Till this day, he remains an iconic Governor. Pa Lateef Kayode Jakande, popularly called LKJ or Baba Kekere, (an acronym invented to imply his capability to step on Awolowo’s shoes when necessary) remains the most accomplished governor of all time. He is a veteran journalist and politician of high note. He ruled Lagos State between between 1979 and 1983 and his four year term remains the most achieving till date but lost the grip of power when General Buhari staged a coup. The 84-year-old tells LEKE BAIYEWU of PUNCH what roles his political mentor, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, played in his career… Among other things. Enjoy the interview
Where were you born and how was your growing up like?
I was born in Epetedo area of Lagos State and I grew up under very good people. I had my primary education on Lagos Island. My father was an officer in the Nigeria Port Authority; he was transferred to Port Harcourt and I went there to complete my primary school education. I came back home (Lagos) and I continued my education. My secondary education was partly King’s College but I ended up at Ilesa Grammar School.
Were you from a rich family?
No. My parents were moderate. As I told you, my father worked with NPA and he remained there throughout.
Did you have the dream to be a great leader?
I think it just came up; it just occurred. It wasn’t something that I had planned for but it occurred as I grew up. And after leaving Ilesa Grammar school, I came back to Lagos and I got employed by Daily Service. That was how I entered into journalism.
How was education then?
I will say that the educational system was not as good as now. Of course, the university system was not available, as it later became. This is not to say that the standard was low; the standard was not poor. It was good but the opportunities were not wide as they later became.
Were there cases of exam malpractices, indecent dressing and cultism on campus?
No. There wasn’t anything like that.
Was it your dream to be a journalist?
I will say yes. I had love for the profession; I had love for journalism and I started in Ilesa Grammar school. I ran a school magazine and, in a way, it was a practising ground for me. It was not difficult for me to get into the profession after leaving school. In fact, I just went straight into journalism.
How was journalism in your heyday; who were journalists?
Journalists, by my experience, have always had high respect. Journalism was a respected profession and journalists, then, were also respected. I was fortunate to get into the profession early; almost as soon as I left school and I’ve been there since then.
Is it true that you were lured into politics when you joined the Nigerian Tribune, under Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
Yes, he did. Awolowo was the proprietor of Nigerian Tribune and I began my career there on the lowest cadre – that is by being a reporter and going through all the stages and ended up as the managing director and editor-in-chief.
Was there a particular time he advised you to go into politics?
Being editor of Tribune automatically introduced me into politics and I had no regret about that. Tribune was the mouthpiece of the Action Group and the Nigerian Youth Movement. So, in that particular situation, it was not difficult for me to be part of politics. I was not interested in politics but I think that my professional involvement increased my interest. And I became both a politician and a journalist.
Were politicians of those days involved in do-or-die politics?
Politicians then were on both sides of the line. I think that the politics of that time was very enabling. We had clear-cut lines of political division but we never had the bitterness that came later. We were fortunate to have great men like Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief S. L. Akintola – these were great men who had great commitments, and they made unforgettable contributions to the development of this country. You know, the target at that time was freedom from colonialism, which we started and the great men who led us had clear-cut programmes. I always feel that Nigeria has been very fortunate to have these men at the beginning of independence. That is why, in my view, our politics has not been as bitter as those in other countries.
Who was Awolowo and what was the ideology that set him apart?
Chief Awolowo was a socialist. Instinctively, he was what we called a progressive and he lived for it. He was able to transform the political system into an exercise for the service of the people. He was a very strong-minded person and some people didn’t like him for that. He was a calculative and determined politician. When he served as the premier of the Western Region, he brought a lot of things to that part of the country. It was his performance and achievements that paved the way for my service as the governor of Lagos State. I can never forget him.
“This country has all the resources that we need to achieve greatness. My belief and conviction is that we shall make it. Nigeria will do better. Nigerians will live better and we shall have no cause to regret that we are Nigerians. I want to appeal to everyone to commit themselves to this great country”.
How was the electoral process that brought you in as governor?
There were no riggings or ballot stuffing but there were allegations of wrong calculation and counting. Rigging was also part of the game and when I contested the election, I had the clear mandate of the majority of the people of Lagos State. The emphasis was service to the people. The level of corruption that has developed in our politics never existed. The degree of destruction that we have in this country did not exist. Politics was seen as a call to service. Politicians would differ on how to render service. I can say that, generally, it was recognised as a call to service.
You were reputed to have targeted your programmes, particularly educational and housing at the masses when you were the governor. What inspired the vision you had?
When I was preparing for my governorship, I was inspired by my political leaders – particularly Chief Awolowo and others. I made up my mind to achieve something for the people and I went straight into it – free education, free health service, affordable housing and full employment. These were my goals and I began to implement them almost as soon as I was sworn in. I was encouraged very much by the people themselves.
For example, when I declared free education, my critics said it was impossible. At that time, schooling was three sessions daily; three times a day, the children went to school and we called it shift system. I abolished the three-shift system and introduced free education almost immediately I was sworn in. I was conscious that there would be problems but I was confident that these problems would be solved.
For example, the number of schools was insufficient for the children and I directed that enough schools should be built to accommodate all the children. And something happened. When the policy was being carried out, my officials in government came to report to me that they had exhausted all the available space under government control. It occurred to me immediately that the officials should go out into the state and build schools on any open space; any open space. Some of them were afraid. I said, “Go to any place where you have space, tell them (owners) that I advised you to come and build schools there.”
Well, I thank God for everything. I thank God that the people of Lagos State responded beautifully. There were only a few who complained to me about what they needed the pieces of land for. One of them, who I don’t want to mention, came to me to talk about his problem, I offered him land on the Victoria Island which he welcomed. I had a total support from the people of Lagos State and that was what happened.
So, I was very much encouraged by our people, ditto affordable housing. The people of Lagos State did not have, in my view, sufficient number of houses for their living. Here again, I directed that houses should be built wherever there was space and it happened. But let me say that I owe that success to the understanding of the people themselves. Without them, I could have done nothing. They were totally with me – building schools, houses and attending to the basic needs of the community. I thank God that it was possible to run a government, which meant every good thing to everybody.
Can you recollect how many houses and schools your administration built?
I’m sorry, I cannot remember them.
I learnt that over 20,000 housing units were built…
Correct; very correct.
State governors of today often give paucity of fund as the excuse for not initiating mass programmes. How were you able to fund the projects you mentioned?
Our people are wonderful people and without even going out of the country, we mobilised the funding of all those projects. You must be grateful to God when you have people who trust you and who believe you can achieve what you’ve said you would do. It is on record that I did not leave Lagos State government in debt. No. I summoned people, I raised funds. I set up committees which had to work hard to raise funds for all the projects we were doing. It was a lesson I can never forget.
You mean you didn’t rely on oil revenue from Abuja?
No. We did not even think of it, much less expect it. We did not think of it. We mobilised ourselves and everybody contributed.
On December 31, 1983, when the military took over power, where were you and what actually happened?
There had been threats of military takeover. These threats came to the surface and the ordinary citizens did not welcome any intervention from the military. But, the military imposed itself on the people and we had to do our best to achieve what was best for our people. It was an unforgettable experience but one had to do one’s best to achieve the purpose of service. And I think we did that. In fairness to the military, some of them did appreciate the service we had rendered and, as you know, one of them – Gen. Sani Abacha – approached me and invited me to his cabinet. I accepted the invitation simply because I saw it as an opportunity to continue my service, which I did as minister of works.
It was learnt that some people put pressure on you to take up the appointment. Who were these people and why did they do so?
They were the people who believed in my integrity; people who were worried about the services and institutions we have established, and they saw the invitation as an opportunity to maintain and to sustain what we had started.
Can you recollect some of those who persuaded you?
They are many; I can’t remember any one or two. It was the generality of the people of Lagos State.
Would you accept that your acceptance of the offer had an adverse effect on your political career?
No because while I was there, nobody was in doubt that I was in for service. And in fairness to the military, they didn’t put anything in my way. I carried on as if it was the civilian government. So, I have no cause to regret.
Nowadays, politicians go into public offices and come out super rich. How wealthy were you when you left government?
Let me say at once that wealth was not my consideration when I went into office and I did not even try to acquire wealth of any type. I did not put myself in any situation that I could acquire wealth. I was satisfied with what God had given me and, till today, I am where I’ve always been.
To trace the problems with this country, some critics have faulted Nigeria’s amalgamation. They believe the regions should divide. Is this the way out?
Most of those who are saying that don’t know what they are talking about. Amalgamation was right. What else could we do without amalgamation? I think it was good; that is what brought Nigeria about. Some have even spoken of Nigeria breaking up; I don’t think such people appreciate what they are talking about. My belief is that by the grace of God Nigeria will never break up. It is a great country and God has made it to be so.
Considering the spate of insecurity and corruption, what is the way forward?
The way forward is that we should trust in God and work hard to save us from these disastrous tendencies. We need leaders who are prepared to save and serve this country. The alternative to that is unthinkable. How can anyone talk about breaking Nigeria? This country has all the resources that we need to achieve greatness. My belief and conviction is that we shall make it. Nigeria will do better. Nigerians will live better and we shall have no cause to regret that we are Nigerians. I want to appeal to everyone to commit themselves to this great country. No country is better or can be better and our people should realise that it is the wish of our creator that Nigeria should exist as it is. We will do better; Nigerians will do better and we will make a greater nation.