THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: GANI FAWEHINMI
Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi (1938-2009), popularly known as Gani Fawehinmi is a man you simply cannot say everything about. He was so many things: an author, a lawyer, philanthropist, publisher, social critic, human rights advocate, activist and social critic. The name, “Gani Fawehinmi” is a household name that will not be forgotten for as long as Nigeria exists.
Born in Ondo State on 22nd April, 1938, Gani Fawehinmi was the first of six children. He was born into a remarkable family. His father, Chief Saheed Tugbobo Fawehinmi was the Seriki Musulumi of Ondo State, a civic activist, philanthropist and a successful timber trader. He was said to be a follower of Ajao, who brought Islam to the city of Ondo. Gani Fawehinmi’s grandfather was also a notable figure who tirelessly fought and won several battles for the Ondo people in the nineteenth century, earning himself the title Àlùjànún, which means ‘Spirit’.
Gani Fawehinmi had his Primary School education at the Ansar-Ud-Deen Primary School, Iyemaja, Ondo state from 1947 to 1953 and proceeded to Victory College Ikare, Ondo state for his secondary school education. He was known as “Nation” in high school because of his avid interest in national, legal and political matters. He was said to have constantly read the Daily Times and the West African Pilot, which were the popular newspapers at the time. He worked briefly as a clerk at the Lagos High Court until 1961 when he enrolled at the Holborn College of Law, University of London to study Law. He lost his father during the course of his study and had to complete his degree in the face of paucity of funds, taking on menial jobs to support himself. He returned to Nigeria in 1964 and enrolled at the Nigerian Law School, passed his exams and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1965. He worked at the law firm of his brother, the Honourable Justice Rasheed Fawehinmi for a short while before starting up his own law chambers in 1965.
Gani Fawehinmi became popular when he took on the case of a certain factory worker, Bala Abashe who alleged that the then Secretary to the government of Benue-Plateau State, Andrew Obeya had an affair with his wife. Bala Abashe sued Andrew Obeya for assault and damages for the adultery. Andrew Obeya was defended by the state government while Gani Fawehinmi defended Bala Abashe pro-bono, despite facing a lot of pressure to drop the case. Andrew Obeya eventually had to resign from his position. For all his “stubbornness”, Gani Fawehinmi was detained for about nine months. However, Gani Fawehinmi gained a lot of exposure and popularity from the publicity of this case.
Gani Fawehinmi was the National Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) from 1971 to 1973. Chief Gani Fawehinmi was a firm believer in democracy. He formed the National Conscience Organization in 1994, a human rights organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of the downtrodden masses. The National Conscience Organization became a political party on October 1, 1994 in defiance of the military decrees banning the formation of political parties, and was renamed the National Conscience Party (NCP). Throuh the platform of the NCP, Gani Fawehinmi organized several political rallies against the military rule of General Sanni Abacha. He and other political party leaders faced a lot of persecution and oppression during this period. He was even charged to court as a result. He later contested for Presidency as a candidate of the NCP in 2003 but he lost. He attained the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the highest legal title in Nigeria, in 2001.
We cannot talk about Gani Fawehinmi without mentioning the Dele Giwa case. Gani Fawehinmi was Dele Giwa’s lawyer. Dele Giwa was one of Nigeria’s finest newspaper editors and he was mysteriously killed by a parcel bomb in 1986. Gani Fawehinmi did not sit still. He even openly accused the military ruler at the time, General Ibrahim Babangida, of being involved in the conspiracy around the death of Dele Giwa. He took the case through to the Supreme Court level but he lost. The military regime did not let him go scot free. He was detained yet again.
Gani Fawehinmi continued in his fight against military rule under the regime of General Sanni Abacha. He led the fight against the cancellation of the June 12, 1993 Presidential elections and the subsequent detainment of the winner of the election, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola (the M.K.O Abiola). Consequent on all his activities and fights, he was arrested, detained and charged to court severally. His international passport was also seized countless times. His residence and Chambers were ransacked time and again. He was beaten up on several occasions and trasnferred from one part of the country to the other to hinder him from effectively reaching out to the Nigerian masses who loved him. His books were confiscated by the Military Government and his library was going to be set ablaze when the would-be perpetrators were caught by his neighbours. His law chambers were invaded by persons suspected to be agents of the government. The guards were shot at and two of them were seriously injured. He kept fighting against military dictatorship in all of this and he kept getting arrested by the military governments and their security agents. Between 1969 and 1996, he was arrested and detained forty times in twelve different jails and detention centres across Nigeria, including the notorious Gashu’a prison in Yobe State.
Despite all of his suffering, Gani Fawehinmi remained resolute in his fight for democracy and civil and economic rights of the people. His supporters called him “the scourge of sphygmomanometer with which the blood pressure of dictators is gauged, the veritable conscience of the nation and the champion of the interests and causes of the masses”. He was also popularly known as “the people’s president” and the “Senior Advocate of the Masses”.
Gani Fawehinmi was also a philanthropist. He was passionate about the marginalized groups in the society. He often rendered his services at no cost. He was said to have handles over 1500 briefs free of charge for those who could not afford it. He fought for the poor and the oppressed, striving to protect and defend their rights. He usually made clothes for street beggars whenever his family had a celebration and would host and feed them every last Saturday of the month. Knowing how much he struggled with finances as a student of the Holborn College of Law, University of London, he started the Gani Fawehinmi Scholarship Scheme in 1971 and more than a thousand Nigerian students have benefitted from this scheme ever since. The scholarship scheme has continued to provide succour for the less-privileged even after his death. He also established the Free Education Association of Nigeria in 1975.
Gani Fawehinmi published several books and won several awards in his lifetime. He was awarded the biennial Bruno Kreisky Prize in 1993 for his contributions towards the advancement of human rights causes. he received the International Bar Association’s Bernard Simmons Award in 1998 in recognition of his contribution to the rule of law in Nigeria. In 2008, while on his sick bed, he rejected Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), one of the highest national honours that can be bestowed on a citizen by the Nigerian government, in protest against the many years of misrule since Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the disappointing state of the country. He was later posthumously awarded the Order of the Niger in 2018.
Chief Abdul-Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi died in the early hours of 5th September, 2009 at the age of 71 after a long-standing battle with lung cancer. He was buried in his hometown in Ondo state in the same month. Gani Fawehinmi was a true activist. He fought tirelessly until his death. He was a hero and the coming generations will also learn of his activism, resilience and selfless service.