He has always been a thorn in the side of many a government in Nigeria . A tireless human rights campaigner and “senior advocate of the masses”, colleagues, ordinary Nigerians pay tribute to Gani Fawehinmi on finally being recognized by his peers and becoming a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN. But who is he really?
It was a hot afternoon. The teenage pri-mary school boy sat at the bank of a river in Ondo. He had a bowl of gari mixed with water on hand. As he was doing justice to the meal, a senior student came around to bully him. “Get back to school because the bell had just rung,” the senior student said. But the youngster stood his ground. He would not go until he had finished his meal.
While the argument continued, a snake fell on the young boy’s head. Without any hesitation, the boy grabbed the snake and threw it at the senior, who ran for his dear life. The young boy is now the controversial lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi. That radicalism has continued as the hallmark of Fawehinmi, the radical Lagos lawyer who was made a senior advocate of Nigeria in July. He will be conferred with the title, September 10 in Abuja .
His path to greatness as a crusader for the public good started in February 1969. For a moment Nigerians forgot they were fighting a civil war. They became engrossed in one of the juiciest scandals in Nigeria ’s history. The young lawyer sued the secretary to the Benue/Plateau State government, the late Andrew Obeya, on behalf of a factory-hand, Abashia who said Obeya had an affair with his wife, Hannatu,in a car parked along the Jos/Zaria Road , Jos.
Although this should normally be a private tussle between two citizens, the state government got involved on behalf of its official. The governor, the late Joseph Gomwalk made efforts to get Fawehinmi to withdraw the case. When that failed, attempt was made to kidnap him. “That also came to nothing,” said Fawehinmi at an interview with Newswatch last week.
He was later clamped into jail under a detention decree that allows people to be detained without trial. To ensure he was kept away, the military government later charged him to court for illegally bringing arms to a local government area.
“I was not tried but moved from place to place in Northern Nigeria . I was in prison for seven months. It was when I was in jail that I heard of the birth of my first child, Mohammed. By the time I was released, the six separate suits I had filed against Obeya had been struck out by the courts,” he recalled.
Two years later, Benjamin Adekunle, popularly called “Black Scorpion” during the civil war era and now a retired brigadier-general, caused the detention without trial of one Amos Ayodeji. Again, Fawehinmi filed a suit in a Lagos high court to secure Ayodeji’s release. He succeeded. In retaliation, Adekunle ordered the detention of Fawehinmi himself.
In 1971, crisis engulfed the University of Ibadan over a peaceful demonstration by the students against the excesses of the university authorities. The police invaded the university killing one of the students, Kunle Adepeju. The nation rose against the Yakubu Gowon regime.
Gowon set up a commission of inquiry headed by Justice Boonyamin Kazeem of the Lagos high court. The students hired Fawehinmi as their counsel. When the report of the inquiry was released, more than 80 percent of the students’ demands were met.
Also in 1978, Fawehinmi sued the federal government for banning the National Association of Nigerian Students and detaining its leader, Segun Okeowo. In the course of the case, Fawehinmi was arrested by the police and charged with stealing a camera.
When he obtained bail, he filed an application of habeas corpus on behalf of Okeowo. He won and Okeowo was released after 43 days in detention. Of course, Fawehinmi was himself acquitted and discharged of his trumped-up charge by a magistrate.
Again, during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida,the irrepresible lawyer was detained in a bizarre twist to a case in which he was trying to bring officialdom to book. On June 17, 1988, he was arrested at his Anthony Village chambers together with two old but vociferous men – the late Tai Solarin, a famous social critic and Michael Imoudu, an old trade unionist whose advocacy of socialism in Nigeria has marked him out as a subversive in the eyes of every government since he organised Nigeria’s first general strike against the colonial government at the end of the World War II.
They were arrested at Fawehinmi’s chambers when they turned up at a conference offering alternatives to the government’s structural adjustment programme, SAP. SAP had become very unpopular causing a riot in which 12 people were killed. While in detention, Fawehinmi was flown from prison to prison, “igniting hypertension and ill health for me,” he said.
Fawehinmi also showed himself as a crusader for justice in the murder of Dele Giwa, founding editor-in-chief of Newswatch in 1986. He relentlessly attempted to institute a private prosecution for murder against the nation’s topmost intelligence officers at that time, Halilu Akilu, director of military intelligence and A.K. Togun, deputy director, state security service, SSS. He charged them for the murder of Giwa by parcel bomb. Giwa had been interrogated by the intelligence services two days before his death. Fawehinmi who had been his lawyer and friend strongly suspects that the security agencies sent the bomb. The lawyer is still pursuing the case at the Oputa panel on human rights abuses.
Fawehinmi has indeed faced many trials and triumphs in his crusade for social justice. He told Newswatch last week that he has been imprisoned 29 times. He has lived in 15 prisons and eight police cells across the country. He has been charged to court 13 times and his chambers searched 15 times.
Because of his human rights crusade for the masses, students of the Obafemi Awolowo University gave him the title of Senior Advocate of the Masses, SAM. All the people who spoke to Newswatch last week said he richly deserves the SAN title now bestowed on him by the Legal Practitioners Privilleges Committee of the Nigerian Bar Council.
Fawehinmi’s mother, Muniratu, in her 80s, supports him. She does not see anything wrong with her son disturbing the government because she believes that if government does what is wrong, he will surely disturb them. She said Gani resembles his father in character and appearance. She told Newswatch that his father was fearless and if anyone did anything wrong and his father got wind of it, he would make sure justice was done.
She added that it was God’s time for Gani to become a SAN. She said they had denied him the title in the past because of his radicalism. “As a mother, I feel worried and bad whenever Gani is detained, I caution him sometimes. But I cannot stop him from doing what is right,” she said.
Adebayo Adefarati, governor of Ondo State said that Gani had not changed much, that Gani was his “boy” in secondary school. He described Gani as a very rascally boy who was very bold. “Where his seniors were afraid to talk, Gani will stand up and tell you what he feels about a situation,” he said.
Adefarati said that Gani had always been fearless, which was why his seniors advised him to study law.
Adefarati said after Fawehinmi was named a SAN,he wrote him a letter of congratulations, “where I noted how extremely productive he had been. That Gani had contributed immensely to the practice of law in Nigeria is widely acknowledged,” he said. “All I can add on Gani is to acknowledge his courage and sagacity in public affairs. If more Nigerians had Gani’s courage, Nigeria would have been the greater for it,” he stated.
Newswatch watched Gani in his chambers and among his associates for two days. He arrives office at about 11.00 a.m. each day. A deluge of calls, letters and heavy mail are found waiting for his personal attention. Later in the afternoon, political associates, members of the National Conscience Party, clients seeking legal advice and legal assistance stream into the chambers. Despite its remoteness from the city centre, the chambers is a beehive of activities as late as midnight every day.
Yet, Fawehinmi attends to everyone, including foreign visitors, those from the remote corners of the nation, from his native city of Ondo , lawyers from other chambers seeking legal consultation and from people seeking financial assistance from him personally.
In the basement of his chambers are case files of thousands of cases he has handled and the current ones which he is handling. Named litigation section, it also houses bound copies of all the newspapers in circulation in Nigeria , including foreign ones.
Fawehinmi told Newswatch that his guiding legal principle was taken from the words of Nigeria ’s first lawyer, Sapara Williams who admonished every lawyer “to live for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.” Because of his passion for justice, having been imprisoned and beaten by the police unjustly in life, Fawehinmi compassionately renders free legal services for the members of his self-defined constituency – the poor, the oppressed, the cheated, the ignored and the persecuted.
He has indeed changed the course of legal practice in Nigeria . Never in the history of law has one man done so much for the legal profession. He practises law, writes law and publishes law. His Nigerian Weekly Law Reports, NWLR, comes out regularly with more than 250 pages every week. He is the editor-in-chief and founder of the NWLR. He is author or editor of various law reports and journals totalling 20.
Fawehinmi has also won landmark judicial pronouncements and cases in Nigeria . In December 1987, the Supreme Court determined the right of a private prosecutor to institute a private prosecution for murder. The credit went to him. “There are so many constitutional cases, which I am personally the plaintiff establishing so many principles,” he said.
Other notable cases won by Fawehinmi in the course of his crusade for justice in Nigeria include: Fawehinmi versus Shonekan; an action which exposed the illegality of Ernest Shonekan’s interim national government, ING, after Babangida “stepped aside.”
Edwin Anikwem, deputy head of Fawehinmi Chambers, told Newswatch last week that “Gani Fawehinmi inspires us very much here at chambers. He is very caring, kind. He gets work done.”
Some people claim that Fawehinmi is a slave driver, but Anikwem denied it. “I dare say, he is no slave driver. But he does not suffer fools gladly. Working with him is an experience. He motivates us to attain greater heights. We have come to imbibe his philosophy of using law for the betterment of society,” he said.
He continued: “This runs in the veins of every member of staff of his chambers. Gani encourages people to succeed as a lawyer. He makes everything available to you, money and materials. There are many advantages in working with him. For instance, we benefit from information on law available in his chambers and his sister companies. Moreover, it is the only place I know where you are considered on merit. He gives you opportunities to excel. He is a driver in the sense of getting maximum efficiency, of obtaining perfection. Gani is very thorough as a professional. He is an exacting leader.”
For Tunde Adeleye, presiding bishop of the Anglican Church, Calabar diocese: “I appreciate Fawehinmi’s contributions to social criticism. I also appreciate his boldness. He has suffered greatly in the hands of government. His defence of the poor, the needy is commendable. I see him as a formidable social critic, man of learning and one who has become an icon and philanthropist.”
Odia Ofeimum, social critic and chairman, editorial board of TheNews magazine had this to say on Fawehinmi: “Whether he gets the title or not, every Nigerian in the law profession knew that Fawehinmi was bigger than whatever he could be given. In fact, the very system of having SAN was doing itself a favour when it finally had Fawehinmi applying to become a SAN. That he is getting it after so many people he is intellectually superior to, actually shows a man who was more prepared to give than to receive. You don’t need to be a lawyer to appreciate Fawehinmi’s genius as a barrister. He has become a personification of radical law in Nigeria . Through his law reports, Fawehinmi has advanced the course of law more than any other lawyer in Nigeria . He has a strong sense for the defence of public morality.
“But Fawehinmi is not always right. I remember during the struggle for June 12, he took some positions which surely he will reverse today. He was requesting for the soldiers to intervene. That was extremely naive. There are other times when, honestly, you would wish as a social critic, Fawehinmi was a little slower in responding to an issue because that way he would be able to get all the information before acting.”
Ofeimum went on: “Fawehinmi has not been a great builder of organisations. He has built a fantastic law firm tapping the skills of other lawyers. But as a politician, there are so many things which he does which I consider inimical to the survival of his political party. Thus, he is a better advocate than administrator.
“On Bola Tinubu, the Lagos State governor, Fawehinmi over reached himself. His emotions got the better of legal knowledge for not knowing that Tinubu has immunity and that the issue of Tinubu’s integrity bordered on morality not legality.”
Ebele Eko, a professor of English and deputy vice-chancellor, University of Calabar believes if Nigeria has had more crusaders of Fawehinmi’s ilk we might have been spared that many years of military rule.
Ugochukwu Egesi, physician at the University Teaching Hospital, Calabar, said “Fawehinmi is the greatest advocate on the lawyers’ roll in Nigeria .”
In the opinion of Ogbadu Zakari of the federal inland revenue department, Lagos , “Gani Fawehinmi is truly the advocate of the masses for his penchant to defend the poor freely. But if he wants to rule this country, he must be ready to accommodate other people’s views. He should respect the viewpoint of others because no one has a monopoly of wisdom,” he said.
Williams Adebayo, a legal practitioner based at Ojodu, Lagos , said this of Fawehinmi: “Gani is a very successful lawyer and human rights crusader. His profound knowledge and understanding of the law has enabled him to use the law and the courtroom as instruments of protest and social change. Today, his success has been in the advancement of justice and the enhancement of human rights.”
In 1994, Fawehinmi formed the National Conscience Organisation as a human rights movement. “As an organisation, National Conscience is fighting for the economic rights of the down-trodden in Nigeria . The National Conscience transformed into a political party in October 1994 in defiance of a military order banning the formation of political parties,” Fawehinmi told Newswatch.
According to Fawehinmi, the National Conscience Party, NCP, was formed with two main objectives. Firstly, to rally public support for the actualisation of June 12 presidential victory of Moshood Abiola in 1993. Secondly, to provide a platform for the emancipation of Nigerians from economic, political, social and cultural slavery.
In pursuance of his political goals, Fawehinmi promises to be more committed to the ideals of justice. “First, justice is in two parts, you have legal justice relating to the courts and social justice relating to the masses. Social justice cannot be attained without economic fundamental rights. Nigeria today has no respect for the economic rights of the mass of our people,” he said.
Henry Akunebu, a lawyer, believes Fawehinmi has built a great name for himself and that politics should be his next vocation. “He has so distinguished himself as an advocate and defender of the poor that no Nigerian can boast of any higher ties with the Nigerian people. If he plans well, the presidency of Nigeria is within his grasp in the near future,” he said.
In the opinion of Akunebu, “if Fawehinmi is serious in his presidential ambition, he should reach out to other parts of Nigeria . He must establish a newspaper, radio or television in order to propagate his gospel of justice to the masses. It is essential that Fawehinmi reorganises NCP so that people other than Yoruba can take up its membership.”
Ayo Obe, lawyer and president of the Civil Liberties Organsation, CLO, told Newswatch, “that the recognition of Fawehinmi as a SAN is a well deserved honour.” But she doesn’t see it changing his crusading spirit. “I don’t see the honour changing him. I think Fawehinmi will continue to be SAN and senior advocate of the masses together.”
Brady Nwosu, a Lagos-based political consultant commended Fawehinmi for his courage, steadfastness and dogged devotion to noble ideals. “Gani Fawehinmi is a special gift to mankind, particularly to Nigeria . He remains a personality in law you cannot ignore. Fawehinmi has long remained a lone voice in Nigeria ’s devious political firmament,” he said.
Olufemi Adekoya, a lawyer, described Fawehinmi as a brilliant, ferocious and rugged legal practitioner. “You know, it is not enough to be a lawyer, you must be willing to risk your life in the course of your profession. Fawehinmi is the only man in this country that has put his life on the line in the course of practising his profession,” he said.
Adekoya told Newswatch that Fawehinmi was the first human rights activist in Nigeria , which was why students gave him the title, senior advocate of the masses. He said he hated Fawehinmi’s excesses. One of which was his recommendation, on television that Obasanjo should reduce the price of petroleum to six kobo per litre, which was unrealistic.
The lawyer also explained that sensational advocacy was unethical and that it should be avoided. But in the opinion of Adekoya, Fawehinmi is always emotional in the matter of Dele Giwa at the Oputa panel which was an unprofessional act. He said the SAN was delayed because of Fawehinmi’s style of advocacy.
Fawehinmi is also a philanthropist. Because of his experience of financial deprivation as a student, he instituted his own scholarship scheme in 1971. Every year 40 students receive scholarship awards from him.
For Fawehinmi’s family life, you need to visit his serene home at Ikeja GRA. His home stands on a large expanse of land covered with flowers. There are three buildings in his courtyard, two duplexes and a guest chalet. Fawehinmi lives alone in the first building. His family lives in the other.
He has two separate areas for rearing chicken and goats. They are about 90.
The walls of his sitting room are covered by glazed newspaper headlines of Fawehinmi‘s travails. He told Newswatch the windows were not covered so that Abacha’s henchmen would not miss their target if they wanted him. He said his desire for the safety of his family informed his decision to live all alone, separate from the family.
Tolulope Fashipe, Fawehinmi’s younger sister, said her brother is a wonderful person. She said Fawehinmi treats her with loving kindness and that he is a good family man. Fashipe said she is very happy for Fawehinmi, for the SAN honour.
For Fawehinmi’s elder brother, Wahid, a general merchant, “Gani is the dean of the family. He is just like our father, hates injustice. As a brother, he is very supportive, a good family man, responsive to our needs at all times.”
Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi was born on April 22, 1938 , at Ondo, Ondo State . He was educated at Victory College , Ikare; the University of London, England and the Nigerian Law School , Lagos .
He was called to the bar in 1965. He has practised law since then. He also wrote columns in the Daily Sketch, the Nigerian Tribune, and The Chronicle.
Fawehinmi won the American Bar Association Award in 1996, and Bernard Simons award from the International Bar Association in 1998. He was given the traditional title of Lomofe of Ondo in 1978. He is married to two wives and has 14 children.