June 27, 2009

How I created Lagos State — Mobolaji Johnson

By Ebun Babalola
The former Military Governor of Lagos State,Mobolaji Johnson,73, was the first governor of Lagos State. He also attended the Mons Officers Cadet School in Aldershot and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, United Kingdom, between 1960-1961.

As Military Governor of Lagos State, there were achievements credited to his administration  such as Lagos-Badagry Expressway linking Nigeria with the neighbouring countries, Benin, Ghana and Togo.

Ito-Ikin Bridge linking Epe to Ikorodu, a  network of roads and bridges that constitutes what is modern day Lagos. He retired from Nigerian Army in 1975 and went into private business.  In this interview with Ebun Babalola, Johnson speaks extensively on how he grew up and how he sold groundnuts and bread on the streets of Yaba. Excerpts:

At your age, is it healthy to always travel?

Mobolaji Johnson

Mobolaji Johnson

I don’t think staying in one place will help anyone’s health. If you have to move, you move and it is good for your health if you move around, and if there is need for me to travel, I won’t hesitate. My movement is not much these days since I stopped being the Chairman of Julius Berger, I don’t go to Abuja frequently as I used to go. Although, I’m still the chairman of my late brother’s company, Femi Johnson Insurance Brokers in Ibadan.

Let’s look at your early years.

As a child, I had a delay in walking on my feet. I could not walk until four years old. In fact, that made me a bit backward in school.

And at about 21 years old, I joined the military and all the risks involved. I had some car accidents that nearly claimed my life but, I survived them.You can see that I’m lucky to be alive and that is why I have course to thank God and to get closer to Him because I’m not the one protecting my life and at the same time, it doesn’t mean I’m careless.

And that was the same thing I told him when I was joining the military that I needed His protection. At times, I commune with Him as if He is visible. When I’m embarking on a journey, I wouldn’t know where it’s taking me to. I only call on God.

Did you ask your mum why you couldn’t walk earlier than four?

She said I had a bad diarrhea at the stage when I was about clocking 1 year old, and it nearly took my life. They eventually ran into people who advised them to go herbal. But I didn’t take the herbal medicine. That was the reason why my mother could not leave to do some other things.

So, when did you go to school?

I was about five years old….I went to Methodist Secondary School Yaba in 1946. Then I went to Warri to continue my education. I did only one year there and my mother said the distance was too much. Then, transportation was by sea. And I remember the first time I was going to Warri. I went by boat from Marina, Lagos to Warri in 1961.

It’s like you were attached to your mum…

She knew I had to go to school, and even when I was attending school, I was still doing some household work. I wasn’t a spoilt child because I was hawking for her on the streets of Yaba. She was a baker. So, I was helping to sell bread in the morning and in the afternoon, because her sister who was in the North sent her groundnuts. I put them in my tray in the afternoon and helped her in selling them.

Were you the first child?

No, I’m the third.

Why did you join the army?

I opted for the military. I saw the photograph of my father who was in the Second World War and rose to the rank of sergent major class  with his belt. I saw his photograph where he was looking so handsome and I looked at that photograph and said, ‘one day, I’m going to put on this uniform too’. So, that was the influence I had before going into the military.

And don’t forget that, at my age that time, Nigeria was fighting for independence and the leaders were asking for young people who had the interest of joining the military. And the Governor General, Sir James Robertson had also put an advert in the newspapers saying that, “Nigerian Army wants young men of adventurous spirit who would lift the ambition of ever rewarding career and extending opportunity of becoming a leader of their own Army”, and that just tallied with what I was. I was in the Boys’ Scout.

As the first military governor of  Lagos State, how would you describe the state, then?

Let me use this opportunity to correct this impression, especially during interviews like this. By saying military, people want to put military regime as a regular feature. It wasn’t just military. I was the first governor of the state. When it was created in 1967 and after military, civilians took over. So, it is better put as first governor.

Lagos, as you know, was a dual capital of the state and the nation. The national capital was the capital of Lagos State itself because the circumstances surrounding creation of states- especially a situation where some people don’t want Lagos State, they believed that the place belonged to everybody. So, why should it be a state? So, it was very difficult to bring the state from that shell.

So, I stayed in Lagos and because of that,  the administration was a bit difficult for me as a young man to really carve out the responsibility of Lagos State, remembering that the state then was Federal Capital, Lagos. West, which stopped at Igbobi Orthopedic and other areas  now were provinces.

It belonged to the West then. So, you would come to find out that the state now has part of the West and the Federal territory. So, to combine all those authorities entailed having several meetings to meet with the government of the West, so as to negotiate things to be transferred to Lagos State.

Don’t forget that West had a lot of industries in the Ikeja area. So, they were reluctant to let those things go. But since they were already seen as part of Lagos State, I had to negotiate with them on things they would relinquish to Lagos State, and which one would remain in the West. The same was done to the Federal because the present President’s father was a Minister for Lagos Affairs.

So, we had  a team drawn from Lagos State and Federal to see what function would be transferred to Lagos and put these laws together. We put these laws together and formed, one for Lagos State. It involved me setting up a committee of a renowned legal practitioners, headed by late Justice  Coker to get the laws together and create a new law for Lagos State. So, it wasn’t easy  in the first year.

I was unable to appoint commissioners.  I was busy doing all the ground work, and the following year, I appointed commissioners and I started with seven ministries. I believed it was better, starting with the little I could control.  So, the Lagos State that I found then, it wasn’t easy.

What were these seven ministries?

I had Mnistries of Justice, Health, Education, Local Government, Trade, Finance, Road. And I appointed commissioners to put everything in its place and the federal  govt released some officials to me, so as the West.

Was it in your time that Julius Berger came to Nigeria?

People are always going about with that impression that I brought Julius Berger to Nigeria. It is not true. Julius Berger came on international tender for the construction of Eko Bridge and I understand that the Federal Government had the backing of the German Government to finance the project. So, they came on International tender. I wouldn’t know if there was any agenda behind it.

It was at the end of the construction of Eko Bridge that I came in as governor and I found their service satisfactory. And so, I said I would like to continue working with this organisation and they also had intention to stay. So, we started working together and I found them very useful. And my first goal was to bring Lagos State close to the capital, which were Epe and Badagry.

The vision  was to construct road from Epe.  I had to take permission from the governor of the West to Badagry. I had to pass through Ado-Odo so as to bring these particular areas near the centre and to shorten the distance in which they had to travel. And that was what I did and it was useful. We got the first dual carriage way in Nigeria in 1974. And people from the East who had to come to Lagos needed not go through Sagamu anymore but through Ito-Ikin Bridge from Ibeju-Ede and straight to Lagos.

Was that the reason why you were made the chairman of Julius Berger?

I was made chairman of Julius Berger 14 years ago after the retirement of the late Chairman, M.S Adewale, who was my commissioner for finance. So, when Adewale died, I got a letter that I should come on board that; they wouldn’t like politics to destroy Julius Berger. So, that was how I became the chairman of Julius Berger. And now I have retired.

YWhat are your views on Yar’Adua whose 7-points agenda?

This issue has generated controversy in the past four months when his new Central Bank Governor, Lamido, pushed it to him, by saying, 7-point- agenda is too broad; that it was better he had brought it to 2 or 3 points-agenda. But I think it might not be too good to measure the quality of the Yar’Adua by one term. The demand on the nation is so great that it might be unfair to measure his achievement so soon. I think, we should give him time.

But I think Nigeria is a huge country and things have been neglected so badly in the country that it would take time to come to shape.

How would you rate Fashola’s government in comparison with your administration?

Even a blind man can see that Fashola is an achiever and he is achieving a lot. I wouldn’t want to compare the two administrations because they came at different times with different priorities. When I was there, I picked up roads and other things as my priorities. But when Fashola came also ,he embarked on beautification of Lagos in addition to other projects. He is  paying attention to many things that were not done in the past. He is a silent achiever, not making much noise but we are seeing the result. So, let’s give it to him that he is God sent to Lagos.

Some people are of the opinion that he might not sustain the work, if he doesn’t come for second term…

We can’t expect him to be there for ever.  But we will love him to continue and he has set a standard, the same way I did when I was the governor that anyone who is succeeding us would have no choice but to pick up what he has done.

What would you like to be remembered for?

I was given an opportunity to rule the state and I did my best to establish it and made it one of the strongest states in Nigeria today.