By Jemi EKUNKUNBOR
The history of Lagos State would not be complete without the mention of Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson. As the first military governor of Lagos State, under General Yakubu Gowon, he ruled and left office with an unblemished record between 1967-1975.
Born in Lagos in 1936, Mobolai Johnson began his educational career at Reagan Memorial Baptist School, Yaba in 1941. From there he proceeded to the popular Hussey College in Warri and finished in 1954. In 1959, he began his military training at the Officer Cadet Training School in Ghana. Several other training followed at Mons Officer Cadet School Aldershot and Royal Military Academy, Sandhurt.
He rose through the ranks taking various challenging assignments both within and outside the country. He was promoted a 2nd Lieutenant, Nigeria Army, 1961. In 1962, he became Lieutenant and later in October of that year, he became a Captain. He was appointed Deputy Commander, Federal Guards, 1964 and later Commander. He further rose to become Quartermaster-General Headquarters, 2nd Brigade, Apapa, Lagos, 1964. Two years later, he became a Major and dthe second in command, 4th Battalion, Ibadan. He also at some point served in the then Midwest State as Station Commander.
As governor of Lagos State, his administration laid the foundation for what is today known as modern Lagos. To his administrationâ€™s credit are the reclamation of the Bar Beach shoreline, the building of Eko Bridge, Third Mainland Bridge and a network of other roads some linking Nigeria to other neighbouring countries like Togo, Benin and Ghana.
As the nation turns 50, it was nice to meet this pearl of the Nigerian Army. Even though his pace and speech had slowed down, he still carried himself like the soldier that he is.
In this encounter, it was a friendly chat as talked about Lagos then and now and what he spends his retirement doing.
How would you compare Lagos of those days and Lagos today? Well, I think it is not easy comparing two terms, my administration and what is taking place now. At the time I came in, donâ€™t forget, Lagos was a federal capital as well as a state capital. At that time also, Lagos State had extended to Badagry, Epe and the other colonies of Lagos. So the first thing I tried to do, was to b ring all of them close to the centre by building the high ways. I remember somebody told me onc that we had the foresight to do what we did then. And I said well, building the high ways that go to Badagry and Epe allows people in the divisions to come into Lagos because as you know, we had divisions then. Lagos division we called ibile, then we had Ikeja, Ikorodu, those were the divisions that were formed and we brought them closer to Lagos by building these express ways. And youâ€™d find that the Lagos of those days, was much cleaner, less populous than what you have today. Lagos is bursting at the seams . Increase in population is a major task in this city and how they are coping, I donâ€™t know. It has to be by the grace of God and Iâ€™m sure governor Fashola is up to it and he is giving us good results.
Would you advise the federal government to copy the model of super structure you laid during your administration?
Well, donâ€™t forget the federal capital moved to Abuja and now you cannot compare Abuja with Lagos in terms of infrastructural development. Theyâ€™ve learnt from the mistake of Lagos and it is not repeating itself in Abuja. The roads are wider, things have changed and it should continue to change but then, the government of the day would have to control this population increase. As I said, in those days when I came back from one of my trips abroad, I canâ€™t remember wether it was America or someplace else, I said look, we are wasting land in Lagos. We can go up, the sky is the limit but we must improve on the infrastructures. Before you can go up, population will increase, you have to improve on water supply, you have to increase on electricity, you have to improve on garbage collection. So all those things will have to go pari pasu before you can increase the population.
In those days, all the areas we call Ikoyi today was built by our colonial masters and they had all these big houses, and they came here with just their wives and a dog. It was when the civil service was set up and those senior officers who were called senior service, Ikoyi became a secluded area for senior service. But when a senior service moved in Lagos, he moved with about eight people, his wife, children, cousins and some other relatives so population in Lagos increased but infrastructures were not simultaneously increased. That is what we are suffering in Lagos today.
You were able to curb the excesses of land lords in Lagos such that a musician sang your praise in his music. How were you able to achieve that?
Well, it was a question of trying to hold the bull by the horn. The rents were soaring up, the landlords in Lagos had no alternative than to increase their rent because the demand was more than the supply. I wouldnâ€™t say exploiting but we had to make ends meet. We did the rent edict after a good survey from the type of houses we had in Lagos State. Ile we panu or ile iwe biriki N10 ni a o ma sanâ€. And we made them comply because we set up tribunals not just making the law but enforcing the law. So we formed these tribunals to try landlords who were disobedient or who were not towing the lines. And you could see in those days they would tell a tenant â€œdo you want to rent my house or that of Mobolaji? and they say something like, â€œif you want the rate of Mobolaji,, then go and meet him to rent you a houseâ€. And they tell you straight to your face. So it was a problem of demand and availability of what was being demanded. That is why I praise Alhaji Lateef Jakande who did so much about housing in Lagos. It may not be so modern again, but he made an effort to put accommodation over the heads of people.
When you look back now, are there things you would have done differently as governor in this state?
That would be in the area of transportation. We didnâ€™t do enough in the area transportation. Lagos is surrounded by water and I think up till now, weâ€™ve not fully exploited the water transportation. When you go to Hong Kong and places like that, you see ferries going up and down. I believe the same thing can be done for Lagos as far as water transportation is concerned. I was having an idea then when we were building the third mainland bridge/ road, to sand-fill the areas at the back of university of Lagos into a big public car park where people can park and ride. I knew population was moving down there then, and if people moved down there, to come into Lagos would be hectic. So, I said, let us make allowances for people who would ride in cars, park on the mainland and come by ferry into Lagos. And at the Lagos end, like they are doing on the shore of Marina, make it into a big car park so when you come you can take danfo at this end and when you close from work, you go back the same way. That is one thing, I wanted to do but then you canâ€™t do everything.
How has life been in retirement?
Oh! I thank God for good health. They say man knows thyself. I am not a business man. Iâ€™m not a hustler. I donâ€™t know how to do contract job. So, God gave me foresight to be able to acquire one or two properties which Iâ€™ve developed and I live from the rent I collect.
Such humble living is not usually the life style of our leaders. Where did this come from?
It depends on how you were brought up. My father was a very humble man. He was an old soldier too. He was a man who lived up to 96 years of age. I believe why canâ€™t I copy him? That is one man, I donâ€™t know whether he had up to two houses in this Lagos but he trained all of us along with my late mother. That is my background.
What would you recommend for a good name because its something that the younger generation donâ€™t have?
When people talk about this and I always say that education is not just in the schools alone, it must start from the home. From the beginning, we must begin to educate these children. My father would always say to us, â€œremember whose child you areâ€ and whatever you do, do not forget that you have some parents to look back on. So we must start to educate the children right from home and enforce discipline. They say spare the rod and spoil the child. In England, they cannot flog their children because they will go and sue them. I donâ€™t know when we would get to that stage. We should just make sure we pay attention to the children and start them young and set them aright.
What would you say for the military of today and the one you joined many years ago?
Well, they are still doing their job and I donâ€™t think the military has any ambition of coming back into administration. People should not entertain that fear. So long as you give them their dues, what is right to them, and when they vote money for defense, it should be used for that.
What is your favourite pass time now, what do you enjoy doing?
I play my golf. You know I had a stroke about seven years ago, so, my golf is not as good as it used to be. But I still go for exercises, I go on a walk on the golf course in the morning with my wife.