Gani Fawehinmi: In Memory of a Gadfly, By Chris Ngwodo

Gani was a true Nigerian hero and a patriot of the highest order. Nor was he the only one for he belonged to Nigeria’s league of extraordinary contrarians… Like these lumirnaies, Gani represented the best part of the Nigerian spirit. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his sacrifices which helped paved the way for our present democratic order.

Seven years ago this week, Gani Fawehinmi, 71, Nigeria’s greatest civil rights advocate and public interest litigator died bringing an end to a phenomenal career in public life. His biography is so laden with courage and selfless commitment to the cause that it is best summarised with some pungent statistics. Between 1969 and 2002 when he stopped appearing in court, he handled about 5,700 briefs, more than 1,500 of which were pro bono cases in which he represented the poor, the oppressed, the cheated, and student activists. In the course of his career, Gani endured 39 prison detentions and was a frequent and forced guest of jails across the country.

His anti-establishment credentials are unimpeachably consistent. He was jailed or detained by virtually every military regime, beginning with the Gowon regime in 1969, and terminating with the Abacha regime. In a bid to shackle this humanitarian force of nature, the state frequently succumbed to self-disrespecting stupidity. During the 1978 “Ali must go” student revolt, Gani was charged with stealing his own camera. In June 1988, the Babangida regime charged him with attempting to burn down his own house. He was acquitted of both charges.

Not all of Gani’s learned colleagues were impressed by his activism. “Many lawyers are harassed when they take on controversial cases,” Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams, his most notable legal opponent, once noted acidly, “but only Gani calls a press conference each time.” If Williams represented a patrician pro-establishment unabashedly elitist strain in Nigerian legal practice, Gani was his polar opposite – a Robin Hood-esque maverick, dissident and champion of the plebeian cause. Their rivalry was virtually written in the stars.

Gani was at the forefront of civic dissent at a time when the military was using state terrorism to silence civil society. That his courage confounded both his persecutors and many of his peers said more about them than it did him.

Some of Gani’s traducers insisted that he was a self-promoting narcissist who deliberately engineered controversial confrontations with the government so as to get a starring role in the spotlight. This assertion is relevant only as an explanation of the moral cowardice of those who made it. Mere fame offered only a feeble incentive for enduring serial stints in some of Nigeria’s worst jails, countless months away from his family, as well as the risk of physical harm and even murder. His friend and client, the journalist Dele Giwa, was parcel-bombed in 1986. Gani was at the forefront of civic dissent at a time when the military was using state terrorism to silence civil society. That his courage confounded both his persecutors and many of his peers said more about them than it did him.

In a cynical society overtaken by materialistic self-involvement; where all values have been monetised and are negotiable, the civic virtue of defending the poor and the vulnerable can seem an exotic eccentricity. This is all the more so when opportunities to use one’s talents for self-enrichment abound. Gani could have deployed his gifts – his prodigious intellect, keen memory, attention to detail and dedicated toil to amassing great wealth and winning the esteem of the powerful. He did not. Instead, he devoted these gifts to fighting for the weak and for a better society.

In fact, Gani had a policy of never taking retainers from corporations so that, as he put it, “nobody can strangulate me financially.” He also rejected gifts from public officials and notably rejected the award of Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR) in 2008 because it would be inconsistent for him to be feted by the government whose policies he had opposed all his life.

Gani’s Worldview

Gani’s motivation was chiefly ideological. He was a socialist who, in his words, was driven by “the need to put a human face to the practice of law.” He argued that “Law does not exist on its own. It is a mechanism to make the life of the people better, an instrument of social change.” In Gani’s worldview, justice has two dimensions: legal justice as purveyed by the courts and social justice which involves the social and economic rights of the people. He contended that legal justice can only be truly procured in an environment that recognises social justice and that legal justice will fail in an environment of abject poverty.

His legal battles expanded the borders of jurisprudence and left a radiant legacy. His notable victories included a supreme court judgment against the Abacha junta asserting that the African Human Rights Charter, another supreme court judgment affirming that though the president and governors enjoy immunity from prosecution under Section 308 of the Constitution, they can still be investigated though they cannot be tried, and yet another triumph at the supreme court yielded the ruling that a private citizen has the right to prosecute if those charged with public prosecutions fail to do so. Another judicial victory affirmed that the right of Nigerians to form political parties cannot be abridged by electoral authorities, thus broadening the political space.

If Gani were alive today, his public posture would be nuanced. He once described the Buhari-Idiagbon military regime as the most disciplined in Nigeria’s history but he had also been critical of its excesses.

Gani was a liberal but he could be described as a conservative liberal. In April 1985, the Buhari military regime carried out the execution of three drug dealers by firing squad under a retroactive decree. Virtually every section of civil society condemned the executions. Never afraid to stand alone – even if it was on the unpopular side of a debate – Gani expressed support for the executions and described the drug dealers as “messengers of death” that deserved to die because “their products dehumanise” and “send their victims to untimely deaths.”

What Would Gani Do?

If Gani were alive today, his public posture would be nuanced. He once described the Buhari-Idiagbon military regime as the most disciplined in Nigeria’s history but he had also been critical of its excesses. He would have supported the present administration’s anti-corruption campaign to the extent to which it exists. He would also likely have been infuriated by any sign of bias and would criticise it for not being sweeping enough. In 1985, he had been a staunch supporter of the Buhari regime’s prosecution of thieving public officials but went further to advocate an amendment to Decree 3 under which they were being tried to provide the death penalty for those found guilty.

Despite his political differences with President Olusegun Obasanjo (whose military regime had also jailed him in 1978), Gani was an enthusiastic supporter of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission under its pioneer chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, and perhaps saw in the anti-corruption czar, the sort of inquisitor needed to whip sanity into the political class.

Conversely, Gani’s humanist sensibilities would have been assaulted by this administration’s human rights violations – the massacres of over 300 Shiite Muslims in Zaria and pro-Biafra protesters in the South-East. He would have been incensed by the administration’s reversals on the removal of fuel subsidy and the devaluation of the naira. As a philanthropist who funded a scholarship programme for indigent Northerners, Gani would have identified with the Bring Back Our Girls protest movement.

Gani In Politics

Gani’s political views were complex. He believed that democracy could be sustainable only after “an enlightened and principled dictatorship” had settled the society. Nigeria, he once said, required, “a grueling and gruesome militant intervention” to set her straight. He was not actually opposed to all dictatorships; he believed that the right kind of dictator had yet to emerge.

Like all significant figures, Gani was a man of contradictions. He was an advocate for civil rights and democracy who nevertheless perceived redemptive possibilities in autocracy. He was a lawyer who disdained the starchy conservatism and social indifference of the bar. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gani’s belief in enlightened autocracy was not unusual. It was a belief that was shared to various degrees by many public intellectuals. This disposition rendered civil society vulnerable to the deceptive wiles of charlatans in khaki that each seized power claiming to be the long-awaited benevolent tyrant. By the mid 1990s, with the polity reeling from the predations of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, the myth of the benign despot had been detonated by reality and Gani and his confederates were leading a pro-democracy movement that insisted on the military’s expulsion from governance.

In 2003, Gani ran for president. Perhaps, if Nigerian politics was set in a deeply satisfying moral fantasy, he would have won. It would have been no more than he deserved and he would have joined the pantheon of dissenters like Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Lula Ignacio da Silva who plowed a lonely path of conscience to power. But Gani lost dismally. Even with the chicanery that customarily attends electioneering in Nigeria, it was clear that the masses he had spent his life toiling for in the trenches had not deemed him worthy of national leadership. What disappointed him even more than his loss was the fact that Nigerians had not poured into the streets to protest the shenanigans of the electoral commission and the ruling party.

…the clarity of conscience that animates radical activism is an outsider complex. It does not coexist easily with the moral ambiguities and pragmatic compromise inherent in partisan politics. Gani winning the presidency was as implausible as Martin Luther King becoming the president of America in his day.

Perhaps, it was Gani who was overestimating the resilience of a weary population whose abusive relationship with its governing elites is characterised by something akin to Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps, he had even overestimated his own political appeal and the allure of his ideological Puritanism in a country with a transactional political ethos. Nigerians seem to prefer their prophets to remain voices crying in the wilderness rather than venturing into the palace. Aminu Kano, that other great apostle of radical dissent, for all he was acclaimed for his absolute dedication to the cause of the poor, had also sought the presidency in 1979 and lost. Nigerians apparently do not want the conscience of the nation to wear the crown of power.

We want our superheroes to stay unsullied by politics. The resultant irony is that the saints and sinners of our society are often not the same as the winners and losers in our politics. It is also the case that Nigerian dissenters naively rely excessively on personal charisma and underestimate the necessity of political organisation. Furthermore, the clarity of conscience that animates radical activism is an outsider complex. It does not coexist easily with the moral ambiguities and pragmatic compromise inherent in partisan politics. Gani winning the presidency was as implausible as Martin Luther King becoming the president of America in his day. Ultimately, there is no clear straight path from conscientious dissent and anti-establishment activism to mainstream political power. But what dedicated civil rights activists often have, is moral capital, which when properly harnessed, can rival a politician’s influence.

Gani’s Legacy

Gani’s incandescent legacy raises questions about the legal craft in Nigeria today. In a society rife with dehumanising poverty, inequality and official impunity, can the legal profession afford to be shaped simply by mercenary instincts at the expense of pressing social and political causes crying out for advocacy? Will the profession chart an activist course for the egalitarian shores of social justice or will it meander towards mediocrity with lucrative post-election litigation and representation of often illicitly-enriched big men as its holy grail?

Gani would have frowned at the over-politicisation of the NBA, the financial firepower deployed in desperate campaigns for leadership of the association and the corrupting wedlock between elites and lawyers that has raised a generation of rogue jurists often knowingly complicit in the high crimes of the powerful. As far back as the early 1980s, Gani had issued a lacerating critique of Nigeria’s “corrosive, decadent and debilitating” legal system which he blamed on wealthy lawyers that are “daily concerned with lining their pockets with fat and fertile briefs with no time for left to conceptualise and intellectualise the direction of the legal system.”

Many Nigerians of the millennial generation have been socialised to believe that their homeland has no heroes. The absence of a proper history course from our school curriculum has reinforced this myth. It has also created a situation in which every two-bit carpetbagger and charlatan is celebrated as an “icon” or an “elder statesman”…

Gani inspired a generation to take to civil rights advocacy long before such activism became popular or glamourous. His protégés became lynchpins of the pro-democracy movement that wrestled Nigeria’s military regimes to a standstill by the mid 1990s. Many Nigerians of the millennial generation have been socialised to believe that their homeland has no heroes. The absence of a proper history course from our school curriculum has reinforced this myth. It has also created a situation in which every two-bit carpetbagger and charlatan is celebrated as an “icon” or an “elder statesman” even when such labels constitute a blatantly fraudulent revision of their darkly uninspiring biographies.

Gani was a true Nigerian hero and a patriot of the highest order. Nor was he the only one for he belonged to Nigeria’s league of extraordinary contrarians – a category that includes the likes of Fela, Chike Obi, Aminu Kano, Solarin, Soyinka, Ayodele Awojobi, Hajiya Gambo Sawaba and Bala Usman among others. Like these luminaries, Gani represented the best part of the Nigerian spirit. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his sacrifices which helped paved the way for our present democratic order. Those sacrifices exacted a steep toll in the shape of the recurrent bouts of ill-health that ultimately claimed his life. The best way to repay this debt is to remain vigilant, ever prepared to resist the forces that would turn back the hands of history’s clock and force a national retreat into the dark days of savage despotism.

Chris Ngwodo is a consultant, writer and analyst.

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