Originally published in NEXT Newspaper
By Tolu Ogunlesi
September 5, 2009
One would be forgiven for assuming “fiery Lagos Lawyer” was his official title. It was as though there were Lagos lawyers, and then there was the “fiery” Lagos lawyer.
In fact, that description would have been wholly true, had Gani Fawehinmi not presided over a moral and intellectual territory that extended far beyond the city of Lagos.
Even his ‘detention territory’ disqualified him from being merely a Lagos lawyer: the list of prisons in which he was held by various military governments reading like the table of contents of a geography primer on Nigeria. They ranged from Lagos to Kaduna to Gombe, over the course of 27 years; as successive Nigerian rulers fell over themselves to earn the honour of hounding him.
In fact, Ibrahim Babangida, former military president, when asked why his regime detained the late lawyer, told a magazine that it would have been out of place not to, because all regimes before him had done the same!
No mountain too high
Gani was — almost singlehandedly — the loud conscience of a hundred and forty million people; a man for whom silence was never an option, and for whom there were no tyrants too big to be challenged. The bigger the better, in fact.
In 1999, he took on the Nigerian Constitution — midwifed by a military government — asking a court to declare it “null and void.” In 2008, he took — all at once — President Umaru Yar’Adua, the Senate, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Attorney General of the Federation to court, seeking a declaration that the appointment of Farida Waziri as Chairman of the EFCC was illegal.
And of course there was no one too unimportant to be fought for: students (who bestowed on him the Senior Advocate of the Masses award in 1987), policemen, ethnic minorities, and even the naira, which devaluation he fought in court, in 1992.
Gani wielded every available tool in his lifelong fight against injustice. He spoke, wrote, chanted, sued, marched and formed a political party.
There were no gestures too ordinary to be deployed in making a point: in 1997, he made news with his rejection of a Sallah ram gift from then military administrator of Lagos State, Mohammed Buba Marwa. Eleven years later, it was the turn of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) — one of Nigeria’s most prestigious national honours — to feel the heat of his rejection.
Few people had his gift of insight into the psyches of dictators — Olusegun Obasanjo was “Mr. Know it all” and “a stubborn brute”; Babangida was “a personification of evil in every respect”, and a man who, along with his henchmen, “should be cooling their feet in a charge cell.”
He had no illusions that civilian governments were necessarily more humane than gun-totting dictators. And thus, even after the much-hailed transfer of power to a civilian government in 1998, neither the weight of his questions nor the stridency of his voice reduced. He, more than most, knew that the absolute corruption produced by power did not deserve a ceasefire merely because of a change of toga.
But for a man who spent decades facing down the barrel of assassins’ guns, death from lung cancer must have been a great disappointment. Given a chance, one suspects he would have taken the cancer to the highest court in the land, seeking for it to be declared “null and void”.
Yet death was one foe Gani never bothered to challenge. Following the 1986 letter bomb murder of Dele Giwa, Gani promptly wrote his will, and relocated his family to the other wing of his house, seeking to protect them. “That’s how I started living alone from 1986,” he once said. “I said, if they come, I don’t want them to slaughter you while looking for me.”
It is interesting that such a man as Gani, with absolutely no patience for so many things, was equally endowed with a superhuman tolerance. A devout Muslim, son of a cleric reported to have brought Islam to his home town, Ondo; Gani had a Christian wife.
And he had no qualms modelling his life after the founder of Christianity. “I am not a Christian,” he once said. “But you look at the persistent attitude of Jesus Christ. Even being nailed on the cross and bleeding, He never gave up… in fact, Christ died without a child at the age of thirty-three. Now the old, the young, the beautiful, the ugly; many parts of the world, preach this man’s gospel. There is something wonderful in consistency. I am prepared to go that path, till I die.”
Which is exactly what he did.