If, or when, the history of the Nigerian nation is recorded for the benefit of posterity; I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Chief Gani Fawehinmi will receive a positive and honourable mention in such chronicles. For every so often in the lives of nations, the hand of providence conspires to produce certain personages, who during the course of their lives, act as the conscience of their nations, whilst also doubling up as societal barometers gauging the measure and pressure of the advance of social justice in their nations. One such personage in the case of Nigeria is Chief Gani Fawehinmi.
For over thirty years, almost without compare and certainly without respite, Chief Fawehinmi has been a tireless and intrepid advocate and activist; one who without compromise or artifice, has fought with single minded resolve, the cause for the advancement and defence of the rights of the common man. And in his pursuit of this cause, he has been a constant thorn in the flesh of successive repressive governments; which it has been Nigeria’s misfortune to spawn with unerring regularity since independence.
Such has been his tenacity and consistency of purpose in championing the cause of the common man, that he has come up against powerful and inimical forces entrenched in successive repressive Nigerian governments; to the detriment of his personal liberty and the safety of his family, enduring at different times, periods of detention in unwholesome places. Thankfully, none of these indignities succeeded in dampening his spirits; if anything at all, they served to strengthen his resolve and embolden his faith in the rightness and justness of his cause. And it is without a doubt, that it is for these reasons, that he is widely admired and respected across Nigeria.
Although, much of the respect and admiration he engenders is due to – and rightly so – his sterling work in the arena of human rights; my admiration for him stemmed originally from his work in the legal profession. As a young and impressionable law student in the 1980s, it was common and even fashionable to have heroes within the profession; and as far as many law students of my day were concerned, Chief Fawehinmi was the role model of choice.
Intelligent, eloquent, courageous, indefatigable, rebellious, and fiercely anti-establishment to boot; he was the one to look up to. In the same vein, Lord Denning, was for many of us the foreign jurist of choice; while Justice Akinola Aguda was our indigenous jurist of choice. He, like Chief Fawehinmi, was an intelligent and fearless man; an uncommon judge. One who within the constraints of the judicial bench employed and deployed his judgements to circumscribe the excesses of repressive governments. Unfortunately, it was not to be his good fortune, to sit on, or lead, the Supreme Court; a distinction which should rightly have been his. But I digress.
As a demonstration of his fearlessness, Chief Fawehinmi often enjoyed punching above his weight in the legal profession; taking on the high and mighty. To the astonishment of many in the profession, he took on the redoubtable late Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams SAN; the doyen of the Nigerian Bar. Chief Williams was an extraordinary lawyer; one who was primus inter pares – first amongst equals – and there were not many his equal in the profession. His knowledge of the law was encyclopaedic.
Impressive in intellect and towering in physique; Chief Williams was close in build to those biblical men of renown; the giants of yore. In fact, such was his formidable physical presence and famed personal wealth that the great and late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was once moved to express words to the effect; that what Chief Williams weighed in sheer body mass was nothing in comparison to what he weighed in silver and gold.
It was against this formidable man that Chief Fawehinmi did battle with on a number of occasions. On one occasion, Chief Williams having tired of Chief Fawehinmi’s ways, brought action for defamation of character against him. Now anyone who has observed Chief Fawehinmi over the years will know that he is a meticulous man; one who believes in the axiom which says that ‘proper preparation prevents poor performance.’
In defending himself against Chief Williams’ action, he came to court armed with hitherto unknown historic judgements supporting his position and refuting that of Chief Williams. In addressing the court and Chief Williams on that occasion, I recall him saying that:
‘…the gravamen of your demands, the pedestal of your claims, and the sum total of your complaints, lie in what you call your personal and professional reputation. For the emphasis of clarity, I put it to you, that you do not posses the reputation that you seek to protect.’
It was an explosive moment. But thankfully, the presiding judge had the presence of mind to defuse the situation by choosing to mediate, rather than adjudicate on the matter.
To Chief Fawehinmi’s credit, his legal skirmishes with Chief Williams were not borne out of a sense of personal animus. For when Chief Williams lost his devoted wife and life partner, Chief Fawehinmi was on hand to visit and pay his respects to the big Chief. And when Chief Williams himself succumbed to the inevitable, crossing over the mortal divide to immortality, Chief Fawehinmi was quick to visit and offer his condolences to the deceased’s family; eulogising his contributions to the legal profession.
In my view, his most significant and enduring contribution to the legal profession, is in the area of law publishing. His cutting edge and professionally produced Law Reports set the standard for the profession; effectively democratising the practice of law in Nigeria. Because prior to his intervention, a minority group of wealthy lawyers had enjoyed a monopoly over whatever sparse law reporting was in existence at the time. But through his ground breaking publications, he deprived this privileged group of their keys of knowledge; making them available to all within the profession.
It would be misleading of me, however, to create the impression that Chief Fawehinmi was or is universally loved within the legal profession. Some lawyers, particularly, those of a conservative bent, took a dim view of him. To them, he was and is nothing more than an attention seeking maverick, a populist in search of headlines; not a team player. This mindset partly explains the long delay, he encountered before becoming a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. A rank he was wholly deserving of by reason of his contributions to the profession.
Such was the ridiculousness of the delay in his being elevated to a SAN; particularly, as there were some who bore the rank ahead of him that were ‘not fit to touch the hem of his legal robes.’ During his extended period at the Outer Bar; one judge in particular, I think it was, Mr. Justice A. L. A. L. Balogun of the Lagos High Court, took to addressing him as a SAN whenever he made an appearance in his court. To Mr. Justice Balogun, if anyone was deserving of the rank of SAN, it was Chief Fawehinmi. This glaring irregularity was rectified many years later, with an appropriate conferral being made. In reality, the belated conferral ought to have been back dated, but it was not, as far as I am aware.
But as laudable and impressive as his contributions to the legal profession are; they pale in significance and in comparison to his accomplishments in the arena of human rights. When Dele Giwa was tragically and brutally murdered, he took up the gauntlet, going after the suspected perpetrators of that dastardly act. And by sheer force of his determination he got the matter listed in the Lagos High Court. He declared memorably on that occasion that his mission was:
‘To kill legally those who had killed Dele Giwa illegally.’
As it happens, he was to be unsuccessful in his quest, but his point was nonetheless made.
During the annulment of Chief MKO Abiola’s presidential electoral victory, he counselled Abiola’s advisory team on the best way to handle the law suit challenging the annulment. It was his view that a greater focus should be directed towards maximising the political capital of the case, as this approach was bound to yield better dividends, rather than a strict focus on the legal angle. For whatever reason, his wise counsel went unheeded. It was a tactical mistake.
Chief GOK Ajayi SAN was appointed to lead the case. Now Chief Ajayi is a fount of legal knowledge, a lawyer par excellence, and the personification of gentility; but what he is not, is a political strategist and tactician. It was a case of the wrong brief for the wrong lawyer. I felt then, as I do now, that Chief Gani Fawehinmi was the best man for that role. He would have raised awareness of the case internationally, causing maximum embarrassment to the government of the day.
One memorable event relating to Chief Fawehinmi which sits firmly in my mind, as it is the only occasion in which I have seen him in the flesh; relates to one weekend in the late 1980s. That weekend, I was visiting with some friends at my alma mater; the great University of Ife. My visit coincided with an event held in Chief Fawehinmi’s honour. If memory serves me correctly, I think it was the occasion of his conferral with the honorific – Senior Advocate of the Masses by the Students’ Union of ‘Great Ife’. Back then, the University of Ife was renowned for being a bedrock of vibrant and radical student activism.
The news of this proposed conferral did not sit well with the despotic government of the day. As they were concerned about the implications of a possible fall out from the event. And so they tried to prevent Chief Fawehinmi’s attendance. Security operatives, as we understood it, were stationed at different ends of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, to prevent his safe passage to Ife. But in spite of this, the ever resourceful Chief Fawehinmi eluded their best laid plans; arriving at the function on time and in combative mood. He narrated to the receptive crowd how he had evaded the attentions of his watchers. He let it be known that the government in its desperation had asked the vice-chancellor, Professor Wande Abimbola, to inform his aging Mother that the Ifa Oracle had declared it unsafe for him to be in Ife that day.
Now such advice coming from Professor Abimbola was designed to have maximum effect; because in addition to being an erudite professor of Yoruba, he was also a notable Babalawo. In fact, during his reign as vice-chancellor he was known to attend ceremonial functions armed with his traditional horn of authority. He was also thought to invoke and supplicate terrestrial and celestial forces to ensure the peace on Ife campus. He was well regarded and had a special relationship with his students.
But Chief Fawehinmi was unmoved by the professor’s intervention. He told the attentive crowd that he had advised his mother to disregard the advice of the misguided professor; declaring that:
‘The Ifa Oracle does not divine bad things for good people.’
At this insight, the crowd roared their approval; suffice to say, that the event passed without incident.
One revealing feature of Chief Fawehinmi’s nature is that he elevates his sense of principle above his friendships. He is quite readily prepared to forsake a friendship in defence of a point of principle. And in this regard, his relationship with Chief Olu Onagoruwa appears to have been irreparably breached; on account of Chief Onagoruwa’s participation in the Abacha government. It is my hope that as he approaches the ‘evening’ phase of his life, he will find it within himself to effect a rapprochement with Chief Onagoruwa; who in essence is a good and decent man. For after all, entry to the sacred cities of Ile-Ife, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Rome, is not confined to a single access point.
It is no surprise that because of his impressive achievements, he has been the recipient of numerous honours at home and abroad. One such award to him, which was particularly satisfying to me, was the conferral of an honorary Doctorate degree on him by the University of Ife. It was a fitting recognition and vindication by a mainstream institution of his sterling efforts in the behalf of the Nigerian masses.
But perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to Chief Fawehinmi was to come from the most unlikely of sources; his implacable foe – General Ibrahim Babangida. In an interview in the 1990s, he listed Chief Fawehinmi as being one of only three Nigerians that he had tremendous respect for; the late Professor Ayodele Awojobi and the late Dr. Bala Usman, being the other two. Considering Babangida’s constant harassment of Chief Fawehinmi while in office – it spoke volumes.
The ravages of a life time of service rendered at a frenetic pace have begun to take their toll on his bodily health. And he has only recently returned home from a period of hospitalisation in the UK. I hope, as do many others, that he makes a quick return to robust health. But knowing Chief Fawehinmi, he will not allow a bodily ailment to prevent him from pursuing his life’s calling. He will continue to fight as long as their breath in his body.
Chief Fawehinmi is not a perfect man; but he is a sincere and transparent man. He has not always been right on the issues; but one can never fault his good intentions and sincerity of purpose. And because of his life of service to date, many Nigerians are indebted to him and extend their appreciation his way; wishing him many more years in the service of our nation.
So, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Senior Advocate of the Masses and authentic national hero: I salute you; Nigeria salutes you; the legal fraternity salutes you; and lovers of freedom everywhere salute you.
Happy Belated 70th Birthday; and long may you live in the service of Nigeria.