Tall, athletic, ever smiling, charismatic Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson, the first Governor of Lagos State had a knack for putting people at ease although he was a Brigadier General. While some military governors and military top brass harassed, and even tortured citizens including journalists, Johnson was quite friendly, accommodating and generous.
When he was a student at the Methodist Boys’ High School, MBHS, Lagos where he was a prefect and star athlete dominating in shot put, discus and javelin, his nickname was Bol J (Bolaji Johnson). Even as governor, and as an old man, those close to him and his former class mates still called him Bol J which he responded to enthusiastically.
There was a story told by his former schoolmates that as Military Governor, he was being introduced to top civil servants. Then, he saw one of his seniors at the MBHS, broke protocol and greeted him respectfully pointing out that the civil servant was his senior, so how could he keep him standing on the line.
When he turned 70 in 2006, Johnson told all those who may want to give him gifts, to monetize them and pay the money into the coffers of the MBHS Old Boys’ National Association for the completion of projects in the school especially the Centenary Hall. That was a school he left 49 years before! But that was his character; he never forgot his origins, friends, relatives and colleagues.
Musicians sang his praise, and when he appeared in public, people sang the songs, more in appreciation of his easy style of governance, effectiveness and identification with him. One of the most popular was Ebenezer Obey’s “Lagos State is a place for all” which reflected Johnson’s urbanism and non-discriminatory attitude to all who lived and did business in the state.
He was ever concerned about the welfare of Lagosians and one of his most popular actions was introducing rent control. He bunched areas in the state into categories and imposed rent limits for each depending on the materials used for constructing the houses ranging from zinc, mud, wood, cement to bricks. When the popular Apala musician, Ayinla Omowura sang about this in a song: “Owo Ile Eko” (Rent Schedule ’73) it was a sellout.
After Johnson passed out of MBHS, he joined the army and was the second officer to command the strategic Federal Guards. He was a major when the January 1966 “Majors coup” announced by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu took place. He, like many Nigerians, was unhappy with the state of the country and there are strong indications he was not averse to that coup.
In fact, Chief Hezekiah Oladipo Davies, leading nationalist, lawyer, trade unionist, journalist and Minister of State for Industries from 1963 until the January 1966 coup, wrote that Johnson was one of the coup plotters. In his “Memoirs: H.O. Davies” published in 1989 by Evans Brothers, Nigeria, Davies who passed out of MBHS, Lagos 35 years before Johnson, wrote: “ I recollect that four or five weeks before the coup…I received some unexpected visitors comprising of four military officers, including Nzeogwu and Mobolaji Johnson” He said the officers indirectly questioned him about his source of wealth. Davies concluded: “It was when the coup took place that I reassessed the questions which were put to me by my unexpected visitors; and realized that I had been probed”
After that coup failed and General Aguyi-Ironsi became Military Head of State, Johnson was appointed Military Administrator of Lagos. In that capacity or perhaps for some closeness to Ironsi, he could be found sitting beside the latter in public outings.
Following the July 29, 1966, counter coup that led to the summary execution of Ironsi, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, amongst others, the country was on the verge of disintegration. Northern and Eastern military officers backed by their civilian supporters wanted a brake-up of the country and were being held back with difficulty. The West did not oppose a brake-up and only the Mid-West argued that the country should remain a united entity. Things were so bad that the ruling Supreme Military Council, SMC, could not hold a meeting in the country. So, then Ghanaian Head of State, Lieutenant General J.A. Ankrah provided a venue in Aburi, Ghana where the SMC met from January 4-5, 1967. Johnson attended as Military Administrator of Lagos.
Colonel Philip Efiong wrote in his autobiography “ Nigeria And Biafra: My Story” of Johnson’s role in that meeting that produced the Aburi Accord: “ Our military leaders were being more political than the politicians, and, initially at least, tried to hedge around issues instead of hitting the nail on the head. It was Major Mobolaji Johnson (the most junior officer among them) whose courage really opened up the discussions by bringing up the issue of the disappearance of Ironsi”
When finally, Ironsi’s body was exhumed at the Ibadan cemetery, and on Friday January 20, 1967, transferred through the Lagos Airport, Ikeja for a decent burial in the East, Johnson was at the airport to pay his last respects to his former boss. This was at a time when those who had seized power in the country, saw Ironsi as a traitor.
On May 27, 1967 Lagos State was created along with eleven others, Johnson was appointed its first governor. In building strong foundations for the state, his government, with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and Wilbur Associates, developed a Master Plan to guide the development of the state into the 21stCentury. It included building 35 self-development centres each with commercial, industrial and residential zones, a Fourth Mainland Bridge and a light-rail and ferry system.
The military coup and counter coup had its devastating effects on the country including a Civil War in which some two million died. There was a general consensus that the country needed to be returned to normalcy by transiting to democracy. head of state, General Yakubu Gowon in 1970 announced a 1976 transition to civil rule. But on October 1, 1974, he said the transition date had become unrealistic. That was the beginning of the end for the Gowon regime. On March 21, 1975 Johnson publicly backed Gowon arguing that the atmosphere was not conductive for the transition to civil administration and that: “ no responsible government would hand over power in chaos”
Four months later, the Gowon regime was overthrown and the new regime led by Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed went after the former leaders like hounds. However, that regime exonerated Johnson and his Western State colleague, Oluwole Rotimi from any corrupt practices.
Johnson retired to private business and life but continued inspiring generations of leaders until last Wednesday, October 30, 2019, when the old soldier, at 83, marched on.
Owei Lakemfa, is a former secretary general of African workers is a human rights activist, journalist and author.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.