Where were you born?
I was born at Dr. John Churchill Vaughan’s Hospital at Victoria Street, Idunmota, Lagos, on February 19, 1933. Dr. Vaughan, a medical doctor and politician, was the founder of the Nigerian Youth Movement and one of the earliest students of King’s College, Lagos.
Tell us about your background.
My grandfather was Abibu Okunnu, a devout Muslim scholar and teacher. My father was Muritala Abibu Okunnu and he was born on June 1, 1898. My father married 11 wives in all; not more than three wives at the same time in his house. My mother bore him eight children but he had over 20 children.
My father was a deeply religious man. He devoted his life to the cause of the Ansar Ud Deen Society from 1924 when he joined the society till his death in 1982 and sponsored all his children to school. My mother was Hassanat Okunnu with ancestral roots from Ijaiye in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
My father was employed by the Nigerian railways and rose to be an assistant chief accountant at Ebute Metta. My mother attended adult education scheme as a married woman which the colonial government established. She left as a pupil at Olowogbowo Primary School. This happened because the headmaster used the cane on her; so, my grandmother withdrew her from school. She was the first woman to preach Islam publicly in Lagos, probably in Nigeria, because it was unusual then for women to preach religion like Islam publicly.
How did your parents handle rivalry since it was a polygamous setting?
It was a polygamous setting but there was little or no rivalry. It was customary that when a new wife joined the family, the child born by other wives, after the marriage of the new wife, would be called the daughter or son of the new wife. For example, the wife married after my mother’s marriage to my father when I was born in 1933 was called Mama Lateef (Lateef is my middle name). It was her responsibility to take care of me partly. She also became my mother. A new wife would not call the older children by their first names. It was a sign of respect.
What was the most memorable part of growing up in Lagos?
Lagos was very clean then and its population was pretty small. The population of Lagos then was about 230,000. Lagos then comprised the Lagos Island, Ikoyi, Apapa, Yaba and Ebute Metta. Ikoyi was for European civil servants. Some parts of Victoria Island were under water. Lekki was under water too. We had some settlements here and there.
There was nowhere called Surulere as we know it today. It was all farmlands and bushes. Lagos was a small community and there was a saying, “a mo r’awa” which means we know one another. It was a communal lifestyle and closely knit.
As a child growing up in the 30s and 40s, I remembered that we cleaned the house every morning before going to school. Primary schools resumed at about 7am but we would have woken up earlier to clean the passages and the drainages. As a child, I used to carry the refuse to the refuse depot in the area.
The Lagos town council van would come every day and cart away the refuse and take them to the incinerator at Epetedo. The town council had sanitary inspectors who would periodically inspect the drains in each house. If they came to any household and found larvae of mosquitoes (which we called tanwiji, yanmu yanmu), you would be fined by the council. Lagos was a beautiful place. Sadly, Lagos is a different city now; dirty and filthy.
Were you rascally while growing up?
I was not a rascal except that I played pranks. Before I was born, I was told that the Muslim community was disadvantaged in terms of Western education. They were disadvantaged because there were no Muslim schools. That was what led to the creation of the Ansar Ud Deen Society to push for the education and propagation of Islam. It was at that time they founded primary schools.
The colonial government established government schools to encourage Muslim who were reluctant to send their children to Christian schools because a number of missions converted their pupils to Christians. Some Muslim parents did not want to send their children to school because as they said, “We don’t want Mukaila to become Michael because of school.”
So, the Ansar Ud Deen founded many primary schools to curb this. I was lucky to attend the first nursery school established by the Ansar Ud Deen Society in 1929 at Alakoro. I was there from 1938. We spent up to nine years at the time. I later attended King’s College. I thereafter proceeded to London to study law.
What were you known for as a child?
I was an athlete. I participated in sprint races at Ansar Ud Deen Primary School, Alakoro, and also played hockey, cricket and squash. I remember representing Nigeria in hockey as a pupil against the then Gold Coast (now Ghana). In the 30s, the colonial government would celebrate Empire Day to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria and the primary schools had athletics competition and I remember I competed in 400 yards. At King’s College, I was an athlete where I specialised in sprints.
What was the most memorable part of life at King’s College?
One important thing about King’s College was the fag system. Form 1 students got seniors to protect them but this did not happen across the board. We had to run errands for senior boys which included washing their clothes. In return, the seniors gave you “protection” when you entered into trouble or to be punished. Then, too, King’s College was known for student strikes to express displeasure with college life.
There was one of such in 1944. The second took place in 1948 when I was in Form 2. In December 1948, students again complained about food and other conditions of living. The colonial government transferred Mr. Reginald Bunting, from the West Indies, to handle wayward students at King’s College. One of his remarkable achievements was the abolishment of the “fag system” at King’s College. We then called it Buntings Law of equality. He was the first to set up student council in secondary schools.
That was the period Nigerian leaders met at Ibadan in 1950 to discuss constitution which gave birth to Macpherson Constitution in 1951. Constitution making was in the air; so, Bunting wanted us to learn governance by participating in it in schools to encourage us. We drew the constitution of the student council which had representation from student groups. Fortunately, I was elected the first secretary of the student council of which five or so of us contested. We followed the procedures as done in the House of Commons. We had a speaker, who was a teacher. The principal was like the queen and ceremonial head.
Can you share any funny experience at the school?
The first major crisis, which the Students’ Council faced, was precipitated by Kayode Jibowu, who was the head of the Social Services Committee. In the early hours of April 1, 1953, Jibowu rang the fire alarm bell on the main staircase. Boys rushed out of bed and gathered on the sports field. The sound represented danger; so, we all rushed out. The boarding housemaster, Mr. G. P. Savage, and the assistant boarding house master, Mr. Jerry Enyeazu, came out of bed too.
Jibowu announced with a grin that it was “April Fools’ Day.” Mr. Bunting, on receiving the report from Mr. Savage, referred the case to the disciplinary committee for investigation and appropriate disciplinary action. The council decided to dismiss Jibowu from his role. The student council re-elected Jibowu. I had to report in writing to Mr. Bunting. He said we should respect the decision of the students.
Why did you decide to study law?
My best subject at school was history and English. I was prepared to study history at the university but with my background and my experience at the college, I thought I would have a role to play in public life. I thought to myself that the highest I could attain as history teacher would be a professor. It might not give me the opportunity to take part in public life. That was why I chose law.
But you didn’t eventually go into partisan politics.
I didn’t go into party politics specifically for a reason. We had the Nigeria Union of Great Britain and Ireland which I eventually presided over. For the leadership of the union, we resolved not to play partisan politics by joining either Action Group or National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons.
We wanted to be free to criticise any political party in power. In all humility, I founded the Nigerian Youth Congress when I was in England which was a vibrant pressure group. In fact, the Tafawa Balewa government feared we would overthrow them at the time. It was quite militant. We formed a rainbow coalition with the labour movement.
When Patrice Lumumba of Congo was killed by imperialists, we protested. We paid for transport for students from Ibadan to march from the University of Ibadan to demonstrate against the western power and the Nigerian government which was pro-West.
It was a very successful demonstration from Yaba to the American embassy at No 1, Broad Street, close to the Tafawa Balewa Square. I delivered resolutions to someone at the gate of the embassy. The police fired teargas. There was pandemonium and they arrested the student leaders but I was not arrested because I had gone to deliver the letter. They were detained.
We regrouped and went to stage another demonstration along the Broad Street, throwing stones at the western companies. We broke the windows of the banks along the way to Broad Street. We also demanded the release of the other leaders. The following day, they took the leaders to court while some lawyers defended them and were released.
What was the most difficult case you handled as a lawyer?
The most challenging was the case I filed against the government of Sani Abacha. I was not scared of Abacha because of my background as a lawyer. The case challenged Ibrahim Babangida’s land titles decree. It was issued in 1993, just before Babangida left office. By that decree, all reclaimed land from the sea or lagoons became vested in the Federal Government without any ado, irrespective of whether the land belonged to any state government or private persons.
Also, all land on the seashore from Seme, the boundary with Dahomey (Benin Republic) to Cross River Bakassi,100 metres from the seashore, became vested in the Federal Government and one could not challenge the decree in the law court.
But I went to court and told the court that I was not challenging the decree as a whole but the sections of the decree. The land I was defending was the land on the sea coast from Seme to Bakassi. Whoever owned the land was not my concern. It appeared that the government was trying to reclaim more than half of Lagos State land. I got a judgment at the Federal High Court against the Federal Government.
What are the secrets of your long life and good health?
I try to find time to rest. First of all, I thank God for the rare gift of longevity and good health. It is he who has the power to protect and prolong life. I thank Him for granting me soundness of mind and health. In public life, there is little time to rest because I spend most of my time doing charitable works because I belong to some societies which gave me active roles to play.
What is your position on heaven and hell?
I believe that heaven exists. Yes, as a Muslim I believe there is hell. I believe that when someone dies, he or she goes to hell or heaven but don’t ask me the address of heaven or hell (laughs).
If you were to advise your younger self, what would you say?
I will still go through the same process which Allah has allowed me to pass through with contentment and joy. I will not retract it. I have no regrets about life. I would do a few things differently. Of course, there would have been somethings to do differently, but definitely not material things.
What is your advice to youths?
Live with the fear of God and serve humanity. Unfortunately, many people in governance today are not doing it for the good of the country. They do it for themselves or for money. I wish that the Nigeria of my dream will materialise. The people in governance have failed which is why we are here. With the reckless abandon of road networks, you can sense the degree of sadness I have.
I want them to believe in one Nigeria. Ethnicity should not come into politics and it will never make one Nigeria. The church and mosques, ethnic groups such as Ohanaeze, Afenifere, Arewa etc. should leave politics for politicians alone. If they want to join politics, they should do so but not do on the platforms of ethnic groups, churches or mosques.
How long more do you pray to live?
I don’t think of how long I would live. That can only be decided by God. I don’t worry about how long but I take each day as it comes. I thank Allah for his mercies.
What form of exercise do you take part in?
I try to create time to rest. I also watch football. Please don’t visit me when Arsenal is playing; I won’t welcome such a visitor. I don’t miss Arsenal matches since 1952. I deliberately stuck to Arsenal since 1952 because I love the club. Even though we may not win all the time, I enjoy every bit of their game. I also do not support those calling for the sacking of coach Arsene Wenger. The important thing is not really about winning but participating. We can’t win all the time. We must take the victory and defeat with equal weight.