Gani Fawehinmi: Lawyer and activist who fought for human rights in Nigeria

Tuesday 08 September 2009 00:00

Gani Fawehinmi who has died aged 71, was one of the most famous figures in Nigeria. Fondly referred to as "the people's lawyer" and "Senior Advocate of the Masses", he used his legal training and resources in fighting for justice for the Nigerian people.

Along with the likes of the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Fawehinmi became the loud conscience of 150 million people, a man for whom silence was never an option, and for whom there were no tyrants too big to be challenged. For over three decades he endured imprisonment, harassment and the climate of assassination created by the successive military regimes in battling causes which, even though they did not always succeed against totalitarian governments who controlled the organs of the law, served to focus national and international attention. He also took on the villainy and corruption of civilian governments, highlighting their illegitimate means of coming to power.

Fawehinmi was not everything to everybody. You either liked him passionately or hated him intensely. This was because of his boundless and sometimes suicidal energy with which he tenaciously and uncompromisingly pursued and crusaded his beliefs, principles and ideals for the untrammeled rule of law, undiluted democracy, all-embracing and expansive social justice, the protection of fundamental human rights and respect for the hopes and aspirations of the masses who are victims of misgovernance.

One of his most notable fights was the mysterious killing of Nigeria's leading newspaper editor Dele Giwa by a parcel bomb in 1986. Fawehinmi openly accused the ruling military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida of being complicit in the journalist's murder. Fawehinmi took the case through to the Nigerian apex court, the Supreme Court, but lost. For this, the regime tried to humiliate him publicly. Babangida, when asked why his regime had detained the lawyer, told a magazine that it would have been out of place not to because all regimes before him had done the same.

Fawehinmi fared no better under the military regime of General Sanni Abacha in the early 1990s. Fawehinmi led the fight against the cancellation of 12 June 1993 presidential election and the subsequent detention of the election's victor, Chief Moshood Abiola. His passport was subsequently seized on many occasions; his residence and chambers were ransacked several times. He was beaten up repeatedly and was exiled from one part of the country to another to prevent him from being listened to by the masses. Some of his books which the military junta did not like were confiscated and one of his Lagos houses where his law books were kept was about to be set ablaze when the would-be perpetrators were caught and apprehended by neighbours. Yet he was undaunted and until his death he continued to take on the ruling class, filing a law suit against the current civilian administration just a few weeks ago.

Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi was born in April 1938 to a prosperous family in the town of Ondo, western Nigeria. His father, Saheed Tugbobo Fawehinmi, a leading traditional and Islamic figure in western Nigeria, was a timber magnate, philanthropist and an opponent of excessive taxation of the poor. His grandfather, Chief Lisa Alujanu Fawehinmi, took on the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While Ganiyu was in secondary school, his headteacher wrote a note to his father stating that the young Fawehinmi would make a brilliant lawyer, and after secondary school he travelled to Britain in 1961 to read law at Holborn College, University of London. Before he could completed his second undergraduate year his father died, however and his source of finance quickly dried up. He worked as a toilet cleaner to finance his degree.

He was called to the bar in 1965 and quickly set up a practice in Lagos. The practice soon grew and he became a mentor to many left-leaning lawyers and academics. His friends and allies included the celebrated musician Fela Kuti and his human-rights crusading brother, the late Beko Ransome-Kuti. But controversially, Fawehinmi supported the candidature of a former Nigerian military ruler, General Mohammed Buhari in the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections. Fawehinmi had fought Buhari over human rights abuses when the general was in power in the early 1980s.

In 1993, Fawehinmi was awarded the biennial Bruno Kreisky Prize, an honour given to international figures who have advanced human rights causes. In 1998, he received the International Bar Association's Bernard Simmons Award in recognition of his human rights and pro-democracy work. In 1994, he and some other notable Nigerians formed the National Conscience Party of Nigeria and he stood for the 2003 presidential election in 2003 under its aegis.

But Fawehinmi was more than an activist; he was also a philanthropist and a sharp legal mind. He gave scholarships to many poor Nigerian students and revolutionised law reportage in Nigeria with the establishment of the Nigerian Weekly Law Reports in the late 1980s, the publication becoming a valuable tool for law students and practitioners alike.

He was elevated to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the highest legal title in Nigeria in September 2001. In 2008, he rejected one of the highest national honours, the Order of the Federal Republic, in protest at the many years of misrule since Nigeria's independence.

Shola Adenekan

Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehinmi, lawyer and human rights campaigner: born Ondo, Nigeria 22 April 1938; married twice (several children); died 5 September 2009.

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