It was the mid through to late 1990s, during the thick of military dictatorship. Nigeria was a pariah state and the country, in the throes of military siege, reeled in chaos and on the verge of anarchy. Having emerged from the dark years and violence arising from the annulment of the June 12 election by the regime of Ibrahim Babangida and won by the late MKO Abiola, the country hung on the precipice.
The backward and repressive governments of Ibrahim Babaginda and later late Sanni Abacha (Never Again!) were ferocious. Using brute force, imprisonment, torture and other inhuman and degrading treatments hounded innocent Nigerians, pro-democracy and human rights activists all over the country clamping some in prison, bombing others while some disappeared with no traces into exile or the great beyond!
The list was endless Bagauda Kalto, Frank Kokori, Alfred Rewane, Nadeco, Wole Soyinka, The Guardian, Tell, Tempo, journalists, human rights activists etc and of course Gani Fawehinmi (GF) who led the pack suffering arrests, torture, imprisonment in various prisons and detention centers all over the country.
It was in the midst of this national chaos and uncertainty that this writer arrived Lagos having gone to serve the troubled nation in the National Youth Service scheme in the Eastern part of Nigeria where he was confronted by the scourge of poverty and marginalization in that part of the country which the late icon fought for all his life. For him, the whole country was his constituency.
In Lagos, having plodded the streets endlessly in a futile search for the elusive job that never came, fate brought one in contact with the human rights lawyer, Ayo Olanrewaju, the erstwhile head of chamber in Gani Fawehinmi law firm whom one had met through a bosom friend, Dokun Oye, a bright Nigerian who also fled this shores for greener pastures.
It was this chance meet and providence that afforded me a lifetime opportunity of meeting the legendary Gani Fawehinmi (GF) on two precious occasions. They were indeed rare encounters that I will live to remember. This was beside our constant visits to the chambers of Ayo Olarenwaju, who had by then established a thriving law practice in Ikeja which was also a Mecca of sorts for human rights activists and lawyers especially those who had done their pupilage at Gani Fawehinmi’s chamber. Those visits afforded me the opportunity to listen to the intimate and serious discourse about the state of the nation and the heroics of the great GF. Those discourses were later to shape my impressionable mind as young a graduate.
Then it was time to meet GF, in flesh and blood. The encounters below even held a much deeper meaning for me because the great GF had just been released from Gashua prison. At Ayo Olarenwaju’s wedding ceremony, GF, ever concerned with the welfare of his subordinates attended the wedding and sat through the whole proceeding.
I recall that as soon as he stepped into the venue of the wedding in company of Comrade Ayo Aborishade held in Ipaja, Lagos and his name was announced, he got a resounding and standing ovation that almost brought the wedding to a halt. For a moment, guests present forgot they were at the wedding ceremony of the head of his chamber. GF stole the show as guest overreached themselves to shake hands, touch or thank him for his many struggles for the masses.
My other close and real contact with GF came several months later at the christening of Ayo Olarenwaju’s baby at his Ikeja home. The legendary GF sauntered into the small living room and met myself and about five others who had arrived early to assist our mentor, Ayo. I was star struck! Here was I, a minnow sitting next to the larger than life Gani Fawehinmi.
He shook hands with us and made us introduce ourselves individually. He was mild; he just sat quietly, engaged us in light discussions and banters. I thought within me, is this the fiery GF, a thorn in the flesh of oppressive governments and a hater of injustice?
He did not betray any sign of having just emerged from Abacha’s gulag one in many of such that he was sent to by the predatory and lecherous military regimes who instead of developing Nigeria in the critical years countries in the Asian Tigers were making progress, chose to brutally subdued patriots like GF in his battle to transform the country for which he has now paid the supreme sacrifice. I count myself lucky to have met this great Nigerian who will continue to live in our hearts. Adieu!