Alhaji Olufemi Okunnu Quick Background Profile: Alhaji Femi Okunnu SAN serves as a Chairman of ELMAC Assurance Company Limited. Mr. Okunnu is a Lawyer by profession and serves as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria S.A.N.. He was Nigeria’s Federal Commissioner, Minister for Works and Housing between 1967 and 1974 and a member of both the Ad hoc Constitutional Conference 1966 and the Constitution Drafting Committee [CDC 1977. As a Federal Minister for Works, he was responsible for several landmark projects in the physical planning of Nigeria. He led the Nigerian delegation to the Organisation of African Unity OAU] Ministerial Conference at Addis Ababa in 1970, and was a member of the Nigeria Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1981. He is a Legal Adviser to many multi-national organisations. Mr. Okunnu serves as chairman of Unichem (Nigeria) Limited and a Director of Fougerolle [Nigeria] Ltd. He belongs to many social clubs including the Metropolitan Club, Yoruba Tennis Club and Island Club.
A former Federal Commissioner for Works, Alhaji Olufemi Okunnu (SAN), in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, describes Lagosians as accommodating but deserving of respect.
Is it true that Lagos is no man’s land?
There is no place called ‘No Man’s Land’ in the world. Every parcel of land has its own history. Lagos has its own history and the original inhabitants of Lagos – the Aworis – settled over 500 years ago. I have said it many times recently that Lagos has its own indigenes. The Aworis were the first group of settlers who inhabited Lagos city and suburbs. Maybe some centuries after, there was the invasion by the Binis, the Edo-speaking people, who invaded Lagos and set up their own institutions. In fact, the obaship of Lagos has a lot to do with the Benin Kingdom. So, the Binis also invaded and settled in Lagos. Oba of Lagos is of Edo or Bini origin, not Yoruba, and all the other chiefs, who came with the first oba, that is, Ado — I am talking of a group of white-cap chiefs called Akarigbere — also are of Bini origin.
The Akarigberes include the following chiefs: Eletu Odigbo, Eletu Iwashe, Eletu Ika, Ologun Agbaje, Ologun Adodo, Eletu Awo, Ologun Agan, Ologun Atebo, Ologun Igbesodi and Ologun Ide Okoro. All these were Binis or Edo-speaking, with their families, and they settled largely in the Isale Eko, Idunmota and Idunshagbe parts of Lagos Island. When you hear of Idunmota, Idunshagbe, Idunmaigbo, Idunmagbo, etc., ‘Idun’ means area — Bini origin. They, not Yorubas, settled there. Apart from the Akarigbere class of chiefs, there were also the Abagbon class of chiefs, who came with Ado, again Binis: Ashogbon (war chiefs), Bajulaiye (‘Bazuaye’ as they call it in Benin today), Saba, Bajulu, Bashua (which is another form of ‘Bazua’). They were all Bini or Edo-speaking, not Yoruba.
Are you saying that the Binis too can claim ownership of Lagos?
What I’m trying to emphasise is that Lagos, in terms of indigenes, is not only the Yoruba, although they don’t speak Bini language now because they have all abandoned Bini language; it is not spoken among them. They are all Yoruba-speaking like the Fulani, who conquered the Hausa. The Kano people don’t speak Fula; they speak Hausa, the language of the conquered. So, you don’t hear the Bini, who settled in Lagos some three centuries ago, speaking Bini any longer. They speak the language of the people they found there.
So, who owns Lagos?
The Idejo class of chiefs in Lagos are of Awori origin. They are the land-owning class of chiefs. They owned Olumegbon (the whole of Ajah belonged to the Olumegbon chieftaincy family); Oniru (the whole of Victoria Island); Ojomu, next door to Ajah (there is Oba Ojomu now); Elegushi (the land being at Ikate); the Onisemo. The whole of Apapa Peninsula used to belong to the Oluwa family. The British compulsorily acquired the whole of Apapa and paid compensation to them. The Ojora of Lagos (that is Ijora) were the original settlers. Apart from the Aworis and the Binis, you have another wave of immigrants to Lagos.
The Tapa and Nupe people from Niger State were another class of immigrants into Lagos. Again, they spoke no Yoruba, but they were even more Yoruba than the Yoruba. They married (from the Yoruba) and settled. A good number of us — I have Nupe blood. Part of my blood is Nupe. By way of speaking, part of it also Bini; and part of it also Yoruba – Owu, Abeokuta – and some other strands from other parts of Yoruba land. So, Lagos is a microcosm of ethnic groups. You can’t say it is 100 per cent Yoruba. Mark you; there are Yoruba-speaking (settlers) apart from the Aworis, (like) the Ijebus in Ikorodu, in Epe. There are Eguns also in Badagry division, who are indigenes; they are not Yoruba. Then you have mass migration also from Yoruba land – Ekiti, Ijebu, Ijesha, and all such – you have them there. When you talk about Agodo Egba, for example, that is the homestead of Egba settlers. And Agodo Egba is the heart of Isale Eko. The Ogundinmus come from that area.
Lagos, like I said, is a microcosm and it is also very cosmopolitan. To say Lagos is no man’s land is like saying Nigeria is no man’s land. The people who settled in Lagos — the Saros, the freed slaves who came from Freetown, Sierra Leone; those who came from Brazil, the freed slaves from Cuba, are in the Aguda (Brazilian Quarters) part of Lagos Island. They are all indigenes of Lagos. So, anybody who says Lagos is no man’s land does not know what he or she is talking about. The person knows nothing about Lagos.
What made the settlers from Benin, Brazil, Nupe and all these other places come to Lagos? What was the attraction?
It is the nature of Lagos. Some of them settled elsewhere but about the Brazilians, most of them settled in Lagos. They didn’t settle neither in Ijebu Ode nor Ibadan because Lagos is by the sea; so, a good number of them came to Lagos to settle.
Was Lagos originally part of Western Nigeria?
Lagos is older than western Nigeria. You heard me talk of five centuries ago; the present Lagos State was colonised by Britain in 1861. There was no Western Nigeria at that time; so, Lagos is older than Western Nigeria. Western Nigeria didn’t come into being until about 1938 when the Southern Protectorate, created by Britain in 1900, was split into two. Southern Protectorate was split into West and East and in 1938, we had the Western provinces, small divisions like Ijebu Ode Province, Egba Province, Oyo Province, Ondo Province and other groups of provinces but Western Nigeria was created only in 1938. Lagos was created as a British colony in 1861. So, Lagos is older than Western Nigeria by 78 years. The Western provinces then became Western Region in 1946 under the Richards Constitution. The provincial system, the Western provinces, came in when Sir Bourdillon was governor of Nigeria and Western State came into being only in 1967. So, Lagos is by far older than the rest of Nigeria as a colony.
Why do you think the original Lagosians do not seem to be defending the heritage of Lagos?
They are very much defensive of the heritage. Take ‘Eyo’ festivals for example; that’s when you see an old Lagos. They are defensive but they are fewer in number compared to non-Lagosians. The number is dwindling and the percentage is getting smaller. What you had before in the majority of the people, indigenes of Lagos becoming 70 per cent, 60 per cent, 40 per cent. The population of Lagos State is estimated to be around 18 million. The indigenes are only a microscopic minority. I don’t think we are up to five per cent of the population of Lagos now. That is the disadvantage we have, non-indigenes virtually taking over the governance of Lagos.
There is this issue about the original Lagosians not having enough representation in governance….
Democracy is a game of numbers, and personally, I would wish for Nigeria a democracy in which an indigene of Lagos could be governor of Kano State and a man from Calabar or Sokoto will be the governor of Lagos State. That is my own dream and the dream of people of my own generation. Unfortunately, politicians have messed up the whole country and are talking too much about ethnicity. Old Lagos didn’t know about any ethnicity. There was a saying that ‘Eko gba ole, o gba ole’ (Lagos accommodates the thieves and lazy people). All manner of people from different parts of the country settled in Lagos and were welcome. I am not talking of the indigenous people like the Tapas or Binis but I am talking of the people in the past 100 years. And Lagos, until 1950, spoke for Nigeria and still speaks for Nigeria. Nigerian politics is Lagos politics. There was no Nigerian politics outside Lagos until 1950. Lagos spoke for Nigeria. So the cankerworm of ethnicity has now eaten deep into our flesh that everything is reduced to ethnicity. We didn’t worry at all about where you came from in the old Lagos. When I was growing up, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was elected the first Lagos member in 1946. I wasn’t told, I saw it, I was there. That was 1946. I was 13 years old in primary school. He was from Onitsha, an Igbo man, but Lagos people adored him and they voted for him. I heard Dr. Olorun-nimbe was a Lagosian, while the third member, elected in 1946, was Prince Adeleke Adedoyin from Shagamu. Unfortunately, you now hear of Ohanaeze and Afenifere. I want people to talk more of PDP, APC, political parties, not ethnicity. Ethnicity divides Nigeria, it divided us in compartments. Igbo this way, Yoruba that way and Hausa this way, Efiks behind. You can never build one Nigeria and Nigeria can never be great until we reduce ethnicity to cultural matters.
Would you say a former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, should be commended in this regard?
I’m commending nobody because the emphasis in Nigerian politics today is ethnicity. Afenifere should not be existing now. If you talk of Yoruba culture, Oduduwa, yes. Afenifere was formed by a group of former Action Group members when political parties were banned in the 70s during the military rule. Once the ban was lifted, they transformed into Unity Party (of Nigeria) under (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo. Afenifere should have disappeared completely. If you want to talk about Yoruba culture, that’s a different thing. But Afenifere as a group talking about politics is a form of division. The same applies to Ohanaeze and Arewa. They should not be in politics or they should disappear from the political scene. If you want to promote culture, I’m with you. They should not make political statements. They should leave politics to political parties. Ethnicity divides us.
India, with a population of 1.4 billion, doesn’t emphasise ethnicity. An Indian is an Indian anywhere in the world. They wouldn’t say, ‘I’m from Madras’ or ‘I am Gujarati’. Nigerians should be proud to be called Nigerians anywhere in the world. We are not proud. We prefer to identify ourselves as Fulani, Efik, Ibibio, Ijaw, Tiv or Hausa. Why? The Chinese, who make up the most populous country in the world, don’t say, ‘I am from Shandong’. Nigerians should now learn to refer to themselves as Nigerians. We are not growing economically, politically, socially or culturally. We can’t grow. We won’t grow.
Are you happy that there are Igbo in Lagos holding elective offices?
In Lagos where I grew up, there were Igbo councillors but they didn’t contest elections on the Igbo platform. They contested election on the platform of the Democratic Party founded by Herbert Macaulay in 1922 and the NCNC in 1944 because most of them belonged to that alliance. In those days, there was no ethnic consciousness. There was Nigerian consciousness.
Do you think Nigeria as a whole needs to borrow a leaf from Lagos?
I think so. If Nigeria were Lagos, what a glorious country Nigeria would be. What a prosperous country Nigeria would be for Nigerians to refer to themselves and (for them to) be known as Nigerians, not Ijaw, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba or Edo; where I can contest election anywhere in the country and hope to win.
But there are Lagosians who believe that only Lagosians are qualified to hold political offices in Lagos.
Not the people of Lagos, not the indigenes. The indigenes, as I’ve told you, are very accommodating. The only thing is that you don’t push them out. What they are resisting is being pushed out of their birthplace. They are willing to live with anybody; they have no choice: Freedom of movement of people of this country.
There was a controversy over the choice of Prof. Wole Soyinka as the chairman of the Lagos@50 planning committee because of his Ogun ancestry. Did you see it as an issue?
I saw it as an issue and my advice to the governor at that time was to call the indigenes and make peace with them. The protesters are being left out completely. We don’t leave people who can trace their ancestry back over 500 years. So, there was an issue that ‘yes, we’re celebrating but don’t leave us out’. That’s what they were saying, and especially, as I’ve said earlier, (Lagos is) a cosmopolitan area. I would wish to be asked to head a celebration (committee) in Enugu or Onitsha. I look forward to the day — not at my age now — to be asked to head a committee in Kano, Sokoto, born and bred in Lagos, just as I would wish to see, as there used to be, a Mallam (Umaru) Altini from the North as mayor of Enugu in the 40s.
Besides ethnicity, politicians use religion to divide us. That is not Lagos of old. In the Lagos of those days, you would find Muslims taking part in Christian festivals. You would find, in those days, Christians taking part in Muslim festivals. There’s an old friend, about 94 years old now, a Christian, who said he used to derive pleasure in eating rice or mosa which people used to take to the mosques in those days for early morning prayers. As Muslims, on New Year’s Day or Christmas Day, some of us would gather in front of the Cathedral Church at Marina. We were one people, different religions. But today, they’ve brought religion into politics.
The Christian Association of Nigeria has been overdoing it lately, which is bad. Muslims have endured over the years and have also absorbed some Christian values and practices. In many ways, the governance of Nigeria is Christian. Muslims don’t protest. So, I feel that the CAN leadership today is dividing this country and (there should be) less talk of Nigeria being a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation or Sukuk (Islamic banking). Most of the people who support Islamic banking outside of the country are Christians. So what’s wrong with Islamic or Christian banking?