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Lagos State –

My Life of Service with Integrity

The Making of an ICON

An Autobiography of

Brigadier-General Mobolaji O. Johnson (Rtd)

The first Governor of Lagos State, Nigeria

Iconic principles by Kola Olutimehin


Smashwords Edition


…making way for your ultimate success…

© 2010 Mobolaji Johnson and Kola Olutimehin

First published, 2010

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Hardback ISBN: 978-1-907925-00-9

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-907925-01-6

Published by:

MakeWay Publishing Limited

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1 The Johnsons’ Story

2 My Shaky Beginning

3 Clarity Of Hope

4 I Took A Daring Step

5 I Found My True Love

6 Attention! Career Begins

7 The Unexpected Challenge – Indiscipline In The Army

8 Strife Within The Army

9 The Creation Of Lagos State And Its First Governor

10 The Acts In Lagos State – What We Did To Stand Tall

11 Unscheduled Retirement “With Immediate Effect”

12 After Governorship, What Next?


--Appendix I

--Appendix II

--Appendix III

--Appendix IV

What They Said



This book is dedicated to my wife Funmi Johnson, who has stood by me through thick and thin and always shown her love for me. Next year, 2011 we would have been married for fifty years.


To be asked to write the foreword to his autobiography, Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson has done me a great favour and honour which I very much value and appreciate. As his former ‘Supreme Commander’ though very briefly, and his ‘Commander-in-Chief’ for nine years, as well as his “Ọga”, as he likes to refer to me, I feel proud to write his ‘Confidential Report’. I am writing this with a sense of joy and satisfaction about a man that I have known from a very long time in our professional career (Army) and come to love and appreciate greatly, in and out of service.

Bolaji and I were neighbours at Oroke Drive in Ikoyi, where we developed a good relationship. What he has said of Funmi, his dear wife, in this book as a lovely and hardworking lady is very true. I became close to Bolaji’s children and remember how that one day, Seyi had worn my cap, which was braided on the front, and we had mused that he may become a good soldier like his dad and his uncle (me), someday. This however did not happen as he chose his own vocation as a Quantity Surveyor and has been making more money than his dad and I! We became good family friends, and then real family, as we interacted freely.

I am grateful for the opportunity and privilege to have had a peep at the manuscript, which I read with great interest. It was good to read about the Johnson family – Grandpa, Grandma, Pappy J and Mama Johnson, as well as Bolaji’s siblings, their pranks and mischief, but how that discipline was in place and yet had great fun during family bonding times. Theirs is a story of a God-ordained and blessed family, despite the challenges posed by unexpected deaths in the family. The Johnsons have made their contribution to the development of Lagos State in particular and Nigeria in general. They also made their contribution to the world at large as Papa Johnson was recruited and served during the Second World War.

Bolaji, who although a childhood illness threatened his early survival, did eventually live and grow, wax in body and spirit, to be able to join the army and to also fit into size ‘13-small’ boots. His courage and success in the military and later in governance and business have been remarkable and brought him the admiration that we have for him. He was one of the finest officers that have worked with me and I am proud of the achievements that we together recorded for Lagos State. Although there have been some remarkable contributions by some of his successors, including the incumbent Governor Fashola, whom I also greatly applaud, Bolaji certainly has done more for Lagos State than any of these successor Governors to date.

Brigadier-General Johnson’s upbringing has definitely contributed to the way he has demonstrated his life of service with integrity. His humane approach to life’s issues and as a soldier, his compassionate heart towards the betterment of others, his care and concern about other people’s lives, make him stand out as a good human being, ‘an officer and a gentleman’. In governance and business, the good relationship he was able to build with people and businesses, particularly with Julius Berger Nigeria Plc, resulted in no small measure, to the remarkable development that was achieved in the infrastructure of Lagos State.

I have enjoyed reading the book, ‘Lagos State – My Life of Service with Integrity’ (the autobiography of Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson) that contained the iconic principles which draw out the lessons that can be learnt from Bolaji’s life. This book is worth reading by all different groups in the society, soldiers, professionals, the youths and all other members of the armed forces, and wider society in general.

I commend Kola Olutimehin and MakeWay Publishing Limited for ensuring that this pleasant and worthwhile book is out by his 74th birthday as he embarks on trying to restore the image and the function of role models in our society.

I unreservedly commend this book to all Nigerians of all walks of life at home and in the Diaspora; as well as citizens of the international community. There is a lot we can learn from the exemplary life of Brigadier-General Mobolaji Johnson. I wish you all good and happy reading.


Lagos, Nigeria

January 17, 2010


I had considered having my memoirs published for a number of years, but had met with a series of disappointments in engaging the right consultant. A few years ago, Professor Siyan Oyeweso had been engaged to produce a biography on me. Not long afterwards, Late Josef Magnate came along, and I decided they should work together. Unfortunately, this did not yield a desired result, hence no work was published.

Five years later in 2009, after I had almost lost all interest as a result of the series of disappointments that I had had, I got a phone call from a young man, the son of a dear friend who requested a meeting with me. At our meeting, he told me that he wanted to help write and publish my autobiography. I told him that I had been committed to some people for a while and that I would enquire what stage they were at.

The young man left a document for me to read, and in the subsequent weeks, he followed up with various phone calls. Fortunately, I was able to reach the representatives of Josef Magnate, who sadly had passed away, and collected details of the information that I had previously provided to him. Having considered the professional competence of my friend, Chief S. O. Oguntimehin, I reasoned that his son was likely to have inherited such competence. I took time to read the document that the young man, Kola Olutimehin, had left for me and I was impressed about the service he desired to render.

Of course he made another follow up call, and we had another meeting where I now agreed that we should proceed with the service that he had intended. During the course of our discussions, I enjoyed re-living my childhood, my military training, my career, as well as being refreshed of how much we indeed contributed to the development of Lagos State from inception.

This really gave me joy, and I am pleased to say that about six months since this work was commenced, you now have in your hands my autobiography ‘Lagos State – My Life of Service with Integrity (The Making of an ICON)’.

Kola Olutimehin has joined me as co-author of this book, as he has extracted principles that he felt people could learn from, as it relates to my life. These are written as the Iconic Principles at the end of each chapter.

I hope that this book is not only about telling my story, but a tool to be used to further develop our state and our nation.


I am very grateful to a number of people who have in one way or the other contributed to my life’s story. The list of these people is inexhaustible and I have expressed my gratitude personally on a number of occasions. However, I wish to place on record my gratitude that I was indeed born into the Johnson household, and thank my parents for the upbringing they gave to us, which although at the time was painful, yielded benefits later in life.

I am indebted to my dear wife, Funmi, who not only has helped me to become who I am, but her expertise as a teacher really helped with the reviewing of the various drafts of the manuscript. Thank you Funmi, for all that you have been.

I say a big thank you to General Dr Yakubu Gowon, ‘Ọga mi lai lai’, who kindly read through this manuscript meticulously, offered his advice, and produced a splendid foreword. Thank you also for creating Lagos State and helping us to have a footing and identity in the country.

The incumbent Governor of Lagos State, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola SAN has greatly honoured me by writing the Afterword to this autobiography. Also, I am indeed grateful because without him the public presentation of this book may not have been possible. Thank you also for your continued service to Lagos State, which has kept the state as a pace-setter. I wish you every success in your continuing endeavours.

Thank you to all those that helped Lagos State become reality and those that assisted with the achievement that we recorded. These included the first four civil servants, known as ‘the four musketeers’, who sadly, have all passed away: Mr A.E. Howson-Wright, Mr F.C.O. Coker, Honourable Justice I. Agoro, and Chief J.O. Adeyemi-Bero. The others include. the Obas, Chiefs, Commissioners, Permanent Secretaries, Local Government representatives, other civil servants, as well as private firms and corporations.

To my German family, Julius Berger, whose immense contribution to the infrastructural development of Lagos State and made it the admiration of the international community, I say a big thank you.

I am thankful to Professor Siyan Oyeweso and Josef Magnate, for the research work that they had carried out, which remained in my possession and I was able to call on.

Kola Olutimehin and I met on various occasions both in Lagos and London, and I am happy with his conduct, and more so, grateful to him that this autobiography has indeed become reality.

Finally, I thank my God, who has guided and protected me all through the ups and downs of life. He really is the reason for my being.


I snapped out of the short dream that I was having as I lay in bed one morning after my usual daily walk with my wife. These walks usually start at ten minutes past six o’clock in the morning and we would walk for one hour. I would then return to bed for half an hour, before I got ready for the day’s activities. I had been dreaming about the inspiration I derived as a young boy, when I had looked with admiration at a photograph of my dad dressed in a military uniform.

‘I will look like this someday when I wear a uniform like this man’, I mused as I looked at the photograph of my dad that was hung on the wall of our living room. He was dressed in military uniform which was very well starched and “pressed”. He had a brown belt (I later discovered that it was actually referred to as sam-brown belt), which went around his stomach line and over his jacket, and a lanyard around his shoulder. He was tall, athletic, broad-shouldered, handsome and strong; I would have thought that he caught the admiration of many.

The Johnson clan

Dad, whom my siblings and I later addressed as Pappy J, was Joshua Motola Johnson who had been born to the new Johnson family on July 18 1903. My grandfather had changed his surname from the Osholero family name to Johnson after the English Priest, Reverend Johnson, who encouraged his dedication towards Christian virtues. This happened during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Reverend Johnson was the Minister at the Methodist Church Igbore. Igbore is an area within Abeokuta, which is in present day Ogun State in South-West Nigeria.

Grandpa Johnson was born to the Osholero family of the Egba Igbore ethnic group of Abeokuta.

Abeokuta, a Yoruba word, which literally means “under the rock”, has its origins dated back to the early nineteenth century. The rock referred to is called the Olumo Rock, which is said to be about one hundred and thirty-seven metres above sea level; and of an undeterminable age. Yoruba is one of the three major tribes in Nigeria, the other two, being the Hausa/Fulani tribe and the Igbo tribe.

Abeokuta owes its origins to the operations of slave hunters from Dahomey and Ibadan. Dahomey is present day Republic of Benin, whilst Ibadan is in the South-West region of Nigeria. The slave hunters had bullied their way into the villages which were scattered over the open country. Their activities forced the inhabitants of these villages to take refuge among the rocks that surrounded the city. As a result there were tribal wars with Dahomey. Fortunately for the Egbas, because of the protection afforded by the Olumo Rock, this provided them an advantage that helped them to win these wars.

In 1893, being about the time of the end of the Yoruba Civil Wars, the Egba United Government, a political entity, was recognised by the British. In 1914, the British, as the colonial masters, made the city of Abeokuta a part of the colony of Nigeria. This was the same year in which the North and South of Nigeria were amalgamated under Lord Frederick John Lugard, the Administrative Governor appointed by the British Government.

Baptist and Anglican Christian missionaries had begun visits to the area during the nineteenth century. Grandpa Johnson accepted Christianity during the last decade of the nineteenth century. His change of surname as a result of his conversion was limited to his immediate family, who also became Christian converts. It was not adopted by the wider Osholero family, who although had also been converted to Christianity, felt the name Johnson was alien to their culture.

Grandpa Johnson was apparently a tall, handsome and very hard working gentleman. His physical stature was said to intimidate others. However, this was quickly mellowed by his easy laugh, combined with his robust and healthy appearance. He was a kind and well natured man, who was favourably disposed towards others.

He learnt the carpentry trade from his youth and was well known for his expertise and honesty. At a young age, he moved to Ibadan, still in South-West Nigeria. He worked for the Colonial Railway Corporation and helped to build a number of the railway infrastructure. This was his way of making positive contributions to the modern development of this South-Western Nigerian city.

Grandpa Johnson developed a savings culture and taught the same to Pappy J. Pappy J recalled him saying many times that “a penny saved is a penny earned” (the words of Benjamin Franklin). He genuinely lived and practised Christian virtues. Together with his family, they belonged to the Methodist Christian denomination.

Pappy J recalled that the family used to go to church together willingly and regularly. He said Grandpa Johnson “attended services enthusiastically and would be totally engulfed in the atmosphere of piety. He often prayed with full devotion.” The entire family however maintained an open and accommodating culture towards others irrespective of their creed.

Grandma Johnson’s family descended from Abeokuta. She was known to be beautiful and hard working.

Grandpa Johnson died when Pappy J was only eleven years old. As a result, Grandma Johnson was confronted with the customary practice in their culture. She was ordered to move into the home of one of the other Osholero family members as his inherited wife. She could not bear the thought of this happening and her fury would not subside.

One day, having expressed her disapproval of such an arrangement, she fled with the children, fearing they might be harmed by the family members. She took them to Lagos to a family member that we referred to simply as uncle Sule, a tailor by profession.

Pappy J once told me of occasions when at night, he would hold up the candle while uncle Sule sewed. If he dared fall asleep with this candle, he was soon brought back to consciousness by a good knock on his head from uncle Sule’s knuckles. It was this same uncle that assisted Pappy J in gaining admission into Methodist Boys High School (MBHS).

Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to begin to trade in the sub-Saharan African region which now constitutes Nigeria. They called the port, Lagos, after the Portuguese town of Lagos in Algarve. This name eventually stuck with increase in European trade in the region. Prior to this however, the name of the city was originally Eko, a name which is still used today amongst the locals and others within its environs.

Lagos later became the administrative capital of the amalgamated North and South of Nigeria in 1914. It remained the capital of Nigeria until it was officially replaced by Abuja on December 12 1991.

Pappy J was an active sportsman from his school days. A keen footballer, he played in the centre-forward position in the inter-school soccer matches where he represented his school.

I recall a story he once told me about a match that his school played against Kings College, Lagos and how he dribbled past a certain opponent a few times during the match. This opponent was the eminent Sir Adetokunbo Ademola of international repute who received a “Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire” (KBE) honour from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 1957. In 1958 he became the first Nigerian Chief Justice of the Federation of Nigeria.

On conclusion of his studies, Pappy J gained employment at the Survey Department in Lagos as a Lithographer. He grew up as an ambitious lad, who imbibed several lessons from his own parents, some of which were passed down to us. He was a hard working young man. A fine good-looking man, he was a dapper, a dandy who always turned out very well groomed. His dress sense was articulate as he would normally order his clothes out of European catalogues.

Pappy J had told me how he met mum as Miss Emma Gbemisola Coker. He said, “She was walking along Glover Street in the early hours of the day. She had bow legs and wore a beautiful chocolate-coloured dress. That moment, I wheeled my bicycle back toward her and studied her intently. She was so pretty, this breath-taking dame. I felt my toes curl right down into the soles of my shoes at the mere sight of her face. I proposed to her on the spot.”

I cannot imagine what came over Pappy J that he made such instant proposal, and in that manner! Pappy J continued, “Gbemi did not give any clues to suggest whether it would be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. There was something about her that made me feel she was my wife. Each time that I later thought about her, I always felt nervous at the imagination of hearing a ‘no’ from her. I had hoped that would never be the case.”

As the days rolled into weeks, he enquired and found out more about this Miss Coker. He discovered that she was a nurse and had never been interested in boys. He had told me that, “Although my friends thought she might not be interested in me, I was determined not to allow this to discourage me. I had fallen in love with Gbemi at first sight. I kept faith with those feelings.

“One late evening, I told uncle Sule about Gbemi and that I wanted to marry her. Uncle Sule looked at me and said, ‘Who do you think you are, to marry Dudley Coker’s daughter?’ The levels of discouragement seemed to be endless; now another one from uncle Sule. Thank God she eventually became mine.”

Mum was born to Mr Dudley Coker on May 10 1912. My maternal Grandpa was a successful businessman with an affluent background. He had a tender heart towards women and was a very kind man.

So it was that one day Grandpa Dudley sat with his friends playing a game of draughts, about five hundred yards away from his house. He momentarily looked up and saw a young well dressed man walk past at a distance. He said to his friends, “That fine young man is going to my house”.

His friends burst into laughter as they had always known Grandpa Dudley to lay claim to pleasant things. Some minutes later, a message came to him where he sat that his attention was required at home, as a young man was waiting to see him. Providence had weighed on his side.

The gentleman that had gone visiting was Pappy J. He had come to be introduced to mum’s father and to also let him know of his interest in my mum. My maternal Grandma had unfortunately died when mum was only four years old. She died of what they commonly called “fast-breeding” in those days. This was a form of high child bearing frequency, which seemed to be more than she could cope with. So mum had been brought up by an aunt called Mrs Goyea.

Eventually, my parents’ respective families met and there was an agreement that they be married. From the moment Grandpa Dudley had met Pappy J, he took kindly to him and treated him no less than his real son. He encouraged him all the way.

After one of the traditional ceremonies, the payment of the dowry (a collection of gifts given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family), Grandpa Dudley did something rather unusual. After all the guests had left, he shook Pappy J’s hand and said “I am delighted to have you as my son-in-law.” Then, handing over some of the gifts and money that he had earlier received from Pappy J’s family, Grandpa Dudley continued, “I am not selling my daughter. Take these; I do not need them all. Use them for the new home you are about to start. I would rather choose to have only half the money from a good son-in-law than mortgage the conscience, freedom and happiness of my daughter in the hands of a rich, negligent and uncaring suitor. Just take good care of her.”

In 1931, after a few months of courtship, Pappy J and mum got married. Pappy J fondly called mum, Gbemi, and mum called him Johnny. They moved into a rented apartment on Glover Street.

If it could be any consolation for having lost his own dad at a tender age, Pappy J continued to enjoy a good relationship with his father-in-law. Sometimes when they had been out together, and they needed to make some form of payment, Grandpa Dudley would make the payment for both of them and tease Pappy J that, “I know you are broke because you are taking good care of my daughter.” Pappy J appreciated such gestures because it helped him to save and work towards making a success of their lives.

Family life soon began for my parents, Joshua and Gbemisola Johnson. My brother Tunde was born in 1932 and Femi was born two years later in 1934. To make more room for this growing family, my parents moved to number 4, Catholic Mission Street on Lagos Island. Later they moved on to number 32 Campbell Street, which was near Ajẹlẹ Cemetery.

My arrival on planet earth

On February 9 1936, Pappy J accompanied mum to the labour room of Dr Maja’s Clinic in Lagos, giving her all the moral support he could muster. At about 9a.m. a bouncing baby boy arrived to the joy of an exhausted mother and an elated father. This baby was later called Mobolaji Olufunso Johnson. That was me; I had made an entrance into planet earth via the Johnson household.

I have taken note of certain events that have made history in the year of my birth. King George V of the United Kingdom died on January 20, 1936, and his son King Edward VIII succeeded him on the throne. On March 7, Nazi Germany re-occupied the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which had been one of the Peace Treaties signed to end the First World War.

Technology took a giant leap forward when in August, the 1936 Summer Olympics being held in Berlin, Germany, was given the first live television coverage of a sports event in world history. At this event, African-American athlete, Jesse Owens achieved international fame by winning four gold medals; one each in the one hundred metres, two hundred metres, long jump, and the four by one hundred metres relay.

With respect to events in Nigeria, 1936 was the year that the first Lutheran missionaries came into Nigeria. This church has grown to over one hundred thousand members since that time. Also, Shell D’Arcy came into the country as the first major pioneer for oil exploration in Nigeria from 1936. Shell and BP, two major British oil companies, later formed a joint venture in 1938. They were granted a licence to explore oil covering the entire territory of Nigeria and this gave them a monopoly over oil exploration in the country. The first commercial oil field was later discovered in Oloibiri in the Niger Delta in 1956.

Here I was, a third boy in the Johnson household. Sometimes I have wondered how my mum coped with all these boys around her! No wonder I grew up knowing her to have the courage and boldness of a man when she stood her ground against opposition. Mum had always been a woman worthy of emulation.

Pappy J always felt compassion towards mum and she could always count on his support. He later revealed his thoughts in a letter to me; “Incidentally, it was my lot in life to be present in the labour room as I watched the delivery of my first three sons from their mother’s womb and straight into my arms. It was an experience, though unpleasant, yet worth having to see the travail and agony, which women go through during childbirth.”


It is evident that the power of inheritance has played a significant role in the icon’s life. Considering some of the characteristics that have been recognised in the lives of his predecessors as below, one can clearly identify their impact in the making of the icon.

The Right Mental Attitude

Grandpa Johnson, though he died young had made a lasting impact on his son Motola, the father of the icon, Brigadier-General Johnson. He understood that good things do not just come to those who sit around wishing; and that they go after them. The following characteristics which may be drawn from Grandpa Johnson’s life, despite it being a relatively short one, and Pappy J’s were also evident in the life of the icon later:

Clear focus and a strong conviction towards a direction

• Once, he had been converted to Christianity, Grandpa Johnson maintained the course, despite the sentiments that may have tried to pull him back.

• Pappy J was not going to be dissuaded by the opinion of others after he had been personally convinced of who his heart throb would be.

Often times, people are confused about what they want in life. They tend to look for the approval of others, such that they end up living their lives based on what they think others are thinking about them! This is such a presumptive lifestyle that does not enable people to discover who they really are.

Rather than live such a presumptive life of self-doubt, you should seek counsel from those you trust and respect. Honour your parents, and take into account the words of wise elders. Make every effort to understand the reasons for their advice on particular matters, and listen more than you speak to them. Read inspiring books like you are doing now, as they usually contain gems of insight and wisdom. Let these, amongst other virtues, guide you as you take your steps in life.

Working to accomplish results

Grandpa Johnson and Pappy J demonstrated a lifestyle of hard work. Grandpa Johnson made a mark in his carpentry trade. And Pappy J began to work in a similar direction.

A lot of people wish for so many things but are usually prevented from its pursuit due to what I call a “victor’s extinguisher”. A victor’s extinguisher is simply an excuse not to perform, and the person affected by it thinks of every reason not to pursue a task. This person has developed a mental excuse to become a loser.

One of the ways to overcome this victor’s extinguisher and become a victor is to discover what it is that you really want in life, and develop a passion for it. Passion is enough to guarantee hard work, because when you do what you really want and love, you develop an inspired hard work ethics towards it. It no longer feels like hard work, but a hobby that you are enjoying.

Develop the habit of saving money

This is a clear lesson that Grandpa Johnson, taught his son, Pappy J, who remembered the phrase he heard from his dad as a little boy; “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

The worries about the lack of money can derail your thought processes, and make it difficult, or impossible to reach your destined purpose. Usually, people say if they only just earned more money. It is not just a case of earning more, it is more important to learn to manage efficiently the money that comes to you.

It is never too late to adopt some saving techniques. Below are some simple ones to consider, in addition to others that you may already know about:

• Save a fixed percentage of what you earn, and do not risk it in any venture that may result in a loss. In addition, you can save more money at the end of the day, week, or month, by taking out of your purse or wallet some money to keep away – if you had spent it, it would have gone anyway, so make the assumption that it has been spent on you.

• Save another fixed percentage which you can invest for multiplication. Only invest the maximum amount that you can afford to lose. Know how to cut your losses.

People relationship

Grandpa Johnson and Pappy J clearly related well with others in their family and community. They engaged with people in humility and honesty.

We all have needs in life. However, do not let such needs overshadow your good nature toward others. Dwell with people with understanding and make your words and ways count. Can your word be trusted?


“Dis boy get plenty friends who wan take am away. But dis boy like im Papa and Mama and im blada too. He no wan go.” [This boy has mysterious company who want to take him away. But the boy likes his Papa and Mama and his brothers too. He does not want to go.] These were the comments of a native doctor, in pidgin English, whom Pappy J had consulted.

From 1936 onwards my parents watched me grow. I was described as a beautiful robust child with curly hair. Pappy J once wrote, “When you were born, you possessed fine dimples in your cheeks. You had fairly big eyeballs, which made your smile charming, especially to women who were always eager to carry and kiss you. They would make such comments as, ‘Ah, inu ọmọ yi ma dara o. Abi wa fẹ mi?’ [Ah, this child has got such a good heart. Will you marry me?].

“Then you would turn your brown eyes and smile and sometimes laugh heartily, signifying your acceptance of the proposal. Then they would further say, ‘Mama-boy, ki ẹ lọ mu owo ana wa o. Ọmọ yin ti gba la ti fẹ mi o.’ [Boys’ mum, go and get the dowry together. Your son has agreed to marry me.]”

This lavish praise on me apparently continued until one day in December of 1936, when the manner of attention changed. I was only ten months old. From a certain morning before breakfast, and for another three days, I had been hit by a mysterious bout of diarrhoea. This once plump baby had now been reduced to bones and skin - Pappy J nicknamed me “Mahatma Gandhi”.

It seemed to go from bad to worse, as my condition deteriorated very rapidly. The diarrhoea persisted and my parents’ expenses soared in their desperate bid to save my life. They were greatly troubled as they wondered if I might die. Pappy J and mum, despite the frustrating strain my illness brought on them, continued to search for a way out.

Pappy J wrote to the healing department of the Rosicrucian Fellowship in Oceanside, California, USA. Mum wrote to the Christian Science Organisation in the USA. They sought counsel from far and wide. A woman who sympathised with my parents’ predicament brought in a native doctor from Urhobo land in Mid-Western Nigeria, who said the cause of the illness must be investigated before a cure can be prescribed.

After conducting some mysterious acts with incantations, he came up with the suggestion that I had mysterious company, and its members wanted to take me away. However, I was apparently resisting a return to this company. In his pidgin English, having made his recommendation of what should be done, he concluded that; “Dis boy go stay; he no go die. Im friends no go take am go.” [This boy will stay; he will not die. His company will not take him away.]

Pappy J and Mum later received replies from the respective organisations they had written to. These letters assured them of my recovery, and that “the boy will live and be strong and successful in life.” The illness continued and I remained very fragile in my early years. My parents who had already created a pattern of reproduction every two years, kept this ideal plan on hold.

Eventually, I got better to the delight of my parents. Pappy J was grateful to God and felt that the love he had for me and the fear of my death had led him to seek other powers. However, he acknowledged that my healing had come from God alone. Then the slow process of recovery started for me.

Pappy J’s “Mahatma Gandhi” looked like he could be broken into two like a piece of dried stick. I crawled when I was two years old and began to take my first steps at the age of three. Think about it, some children start walking at ten months old! My mental ability had also taken a blow and I seemed slow with the start of most things. My parents, however, were convinced of my total recovery and focused a great deal of attention on me, to the envy of my brothers. Family and friends were concerned about this attention and warned my parents that it could be tantamount to spoiling the child.

While we lived at Campbell Street, Pappy J had begun the construction of his own house. He had adopted a plan from a magazine called Ideal Homes. However, before it was fully completed we moved into the house in 1939. I was three years old. This was a deliberate action to assist my recovery process.

Our new house, number 22 Wakeman Street (now, Bornu Way) was bigger and was situated in a better neighbourhood. The design he had copied from the Ideal Homes magazine, was unique and the known first of its kind in Nigeria. Even architects referred to the house as “novel”. We called it the “Aquarian Lodge”. Unlike houses that were being built at that time, the kitchen and bathroom were also attached to the house. It really was lovely and modern.

Pappy J had said “I suppose we needed your recovery and growth level monitored in a good and serene neighbourhood”.

Uncle Sule visited the house and was highly impressed with what my dad had done. He had underestimated Pappy J’s disciplined savings routine. The house had been built from his savings, despite his little earnings over the years.

Not long afterwards, uncle Sule’s health began to fail. Pappy J supported him financially through this time. Sadly, uncle Sule died, and Pappy J had lost another “father”.

In 1940, the family’s growth continued with the fourth boy. It was the birth of my brother, Lanre. Mum even had fuller hands now – four boys; the younger two required constant hands on attention and care, whilst the first two were full of pranks.

Tunde and Femi were especially happy that we had moved out of Campbell Street. We were unfortunate to have inquisitive neighbours who could not keep their mouths shut! There were no brick walls, but flowers were used to demarcate the neighbours’ houses. As children, we would fight when our parents were away; and of course these neighbours would be at them with running commentary once they returned. They would say things like, we had threatened to kill each other.

Pappy J reacted to one of those supposed threats, with his usual sternness. It was the stoop down punishment for Tunde, Femi and I. This meant that the left foot would be down and the right index finger touching the ground; the right leg is lifted up in the air behind and the left arm would rest on your back.

We were then asked to repeat over-and-over, the phrase ‘birds in their nests never ever quarrel. A thing of shame is it not, for children from the same womb not to be in harmony!’ Having repeated this phrase numerous times in the ‘stoop down’ position, we had to then do lines on them. We wrote it down ten times.

Mr Onoh was a fellow tenant when we lived at Campbell Street. He stayed in the ground floor flat, while we were on the first floor. We missed him dearly, and most especially, Femi. I can still see a picture of him in my mind’s eye, saying to Mr Onoh, “Ma jẹ ẹwa” [I would like to eat some cooked beans]. Mr Onoh loved, and always seemed to cook beans, and we boys often went to eat some, Femi being the leader!

When I was four, my parents decided that it was time that I went to school, having recovered from my illness. Mum found this difficult as she could not bear to leave me alone for more than an hour. She would go to pieces at the sound of an uncomfortable whimper from me. Of course, this irritated Pappy J who felt keeping me at home would only make me a weak “mummy’s boy”. He said this would only signal a future life of failure.

Finally, I was taken to Reagan Memorial Baptist School, Yaba. What a drama at the school gates as mum took me to school on that first day! After mum had handed me over to my class teacher and said good-bye, she had begun to walk slowly away. When she heard me crying, she turned round and walked back to me. She drew me close to herself, hugged me and began to cry too. When she finally let go and said another nervous goodbye, I stood there numb and could not even wave goodbye to her.

She must have walked back home thinking she was probably nuts to have left her “baby” to the mercy of the teacher and stronger classmates. I guess she fought the urge to come back and get me; that would have been risking Pappy J’s wrath.

The seed of my military career

Pappy J was later drafted into the Royal West African Frontier Force, as one of the soldiers who enlisted during the Second World War. Together with other recruits, they were taken to Bukuru in Northern Nigeria for the recruit training. This lasted for at least six months.

Whilst some of the newly recruited soldiers, including Pappy J were taken to Kenya for military service, others were taken to Burma. Pappy J was an Infantry and got to the position of Regimental Sergeant Major, W01 (Warrant Officer, class 1), and commanded troops. He returned before the end of World War II.

One day, after he had returned from the war, he hung a photo that he had taken in his full military uniform on the wall. I later admired him in his uniform and more so every time I looked at the photo, I saw myself in it. I longed to wear this uniform in my lifetime and become a soldier – I liked the dignity and the sense of protective power vested in anyone that wore such uniform. The more I looked at the photograph, the more zealous I became towards soldiering.

He rejoined the Survey Department as a lithographer and continued in this role until he retired from this Civil Service position at the age of sixty-five. In the course of his youth, he had developed a passion for tennis and bike riding. His long hours of play always seemed to be unmatched by his peers.

In 1942, Bimbola, my baby sister was born into the family. This helped to divert mum’s attention. Finally, her fifth child was the little girl that she had prayed for and anticipated. She had imagined the dresses she would make for her, and how she would braid her hair into different styles. All these had finally come true for mum. However, when the news of my sister’s birth was brought to us in the house, the boys had said “a o fẹ obirin laarin wa o” [we don’t want a girl in our midst]. Little did we know that this girl would turn out to be our forever loved darling to us later in life.

Although I was still mum’s “baby”, she eventually got used to me not always being around her as I had started school. More so, there was Bimbola to look after. Of course, I began to develop slowly into a more independent person, notwithstanding the fact that mum was still there to lean on.

Interestingly however, my life’s lessons were learnt more from Pappy J. I consulted him on almost every difficulty; from unsolved problems with my school work to a young child’s social issues with friends. He was my role model and I wanted to be like him.



To have a mental picture of what one will become in life may just inspire the person to live according to some principles that have been tested and found to produce good results.

Be prepared to hope in the face of adversity

I have defined faith as a personal conviction of one’s desire, and this operates in the present tense. When one says he has faith in the occurrence of an event, this means that person is confidently assured of the reality of the event.

Hope however, is the “hold” onto faith until a physical manifestation of the event. You must be holding on as well as acting accordingly because you are convinced about its occurrence. It is impossible for you to be blinded by present circumstances, which may contradict what you believe!

The icon’s parents’ faith and hope are proved by the action steps that they took when he was ill.

How do you develop faith and hope in the face of adversity? The adversity and hope should provide assurance for one’s dependence on infinite intelligence and capability. It is the influence of the unchangeable “Changer”, the living God. They showed the value of persistence and dedication with the way they handled the icon’s childhood illness. The older children saw their persistence, for which they were graciously rewarded.

The dream that is turned into reality

A dream that is quickly captured in an atmosphere where it is given the “ingredients” to enable its transition to reality is as good as happened. More so, where a child has a definite role model in either of the parents or the guardian, then it becomes “tangible”. The child is able to see what he or she will become, like the icon who developed a mental conception. A number of stares, with deeply concentrated thought and imagination at Pappy J’s photo, helped the icon to see himself as he would become.

This is a process called visualisation. It is the ability to create an imagination of the intended outcome of your thought processes. It lends power to faith, and keeps hope alive. These internalised activities feed one’s subconscious mind, and cause a natural thought process and active progression towards your direction.

The icon, as a child, had unknowingly mastered this art, a principle which he had practised intuitively.


I had begun to develop friendship with school mates and was also coming into my own independence. I could not imagine how weak I had been; I was four years older than Lanre my junior brother, but Pappy J used to tease that Lanre would be able to give me a good contest when we wrestled in the future.

A Sierra-Leonean lady who was our nanny at home had started to call me ‘Bol’, as she said that Mobolaji was tongue twisting! This became a name that would later stick. At school, my friends liked me and affectionately called me Bol-J. This made me feel stronger, confident and kind of one of the ‘happening’ boys. I had formed friendship bonds with Felix Ibru, Yinka Sanni, Niyi Olumide and Igbekele Ikuomola. Fortunately, I also enjoyed good popularity with the teachers.

I was not one of the cleverest in my class; more like an average student. I had been rather slow to pick up new concepts that were being taught; however, once I had understood it, it was firmly sealed in my mind.

Home life was becoming more interesting as I became ‘one of the boys’ with my elder brothers. I joined in with the pranks!

As I became physically stronger, I developed a passion for hunting or shall I say killing insects, especially grasshoppers. At breakfast, I would remind Femi of our date with grasshoppers. Tunde would turn a beetle on its back with his big toe and draw my attention to it, for action.

One day I returned home with an old tobacco tin. Having drawn my brothers’ attention, they were visibly shocked when I opened the tin and they saw what I had in it. I had a remarkable collection of partly squashed beetles, grasshoppers, bush-crickets, a decapitated butterfly, and a large dead scorpion from which the sting had been carefully removed.

This was some form of self assurance to me. I reasoned that, if I could bring all these in, including a scorpion, I no longer needed to feel that I had been weakened by any form of physical limitation. I had developed in confidence.

Family bonding and values

Although Pappy J was still the disciplinarian, we nevertheless had some element of fun and family bonding. I learnt a great deal from Pappy J. He would often tell us stories. Evenings were especially merry at home when I was growing up. Looking up to our own moonlight story teller we would all sit around Pappy J like chicks gathered to mother hen.

Our parents used these evening times to share tales of wisdom with us. We heard many stories from them. Pappy J always had a story he used to teach us the values of life. There was the story of the widow, which he used to imbibe the value of patience, a maintenance culture, and a life of discreet. He told us that the ‘right hand should not know the good deeds that the left hand is doing’. We learnt of the importance of meekness and humility.

Music was very much a part of our life at home, and we would usually rehearse songs with Pappy J. We listened to him sing so many songs brilliantly. We would make attempts to learn some of these songs, but he was usually the solo entertainer. Mum also joined in the singing. These were the sounds of a happy upbeat family that our parents helped to create in the home. These were some of the kind sides to our parents that we experienced.

In addition, both my parents took to acting; they would usually feature in the same plays. One day at the Glover Memorial Hall, Pappy J acted one of the main parts, Lazarus, in the play, “Mary of Bethany”. When it got to the part where Jesus had shouted, “Lazarus, come forth”; the hall was darkened and we dimly saw ‘Lazarus’ come out of the tomb wrapped in various cloths all around his body and head. It was a classic!

Tunde and Femi later joined the Lagos Musical Society and did some acting too. Some time afterwards, Femi acted in the plays, “Kongi’s Harvest” and “Blues for a Prodigal” by Wole Soyinka. Soyinka, a playwright, was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Laureate prize in Literature. Caroline, Femi’s daughter who later took up a career in acting, has featured in some popular soaps, such as ‘Chef’, in the United Kingdom.

Pappy J never fell short on the practice of the biblical proverb, “spare the rod, and spoil the child”. We felt the cane on our bodies, every single one of us. More so, he seemed to have mum’s support all the way, because he would say “you cannot train a child with two tongues”. He believed that they ought to be unified in their training approach of the children. There were times that my brothers and I felt that he was too wicked to be our father; how could anyone treat his own children in the manner we were sometimes handled? We were handled with a very firm hand.

As far as Pappy J was concerned, we must get increasingly better grades in school, win scholarship honours, get started early, be good debaters, learn to speak readily on our feet, participate in sporting activities, and be extremely good with household chores. We were expected to be bold enough to go for whatever we desired, ensuring that we never brought shame to the family name.

He had a zero-tolerance for laxity – you felt the pain of the cane for that! He would say, “I am expecting you all to amount to something. I do not want to be a wonderful father of failures. I would rather be a no-nonsense father who dictates the minute-by-minute life of my children, and having imparted in them the seed of greatness. If you failed in life to uplift the family name, I would have to take responsibility for that.”

Pappy J sometimes entertained guests in the home, and the drink they had often was something they called “khaki-sarge”. This was a mixture of Guinness and local palm wine. We would usually run the errand to buy the palm wine from the sellers; of course we always took a few sips before we delivered on our task. We soon devised another ploy – we would visit a few palm wine sellers, asking to taste the wine before we made a committed purchase. Of course this went on successfully. On our return, we would break ice for Pappy J and his friends, holding ourselves together and careful not to show any signs of palm wine intoxication.

Sounds of laughter and joy continually seemed to fill the air as they enjoyed their time together. Inevitably, some of them would get drunk. Pappy J will lift them onto their bicycle and cycle closely alongside them as close to their homes as possible. He would then leave them hoping that they would make it to their homes – they always did! Funny really, that Pappy J was never the drunk one although they were in his house!

Mum taught us all to cook and to bake. Femi was the ‘master chef’. He certainly was a better cook than the rest of us put together and he seemed to revel in it.

As a baker, mum also made confectioneries for sale. She would start the mixing of the dough to bake the bread, from about 4am. Our day as children started typically at 5am, except for Tunde who started earlier on a Thursday because he was on flour mixing duty with mum. We were expected to hear the clang of the clock in the living room from our bedroom while we were still asleep.

My brothers and I slept in double layered single beds (or bunk-beds, as they are often called). Pappy J would tip-toe towards our room with his ‘koboko’ (a horse-whip) ready to apply on our bodies, if we had not got up on the sound of the clock in the living room. Mum did not like this treatment and felt that it was too harsh early in the morning.

After the bread had been baked, the loaves would be set in trays together with eggs, which I would hawk from 7am until 8am when I returned to get ready for school. School resumed at 9am. Hawking was not a daily affair, though. After we returned from school at about 3pm, we would sometimes continue with street hawking from about 4pm. In addition to the bread and eggs, we would include such products as biscuits, and sweets on our trays, which we carried on our heads. We would target the returning workers from their respective places of work. I enjoyed street hawking, and was particularly good at it, but Femi hated it. He would leave his tray in the corner, and go to play football. In exchange for a portion of his meat at meal times, I would then hawk his merchandise with my usual verbal announcement, and give him the proceeds when I returned to the meeting point.

Looking back, we boys had a lot of fun when we were growing up, especially between Femi and I. Femi would sometimes give me his clothes as a gift when they were dirty. Once I had cleaned them, he would reclaim them. I was easy going, but I soon got wiser about his tactics.

Early on a Saturday morning sometimes, I did market errands for mum. The market sellers would often want me to be the first to buy from them. They believed that I brought a measure of luck into their day, when I did. They would often say “Șẹ mi l’ọwọ; ọwọ aje” [“Be my first patron, hands of profit”].

The confectionery sales business helped to complement what Pappy J earned as a civil servant. In 1946, another brother Tosin had been born into the Johnson family. Our family was large, six children.

Alongside my siblings, I had been baptised at the Yaba Methodist Church at the same time. My father was a chorister and my brothers were also in the choir. We went to church on Sunday mornings; attended Sunday school in the afternoons; and returned for the evening service. My parents however attended Olowogbowo Methodist Church. The Yaba Methodist Church was more accessible to us as it was not far from home.

Mum had introduced Tunde, Femi and myself to Brother Macaulay and more or less handed us over to him for mentoring. We used to visit him regularly and he taught us a lot about life, and he definitely made positive contributions to the persons we turned out to be later in life. Fondly now referred to as Papa Macaulay, he is in his mid nineties as of the time of this writing and he is doing very well.

The adventurous and cheeky side of me

I left my elementary school at Reagan Memorial Baptist School in 1946 because it was converted into an all girls’ school. I passed the transfer examination and gained admission into Yaba Methodist School (YMS) in Yaba, Lagos. At YMS, my growth in confidence took a new leap.

I joined a group of boys, and we called ourselves the Emo Club, which meant the ‘Grass-cutters’. This club was a collection of old students who were interested in rabbits, or grass-cutters, as we called them. Our Emo club was notorious for its encroachment into farms and private lands in Yaba. We were initially ignored by the residents in Yaba, as they regarded us as wandering school children who just played pranks.

One day however, we set fire to a bush which grew into a wild fire, spreading to the home of a Caucasian expatriate. Unfortunately, the uncontrollably tearful expatriate’s steward recognised our school uniform. We were called out during assembly the following morning; Felix Ibru, Niyi Olumide, Awo Olukoya, Saka Oloko, Yinka Sanni, and of course me.

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