Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu, SAN, CON, has paid his dues as a major figure in the building of modern day Nigeria.
He was Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing in the Gowon regime and initiated and executed the programme for the change-over of traffic from left to right-hand traffic, which started in 1969 and became effective on the 2nd of April, 1972. The 78-year-old legal luminary told BASHIR ADEFAKA a story of his life in his Lagos residence, recently. Excerpts:
How did you start out in life?
I started life by developing interest in politics as a student. In the late 40s I used to go to the Legislative Council at the secretariat at Marina to watch the likes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe lock horns with Sir Hill Foot, who was the Chief Secretary to the Government of Nigeria at the time.
Foot was one of the three sons of Methodist parentage in England. The three of them were great. There was Michael who became leader of the Labour Party; he failed to be Prime Minister of England. There was another one of them and Hill Foot was a distinguished public servant. He became one of the representatives of Great Britain before he died.
Coming back to your question, I started by developing interest also in reading newspapers. That time, Daily Times was the favoured paper of the government and really it was then owned by the British interest, Daily Mirror in England. West African Pilot belonged to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and it was a very lively newspaper. Daily Service belonged to the members of MYN, an opposition.
There were two major parties in Lagos at that time, and Lagos politics we called Nigerian politics. When you talk of Nigerian politics, there was none. But there was Lagos politics because it was Lagos, which was the platform for Nigerian politics in those days.
So, reading the newspapers with special attention to controversies between the two great parties in those days, I developed my interest in politics when I was in school at King’s College.
Looking back, how would you describe yourself while growing up?
Well, I don’t know how you want me to answer that question, because I have not changed. My character was built by my parents, devout Muslims and great people. My father ensured that everyone of us, about 20, had primary and secondary education.
The sky, according to him, was the limit. If you wanted to stop at secondary school, it was your choice and not my father’s choice. That was more or less the principle at that time and most of us seized the opportunity.
My character was moulded by both my father and my mother and was also moulded by my school- King’s College, which was a masterpiece of Nigeria.
Students came from different parts of the country. You would never ask yourselves where you came from; you didn’t ask what language you spoke. We regarded ourselves as one family of young boys.
So, King’s College moulded me intellectually and also in sports. I played games and as a school boy, I played hockey for Nigeria against the Gold Coast which is now Ghana. I played other games, of course for King’s College where I became the first elected Secretary of the Students’ Council in secondary schools in Nigeria.
In my time at King’s College the principal of my college, the late J. R. Ponton, a great reformer; he and another principal, Major Hammer, were the best principals we ever had in the history of the college. J. R. Ponton founded the League of Bribe Scorners, the first of its kind in the country. League of Bribe Scorners to scorn bribery. It was not an organisation for the school alone; of course we also joined. But he established it for the society to scorn bribery and corruption.
I have told you of the Students’ Council where students passed by-laws to govern themselves, to take part in the government of the school.
They encouraged us to do that. So they introduced civics into the country; education for citizenship where we learnt the virtues of honesty, of loyalty, of respect for other parties; all the qualities of good citizenship.
They taught us to respect the views of other persons. These are virtues of good citizenship.
I learned all these at school and all those learnings at home and the greatest influence of all, Islam, moulded my life.
What about the influence of peer pressure in your growing up days?
As I told you, at school in King’s College, we regarded ourselves as brothers regardless of the different tongues. This has guided me and we had no other influence on one another except it was positive.
And in Od’Olowu in Lagos where I grew up as a child, we had facilities to play after school. We used to play in public places. Lagos had many grounds for children to play at that time. And it was that in sort of environment I grew up.
What specific features of Lagos environment in which you grew up do you still remember?
Oh, talking of Lagos of that time, I can tell you that I grew up in a Lagos environment where you could not kill a ram without having to go to the Lagos Town Council to take permit.
Even at Sallah time you still needed to take permit to slaughter a ram?
Outside the Eid-il-Kabir, you needed a permit because the ram would have to be inspected by health officers to ensure that it was healthy for consumption.
Yes! Any single ram, nobody could kill it without going to the Town Council to obtain permit, which would enable the authorities to examine the ram whether it had disease thereby not good for consumption and so on. Unlike today when thousands of rams and other animals are being killed by different individuals with no permit whatsoever.
That was the kind of Lagos environment in which I grew up. Cleanliness! As children, early in the morning we must wake up 5.30 am and we must be at school at 8 o’clock. And of course we must go to bed as soon as we heard the big gun shot from Apapa at 8 o’clock every evening. Within an hour or so of that sound, we must be in bed.
All people who came from good homes must be at home at 8 o’clock in the evening.
The big gun shot, we used to hear it from Apapa and it was by a gun boat. 8 o’clock you must be in your house and you must have good reason for not being in your house at that time. You know, you had to give convincing reason to your parents for not being in the house at 8 o’clock.
That was Lagos. It was a small community such that the 1952 census gave Lagos City about 230,000. So the families were quite close, interwoven as it were.
How did that reality of choosing a wife dawn on you?
I think it was because I knew I was ripe for marriage. I didn’t get married until 1964, when I was 31 years old. So I was old enough to know that I was ripe to get married.
It means you did not settle down early in life for marriage. Why the delay?
You see, I spent most of my student days in England on public duties running the Nigerian Union of Great Britain and Ireland, being active as a member of WASU, West African Students’ Union and extremely active on the African scene, Committee of African Organisation, receiving leaders like Dr. Banda of Malawi; Jomo Kenyata of Kenya; Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, you know, in the struggle for African independence and the unity of Africa.
Coming to the country I helped found the Nigerian Youth Congress, which I had the honour of doing from London as President of the Nigerian Union of Great Britain and Ireland gathering the whole members, officers, leaders of the union. We put them together and formed the Nigerian Youth Congress. So, all that did not make me to settle down early in life for marriage.
How did you meet your wife?
I found Lateefah as a charming girl at the University of Ibadan at that time and we’ve remained husband and wife ever since 1964. You know she has also played a very prominent role as a public officer rising to the post of permanent secretary and being appointed the deputy governor of Lagos State when Brigadier-General Raji Rasaki was military governor in the General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime..
As deputy governor, did that position change her attitude toward the home?
First and foremost, I welcomed her appointment. And remember that I had been one of the inner circle of 12 persons that ruled the country some years earlier. So I knew a bit about power but not power to get you drunk.
Let me say this: wife gave me the fullest cooperation when I was Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing. She was a very faithful, loyal public servant at the time, getting to the office before anybody else, so much that the cleaners would come after she had reached officer. That was her sense of responsibility.
And so when she became deputy governor of Lagos State I gave her support as she gave me support when I was Federal Commissioner.
On food preparation, I waited for her to return (laughs). However hungry I might be, I would find one or two little things to eat till she returned. But there was no such time I regretted her being appointed deputy governor.
Name: Alhaji Lateef Olufemi Okunnu, SAN, CON.
Place of birth: Lagos State.
Date of birth: February 19, 1933.
Present position: Founder/Chairman, Femi Okunnu & Co.
Strength of character: Godliness, cleanliness and neatness.