The 26 storey building proposed by Chief Awolowo was built from the proceeds of the Western Regions’s cocoa exportation.
The Cocoa House became a honey pot and a centre of attraction and tourist delight. Its presence encouraged Dugbe to become the economic nerve centre of Ibadan. In the neighbourhood of the edifice were domiciled the Syrians and Lebanese, that is the Assad Zards, Moukarims, J. Allens, Gamras and their cocoa stores, warehouses and showrooms, which made Ibadan a business nerve centre and commercial hub.
Ibadan, epicentre of several firsts, blazed the trail in several strides and endeavours, in Nigeria’s early growth and development. Cocoa House, like several others, was borne of the prime ingenuity, political sagacity and economic wizardry of the early pathfinders of our regional growth, ably led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
The 26 storey building was proposed by Chief Awolowo to be built from the proceeds of the Western Regions’s cocoa exportation. Cocoa House was commissioned in 1965, at a height of 105 metres. The initial name given to the 26 storey building was “Ile Awon Agbe”, translated from Yoruba to English, to mean “House of Farmers.” The name was later changed to Cocoa House, not only because it was built from the proceeds of cocoa exportation but also because it was sited in front of a cocoa tree, and opposite a water fountain.
It was once the tallest building in Nigeria and the first sky scrapper in West Africa. It is located in Dugbe, a major commercial area in Ibadan, Oyo State. Dugbe began as a small market and slab in 1919. It is believed to have been one of the traditional gate markets along the tall wall of Ibadan back in the day.
The building of the railway station nearby in 1901 was of great significance, as Dugbe became the nearest market to the main means of long distance transport. The Obafemi Awolowo government had an economic blue print in its Western Region Development plan from 1955 to 1960. The plan emphasised property development through the regional government and thus the need to set up a property development company, which was known as the National Investment and Property Company (NIPC). The motto of the Action Group was “life more abundant.”
Following the promulgation of the Banking Ordinance forbidding banks from being directly involved in property acquisition and development, the echelons of the Action Group, with major support from the leader, Chief Awolowo, incorporated NIPC on April 18, 1958, to take over the functions of property development and acquisition, which had hitherto been rendered to the Action Group by the National Bank of Nigeria, under the chairmanship of Dr Akinola Maja. The National Bank, established in 1933, had other directors such as T.A Doherty, called to the Bar in 1921; Akin Adeshigbe and Olaniyi Johnson. The chairman, Hamzat Subair Akinola Maja, qualified as a medical doctor in 1918 from the University of Edinburgh.
The National Investment and Property Company (NIPC) had four directors and shareholders, who were:
1. Dr Akinola Maja (Chairman);
2. Chief S.O. Gbadamosi, an astute business man;
3. Chief Alfred Rawane (who was also the Managing Director of Western Nigerian Development Corporation, WNDC);
4. Chief S.O. Shonibare (Secretary, NIPC and Managing Director).
It could be safely concluded that the NIPC was formed to continue from where the National Bank stopped, as the financial pillar of the Action Group. Between May 1959 and May 1962, the NIPC had given the Action Group over £4,000,000. The company was often, directly or indirectly, involved with the AG through the interlocking relationship of its directors. The company had hardly been incorporated when it started to borrow money from the marketing board. It had, on April 25, 1958, through its M.D, Chief Shonibare, forwarded a letter to the marketing board, setting out a comprehensive programme of development. The properties listed for development were as follows:
1. A five storey building (208-212 Broad Street, Lagos), at £120,000;
2. A four storey Building (128-130 broad Street, Lagos), at £60,000;
3. Three 18 storey buildings (8-10 Broad Street and 68-70 Campbell Street), at £1,500,000;
4. 80-82 Broad Street, Lagos, at £500,000;
5. Apapa Ware House and Offices, at £100,000;
6. Barclays Bank site and British and French Bank Site, in Ibadan, at £31,200,000;
7. A six storey department store, Kingsway Stores, in Ibadan, at £500,000.
This list was later amended to substitute some items with others, which then brought in the idea of a skyscraper to be called Cocoa House. There can be no doubt that most of the properties were prime ones and the viability was never at anytime in doubt. The contractor for the building of Cocoa House was Messers Cappa and D’Alberto, a construction firm, established in 1932 by two Italian men, Pietro Carlo Cappa and Vigino D’Alberto.
Chief Shonibare, the Managing Director was a property development guru, and the owner of Shonny Investment and Property Company, which was developing an extensive estate in Maryland, Lagos. Earlier bon, he had worked with the United African Company (UAC).
Alhaji Sule Oyesola Gbademosi was an astute businessman who was reputed to be very wealthy. He attended Baptist Academy, Lagos. S.L.A Akintola was his teacher in the school. He went into early commerce after school and prospered. He established Ikorodu Trading Co. Ltd in 1933 and thereafter, a textile mill. He was the Treasurer of the Action Group. Chief Alfred Rewane, the Chairman of the Western Nigeria Development Corporation, was a business guru in his own right. Alfred was tall, shimmering, ebony black and stately, that one could easily be hypnotised by his presence. His commanding presence was however dwarfed by the arresting power of his intellect. A man of deep integrity, Rewane insisted on paying the WNDC, despite being its M.D, for the use of its transport to convey his children to school and his pets to the veterinary doctor. Such was the way he ran his affairs. At the end of his tenure, which came rather abruptly, the corporation owed him.
The eminence of Cocoa House in Ibadan was not rivalled until 1982, when a 12-floor glass house building was officially opened. This structure, popularly called Broking House, glass house or Femi Johnson, was built by the late popular insurance and risk management mogul, Femi Johnson. The building is made mostly of glass and it is a beauty to behold.
Alfred Rawane was, no doubt, one of the ablest and most astute businessmen that Nigeria could boast about during that period. Chief Awolowo picked the best and ablest men for the task of the returns on their investments in the Western Region, and his choices were proved right. There was a time when Nigeria asked for and secured the service of a Dr Rao as economic adviser to the government, and some expatriates in the country at that time, and many wondered why a country that had men like Rewane, Shonibare and Gbadamosi needed an expatriate economic adviser. All the government needed to do was to get these men together in a room for some days and task them to produce an economic blue print for the country. A brain that had the foresight of entrepreneurship to invest in Maryland when it was a desolate and out of the way area is, incontestably, a genius of the highest order. So were almost all the men Chief Awolowo had picked. It is to his eternal credit that he chose such men to run the company. If he had the company set up for business, it would have succeeded astronomically, but it was not set up for business as such. Its history and the circumstances for its formation show that its raison d’etre was to provide the Action Group with the funds it would need to carry out all its activities.
Cocoa House was ready for delivery to the NIPC in July 1964, but due to the turmoil and political divides in the Western Region, the edifice could not be commissioned until July 10, 1965, by the then Premier, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, on a day that was coincidentally his birthday. SLA Akintola was born on July 10, 1910 in Ogbomoso.
The Akintola government set up an enquiry to establish the real owners of Cocoa House in 1965, and it was at a time when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was jailed for treasonable felony in Calabar prisons.
At that point, the Western Region was getting adrift and only two people could avert the sinking ship – Awolowo and Akintola, but unfortunately the centre could no longer hold.
The rate of growth of the Western Region before the crisis and political dispersal had been phenomenal. The Western Region government established the first television station in Africa on October 31, 1959. This was enhanced by a legislative enactment that removed broadcasting from the exclusive list to the concurrent list in the constitution of the period. Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) then operated in partnership with Overseas rediffusion, U.K., and Mr Anthony Enahoro was the Federal Commissioner for Information.
In 1962, to popularise the television services, the WNTV started viewing centres in Omi Adio and Lalupon. Liberty Stadium, the first of such in Africa, was also built in 1959 in honour of Nigeria’s independence, which was coming up in 1960. The 25,000-seater capacity stadium, patterned after Wembley stadium in the United Kingdom, hosted the first world title boxing tournament on August 10, 1963, between Nigeria’s Dick Tiger and Dene Fulmer of the United States. Between 1959 and 1960, 20 farm settlements and five agricultural institutions were created by Awolowo to encourage educated minds to make a profitable career in farming. Life was rosy and robustly cheerful. Men married many wives, and life flourished abundantly. Awolowo’s five years development plan, from 1955 to 1960, was to enhance a steady rise in income, and the general standard of living of the people. The Western Region government was paying 5 Shillings as daily wage for its workers, when the Federal Government was paying 3 Shillings.
The farm settlements were patterned after the agricultural kibbutz system in Israel, with Chief Akin Deko, the minister of agriculture, as the pivot. The Western Region government established the first Housing Estate in Nigeria – the Bodija Housing Estate; the first dual carriage way in Nigeria – the Mokola-Queen Elizabeth Secretariat Road; the first modern parliament – the Western Region House of Assembly and House of Chiefs; the first modern Secretariat in Agodi, Ibadan; and Reddifusion Radio – a one channel radio station that came in 1955 through partnership with Reddifusion company in the united kingdom.
The University College Hospital, Ibadan (an affiliate of the University of Ibadan), a 1,000 bed research and teaching hospital, was also established by a August 1952 Act of parliament, and was formally commissioned after completion on November 20, 1957.
The Cocoa House became a honey pot and a centre of attraction and tourist delight. Its presence encouraged Dugbe to become the economic nerve centre of Ibadan. In the neighbourhood of the edifice were domiciled the Syrians and Lebanese, that is the Assad Zards, Moukarims, J. Allens, Gamras and their cocoa stores, warehouses and showrooms, which made Ibadan a business nerve centre and commercial hub. This took you to the market, Barclays Bank (now Union Bank), the rotund Standard Bank (now First Bank), Cooperative Bank, Radio Nigeria, Aje House, PZ and John Holt, etc. Natives and non-natives thrived without let or hindrance.
The eminence of Cocoa House in Ibadan was not rivalled until 1982, when a 12-floor glass house building was officially opened. This structure, popularly called Broking House, glass house or Femi Johnson, was built by the late popular insurance and risk management mogul, Femi Johnson. The building is made mostly of glass and it is a beauty to behold. It was formally declared opened by Femi Johnson’s bosom friend, the late Chief Bola Ige, then governor of Oyo State. The Broking House occupied the former site of Paradise Hotel, where Eddy Okonta and numerous musicians played.
At the official commissioning of the building, Chief Bola Ige said he would have been the Master of Ceremony (MC) if he were not occupying the office of governor of Oyo State. Femi Johnson was a prominent member of the Ibadan literary and drama world, through his membership of the Ibadan Players of the dawn group, with others like Christopher Kolade, Segun Olusola, Yemi Lijadu, Sola Rhodes, Wole Soyinka, Wale Ogunyemi and the likes.
On January 9, 1985, the 26-storey Cocoa House suffered a mishap, with the entire building being gutted by fire. It temporarily lost its beauty and elegance to the inferno. The fire was said to have consumed everything in the building because the fire fighters in Ibadan did not have the requisite equipment or skills to put out a raging inferno in a skyscrapper.
Femi Johnson was also a hunting maverick, with the likes of Wole Soyinka and other friends, who went after game as an interesting pass time.
Femi Johnson, the senior brother of Mobolaji Johnson, a former governor of Lagos State, was born and bred in Lagos. He attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos, and studied privately on insurance, before joining the Law Union and Rock in Lagos, from where he was later transferred to manage the Ibadan branch. He subsequently set up his own insurance firm, Femi Johnson & Co. He died in 1987 at the age of 53.
On January 9, 1985, the 26-storey Cocoa House suffered a mishap, with the entire building being gutted by fire. It temporarily lost its beauty and elegance to the inferno. The fire was said to have consumed everything in the building because the fire fighters in Ibadan did not have the requisite equipment or skills to put out a raging inferno in a skyscrapper. Unfortunately, some fire fighters, caught in the inferno, were consumed by it. Colonel Oladayo Popoola, the then military governor of Oyo State, was on a tour of the Oke-Ogun areas of the State, when he received a radio message that Cocoa House, the pride of the Yoruba nation, had been burnt, perhaps beyond recognition, according to his then Chief Press Secretary(CPS), Oloye Lekan Alabi.
Governor Popoola arrived the scene of the incidence at about 7 p.m. and lifted the morale of the fire fighters to continue with their efforts and rescue the pride of the Yoruba nation. It was suspected that the fire incidence began at the top floors of the building from a malfunctioning electrical equipment in the administrative office of the National Bank on the 13th floor. The building was immediately closed to public use until August 1992, when it was again re-opened for commercial use.
The military governors of Oyo, Ondo and Ogun States set up an enquiry, comprising the top echelons of the Nigerian Institute of Architects and Nigerian Institute of Engineers, etc., to advise the government on the next line of action on Cocoa House.
It was safely concluded that the building should not be pulled down but rehabilitated, and its glory and beauty restored. The fire inferno did not affect the foundation of the structure. The government of the Western States then set up a rehabilitation fund, and raised a committee to revamp and restore the legacy edifice.
In its rehabilitated form, rather than its hollowed side earlier look, Cocoa House now looks like a cocoa pod. As a towering structure, it was not rivalled in glory until 1979, when the NECOM building, which houses the headquarters of NITEL, was completed in Marina, Lagos. The 32-floor NECOM building was constructed by Constain West Africa Limited, a major foreign construction company, which was incorporated in 1948. The lightings at the top of the tower serves as a light house beacon for the Lagos habour. The building, with a height of 160 metres, was constructed with concrete, and it overtook Cocoa House, to become the tallest building in West Africa at the time of its completion. Like the Cocoa House, the NECOM building has suffered two fire incidences, in 1983 and 2015 respectively.
In terms of height, the Burj Khalifa, peaking at 2,217 feet, stands as the tallest building in the world, with 160 floors.
Cocoa House, Ibadan and the recently collapsed Four score Homes sky scrapper in Ikoyi, Lagos, provide a great study in contrasts and a metaphor. It would not be too farfetched that the Ikoyi building collapsed, because it could not withstand the forces of nature or gravity, or as a result of substandard building materials, or the combination of the three factors, or just not sticking to the specifications approved. Till date, Cocoa House still stands like the rock of Gibraltar!
May Cocoa House continue to stand tall and erect, as the first of such edifices in sub-Saharan West Africa, and in the fondest memory of those who conceptualised it for the economic prosperity of the Western Region of Nigeria, in the days of yore.
Cocoa House, continue to dance in the sky as one of our first childhood fancies.
Femi Kehinde, a former member of the House of Representatives, is principal partner in a law firm based in Ibadan, Lagos and Abuja.