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In memory of Gani Fawehinmi, master of the rolls

By Ogaga Ifowodo
ON  September 5, 2012, it will be three years since Gani Fawehinmi died of cancer and joined the ancestors. The void he left in our political life remains unfilled, for so large was his presence while he breathed.

The park at the Ojota area of Lagos named in his honour has since become Nigeria’s primary spot where the suffering masses gather to expose their wounds and protest their unrelieved oppression worsened by the staggering corruption of their so-called leaders.

There is no doubt that every true patriot, every lover of freedom, democracy and good governance, mourns still the untimely departure of Fawehinmi. On September 8, 2009, a slightly different version of the following tribute appeared in the defunct NEXT newspaper.  I also republish it here in the light of the declining influence of lawyers and the Nigeria Bar Association in our public life.

The office of Master of the Rolls does not exist in Nigeria. And even if, given our stunning lack of self-belief, we had also copied that most British aspect of the administration of justice, the post could not have been held by Gani.

Why then do I permit myself this allusion? Because I first “knew” Gani while a freshman law student. As virtually every Nigerian law student will testify, the late Lord Alfred Denning, Master of the Rolls, added something exhilarating to the rather staid and predictable study of law.

And he personified the office in a way no predecessor or successor did. Denning’s many astounding, even if occasionally controversial, decisions had unprecedented impacts on the development of the common law.

A man of great erudition, his writing style, more flexibly literary than rigidly legalistic, was cultivated for the purpose of simplifying the law in homage to the great dictum, Ubi jus, ibi remedium: for every wrong, the law provides a remedy. So dedicated to this principle, whether the plaintiff be a smug citizen or a harried immigrant, was he that Denning often wrote the dissenting opinion.

He would even abdicate his seat on the House of Lords’ appellate division just so that the plaintiff might have one more chance of obtaining justice! Denning became known as “the people’s judge” and retired as perhaps the greatest jurist of his time. In the late Sapara Williams, Gani found the embodiment of this principle of the lawyer as the conscience of his society.

In Gani’s dogged commitment to the law as an instrument of social change, he became for me the master of the rolls, that is, keeper of the records of our travails. You could take this literally and point to his meticulous documentation of the decisions of our superior courts of record through the law publishing arm of his practice.

Every judge and lawyer, whether friend or foe, would gladly admit that without Gani’s law reports and indexes legal practice today would be a portrait straight out of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. To be sure, the courtrooms remain, by and large, owlish edifices that admit no light of day but for the illumination provided by Gani’s Weekly Law Reports and other publications.

But that is hardly the half of my meaning. The untrammelled reputation Gani enjoyed was as much a product of his forensic legal mind as of his role as the people’s plaintiff who filed countless suits to challenge the excesses of power.

Yet, though he swore by constitutional means of struggle he saw clearly that “the mountains of costly nonsense” that emanate from the courtrooms could not be expected to break the yoke of tyranny, military or civilian. In filing case upon case, then, he merely sought to bring into the court of public opinion those high crimes and malfeasances that would otherwise be protected by secrecy.

Inevitably, he embraced defiant political activism, too often in ways that alienated many natural allies, and offered his body as the notice board of the nation’s woes. In and out of prison, at certain periods more than he was in and out of the courtroom, his body bore in every tissue the whip and lash of our successive governments’ terrorism.

I speak of Gani, then, as the embodiment of the rolls of wrongs that our self-appointed leaders have unrelentingly visited on us for five decades.

I said that I first met Gani as a law student and it is on that more personal note that I wish to end this brief tribute, too brief, alas, to be just to his greatness.

In collaboration with Professor Itse Sagay, founding dean of law at the University of Benin, Gani had endowed an annual Justice Idigbe memorial lecture. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, then still on the Supreme Court, had come to deliver the second lecture in the series.

Imagine this for a starry-eyed law student, awakening to a social consciousness that bode no peace of mind if restricted to the complacent acquisition of knowledge and who wasn’t sure his future lay in law. The cast was assembled for me, you might say. Following my subsequent involvement in the student and democracy movements, I became a regular visitor to Gani’s Anthony Village chambers.

I had managed to complete my studies, in any case, thanks to the legal precedent of fair hearing he had fought to establish on unshakable grounds in what would become the locus classicus on the subject: Garba & Ors vs University of Maiduguri.

I recall now two visits in 1992 that helped in no small measure to resolve the conflict I was undergoing as to which to make a career: law or literature? On the first, I had gone to seek Gani’s counsel and help on my return from Makurdi after completing youth service.

Counsel given, he wrote a check for N1000 to help me with the immediate need of furnishing the room Sagay had kindly given me rent free in the Boys Quarters of his chambers in Alaka Estate, Surulere. When on the second visit I presented a money-making venture that would purportedly help me to meet the costs of setting up practice, Gani chuckled and dismissed it out of hand.

Then he looked at me and said: “Ogaga, you are a writer. I believe that is your true calling, not that of going to court everyday to nod and say, My Lord this, My Lord that. I think you should follow your heart’s desire”.

I didn’t get the loan I had asked for to underwrite my business venture, but what I got was validation of a sort that every budding writer needs. And it was even more valuable because we do not think of Gani in literary terms.

If he could discern promise worth encouraging in my tenderfoot days, then I had just been handed a fatter cheque than he could have written. In this, too, Gani was a master of my personal rolls.


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