By Chidi Odinkalu
Nigerians recently,celebrated the 48th anniversary of the beginning of what is almost certainly the most storied legal career of his generation, to celebrate what a committed and good man can accomplish and inspire even in the face of odds that seem insurmountable.
Ganiyu Fawehinmi was a Senior Advocate of the Masses, SAM, long before an embarrassed legal profession sought to expiate for malevolent petulance by belatedly conferring upon him the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, decades after he had earned the rank and long after some with worse than questionable qualifications for the entirely worthy task of polishing his professional shoes had desecrated it.
By the time of his death in September 2009, Gani had transcended the legal profession. The Independent in London described him as “one of the most famous figures in Nigeria”, while the Daily Telegraph reported that “fellow lawyers gathered at a valedictory court session to honour a ‘colossus’. Politicians from across the spectrum, recognising Fawehinmi’s common touch and immense popularity, hustled to pay their own tributes, even while perpetuating many of the vices he had long criticised.”
Gani’s life was hugely significant because rather than make a fetish of legal process or symbolisms irrespective of content, he realised early in his career that the law is, to use a well worn formulation, the practice of “civic virtue”, which cannot happen happily in the absence of a stable country with serviceable institutions. In this belief, he “campaigned against the corruption and misrule of his country in the half century after it gained independence from Britain in 1960.”
He was “a man for whom silence was never an option, and for whom there were no tyrants too big to be challenged.” He spent his life working to achieve this. Gani was that quintessence of the lawyer-statesman described by Anthony Kronman as:
a devoted citizen. He cares about the public good and is prepared to sacrifice his own well-being for it, unlike those who use the law merely to advance their private ends.
He is distinguished, too, by his special talent for discovering where the public good lies and for fashioning those arrangements needed to secure it.
Fittingly, Poet and lawyer, Ogaga Ifowodo, would later lament – on the third anniversary of Gani’s passing in September 2012 – that the “void he left in our political life remains unfilled, for so large was his presence while he breathed.”
It is also a fitting coincidence that the this lecture and the anniversary of Gani’s admission to the Nigerian Bar coincide with the annual memorial of Nigeria’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day when we commemorate and honour the memory of fallen soldiers. Gani was a warrior.
Battered through many battles in an otherwise massively fulfilled professional life, posterity will probably record that Gani, whatever battles he may have lost, ultimately won the war for a Nigeria in which the people must decide who governs them and how. In this sense, he was the supreme soldier of the peoples’ army. Before proceeding, therefore, can we rise to observe a moment’s silence in memory of Gani and all other fallen soldiers on this Remembrance Day.
At our Bar, Gani was not just arguably the most successful advocate of his generation and surely one of the most successful of all time in Nigeria, he was also a leader. His career included a stint as the National Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). It is proper, therefore, that nine years ago, in 2004, he made the bequest of this annual retreat to us through the Ikeja Branch of the NBA, his home branch.
Far from being that parody of a critic as nay-sayer with no constructive proposal, Gani was also prolific in proffering ideas to fix the problems with Nigeria across the spectrum of challenges in politics, economy, and governance. The theme of today’s Symposium is entirely, therefore, in keeping with the man and his mission.
The announced theme for this event is “Economy, Politics and Human Rights: Wither (sic) Nigeria”. I read the announced theme as having a typographical error. My remarks in this presentation will not, do not and cannot address how or why to “wither Nigeria”. I happen to believe that our country has tremendous possibilities and I do not wish the country to “wither”.