By Owei Lakemfa
MOBOLAJI Johnson was an officer in a profession with a command structure where people were trained to obey the last order. But as military governor of Lagos State, Johnson was known not to obey the last order; on a number of times, he insisted on practicing federalism in a military regime. He asserted that Lagos lands belong to Lagosians not the Federal Government. When there was a national census by the Federal Government in 1973, he challenged the figures.
Johnson, a Brigadier General, was military governor of Lagos State from May 27, 1967 until the Murtala coup of July 29, 1975. The new coup plotters who claimed to be anti-corruption crusaders came with a fury. They assumed all the political office holders were corrupt, but tried as they could, Johnson was exonerated. Then four months after his forced exit, he got a two-paragraph letter from his successor, Captain Shamusideen Adekunle Lawal. It read: “ I was shocked at the excuses you gave for removing the special Security Cabinet in the office. This in fact is least expected from you considering your training and background. Your offer of paying for the cabinet is not accepted. You are, therefore, requested to release the cabinet to the bearer immediately.”
An obviously angry Johnson retorted in a December 6, 1975 response: “Your administration must no doubt have been conducting series of investigations into the conduct of my administration. You must no doubt be getting worried about not finding a black mud to smear on my person. If Your Excellency thinks that out of the millions of naira at my disposal it is a cabinet I will steal from a government I created and established and the achievements for which I am sure are so transparent for the most jaundiced eye to see, then I must say with all due respect that you will still have to be educated on a lot of things not only about my administration of Lagos State but about my person in particular.”
Twelve days later, the new regime tried to appease Johnson telling him: “the whole episode was purely a misunderstanding which should not have happened at all,” adding that: “errors could occur out of genuine zeal or omission…”
Last Thursday, November 28, at the Lagos State Secretariat, Alausa, I co-convened, with Professor Siyan Oyeweso, noted historian and biographer of Johnson, a national colloquium on: “The Life and Legacies of Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson, The First Governor of Lagos State.” Five professors, four senior academics, leading journalist, Dare Babarinsa, an architect, Victor Rotimi Buraimoh and former Minister of Works, Senator Adeseye Ogunlewe, took vibrant participants through presentations that dug into the Johnson phenomenon.
Professor Oyeweso said the appointment of the then Major Johnson as the Military Administrator of Lagos, was the first time an indigene took charge of Lagos since Colonial Britain seized it in 1861. The post-colonial ministers of Lagos Affairs, Muhammadu Ribadu and Musa Yar’Adua were from other parts of the country.
Senator Ogunlewe who was employed by Johnson as an Admin Officer in 1967 when Lagos attained the status of a state, traced the Johnson phenomenon to the Methodist Boys’ High School, MBHS, Lagos which produced him. He praised the MBHS, Lagos Old Boys’ National Association which had teamed up with the Osun State University to organize the colloquium, as: “a light in this state and in the federation.”
The MHBS Old Boys President, Victor Buraimoh, dwelt on the twin issues of leadership and governance which he said was an emphasis of the school leading it to produce not just Johnson and his father, Pa Joshua Motola Johnson, but also his successor, Captain Lawal, former Ogun State governor, Aremo Olusegun Osoba, the first President of the country, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and past ministers like Chiefs Hezekiah Oladipo Davies, Olu Awotesu and Rasheed Gbadamosi.
Professor Ayodeji Olukoju of the University of Lagos and former Vice Chancellor of the Caleb University who spoke on “The Brigadier and the Bridge” said Johnson, unlike the American leaders who built a “Bridge To Nowhere” built bridges linking various parts of the state and neigbouring Benin Republic.
He pointed out that before Johnson, only the 430-metre Carter Bridge built in 1901, linked Lagos Island and Mainland. But that Johnson built the second bridge, the Eko Bridge and started the 11.8 kilometre Third Mainland Bridge, which when it was opened in 1990, fifteen years after the coup that saw him out of office, was the longest bridge in Africa. Johnson’s plan to build a Fourth Mainland Bridge whose Master Plan he developed with the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, remains a dream, 44 years after he left office.
Olukoju emphasized Johnson’s contribution to federalism. He said although a soldier, Johnson as military governor insisted that Lagos, even though a Federal Capital Territory, had constitutional rights to lands in the state.
Professor Olatunde Gabriel Babawale, political economist and former CEO of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization, CBAAC, said Johnson took: “Lagos State from penury to financial independence,” adding: “For about eight years he kept recording budget surplus.” He said under Johnson: “The idea of good governance was taken for granted; he felt that government has to impact positively on the lives of the people,” adding: “We are not in short supply of heroes and models” and that the study of such Nigerians should be included in our school curriculum.
Samuel Gbadebo Odewumi, Professor of Transport Studies argued that Johnson was a clinical finisher, noting: “the Badagry road took two years of planning and two years of building.” He described Johnson who amongst others, built the Falomo, Itoikin, Eko and Third Mainland bridges, and the Badagry, Malu-Kirikiri, and Ikorodu-Ikeja roads, as the man who constructed “the spinal cord of Lagos State.”
Dr. Monsuru Muritala and Dare Babarisa dwelt on Johnson’s fight for federalism with the later pointing out that such a struggle later led to the removal of Akin Aduwo as military governor of Western Nigeria for refusing to handover the then University of Ife to the Federal Government.
Dr. Tunji Ogunyemi, a budget historian said Johnson could not be indicted for corruption because he had a culture at the end of every budget circle, of returning all unspent funds to the treasury before new appropriation.
Dr. Wale Adeyemi, military historian who described Johnson as: “ A Visionary and Humanist,” said he took risks and “damned the consequences” because of the culture MBHS Lagos instilled in him.
There was a consensus that given his pioneering work, Johnson, who left on October 30 and will be interred this Thursday, deserves a monument named in his honour either in Lagos State or the country.