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If chief were here…

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, Ph.D.
The authorities violated my person. They seized my books. They confiscated my passport. They harassed me and members of my family. They charged me with several criminal offences. They detained me from time to time. They imprisoned me. They threatened to sell my personal and real properties. They placed me under 24-hour surveillance daily. What is left for them is to kill me. Whatever they do, I will not give up. I shall continue until I succeed or until I die.

Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAM, SANChief Gani Fawehinmi did not know how to give up, not even to cancer. Chief hated all malignancy whether in government or in physical ailment. Until the end, Chief battled terminal illness with the same relentless zeal with which he fought official silliness.

He expected to either succeed or to die trying. In the end he did both. With characteristic foresight, Chief foresaw the fork in the road to his epitaph. With singular audacity, he found a way to seize both options. Like all mortals, Chief has accomplished death, bringing to an end an earthly sojourn that lasted three score and eleven. Unlike all mortals, he attained peerless success before being translated into true immortality.

His extraordinary life leaves us all with an enormously rich and challenging legacy. All of us who shared this period and piece of earthly real estate must be truly grateful for the privilege of being legatees to such a rich bequest. Our gratitude must, however, be grounded in a clear sense of obligation.

In life, Gani was a constant advocate for power sublimated by moral authority. The desperate stampede by many discredited men of power to bathe themselves in the after-glow of Chief’s huge bank of moral authority advertises the bankruptcy of our politics of illegitimate power. Possibly the pick of this ilk is the effort from self-confessed evil-genius, Ibrahim Babangida, who now proclaims that he had matchless admiration and respect for Gani. If so, Babangida had a rather peculiar way of showing it.

The military regime of Ibrahim Babangida made a signature project of persecuting Gani deploying sundry acts of abuse of power, including serial administrative detention, unjustifiable criminal prosecution, internal banishment, seizure of assets, banning of publications, threats to life, liberty and family and an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bankrupt the man.

At this moment of Gani’s death, Babangida had a unique opportunity to seek forgiveness from Gani’s spirit, Gani’s Family and from Nigerians for all the abuses he committed against Chief and other Nigerians whose causes Gani represented. Once again – as he did with the annulment of the June 12 1993 elections – Babangida manages to confection an arrogant horrow show when contrition was called for.

If Chief were alive, he would have found the appropriate form of words to put this gap-toothed purveyor of serial treason in his place. In his absence, someone should please tell Ibrahim Babangida to shut his mandibles if he cannot learn to say sorry for egregious wrong doing. Or may be only a failed General can contrive to dance on the grave of an immortal.

Gani’s commitment to Nigeria’s youth was total. He showed this in many ways, including his legal assistance to and defence of students, his educational scholarships, and his advocacy for free and universal education. If Chief were here, he would have been appalled at the current shut down of universities resulting in the brightest young people of Nigeria being kept idle at home and potentially disorderly.

He would have denounced as cynical and indifferent, the conduct of the current regime in its non-engagement with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). He would long have found a basis in law for compelling the government to behave properly and would long have taken out legal proceedings on behalf of the students, ASUU or both to find a way to get the students back in school.

In Chief’s absence, we do not need any delicate phraseology to describe the combined failures of President Yar’Adua, Vice-President Goodluck, and Education Minister, Egwu, all former academics under whose watch Nigeria’s university system has taken a determined march into chronic dysfunction. The only tribute they can pay to Gani is to open our universities, send our kids back to school and get our universities working again. We don’t need them reading any executive eulogies.

Gani was a committed defender of free expression, especially the right to protest. He treasured this right, exercised it enthusiastically and defended it vigorously. It was his way of bringing about government that is both legitimate and accountable.

At his death, our government is both illegitimate and unaccountable. Like a malignant tumour, Maurice Iwu afflicts Nigeria’s electoral system with terminal illegitimacy. For some reason, those who are in a position to lance him affect inability and unwillingness to do so. If Gani were here, he would have trained his legal and campaigning guns at electoral alchemist that Maurice Iwu is.

Ahead of the 2011 elections, he would have found a way to trip up Iwu or expose his paymasters. One of the greatest tributes that can be paid to Gani’s soul is to pry Maurice Iwu loose from the plyboards of Nigeria’s electoral supervisor. In Gani’s absence, we should find the words and means to the speak truth to this Professor and his paymasters who have together cut our country lose of its nuts and made us the collective laughing stock of the world.

Above all, Gani made the law the singular tool of his advocacy for change and for good government. In the pantheon of our legal profession, he will forever stand tall for his feats of both forensic trail-blazing and institution building. Tributes have already been paid to how Chief democratized access to legal information and law practice through law reporting.

He has rightfully been acknowledged for the unsurpassed feats of seminal legal precedents he established. His law office has been the training ground for over six hundred alumni. Gani also built the biggest law office in Africa in the Nigerian Law Publications House behind Abiola Gardens in Agidingbi, Ikeja. This spectacular facility also houses the Gani Fawehinmi Gallery and Law Library, the biggest law library in Nigeria.

It is one of the tragic ironies of life that Chief did not live long enough to formally open or work from this visionary facility. Books Industries Nigeria Limited established by Gani is also arguably the most prolific producer of legal literature on the continent. In Gani’s absence, we all have the duty to ensure that these institutions are perpetuated independent of state meddling.

If Gani were alive, he would have spent the autumn of his life on his autobiography. His death deprives us of a thrilling tale by crafted by the master himself. But in the Gani Fawehinmi Biographical Centre Chief leaves any would-be biographer with a gold mine of research material. We have a duty to write Gani’s story and to tell if from the mountains.

So now Chief is gone. Two years ago, when the news broke that Chief was stricken with the dreaded ‘C’ many suspected this day could come even sooner than it has. Gani’s unusual resilience purchased us an unlikely extra-time. The man survived the perils of malign political persecution too regular to be counted only to be wrestled down by an unlikely malignancy.

The instinct to feel sad is human for such species as Gani are very rare indeed. Yet we must also be grateful that he was part of our experience. In one restless lifetime, Chief packed enough landmarks and lessons to fill a millennium. In his family and community, political and intellectual, professional and economic, as well as in his civic and ethical lives, Gani was a standard-bearer for goals set and exceeded. These are well worth celebrating.

As we mourn, remember and celebrate, we also pray that death’s thirst for progressive cadavers may for now be slaked, for this year has proved to be quite brutal to the shrinking community of good people that we have left. In 2009, progressive Africa has lost Alison Desforges, Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Haroub Othman, Omafume Onoge and now Gani Fawehinmi.

If death were to be here, Gani would find some delectable way to tell it that the battles that we have ahead require audacious generals among the living. With his formidable forensic skills, Chief would injunct death against further depleting our troops.

In his absence, we can only pray death to please spare our numbers for a little longer. Death, please feed yourself also on those who destroy our country and its future. This phase of the struggle that we are going into is too dangerous for children only.

Because you were here, Chief, we will learn to face both death and bad government, confronting both perils with dignity, determination and fortitude. Fare thee well warrior for our people, and may your valiant soul find mercy and deserved repose in Al-Jannah!


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