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‘It’s rubbish to say Lagos is no-man’s land’
‘It’s rubbish to say Lagos is no-man’s land’

‘It’s rubbish to say Lagos is no-man’s land’

Interview with Gboyega Alaka – The Nation

As Lagos celebrates 50, Alhaji Femi Okunnu, 84, former Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing and a true-blood Lagosian goes down memory lane with Gboyega Alaka on events that led to the creation of the state. He also spoke of the Nigeria of yesteryears, where ethnicity and religiousity had no place, and Zik, an Igbo, was elected by a largely Yoruba-speaking people to represent them.

You are a Nigerian and a true-blood Lagosian; what’s your reaction to those who say Lagos is  no-man’s land?

There is no no-man’s land. There are always some people who are original settlers. In the case of Lagos, it’s a misnomer to say Lagos is a no-man’s land. It’s rubbish. Absolute rubbish! Lagos was peopled by the Aworis and Awori land spread from Badagry through to Ota. They settled mostly in Ikeja, a division of Lagos. The Idejo chiefs, the white cap chiefs, who are the land owning chiefs, are basically Aworis and some of them are now Obas. I’m talking about the Oniru, The Olumegbon, Aromire, Oluwa, Ojora, Oloto and a couple others. After them, waves of immigrants, from today’s Niger State, started trooping in. I’m talking of the Tapas, the Nupes. I have Nupe blood. My father’s mother was a daughter of a Nupe man, Umoru from Idunsagbe in Lagos Island. Mind you, I’m talking of my great, great, grand-father; so you can imagine how long we’re talking about and how far our history dates back in Lagos. The Oshodi family of Lagos were originally Tapa. My wife is an Oshodi; Oyekan Oshodi. The Chief Imam of Lagos and all his great grand fathers were Tapa, owing to their vast knowledge in the Quran. Now, you would not say they are not original Lagosians because we’re talking of a history that dates back well over three hundred years.

Later we had another batch of immigrants over a period of time – those who had been taken into slavery in the North and South America and the West Indies but who had been freed following the abolition of slave trade about 170 years ago. Some of them also came in from Freetown, Sierra Leone. That’s where we have the Saro, Eko connection. They settled in the Olowogbowo area.

Then we had the Binis from Benin (present Edo State). They invaded Lagos and settled in the best part of what we now call Isale-Eko. Oba Ado and all successive kings of Lagos are of Benin. You won’t say they are not Lagosians because we are talking of hundreds of years ago.

So you can see that it is the latter day immigrants, who are full of the nonsense that Lagos is a no-man’s land.

What about the Brazilian connection?

Yes, I was coming there. The Brazilian Quarters were made up of another set of returnees: the Agustos, the Dasilva, Marinho, Pereira and their descendants, who returned from Brazil and other parts of South America. So when you talk of indigenes of Lagos. These are the people who arrived Lagos Island and environment over two hundred years ago. So there is no controversy over the indigenes of Lagos. It is complete ignorance.

You are saying that even the first Oba met some people in Lagos…

The Binis took over the reign of Lagos by conquest. The Aworis were there before them. They were the original settlers. Iga Idunganran itself was a gift to Oba Ado by Oloye Aromire, a white cap chief. He owned the land that the palace occupies till today. That is why till today, we have sections of Isale-Eko with Bini connections. When you hear of Idumota, Idunsagbe, Idunmaigbo, Idun-tafa; the word idun had bini origin. And then we had some chiefs who came with King Ado. That is another wide area. But suffice to say that Obanikoro, was a medicine chief who came with King Ado; so is Ashogbon. In Bini, it is Asogbon. There is also Bajulaye, who originally was Bazuaye. So the Bini connection is very deep. As a matter of fact, the corpses of all the obas, from King Ado through to Oba Adele I, who died at about 1834, were all taken to Benin for burial.

You were one of those who fought for a state status for Lagos about fifty years ago; what spurred you?

Let’s start from the beginning. Britain had three colonies in what is now present day Nigeria; not two as has been mistaken over time. The first was the Colony of Lagos, which spread from Epe, Ikeja, Awori land, Agege. When Britain colonised Lagos in 1861, it established its government, first in Freetown and later in Accra. Lagos colony was part of the West African Settlement, as the British called it. At about 1888, Lagos colony came under direct rule from London. In 1900, Britain then acquired two other colonies, Northern Nigeria on 1st January 1900. Britain then proclaimed the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria; making it three colonies. Those born in the then Lagos Colony, whether Epe, Bad or Lagos Island or Mainland, were full-blooded British citizens, with British passport and all the rights of a Briton. However, those who were born in Northern and Southern Protectorates were British protected persons, not full blooded British citizens.

I’m making this distinction to show the distinctiveness of Lagos. When people talk of Lagos being part of former Western Nigeria, it is false, it is distortion of history. The present Lagos State was the British Colony of 1861. When in 1922, Sir Hugh Clifford established the first constitution; it was only for the Southern Protectorate and the Colony of Lagos. The North was still being administered by a separate organisation. In 1945, Sir Arthur Richards, who succeeded Bernard Bourdillon established a constitution in 1947 and created the three regions: Northern region, comprising the old Northern Protectorate, with its large size, almost doubling the size of the rest of Nigeria; the Southern protectorate was divided into two: the Western Region, Eastern Region; with River Niger as the divider. But Lagos remained as Lagos colony, with a commissioner as chief executive. Sir John Macpherson became governor of Nigeria in 1948; he convened the Ibadan conference in 1950, which led to the Macpherson Constitution in 1950. It was in 1950 that Lagos Colony, comprising Lagos Division, Ikeja Division, Epe Division, Badagry Division, as it had always been, was merged with the Western Region.

In 1952, the City of Lagos, comprising Lagos Island, Lagos Mainland, Apapa, Surulere, which was largely farmlands, up to Yaba was made the Federal Capital territory. The orthopaedic Hospital was the boundary, and that was the Lagos Queen Elizabeth met when she assumed the throne in 1952. The rest of Lagos, namely Badagry Division, Ikeja Division and Epe Division were left in the Western Nigeria and named the Colony Division of the Western Nigeria. Ikorodu by the way was part of Ikeja Division.

Did you have to clamour for General Gowon to create Lagos as a state?

Gowon actually had very little of the agitation for a Lagos State. The agitation for statehood for Lagos started around 1950, when Lagos was taken out of its exalted position as a political unit and merged with the Western Region. That led to the slogan, Gedegbe L’Eko wa (meaning Lagos Stands on its own, don’t merge us). Gowon at that time had not even got admission into Barewa College. However, after the two coups of 1966, Nigeria was asunder. The various regions wanted to go their separate ways. The Eastern Region, led by Ojukwu, said it was definitely pulling out. He declared a Republic of Biafra in May 1967; but on that same day, 27 May 1967, Gowon abolished the regional set-up and proclaimed 12 states of Nigeria. Lagos became one of the states and the Colony Province which had been ceded to Western Nigeria was merged with the Federal Territory and Lagos was thus returned to its original state.

In fact the people of Lagos, as far back as 1914, didn’t want the Lugard amalgamation of that year, which brought it together with the two protectorates. Lagos had enjoyed British judicial system for almost a century; the people had enjoyed direct trading with the British and the rest of the world, trading in slave trade, ivory, ogogoro, even before it formally became a colony. Lugard forced his will on the people and the records are there in the newspapers published at that time.

Let me give you another historical aspect to this whole story. Lord Lugard wanted two divisions of Nigeria apart from the Lagos colony, but one official, Mr temple –Temple Road Ikoyi was named after him, who was next in rank advocated the division of Nigeria into six. He suggested three in the north, three in the south. So when people talk of six geo-political zones, there is nothing new about it (See Map). He suggested Western Province, Central Province, Eastern Province, Benue Provinces, Hausa States and Chad Territories. If Temple’s idea had held sway, Nigeria would have been a different country entirely because each would have developed at its own pace.

Let’s talk about the prominent people in the clamour for a Lagos State.

The leading lights included H M Alli Balogun, a lawyer, Mrs Latifa Makanjuola, Mr Kasali Aremu, the eldest child of the Ajiroba of Lagos, Karimu Kotun, a distinguished lawyer. There was also Adelumo Akintoye, one of the sons of Oba Ibikunle Akintoye, and TOS Benson, who had just arrived from England. These were people who championed the cause before my time. Incidentally, I took interest in the whole affair and used to watch the proceedings of the Legislative Council at Marina between 1947 and ’48. That council consisted of five nominated members each from the three regions and three elected members from Lagos. Election was by property franchise, and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Zik, was elected not by Igbo-speaking Nigerians, but by largely Yoruba-speaking people.  The other two were Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, whose father was the Akarigbo of Sagamu and Ibiyinka Olorunibe, the only son of the soil, who became the Mayor of Lagos. The emphasis I want to draw here is the uniqueness and metropolitan nature of Lagos even as far back. Zik was the darling of the people despite not being Yoruba, and we used to call him Arisiki iwe (wealth of education). Lagos of that time was devoid of any kind of ethnicity and religious differences. It was Lagos for all. Nigeria will never ever be a great country except we step down the ethnic differences and leave religion as a matter of the heart.

Lest I forget, Oba Adele II also backed up the allegation for Lagos State by the letter he wrote to the colonial government around 1956. I have a copy which was sent to me by the present Oba.

Tell us about your contribution as a member of the Federal Executive Council

After the first coup in January, the various military governors, looking for peace, encouraged what was then called Leaders of Thought meetings. There was one for the elders and another for young persons like me. The foundation of Nigeria had been badly shaken by the two coups and Gowon, who became head of states in 1966 quickly organised a constitutional conference of people to sit down and map out a new Nigeria. The conference consisted of five delegates from each region and five advisers from each region. Lagos Federal territory had two delegates and two advisers. The Elders Conference in Lagos nominated Prof Teslim Elias, who was at that time not only a member of the Federal Executive but also Dean of the Faculty of Law, UNILAG; and also Chief Bajulaiye, Eletu Odibo. Alhaji Jakande and I were in the youth section. Dr Elias and Alhaji Jakande were delegates and Chief Eletu Odibo and I from the youth sections as advisers. We met from August till about December, deliberating on the kind of Nigeria we wanted following the military coups. The Eastern delegation didn’t want to compromise. Best, they wanted a confederation; separate army, separate currencies, separate foreign affairs, separate customs.

The North also stood by a confederation, led by Sir Kashimu Ibrahim, who was governor of the Northern Region before the coup. Chief Awolowo, who had just been released by Gowon, was leader of the delegation from the West. I think the East had Prof Eni Njoku and the Mid-West was led by Anthony Enahoro and Lagos was headed by Prof Elias.  Through the influence of Lateef Jakande, Lagos was tucked into Western delegation and we found ourselves with the West. Chief Awolowo also advocated a confederation. Only Enahoro advocated a federation. Chief Tayo Apata, my late friend and Prof Billy Doudley of the University of Ibadan were extra advisers to Mid-Western delegation and incidentally personal friends of mine. The three of us all from Lagos combined and the two of them from the Mid-West delegation put pressure on Tony Enahoro to stand for the federal system of government. Western delegation and Lagos submitted a joint memorandum. As concession to me, because I was a thorn in the flesh of combined West and Lagos, they conceded two pages to me in their paper, for federal system of government. I was part of the drafting committee. Lateef Jakande was for confederation, which was the demand of Chief Awolowo.

The North broke the ice at the ad-hoc constitutional conference and Sir Kashim Ibrahim; their leader announced that they were going back to federation. Remember, the northern delegation consisted of likes and unlikes. Aminu Kano wouldn’t stand for anything less; Joseph Tarka wouldn’t stand for anything less. Dr Elias then stood up to announce a breakaway from the West to announce that Lagos was for federation. Chief Awolowo, in fairness to him, also said he had always been a federalist. But the East was adamant on confederation. This was in 1966. All along, some of us from Lagos were meeting. We had been working on what it meant to be a state. Did we have the wherewithal and sufficient income to sustain a state? Recently in an interview, I mentioned some non-Lagosians, who made it possible for Lagos State to be a reality but who are not being given any credit. They were public servants.  This is aside Gowon, whose role has not been acknowledged. Broad Street, which one government renamed to honour him, was reverted. We rejected the hand that fed us.

Well, you are a respected voice and in a position to correct that.

Well I hope my voice is respected. And that’s why I’m saying this publicly. One of those non-indigenes of Lagos is Philip Chiedo Asiodu. He is a personal friend of mine and a contemporary at King’s College, whose wife incidentally was Mrs Pereira, a Lagos girl and my aburo. He was one of those fighting for us inside the government. Then there was Allison Ayida, who became Secretary to the government of Murtala and Obasanjo. He used his influence as chief adviser to Gowon to help realise the dream of a Lagos State. Without them, there would be no Lagos state. They helped to persuade Gowon to have a twelve state Nigeria and break the northern region into six. Thus Lagos colony, which had enjoyed separate administration from any other region or part of the country since 1861, aside the 1950-54 adventure into the Western Region, became a state and Mobolaji Johnson became the governor. Before then, he was administrator.

What role did you play as the federal commissioner for works and housing?

My role was to assist the governor in moulding his government, especially the civil service, with the assistance of two of my big brothers in the Western Regional Service at that time: the late Shamsi Thomas, who became head of civil service in Lagos and A B Johston, popularly called Abba J. They were top civil servants in Ibadan; and would travel from Ibadan to my house in Yaba. That’s where we built the civil service of Lagos state. On the creation of Lagos State, FC Opoka, the Municipal Treasurer became his Perm Sec, Finance. Shamsi Thomas went straight to Works and Planning. Gowon allowed each governor to have seven commissioners/ministries.  Anyway, I played a part in getting experienced civil servants in the Western Regional Service and elsewhere to return home. I was federal commissioner at the time and helped Bolaji to administer his ministries. All the functions of Lagos affairs under Yar’adua’s father as Minister for Lagos affairs, such as Water Works, Planning etc. I handled them all from May 1967 to March 31st 1968, when states were allowed to appoint their commissioners.

Let me say this very clearly: throughout Bolaji’s tenure as governor, we worked together very closely; Bolaji as governor of Lagos state; I as Federal commissioner for works and housing. I’m saying this because there is no friendship or harmony between the current governor and the Federal Minister of Works and Housing; and I really hope that they would henceforth join forces to work in the interest of Nigeria and Lagos. That is my message to them.

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