to the state military administration as headquarters and half for the council. He was a governor who stood for justice.”
Olusi also recalled that “Johnson took care of the culture of Lagos State, “adding that “he took active interest in Lagos participation in the FESTAC and the All Nigeria Festival of Arts.”
He stresed: “I was a Camp Commandant during the festival at Takua Bay and Akinsemoyin. The governor usually came to the camp to ask how we were faring. He worked for the welfare and progress of Lagos State and carried the people along in government activities. He was a good leader.”
Former Lagos State Deputy Governor Prince Abiodun Ogunleye said:”Brigadier General Mobolaji Johnson was a leader right from his school days. We called him ‘Bol J’ as our senior at the Methodist Boys’ High School, Lagos. He was a prefect; very tall and energetic. He was good in athletics; he was a footballer. Even, when we lost games, his performance was spectacular. He was among the first eleven. He was a good, accommodating senior, who was not harsh.
“He was also warm and accommodating when he was military governor. I did not have the advantage of working with him. But, those who served with him, particularly his commissioners-the late Chief Ganiyu Dawodu and Chief Adeniranii Ogunsanya-spoke well about him. He was accommodating, but firm in taking decisive decisions in the interest of the state.
“He was hardworking a pioneer military governor and made use of vast talents in the state. He took delight in defending the interest of Lagos and he believed in wide consultation before decision making. May his soul rest in peace.”
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