By Emmanuel Edukugho
A quintessentially brilliant, modest, committed, dedicated, enterprising and accomplished legal practitioner, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) who died last Saturday after a grim battle with lung cancer, meant different things to different people.
But Ganiâ€™s love for education and his relationship with Nigerian students knew no bounds.
â€œPerhaps haunted by his experience of financial deprivation as a student in London and determined to provide succour to needy students, Gani instituted the Gani Fawehinmi Annual Scholarship Scheme in 1971 and from then to date, he has touched the lives of thousands of needy and indigent students to fulfil their dream of university education,â€ declared Ayo Olarenwaju, Esq, a lawyer in a citation on Chief Gani Fawehinmi, titled, â€œGani Has A Price,â€at one of the lectures in the several activities celebrating the legal icon at 70.
He said that as for the body of Nigerian students, it is a truism that every Nigerian student is a client of Gani.
â€œSince 1971, Ganiâ€™s love affair with Nigerian students has known no bounds. He has taken up, free of charge, all forms of discrimination against and violation of the rights of students either on individual basis or collectively.â€
In 1971, Gani defended the interests of students of the University of Ibadan at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up following Police killing of a student, Kunle Adepeju during a peaceful demonstration by the students against the University authority.
In 1976, he came to the assistance of students leaders of University of Benin who were expelled following a crisis on the campus. He successfully prosecuted their cases and they were restored.
Gani was again there during the â€œAlli Must Goâ€protest by Nigerian students in 1978 when General Olusegun Obasanjo was military head of state and Col. Ahmadu Ali, as Minister of Education introduced tutiion fees in universities. He fought successfully for the students and was eventually arrainged in court for inciting the protest which led to the death of several students.
In 1981, when students of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) protested the gruesome murder of one of them, a female student. Eight of them were killed by the Police during the demonstration. Gani was unanimously chosen by the students and their lecturers to investigate and apportion blames and make recommendations. He did all these, found the Federal Government guilty on all counts and recommended that it paid N10 million as damages to the students.
The University of Maiduguri was engulfed in serious crisis in 1983, culminating in a riot after which several student leaders were expelled. Gani took up the case all the way to the Supreme Court and got the expulsions quashed and the students returned to the university to complete their education. This happened when Professor Jubril Aminu (now a senator) was the Vice Chancellor, University of Maiduguri.
Then came an irony of fate; When Gani was detained at Gashaua prison by the Babangida government while being unconscious in prison, he was rushed to the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. Yet the SSS still kept stern watch over Gani, preventing visitors from seeing him.
According to Richard Akinnola, a veteran judicial journalist who was closed to Gani, when he regained consciousness, the human rights crusader was apprehensive that the government may use the medical staff to inject him to death. But the doctor that was treating him said in a whisper to Gani: â€œChief, be at rest, you are in a safe hand.â€Gani then asked, â€œWho are you,â€to which the doctor replied: â€œChief, donâ€™t you know me again? I was one of the students that was expelled at the University of Maidugiri and you fought our case before we were recalled through the court order.
Am now a medical doctor and am in charge of your treatment. So donâ€™t worry.â€According to Akinnolaâ€™s narration, â€œthat was how Ganiâ€™s life was saved due to the seed he had sown many years before.â€
Gani also got some students of the University of Nigeria Nsukka who were wrongly suspended to be reinstated through court action in 1990.
There was another case of UNIFE 60. Sixty students of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) were expelled following disagreements with the university management. Gani took up the matter, went to court on their behalf and got the students re-admitted.
Easily described as the â€œgodfather of Nigerian students,â€ Gani has contributed greatly in various ways to the struggle of Nigerian students for free and functional education. As recounted by Hassan Taiwo of Education Rights Campaign (ERC), â€œGani Fawehinmi chambers for several years granted pro bono legal services to the Students Union Government of Obafemi Awolowo University in defence of Anthony Fashayo and 13 other union leaders when they were arrested, detained and finally expelled in 1995 by Professor Wale Omole-led management, acting out the script of the Abacha military junta.â€
Gani had openly supported students struggle and identified with the cause of victimised studentsâ€™ leaders, hence he was awarded a life membership of OAU Students Union and also Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM), in recognition of his service to the cause of the oppressed.
Over the years, he became the messiah of thousands of Nigerian students who always ran to him at the slightest hint of trouble, from the school authorities. Because of his open support for students, he became an enemy of the system. He was always arrested, beaten and tried on trumped-up charges but he always came out victorious.
In his first book titled: â€œPeoples Right To Free Education,â€ Gani espoused his belief that education should be the right of all citizens.
To practicalise this, established a private scholarship scheme which since 1971 has given sponsorship to over 800 beneficiaries. Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka in a lecture titled: â€œGani â€“ Bridging The Regeneration Gapâ€, to mark his 70th birthday in 2008, said: â€œYet there is a secret passion nurtured by this celebrant, one that does not entail the familiar flamboyant gestures or bravura performances â€“ a much quieter, yet crucial aspect of revitalising society and raising it to its full potential. His weapon for this is of course â€“ education.â€
He continued: â€œNurturing minds, ensuring that the less priviledged but talented do not lack for the means of their intellectual advancement, to whatever extent his means can provide â€“ hence the real impetus for the title of this address â€“ education as the surest basis for the regeneration of human potential and thus, societal self-realisation. When the State has created a gap through neglect and indifference, Gani Fawehinmi has stepped in to bridge the gap.â€
Soyinka stated that it goes beyond his annual scholarships to young pupils however, extends beyond absorbing a large number of fledgling lawyers annually into his chambers for mentoring-enter Ganiâ€™s law library and you encounter dozens of trainees poring through files and thick volumes of law publications, taking notes.
â€œAt the basis of it all is the compulsive need to impart knowledge and develop minds, which provides an insight into the essence of the man, a clue to what lies at the heart of all his undertaking, including his unending pro bono litigations.
He went on: â€œLitigation itself, on public issues, is a process that educates society on its rights and responsibilities, pulling the complacent and indifferent up by the straps and saying to them â€“ within your fields of competence, go and do thou likewise. Do not permit yourselves to drown in moans of impotence. Only through challenges to wrong-doing, anomalies and abuse can society protect its rights and thus justify its very existence, its collective diginity and, in that process, reinvigorate its productive capabilities.â€
According to Soyinka, â€œat the heart of that understated mission â€“ education is manifested a passion for constant renewal that stretches the mind and wards off stagnation,â€ adding, â€œavoidance of such an undertaking amounts to surrender, collective extinction, or mass suicide.â€
Gani, an alumnus of Kaplan Holborn College, UK, donated books worth N4 million in form of all his law publications which included Nigerian Weekly Law Reports Part 1 to date; Digests including Supreme Court of Nigeria Law Report, Constitutional Law Books and other numerous publications by him.
The college has instituted a Chief Gani Fawehinmi Award for best graduating Law Student.
A disturbing dimension was the withdrawal of an honorary doctorate degree expected to be conferred on Gani by Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State. The conferment was supposed to be done at a convocation ceremony slated for September 12, 2008.
Gani described the action as â€œbarbaric and lack of independence by the university.â€
He attributed the withdrawal of the award by the university to the state Governor, Dr. Olusegun Agagu, the Ondo governor, describing the alleged intervention of the governor as â€œa clear cut abuse of his office and an affront on the independence of the university.â€