BY HON. FEMI KEHINDE
Ibadan, epicentre of several firsts, blazed the trail in several strides and endeavours, in Nigeria’s early growth and development.
Cocoa house, like several others were prime ingenuity, political sagacity and economic wizardry of the early pathfinders of our regional growth, ably led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
The 26 storey building was proposed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, with proceeds from Cocoa exportation. Cocoa house was commissioned in 1965, at a height of 105 metres.
The initial name given to the 26 storey building was “ile awon agbe”, translated from Yoruba to English, to mean house of farmers. The name was later changed to Cocoa house, because it was built from the proceeds of cocoa exportation and also because it was built in front of a cocoa tree, just in front of a water fountain.
It was once the tallest building in Nigeria and the first sky scrapper in West Africa. It is located in Dugbe- a major commercial area in Ibadan, Oyo State. Dugbe market began in 1919, on the site of a small market and slab. Dugbe is believed to have been one of the traditional gate markets along the tall wall of Ibadan.
The building of the railway station nearby in 1901, was of a great significance, as the nearest market to the main means of long distance transport. The Obafemi Awolowo Government had an economic blue print in his Western Region Development plan from 1955 to 1960.
The development plan, emphasised, property development, through the Regional Government and thus the need to set up a property development company, known as National Investment and Property Company (NIPC). The motto of the Action Group was “life more abundant”
Following the promulgation of the Banking Ordinance, forbidding banks from being directly involved in property acquisition and development, the echelons of the Action Group, with major support from the leader- Chief Obafemi Awolowo, incorporated the National Investment and property Property Company on the 18th of April, 1958, to take over the functions of the property development and acquisition, which had hitherto been rendered to the Action Group by the National Bank of Nigeria, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Akinola Maja.
The National Bank, established in 1933, had other directors – T.A Doherty, called to the Bar in 1921, Akin Adeshigbe, Olalniyi Johnson and Hamzat Subair Akinola Maja, qualified as a medical doctor in 1918, from the University of Edinburgh.
The NIPC had four directors and shareholders as-
1. Dr. Akinola Maja (Chairman)
2. S.O Gbadamosi, an astute business man.
3. Chief Alfred Rawane (who was also the M.D of WNDC)
4. Chief S.O Shonibare (Secretary, NIPC and managing Director) with a paid up capital of 100, 000 and paid up capital of £25, 000 each.
It could be safely concluded, that the NIPC was formed to continue from where the National Bank stopped, as the financial pillar of the Action Group. Between May 1959 and May 1962, the NIPC had given the Action Group over £4, 000, 000.
The company was often directly or indirectly involved through the interlocking relationship of its directors. The company had hardly been incorporated when it started to borrow money from the marketing board. The company had, on the 25th of April, 1958 through its M.D, Chief Shonibare, forwarded a letter to its marketing board, setting out a comprehensive programme of development. The properties listed were as follows-
1. 5 storey building (208-212 Broad Street, Lagos)-£120,000:000
2. 4 Storey Building (128-130 broad street, Lagos)-£60, 000:00
3. 3 18 storey building, (8-10 Broad Street and 68-70 Campbell Street)-£1, 500, 000
4. 80-82 Broad Street, Lagos £500, 000
5. Apapa Ware House and Offices £100, 000
6. Barclays Bank site and British and French Bank Site, Ibadan- 31,200, 000
7. 6 Storey Department store, Kingsway store, Ibadan-£500, 000.
This list was later amended to substitute some items with others, which then brought in the idea of a skyscraper to be called cocoa house. There can be no doubt, that most of the properties were prime ones and the viability was never at anytime in doubt. The contractors of Cocoa House, were Messers Cappa and D’Alberto- a construction firm, established in 1932, by two Italian men- Pietro Carlo Cappa and Vigino D’Alberto.
Chief Shonibare, the Managing director was a property development guru, the owner of Shonny investment and Property Company, which was developing an extensive estate in Maryland, Lagos. He had worked with the United African Company (UAC).
Alhaji Sule Oyesola Gbademosi was an astute businessman, and was reputed to be very wealthy. He attended Baptist Academy, Lagos. SLA Akintola was his teacher in school. He went into early commerce after school and prospered. He established Ikorodu Trading Co. Ltd, in 1933 and thereafter, a textile mill.
He was the Treasurer of the Action Group. Chief Rewane was the Chairman of the Western Nigeria Development Corporation and a business guru in his own right. Alfred was tall, shimmering, ebony black and stately, that one could easily, be hypnotised by his presence.
His commanding presence was however dwarfed by the arresting power of his intellect. A man of deep integrity, Rewane insisted on paying the WNDC, despite being its M.D, for the use of its transport to convey his children to school and his pets to the Veterinary Doctor. Such was the way he ran his affairs. At the end of his tenure, which came rather abruptly, the corporation owed him.
Alfred Rawane, was no doubt one of the ablest and most astute businessmen, Nigeria could boast about during that period. Chief Awolowo had picked the best and ablest men for the task of the returns of their investment and this proved his choice was right.
There was a time when Nigeria asked for and secured the service of a Dr. Rao, as economic adviser to the government, some expatriates in the country at that time, wondered why a country that had men like Rewane, Shonibare and Gbadamosi, needed an expatriate economic adviser.
All the government needed to do, was to get them together in a room for some days and task them to produce an economic blue print for the country. A brain that had the foresight of entrepreneurship, to invest in Maryland, when it was a desolate and out of the way area, is incontestably, a genius of the highest order. So were almost all the men Chief Awolowo had picked.
It was to his eternal credit, that he had chosen such men to run the company. If he had the company being set up for business, it would have succeeded astronomically, but it was not set up for business as such. Its history and the circumstances for its formation show that its raison d’etre was to provide the AG with the fund it would need to carry out all its activities.
The NIPC, awarded the building contract, for Cocoa House, to a firm of constractors- Messers Cappa and D’Alberto. The firm of Cappa and D’Alberto, a leading building and Civil Engineering firm, was established in 1932, by two Italian men- Pietro Carlo Cappa and Vigino D’Alberto.
Cocoa house was ready for delivery to the NIPC in July, 1964, but due to the turmoil and political divides in the Western Region, the Cocoa house edifice could not be commissioned until the 10th of July, 1965, by the then Premier- Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, coincidentally, on his birthday. SLA Akintola, was born on the 10th of July, 1910, in Ogbomoso.
The Akintola Government had set up an enquiry to establish the real owners of the cocoa house. Chief Obafemi Awolowo at the time of the official commissioning of the cocoa house in 1965, was already in jail in Calabar prisons, for treasonable felony.
The Western Region at this point was getting adrift and only two people could avert this sinking ship- the two people were Awolowo and Akintola, but unfortunately, the centre could no longer hold.
The state of the growth of the Western Region, before the crisis and political dispersal was phenomenal. The Western Region Government had established the first Television Station in Africa on the 31st of October, 1959.
This was enhanced by a legislative enactment, that removed broadcasting from the exclusive list to the concurrent list. The WNTV, was in partnership with Overseas rediffusion, U.K. Anthony Enahoro was the Honourable Minister of Information.
In 1962, to popularise the Television services, the WNTV started television viewing centres in Omi Adio and Lalupon. Liberty Stadium, the first of such in Africa, was also built in 1959 in honour of Nigeria’s independence, coming up in 1960.
The 25, 000 sitter capacity stadium, patterned after Wembley stadium in the United Kingdom, hosted the first World title boxing Tournament on the 10th of August, 1963, between Nigeria’s own Dick Tiger and Dene Fulmer of the United States. In 1959/60, 20 farm settlements and 5 Agricultural institutes were created by Awolowo to encourage educated young minds to make a profitable career in farming. Life was rosy and robustly cheerful. Men married many wives, and life flourished abundantly.
Awolowo’s 5 years development plan, from 1955 to 1960, was to enhance a steady rise in income, and the general standard of living of the people. The Western Region Government was paying 5 Shillings as daily wage for its daily wage workers, when the Federal Government, paid 3 Shillings.
The farm settlement, was patterned after the kibbutz agricultural system of Israel, with Chief Akindeko, minister of Agriculture as the pivot. The Western Region Government had established, the first Housing Estate in Nigeria- the Bodija Housing Estate, the first dual carriage way in Nigeria, the Mokola Queen Elizabeth Secretariat Road, the first modern parliament- the Western Region House of Assembly and House of Chiefs, the first modern Secretariat in Agodi, Ibadan, Reddifusion Radio- a one channel radio station, had come in 1955, through the same partnership of Reddifusion company in the united kingdom.
The University College Hospital, Ibadan, an affiliate of the University of Ibadan, a 1,000 bed research and teaching hospital, was also established by an August 1952 Act of parliament and was formally commissioned after completion on the 20th November, 1957.
The Cocoa house became a honey pot and a centre for attraction and tourist delight. Its presence, encouraged Dugbe to be the economic nerve centre of Ibadan. In the cocoa house neighbourhoods, were the ancient homes of the Syrians and the Lebanese, that is- the Assad Zard, the Moukarim, the J. Allens, the Gamras and their Cocoa stores, ware houses and showrooms, which made the place- Ibadan business nerve centre and commercial hub.
The hub takes you to the market, the Barclays Bank-now Union Bank, the rotund standard bank-now First Bank, the Cooperative Bank, the Radio Nigeria,Aje House, PZ and John Holt. Natives and non-natives thrived, without let or hindrance.
The eminence of cocoa house in Ibadan, was not rivalled until 1982, when a 12 floor glass house building was officially opened. This structure, popularly called “broking house” or “glass house” or “Femi Johnson”, was built by the popular insurance and risk management mogul- Late Femi Johnson.
The building is mostly built of glass. It is a beauty to behold. The building was formally declared opened by Femi Johnson’s bosom friend-Chief Bola Ige, then Governor of Oyo State. “Glass House” was the former site of Paradise Hotel, where Eddy Okonta and numerous musicians played.
At the official commissioning of the building, Chief Bola Ige said he would have been the Master of Ceremony (MC), if he was not occupying the office of governor of Oyo State. Femi Johnson was a prominent member of the Ibadan literary and drama world, through his membership of the Ibadan Players of the dawn group, with others like- Christopher Kolade, Segun Olusola, Yemi Lijadu, Sola Rhodes, Wole Soyinka, Wale Ogunyemi and the likes.
Femi Johnson was also, a hunting maverick, with the likes of Wole Soyinka and some of their Hunter Friends., hunting for animals in their hunting expeditions, as their interesting pass time.
Femi Johnson, senior brother of Mobolaji Johnson, former governor of Lagos state, was born and bred in Lagos state. He attended CMS Grammar School Lagos, and read private books on insurance; he joined the law union and rock Lagos, from where he was later transferred to Ibadan to manage their branch. He later set up his insurance firm, known as Femi Johnson & Co. He died in the year 1987 at the age of 53.
Cocoa House fire
In January, 1985, the 26 storey cocoa house, suffered a mishap. The entire building was gutted by fire. It temporarily lost its beauty and elegance to the inferno. The fire was said to have consumed everything in the building, because the fire fighters in Ibadan did not have the equipment or the skill to put out a raging inferno in a sky scrapper.
Unfortunately, some fire fighters, caught in the inferno, were consumed by the fire. Col. Oladayo Popoola, then military governor of Oyo state, was on a tour of Oke-Ogun in Oyo State, when he received a radio message, that cocoa house, the pride of the Yoruba nation had been burnt, perhaps beyond recognition, according to his then Chief Press Secretary(CPS)- Oloye Lekan Alabi.
Governor Popoola arrived the scene of the incidence at about 7pm and lifted the morales of the fire fighters, to continue with their efforts, to rescue this pride of the Yoruba nation.
It was suspected, that this fire incidence of January 9 1985, began in the top floors from a mal functioned electrical equipment, from the administrative office of the National Bank on the 13th Floor. The building was immediately closed for public use until August 1992, when it was again re-opened for commercial use.
The Military Governors of Oyo, Ondo and Ogun States, had set up an enquiry, comprising of the top echelons of the Nigerian Institute of Architects, Nigerian Institute of Engineers, to advise the Government as to its next line of action on Cocoa house.
It was safely concluded, that the cocoa house should not be pulled down, but rehabilitated and its glory and beauty restored. The fire inferno, did not affect the foundation. The Western states government set up the rehabilitation fund, raising committee to rehabilitate, and restore cocoa house.
In its rehabilitated form, rather than its hollowed side earlier look, cocoa house now looks like a cocoa pod. Cocoa house was also not rivalled, until 1979, when the NECOM building was completed in Marina Lagos and houses the headquarters of NITEL. The NECOM building on 32 floors was constructed by Constain West Africa Limited- a foreign construction company, that was incorporated in 1948.
The lightings at the top of the tower, serves as a light house beacon for the Lagos habour. The building, with a height of 160 metres, was constructed with concrete, and then over took cocoa house, to become the tallest building in West Africa, at the time of completion.
Like the cocoa house, NECOM building suffered two fire incidences, in 1983 and 2015, respectively. Interestingly, the Burj Khalifa, peaking at the height of 2,217 feet, stands as the tallest building in the world, standing on 160 floors.
Cocoa house Ibadan and the recently collapsed sky scrapper in Ikoyi Lagos, provides a great study in contrast and metaphor. It would not be too farfetched, that the Ikoyi building collapsed, because it could not withstand the forces of nature, or gravity or as a result of substandard building materials or the combination of the three factors, or not sticking to the specifications approved Cocoa house still stands as the rock of Gibraltar!
May you, Cocoa house, continue to stand tall and erect, as the first of such edifices in the sub Saharan West Africa, and in the fondest memories of those that conceptualised you, towards the economic prosperity of the Western region of Nigeria, in the days of yore…
Cocoa house, continue to dance in the sky as one of our first childhood fancies.
HON. (BARR.) FEMI KEHINDE
LEGAL PRACTITIONER AND FORMER MEMBER,
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, NATIONAL ASSEMBLY,
ABUJA, REPRESENTING AYEDIRE/IWO/OLA-OLUWA FEDERAL CONSTITUENCY OF OSUN STATE.