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The man Gani, by Olu Onagoruwa

SOME critics have described Mr.    Fawehinmi as a rebel, a revolutionary and others have even called him a publicity-seeking lawyer, but the most authentic and objective description of him and that with which many right-thinking people would agree is that Mr. Fawehinmi is a “fierce crusading lawyer.  Born by a wealthy timber magnate at Ondo in the Western Province of Nigeria, Mr. Fawehinmi was reared in prosperous circumstance.

However the violent vicissitudes of life conspired to deprive him of the fortune for which he had been destined by the sudden death of his father. As a result he suffered grievous deprivation and had to fight his way through the University unaided in order to earn himself a legal training. The brutality which he suffered in the hands of fate and the callous indifference which people showed to his problems even when he positively sought their help made him to be “rebellious and practical.”

As he put it, “I am the product of my own experience in life”. His experience made him to realise that there were many people in bondage who could only be helped by positive and concrete gestures and this he always set out to do particularly in the practice of his legal profession. “I wanted to know.” he once declared with deep concern, “why majority of human beings were down trodden and perpetually kept poor and how they could be extricated from the clutches of this poverty”. He consequently conceived his legal practice as a utilitarian instrument for the vindication of justice and the upliftment of poor and the oppressed. Positively therefore his legal practice has shown a charitable bias and he had had to handle cases even where no professional fee would be forthcoming provided he was convinced that without such a legal representation justice would be denied substantially to the underdog. The reason for this is that he believes that our legal system is not sufficiently attuned to provide equitable remedy to all. For as he himself observed. “A system which allows for equality of rights between the rich and the poor but fails to give the poor the opportunity of coming to court to exercise those rights is ungodly and anachronistic.” Mr. Fawehinmi’s charitable passion is not confined to law and justice; it spills over into the areas of social, economic and educational justice.

To these ends he has instituted indefatigable crusade for certain fundamental rights and he champions these with relentless and unique imperturbability. To him, every citizen should not only have “free and full” education at all levels, but such a right should be guaranteed by government. For as he once asked “How can you know the law when you cannot read or write?” Other rights which he felt should be guaranteed by and entrenched in the constitution are the rights to free medical service and the right to work.

In spite of these praise worthy diversions into other problems that beset the society, Mr. Fawehinmi’s main preoccupation is with the law, and in particular with the search for equality and social justice through the law. To him this is a life crusade. “If the law in this country will not allow for equality”, he once remarked with indomitable emphasis, “it is incumbent oh lawyers to take up cases which will at least show some semblance of equality. The lawyers in this country need courage and determination.  I believe that the law is no respecter of any person” Fundamentally, this dogged principle has conditioned his whole legal practice, particularly that aspect of his practice which deals with civil liberty and its vindication through the law courts.

In this crusade for legal justice, Mr. Fawehinmi has gallantly fought many battles for the poor. Writing about all these cases would take a separate book. But the one which appears to be the first in the series was one which he fought in the Northern States sometime in March 1969. That case was a private prosecution brought against the Secretary to a State Government in one of the Northern States. This Senior Government official had snatched away the wife  of a poor peasant. In addition the top offical used his position to tyrannise the poor peasant and since the government was not forthcoming with a criminal prosecution as was witnessed in the Amakiri case, Mr. Fawehinmi tried to render his professional services to ensure that justice was done.

After the case had started in earnest, he was arrested and detained. This experience did not however deter him; on the contrary it strengthened his conviction to fight more for the poor and downtrodden culminating in his series of court warfare in the detention cases under the Gowon administration. One case which he fought and for which he warmed the hearts of many Nigerians was the Ayodeji case in 1973. In this case the Acting Chief of Staff Brigadier Adekunle had arrested and detained the Applicant/ Detainnee Mr. Ayodeji for an undisclosed offence. Mr. Fawehinmi with great courage and undaunted self-assurance, waded into the matter and inspite of many odds secured the release of Mr. Ayodeji after successfully invoking that great palladium of civil liberty, the writ of habeas corpus. A series of cases followed this case.

In the Kazeem’s case in 1974, he was able to convince that great judge. Mr. Justice Odesanya that the power to detain a citizen under that infamous decree 24 of 1967 was only conferred on the Chief of Staff and the Inspector-Genera! of Police and not on the Deputy Inspector-General of Police who had purported to detain Mr. Kazeem in the exercise of that power. In Oruwari’s case around the same time his wizardry in the law was again evident. Of course, he also fought some unsuccessful battles, not because his energies had failed but because of the repressive character of those detention laws under which the citizens were detained. It was under these repressive detention laws that Mr. Aper Aku, the man who made allegations against Mr. Gomwalk the then Governor of the Benue Plateau State. Others detained were Dr. Tai Solarin, the headmaster of Mayflower School, Ikenne, Dr. Madunagu, Dr. Akinde, Mr. Ebenezer Babatope, and many others. Mr. Fawehinmi played leading roles in attempts to regain the freedoms of a large number of these detainees.

It would be clear therefore that by the time he was briefed by the newspaper representatives to represent Mr. Amakiri, Mr. Fawehinmi had already established a firm and indissoluble reputation not only as an advocate of outstanding stature, but as a fearless and restless fighter for human liberty against the tyrannical exercise of governmental authority. The Amakiri case fitted in into his philosophical and temperamental mood. The liberties of a dutiful reporter had been trampled with ruthless callousness by the obvious misuse of state powers by those whose duty it was to uphold the sacred use of that power. Naturally, this disturbed Mr. Fawehinmi’s passion for equality and fairness and he was ready to vindicate the rules oflaw which frowned at such outrageous transgression by those in power. So. when he was briefed he embarked on the job with spontaneous and considerable professional enthusiasm. Since the Nigerian Observer, and Mr. Amakiri himself no longer appeared too enthusiastic, he made sure that he procured a formal authority by asking Mr. Amakiri to sign the relevant papers authorising the proceeding on his own behalf.

By no means was the legal battle one-sided. Chief R. P. Okara, the lawyer for Mr. Iwowari, the defendant, was a formidable and experienced lawyer. His knowledge of criminal proce-dure was impeccably reassuring and his mastery of the intricacies of forensic techniques was unexcelled. Consequently the battle was stiff all the way. The facts of the case showed evidence of indescribable cruelty against Mr. Amakiri and Mr. Fawehinmi did not scrupple to stigmatise those witnesses who had come to disguise the facts of what really took place at Government house on that day. To Mr. Iwowari himself, he did not disguise his contempt. Of the illegality of his conduct in the whole muckish affair, Mr. Fawehinmi declared, “In its brazen arbitrariness, it has no contemporary comparison, in its crude, prickish and pristine barbarism, nor has it historical similarity.,” He continued “since the history of police establishment in Nigeria never had a policeman been so brutal, so wicked and so stone-age as Iwowari who has unashamedly demonstrated brutality in a country with fundamental human rights”.  Mr. Fawehinmi urged the court to disbelieve Mr. Iwowari’s denials of flogging, shaving and detention of Mr. Amakiri because, “as our Lordship would have observed whenever he opened his mouth in the witness box, he oozed out a gas-bag of lies. Whenever he gesticulated it was to lend vent to a wavelength of concoction of mean and imperfect fabrication of untruth and blantant falsehood.” These were hard words, but they count for little when compared with the cruelty and unspeakable human degradation to which his client, Mr. Amakiri was subjected. After about ten days of intense and fiercely fought legal battle, judgement was given in favour of Mr. Fawehinmi’s client, Mr. Amakiri.

Mr. Fawehinmi’s victory was not for his client, alone, neither was it for himself or the press representatives alone; it was for the common folks of Nigeria as symbolised by Mr. Amakiri. For, as evidence of this was the fact that over 2000 people were present in court to listen to the judgement as delivered by the judge. Mr. Fawehinmi himself gave expression to the pulse and feeling of the common people of this country when he declared at the end of the case, “By the judgement, justice has been openly done, truth has been vindicated, courage has been demonstrated and the judiciary has lived to the expectation of the legal system.”

“ Culled from Press Freedom in Nigeria: A story of the Amakiri case by Dr. G. Olu Onagoruwa.


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