I heard of him only in the news, that he was a no-nonsense gadfly, wholly committed to abolishing all forms of impunity and disregard for the rule of law, but I had not met him one on one. Great Ife then became the melting point, through my good friend, colleague and ally, Bamidele Aturu, now also of blessed memory. As the PRO of the Students’ Union, I had the golden opportunity of meeting external comrades and mentors, especially in the human rights community.
The Union led Great Ife students on a protest against Nigeria’s plan for IMF loan and the Structural Adjustment Programme, which led to the closure of the university, proscription of the Students’ Union and eventual rustication of virtually all student leaders and activists, numbering well over sixty brilliant minds. I couldn’t go home to my people, knowing the wrath I would face within the family that I had terminated their hope of producing a lawyer. Then suddenly, Aturu announced that Gani has asked all affected students to proceed to his Chambers in Lagos.
On getting to Gani’s expansive law office in Anthony Village, we were first taken out for lunch, having traveled far from Ife. And then we met him! He was emphatic that he would see to it that we were all reinstated. We were thereafter divided into groups and lawyers were appointed to attend to all of us to take our briefs on the case. Gani filed the court case as promised, and attended all the court proceedings personally, until he secured judgment for our re-instatement.
He took the judgment personally to the university and sat there in the Senate building, insisting that we must be allowed to sit for the coming examinations so that we won’t have to miss any session. We were reinstated, I mean the entire sixty-two student leaders; Adeola Soetan, Nurudeen Ogbara, Bamidele Aturu, Adewale Sadiku, Biola Akiyode, etc. However, myself, Nurudeen Ogbara and Bamidele Aturu had to face the Nigerian Law School, as the university had written that we were not fit and proper persons to be admitted into the school, due to our radical views and activities. Gani stormed the Law School and got us admitted immediately. So, it became natural to want to work with such an enigma.
In Gani Fawehinmi Chambers, I truly got to know one of the best minds that Nigeria has ever produced; very sincere, detribalized, non-religious and always on the side of merit over and above all other considerations. He was so very energetic, always bouncing as if his heels couldn’t touch the ground; exceptionally bold and determined, never for once accepting that anything is impossible, so far as law is concerned. Generally, Gani was a fanatic, of industry, of integrity, of excellence and diligence. He liked all things done in order, to the very details. I had confided in Bamidele Aturu that I only wanted to learn law and law alone, without getting involved in the struggles of Gani and that was what happened in my first few years of engagement in the chambers, with Festus Keyamo, SAN, Dr. Sam Amadi and Mr Bayo Omotubora competently working with Gani on virtually all human rights and political matters.
Gani’s philosophy and goal was to democratize the knowledge and practice of law and he did this in many ways, but two areas that stood him out are the law reports and his many court cases. He started with the Digest of Supreme Court cases, then moved on to the Nigerian Constitutional Law cases, Supreme Court of Nigerian Law Reports and several others.
But above all these, the Nigerian Weekly Law Reports proved to be Gani’s most potent weapon for simplifying legal practice. He told us in the office that when he started the practice of law, Supreme Court judgments were only given to a few senior lawyers, who had formed the practice of hoarding these judgments in order to gain advantage over their adversaries in court. You would file a case, only for you to get to court the following day and one of the privileged senior lawyers would appear and throw a new Supreme Court decision at you, wherein new principles of law had been decided, and all of which have successfully snuffed life out of your case. If that had continued, only those privileged lawyers would enjoy patronage from litigants, to the detriment of other lawyers and their clients. Gani abolished that with his law reports.
Gani equally revolutionized the practice of law through his personal cases and struggles. Right from his face-off with the Bar during the military clamp down on politicians, to the Dele Giwa cases, he made a bold statement of his intention to change the nature of legal practice in Nigeria, through progressive advocacy. He indeed is the father of human rights litigation, he expanded the concept of locus standi and deployed law to challenge dictatorship and impunity, in all their forms. Gani it was, who took up the challenge of the de-registration of political parties, right up to the Supreme Court, paving the way for the political pluralism that we now enjoy. Gani gave up his life for the cause of the masses, such that even though he was comfortable, he continued his advocacy for the rule of law and peoples’ freedoms, leading to constant brushes with the authorities. He was arrested on many occasions, detained several times, in police stations and prison yards. It must have been in the course of his many deprivations, especially his long detention at Gashua ancient prisons, that he contracted the ailment that eventually led to his death.
Many have opined that were he to be alive today, Gani will single handedly advance the cause of democracy beyond our present experience. It may well be so, but as Richard Akinola recently stated, Gani was a unique man born for a particular time to fulfil a specific mandate for his generation. He did that most eloquently and in his own characteristic style that is incomparable and inimitable. He came, he saw and he conquered. The ones that I have said so far, are well known to many as the typical Gani; so let me now talk about the unknown sides of Gani.
He had a fantastic staff welfare package, although this was not static or documented, as Gani had different categories of staff, such as lawyers and other support staff, who worked in the chambers, staff of the law report section and his domestic staff. Generally, I didn’t bother myself with the issue of welfare. I went to his chambers to learn and the impression I was given then was that junior lawyers owe a duty of gratitude to their seniors who offered to train them.
Generally, Gani took interest in his workers, but this was based purely on your productivity. He had a general handsome payment pattern, but he invented and deployed various incentives for those who worked a little above others. Let me explain. The general closing time was 6pm but Gani always stayed in the office till very late, at time till 10pm or 11 pm, depending on the volume of work. He expects you to stay in the office with him, to assist him to pick cases, to draft papers or do some other job. If however you prefer to close at the normal time of 6pm, he will not compel you to stay beyond that time but you may not benefit from his incentives beyond your normal salary.
Gani was a builder of persons, who has produced judges and lawyers of repute, all very successful in their different endeavours. Just last week, I received an invitation to attend the Gani Fawehinmi Annual Scholarship Awards, which he started in 1973. This year alone, thirty scholarships will be awarded to qualified students from universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.
Gani didn’t believe in restrictions, as he had that innate conviction that any legal issue can be raised in court. Those times when I sat with him at home and he would be dictating the reliefs to be filed in court, I couldn’t but wonder what kind of man he was. Asking the court to compel Gen Sani Abacha to release the report of all probe panels set up by the government or that the court should abolish the office of the First Lady of Nigeria! And he does it with so much passion that you were immediately infected with the virus of activism yourself. So, unknown to me one day, he had compiled a list of about 15 probe panels set up by the government.
When I got to his house, he asked me to sit down and later invited me to breakfast. Of course I was having a nice time but soon thereafter he started to bring out some documents from his room upstairs. And then I noticed that he had a jotter upon which he had scribbled some things in his own hand writing, which required some divine intervention to read. So, he said he wanted to file an action on probe panels.
Thinking that I could dissuade him, I told him that those panels were set up a long time ago and the government having failed to release any white paper on them, the cause of action may not be sustained. He said YES! That is the issue. He immediately asked me to write down a relief for an order of mandamus to compel government to release the white papers on the probe panels, his argument being that since public revenue was expended on the panels, Nigerians were entitled to know their outcome. I just kept quiet and only starred at him from a distance. He was such blessed soul.
I commend the present administration for immortalizing Gani, through the June 12 award. However, the Nigerian Bar Association should collaborate with the government for a more enduring monument for him, that is relevant to the legal profession, Gani’s primary constituency.