By Obi Nwakanma
ONLY last week, I was watching the documentary, â€œThe Judge, and the General,â€ an account of the work of that courageous judge in Chile who had finally indicted the late Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet shortly before his death in 2006, on the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
My mind was drawn to Gani Fawehinmi, the Nigerian activist lawyer who committed his life to seeking justice for the oppressed and tormenting Nigeriaâ€™s decadent power elite; forcing them to the scrutiny of the court, both of public opinion of the tribunal of justice.
It was by mere happenstance that I was watching what seemed a parallel life and work, and if I were to be of the superstitious bent of the mind, I might just be seduced to thinking that Gani Fawehinmiâ€™s spirit was talking in some indirect way to me about the meaning and value of his own life; for shortly after watching this documentary, the news came that Gani Fawehinmi had died from lung cancer.
I never knew Gani Fawehinmi in a deep and personal way, but he was of course, rested somewhere in my consciousness, as Iâ€™m sure he does in the consciousness of any Nigerian of my generation, as an inevitable testimony of true acts of public heroism. He was indeed the hero of the silent unrepresented; those we love to call the masses. He, therefore, somehow, seemed to belong to all of us.
I had always been both awed and fascinated by Fawehinmi. I can remember only just a few close encounters with him, two of which readily come to mind.
One was the night, during production while I was writing for The Sunday Magazine (TSM), and there was some sort of breaking news, the details of which I no longer readily recall and the late Ely Obasi, then editor of the magazine took me with him and we drove from Isijola street, Ilupeju, to Ganiâ€™s law chambers then not too long a haul in Anthony village and extracted a ready background interview with him. He was working late and almost ready to go, but he sat down and spoke readily and eloquently with us, with scant formality. It was my first encounter and I was impressed.
The second example that comes to mind was sometime in 1997 or thereabouts, when there was a strategy meeting of a coalition of the opposition groups in Lagos at the CDHR office on Mbonu Ojike Street, Surulere, and I had driven to that meeting with the late Chima Ubani and Omolade Adunbi who is currently at Yale.
It was at the height of the Sani Abacha nightmare. It struck me on that day that Gani was the only figure of his stature among the leaders of the opposition to brave it to that meeting; a mark of his defiance and his disdain for form.
He was in consistent and it seemed to me, not self-regarding solidarity with the younger activists of the Human Rights movement who were the true thorns on the side of that regime.
I also recall once travelling on the same Air France flight with him in July 1995 from the Charles DeGaule Airport in Paris to Lagos. I met him at the Charles DeGaule. He was returning from London where he had both received some award – I think the International Bar Association award – and some medical attention in London as he told me.
We had a long, warm chat, and he invited me to visit him, but he was arrested and picked up by the Nigerian Security Services at the Murtala Muhammed Airport as we touched down in Lagos.
I think I possibly gave the alert to the Vanguard news editor that resulted in the lead with Ganiâ€™s arrest on that occasion.
Gani was the dean of civil rights advocacy and the arch-rebel against the corrupt state, who most inspired the youth of my generation. As undergraduates in the Nigerian universities of the 1980s Gani stood with us in our protests against the blind terror and unreflective rule of military oligarchs.
He modeled for us the quintessence of the educated man – the lawyer in his case – as a man of conscience. For a whole lot of us, the late Dele Giwa gave glamour; a certain dash and colour to the normally dangerous trade of public issue journalism.
Dangerous in a society already governed with brute force. Made even more dangerous when journalists could quite clearly, and very easily, with some anonymous package, be erased violently from the face of the earth, as a warning to others – nosey parkers by trade – to steer clear from the personal business and secrets of the powerful, often masked as state secrets, or suffer similar fate.
Dele Giwa was the romantic knight of Nigerian journalism who in the 1980s had started gathering around him newer knights to the Camelot of new Nigerian journalism. The purpose it seemed to us was renewal. But the knight was killed.
The example of Dele Giwaâ€™s brutal and public murder could have weaned us from any romantic illusions about journalism and driven fear into us.Â When Dele Giwa was killed, he alone stood in the debris forcefully calling for the investigation of the government of the day and the prosecution of its top secret agents whom he openly and fearlessly accused of killing Giwa.
Gani Fawehinmi vowed to pursue that case, in spite of all threats and obstructions to its very end. He made it the mission of his life. He seemed indestructible. Many of us swore by his name, impressed by his defiance. He was a man shaped by his high sense of justice and public morality.
He justly earned his role and description as the nationâ€™s moral compass and public conscience in his era. Ganiâ€™s life and career in public advocacy began quite dramatically.
The story has been told of how he suffered a term in jail for his stubborn defense of a woman in the then Benue-Plateau state in 1969, and how that experience shaped his resolve to always err on the part of the powerless and the oppressed, and to always seek justice even for those who could not afford justice.
He was not militant; he was defiant, and he had moral clarity. He gave up the cozy, carrion-comfort of the Nigerian elite, and suffered brutality, and was many times like Palinurus, alone in his dark prison.
There are those who would say that Ganiâ€™s advocacy was mostly legalistic and therefore lacked the true force to effect change; or that he was a man driven more by ego and self-regard than by public service. He did of course have ego, and he was certainly a bit of the thespian.
But the true measure of Gani Fawehinmiâ€™s life is that in his legal advocacy he has added far more precedents to our body of laws, and thus to the democratic and civilized foundations upon which Nigeria will ultimately rest as a nation.