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Gani : Legacies of the general in the rule of law army

By Emmanuel Majebi

The news of the death of Chief  Abdul Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi SAN, came to us like a thief in the afternoon. I was at home resting on Saturday afternoon listening to Channels Television programme “Sunrise”. I was enjoying they comedy of the hot verbal exchanges between Actor Kanayo O. Kanayo and another actor who was a representative of the President of the Actors Guild of Nigeria (AGN) Ejike Asiegbu;  over the intractable crises in the Guild then just from no where the moderator interrupted the two warring actors and asked for permission to give the viewers a breaking news.

Then the news hit us Gani was no more. Even though it was no longer news that Gani had been fighting a long battle with lung cancer; a terminal disease; we all felt that like with many of his previous cliff hanger battles in life he would some how come out of this present battle victorious.

But alas it was not to be. Gani was a very dogged fighter all his life and even when it came to lung cancer he didn’t give in so easily, he fought it tooth and nail until the cancer finally got the better of him. A lot has been written about Gani since he died; tons and tons of ink and paper and words have been expended to praise and eulogize the late human rights activist.

His life history and the story of his struggles and life experiences are all over the papers and other media ad infinitum and it would be unnecessarily repetitive to state a story which most Nigerians have by now taken “judicial” notice of. In writing this tribute I would only want to focus on a few of the very many legacies that Gani Fawehinmi left behind.

The most important legacy that Gani left behind as far as I am concerned was in his profession via his Legal Publications.  Most people who are not lawyers may not be able to understand it if we lawyers say that one of Gani’s major publications.

The Nigerian Weekly Law Report (hereinafter called NWLR) represents a quantum leap in the improvement of the quality of and democratisation of the practice law in Nigeria!! The only way a lay man can probably understand the nature of the quantum leap that the NWLR represents is to draw an analogy with state of communication in Nigeria before and after the coming of the GSM. The coming of the GSM “revolutionarized” communications in Nigeria and saved us from the tyranny of NITEL and in a way I look at the coming of the NWLR in the legal profession to the coming of GSM to Nigeria.

I first came in contact with Gani Fawehinmi through his publications the Nigerian Weekly Law Reports when I qualified as a lawyer. Long before the my contact with Gani through his NWLR I had read some where as a law student the story of a lawyer called Gani Fawehinmi with respect to the 1969 case of  Bala Abashe and the New Nigerian Newspaper v Mr. Andrew Obeya, Secretary of the then Benue/Plateau State a case where  Mr. Abashe (defended by Mr. Fawehinmi) claimed he saw Mr. Obeya having sex with his wife in his car in a bush and the 1972 case of Amachree v River State Government a case where he defended a journalist who had his hair shaven for criticising the government by then military governor of the state, Alfred Diete-Spiff.

Back then I remember feeling apprehension for him for engaging in a very suicidal  task (at that time) of taking on military governments. Back in those days Nigeria was in the grips of military rule and the general wisdom then was that an official of the military government could do no wrong and even if they did wrong who was a bloody civilian to question their actions?! In spite of my apprehension for his safety on reading of these his actions in fighting for the rights of the oppressed and the powerless made me very  proud to have chosen LAW as a profession.

The NWLR which started in 1985 changed the face of the practice of law forever and later in life as a lawyer when we began to use the law reports it didn’t really dawn on us the type of privilege we had being able to have the current decisions of the Supreme Court and other Superior Courts. An older colleague later told us of how in years past current Court of Appeal cases and Supreme Court decisions were like fairy tales told from far away lands to most lawyers.

He informed us that the Supreme Court reports (the Yellow Reports) which was in existence then was published by the Government Printer and as such the coming out of the law report was very irregular such that cases decided in the superior and Supreme Court on a given date may not be known to majority of lawyers till at times up to 12 months later.

Thus the current Supreme Court decisions were available only to the very few senior lawyers who handled these cases and had the certified true copies of such judgments in their Chambers. And in a Judicial jurisdiction like Nigeria where judicial precedents were such an important part of the system the importance of access to current decisions of the Superior courts can never be over emphasized.

The popular folklore within the legal profession is that the later battles that Gani had to fight with the then big wigs in the legal profession and the NBA was an attempt to hit back at Gani for his publication of the NWLR which broke the monopoly of those big wigs over the legal profession.

We were just young lawyers then but we were soon in apposition to make our own decisions as to the big legal divide in our profession between Gani (an his ilk) who felt that law practice should be democratized and those who were fighting to keep the profession a preserve of a chosen few.

To say that Gani was the ultimate winner of this fight is to state the obvious because apart from defeating the NBA in court in the very famous case of Gani Fawehinmi v NBA , just a few years after he launched his Nigeria Weekly Law Report, the report became the most accepted tool for legal practitioners in Nigeria. EVEN those who were at the forefront of persecuting him for starting the publication had no option but to begin to utilize the Law Reports. As he leaves this sinful world I daresay that the Nigeria Weekly Law Report (and his other law publications) is Gani’s greatest bequest to the Legal Profession in Nigeria.

The second legacy which I think Gani is leaving behind is his dogged pursuit of the enthronement of the rule of law. As a corollary to his battle to enthrone the rule of law was the battle against oppression (in total disregard for our laws) of the weak by the strong and his principled battle against the military dictatorship as a result of which he had been arrested several times by the military governments and its numerous security agents. He probably got his spirit of fighting for the right of the oppressed from his grandfather the Late Chief Lisa Alujanu Fawehinmi of Ondo, who was said to have engaged in several successful battles for and on behalf of the Ondo people in the nineteenth century.
The very first case that shot him to lime light; the Obeya case; above mentioned was about fighting for a poor man who was being oppressed by a powerful government official.

Long before the Federal Government of Nigeria decided to adopt the Rule of Law as a Mantra, Gani had advanced the fight for the enthronement of the rule of law in Nigeria. He believed that Nigeria would only be a great country if we are governed by law as opposed to the whims and caprices of Man! Even in the military regimes he held the government to the provisions of their decrees.

His idea was that even though the military regimes were not elected they should keep strictly within the provisions of the decrees they promulgated. In this crusade Gani went to court over 5000 times to challenge various illegal or oppressive actions of governments some of the more notable cases he took to court are  as follows, “the 1986 case of Gani Fawehinmi v Haliru Akilu and A.K Togun where he brought a case against the 2 government officials  for allegedly conspiring to murder and the murder of Dele Giwa, then Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch Magazine.

The 1991 case of Gani Fawehinmi and Anor. v NNPC & 4 Ors where he sought to compel the  then President Ibrahim Babangida to give account of crude oil export earnings during the Gulf war.

The 1992 case of Gani Fawehinmi v Gado Nasko & Anor. Where he sought to compel the minister of the federal capital territory being truncated by poverty. A part of his philantrophy also was executed in the form of free legal services to those who had no means to pursue their rights in the law courts. He is said to have handled hundreds of such cases in freely on behalf of indigent litigants in various courts in Nigeria.

The last important legacy of Gani that I want to talk about is his utter disdain and abhorrence of corruption in our society. It is in this particular legacy that many people especially his legal colleagues tend to see a weakness in him. The general perception is that the only time in which Gani would close his eyes to an infraction in the rule of law is where such an infraction is done in the prosecution or apprehension of a corrupt person.

During the Buhari regime , that regime was all out to deal with corrupt politicians and most other lawyers in Nigeria felt that those military tribunals which were headed by Military personnel were unlawful and ordered that no lawyer should appear before them. Gani took a different view and was about the only prominent lawyer who appeared before the tribunals. Also despite the fact that he was stoutly opposed to the government of President Obasanjo, he threw his unflinching support behind the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission(EFCC) under Ribadu in spite of the accusation by many lawyers that the EFCC under Ribadu was not keeping within the confines of the rule of law. To him corruption was such a dangerous cankerworm that niceties of the rule of law could not be used to derail the anti corruption train.

In all of this I think the greatest tribute paid to Abdul-Ganiyu “Gani” Oyesola Fawehinmi (22 April 1938-05 September 2009) Nigerian author, publisher, philanthropist, social critic, human and Civil Rights Lawyer and Politician.; was the tribute by a person who could be described as his one of his greatest tormentors -in -chief General Ibrahim Babangida.

“……He was a great source of social engineering in Nigeria. There will be no development if there is no social engineering. I admired his criticism. He always tried to back them up with facts and laws……..When we want to take decisions while I was Head of State, we always took cognisance of what Gani might do. Because he would tear it to pieces and charge up the people against us…….

I attended one meeting in 1984 when I was chief of staff, and we invited Gani. He said it the way it was. We were all in army uniform, but Gani blasted us, and we ended up clapping for him. Because he was quite fearless. He said it the way it is…….Yes. I would have immortalised Gani if I was in office as president when he died….  It is great to be praised by your friends and admirers but where a person you fought many bitter battles with also comes out to praise you, then to me it shows that you are truly a great man. May his soul rest in peace


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