Mobolaji Johnson, governor who developed Lagos with £10,000


While children of his age were pacing up and down to school, Mobolaji
Johnson could not walk — at the age of four — owing to a diarrhoea
that nearly snuffed the life out of him.
By 31, he was appointed the military administrator of Lagos, and he
subsequently became the first governor of the state.
Johnson, at different points in his life, had close shaves with death
in auto-accidents — including the coups and executions that
characterised his era in the military.
On Wednesday, he succumbed to the will of his maker at the age of 83,
three years after he lost his wife, Funmi, whom he married at 26.
Beyond the drama of the military era, the retired army
brigadier-general recorded major feats in infrastructural development
as Lagos helmsman, some of which are still visible today.
The Wobbling childhood
Born February 9, 1936, in Lagos, Johnson had a troubling childhood as
he battled diarrhoea, which kept him aground for the first four years
of his life, and which made his mother, Gbemisola, his
around-the-clock caregiver.
“As a child, I had a delay in walking on my feet. I could not walk
until four years old. In fact, that made me a bit backwards in
school,” he told the Vanguard in an interview.
“She said I had bad diarrhoea at the stage when I was about clocking
one-year-old, and it nearly took my life. They eventually ran into
people who advised them to go herbal. But I didn’t take the herbal
medicine. That was the reason why my mother could not leave to do some
other things.
“I was about five years old. I went to Methodist Secondary School Yaba
in 1946. Then I went to Warri to continue my education. I did only one
year there and my mother said the distance was too much. Then,
transportation was by sea.”
He left the Hussey College in Warri and returned to Methodist Boys
High School Lagos where he was regarded as a well-rounded sportsman
until he graduated in 1957.
Hawked bread and groundnuts in Yaba
As a pupil, Johnson said he would hawk bread for his mother in the
morning and groundnut in the afternoon. Yet, that did not stymie his
passion for education.
“Even when I was attending school, I was still doing some household
work. I wasn’t a spoilt child because I was hawking for her on the
streets of Yaba. She was a baker,” he said.
“So, I was helping to sell bread in the morning and in the afternoon,
because her sister who was in the North sent her groundnuts. I put
them in my tray in the afternoon and helped her in selling them.”
Son of World War II Veteran
A file photo of Royal West African Frontier Force
According to him, his father, Joshua Omotola, inspired him to join the
army. His father hailed from Abeokuta in Ogun state and was a member
of the Royal West African Frontier Force during World War II.
His grandfather’s last name is Osholero, but he changed it to Johnson
in honour of the priest who converted him to Christianity.
At 21, Johnson joined the military and proceeded to the officer cadet
training school in Ghana. He also attended the Mons Officer Cadet
School in Aldershot and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, the
United Kingdom between 1960-1961.
“I opted for the military. I saw the photograph of my father who was
in the Second World War and rose to the rank of sergeant major class
with his belt,” he said.
“I saw his photograph where he was looking so handsome and I looked at
that photograph and said, one day, I’m going to put on this uniform
too. So, that was the influence I had before going into the military.”
Life in the military
Johnson was, nevertheless, an influential figure in the military
during his time. He was privy to the Aburi meeting in Ghana prior to
the civil war and was one of the federal delegates at the ceremony to
mark the end of that war.
Johnson was appointed as the military administrator of the federal
capital territory, Lagos in 1966 by Aguiyi Ironsi, who was the head of
state at that time. When it was made a state in 1967, he served as the
first governor until July 1975.
Johnson said in an interview he heard about the first coup from
Murtala Mohammed after it had happened.
“Well, if you go back to the first coup, which was on January 15,
1966, you find out that I was not part of the coup. But I was in a
strategic position to know just a bit of what happened. I didn’t know
the minds of the coup plotters, but I knew enough of what was going
on,” he said.
Johnson with Ambode, former governor of Lagos during his 80th birthday
“I went to the brigade headquarters, where I was the second in command
to Ifeajuna at Apapa. The gate was opened for me and Murtala Muhammed
told me what had happened. The minister of finance, Okoti Eboh and the
brigade commander could not be seen. So that was how I got to know
about it.
“I don’t think the civil war was avoidable.”
After years of working across different military formations in the
country, he was compulsorily retired in 1975 by the late Murtala
Mohammed during his tenure as head of state. He was said to be one of
the two military officers exonerated of corruption charges by the
Mohammed regime.
Starting the Lagos legacy with £10,000
With the likes of Adeniran Ogunsanya, Akin Adesola, Babs Williams,
Johnson Agiri and Ganiyu Dawodu in his cabinet, the war veteran
started building legacy infrastructural projects in the state.
“The appointment came suddenly upon me as a young man and I had to
take it. I took it as a challenge and faced it squarely,” he told
Nigerian Tribune.
“Lagos State came into existence as a child of circumstance…It was a
modest sum of 10,000 pounds. That was what I used in starting Lagos
His administration was renowned for executing landmark construction
work, developing the civil service and putting in place a blueprint
for the state. Some of the roads constructed during his administration
include the Lagos-Badagry expressway linking Nigeria with neighbouring
countries such as Benin, Ghana and Togo; Ito-Ikin bridge linking Epe
to Ikorodu and Apapa Oshodi expressway.
How he dealt with Lagos landlords and solved the housing crisis
To deal with a housing crisis, with landlords exploiting tenants owing
to the rise in population in the state, Johnson introduced the house
rent edict and regulated how much landlords could take from tenants.
“The landlords were shylocks; they were exploiting the explosion in
population by demanding high rents for accommodation. The landlords
were charging very exorbitant rents on their properties. So, we sat
down and formed a committee that looked into categories of houses and
accommodation as well as the locations,” he said.
“Of course, for obvious reasons, you cannot compare a room in Ajegunle
to, say, a room in Victoria Island or Ikoyi. So, we came up with an
edict, stipulating categories of houses and what landlords will take
as rent on their buildings.”
Retired to private business
A truck belonging to Julius Berger Nigeria
After his retirement from the army, Johnson became a director with
Julius Berger, and later, he was appointed as chairman of the
construction firm 1996 – 2009.
Until his death, the ex-soldier did not regard himself as a rich man.
“It is the people that will talk of the legacy that I left behind in
the governance of Lagos. Lagos that I know is the former capital of
Nigeria and the centre of excellence. I had done my part. History will
adjudge me,” he told The Nation.
He is survived by four children.
Johnson is “reunited” with Funmi, his wife, who passed away in February, 2016.

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