By Dare Babarinsa
It is significant that more than four decades after he left power, Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson, who died October 30, remained relevant in the affairs of Lagos State and Nigeria. He was a decent and simple soldier who found himself in political office. He handled his office like a soldier with decorum, integrity and firmness. Long after he had been retired, he remain alive and vibrant in the consciousness of the people who remember his service with gratitude and warm nostalgia.
Johnson was one of the eleven military governors who served under General Yakubu Gowon. The East Central State was governed by a civilian, Dr Ukpabi Asika, a former teacher at the University of Ibadan. When Gowon was toppled, the new government of General Murtala Muhammed decided to institute a three-man panel on series of allegations against the old state governors. The panel found nine of the military men and the lone civilian guilty of alleged corruption and abuse of office. Only Johnson and the military governor of the Western State, Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi, were found clean.
I don’t know of any other ruler who has made a greater impact on Lagos, especially in the areas of infrastructure than this soldier. He was serving in Benin when the military toppled the regime of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa and put an end to the First Republic. Though those who staged the coup ultimately lost out in the power game, a new era had begun with the coming to power of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who assumed the title, the Supreme Commander. It was Ironsi who appointed then Major Mobolaji Johnson the Administrator of Lagos in 1966.
Johnson became the first Yoruba to rule Lagos as a member of the Federal Government. Hitherto, past Ministers of Lagos Affairs have always been politicians from the North who were members of the Northern People’s Congress, NPC, then the ruling party. Johnson therefore took charge of the old Federal Capital Territory of Victoria Island, Ikoyi and Lagos Island. When Ironsi was killed along with the Governor of the Western Region, Lt Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the new ruler, Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, decided to retain Johnson in Lagos. Indeed, Gowon who was talking initially of soldiers handing over power by 1969, did not touch any of the appointments made by General Ironsi.
Johnson was to play a significant role, along with other top military officers from Lagos, in putting pressure on Gowon to create Lagos state. He worked with the new Oba of Lagos, Adeyinka Oyekan, to mount pressure also on the Governor of the Western Region, Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo. It was well-known that most of the powerful politicians in the West were opposed to the splitting of the West and the creation of a new Lagos State.
Since the Ibadan Conference of 1959, the West had always been laying claims to Lagos and the Yoruba territories of Northern Nigeria (the Ilorin and Kabba Provinces). This had formed part of the West proposal to each of the Constitutional Conferences that led to Nigeria’s independence. The claim of the West and its leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, were consistently opposed by the leaders of the North and the East. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the North, was of the opinion that the Yoruba of the North were part of the old Ilorin emirate territory, a claim hotly disputed by many of the Yoruba leaders of the old North. Ahmadu Bello also agreed with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, that Lagos, being the Federal Capital Territory, should be regarded as “a No-Man’s Land”.
But events were moving fast, though tragically, by the time Gowon came to power. War became imminent when the new men of power would not agree on how to settle the Nigerian crisis in the aftermath of the Second Coup. The old four regions were split into 12 states with the new Lagos State coming into being. The new state comprises of the old FCT and large chunk of the old Western Region including Badagry, Ikorodu, Mushin, Surulere, Epe and Ikeja. Of the old four regions, only the Mid-West was to remain intact.
Though war was imminent, the parting of Lagos from the West was not very friendly. Many of the leaders in the West were unhappy over the taking away of the industrial heartland of the West. The Western regional government had concentrated industries in the Ikeja Industrial Estate which was now part of Lagos State. It was a testament of Johnson’s maturity and statesmanship that he was able to manage this tough period with wisdom and evenness. He also attracted many top civil servants from Ibadan to come and take up appointment in Lagos, though the West was paying better salary scales than Lagos.
Johnson presided over the infrastructural transformation of Lagos. It was under him that the 10-lane Ikorodu Road, the largest in the country, was built. It was during his regime that the Third Mainland Bridge, the Apapa Oshodi Express way, the Badagry International highway and many other important roads were built in Lagos.
When Johnson came in, Lagos had only five divisions. Today, it has 56 Local Council Development Areas. The population of the city has jumped from about 2 million to about 20 million. Despite the transfer of the FCT to Abuja in 1991, Lagos remain a potent force in Nigerian affairs. Many governors later, Lagosians remain grateful to Johnson for the foundation he laid for the state.
After his retirement, he has moved almost seamlessly into business, serving on the board of many companies, including the ubiquitous construction giant, Julius Berger. I got to know more about Johnson’s patriotic deeds through one of his most ardent friends and collaborators, Mr Olatunji Odusanya, the Executive Director of the Lagos State University Development Foundation, LASUDEF. For many years, Brigadier-General Johnson was the Chairman of the Executive Committee of LASUDEF. Without his untiring commitment, LASUDEF would not have achieved its objectives.
Odusanya, in his autobiography, Against All Odds, explained that it was through Johnson that the Foundation was able get land at Lekki. He was the one who secured an administrative office for LASUDEF also through the then military governor, Colonel Olagunsoye Oyinlola. Under his leadership, LASUDEF was able to secure grants from the Lagos State government during the regime of Governor Babatunde Fashola which helped the Foundation to build its show-piece edifice, the LASUDEF Plaza on Olabanji Olajide Avenue in Lekki Peninsula Phase One.
It is interesting that Johnson remained relevant and deeply interested in the affairs of his people. He never sought for any personal advantage. He never advertised his deeds. His love for Lagos endures till the very end of his life. When you are a good person, even death would keep its appointment with you when you are surrounded by your loved ones. He did not die in a German hospital or in other foreign territory as the rich and powerful in Nigeria are wont to do. He lived well. He died well.