Chief Gani Fawehinmi: The Man Who Worries Obasanjo

Chief Gani Fawehinmi
Chief Gani Fawehinmi admonishes the Nigerian Electoral Commission for failing to register his National Conscience Party, Aug. 14, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

It’s around 9 p.m. on Saturday night in Lagos. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, known to millions of Nigerians simply as Gani, is six hours late, but there’s no reason to get upset. A dozen other people have also been waiting under the ceiling fans in the antechamber leading to his office, surrounded by walls plastered with hundreds of magazine and newspaper covers bearing his photo, since early afternoon. All these people must have important reasons to seek a meeting with the most famous lawyer of the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, the man Nigerian students call “senior advocate of the masses” and journalists describe as the Nigerian Steve Biko.

Yet nobody seems at all impatient. Every so often, a raucous voice from the mezzanine startles the serious office workers—young people headed for a law career—in their chairs down below. Then Gani’s young secretary, his arms full of files, crosses the largest private law library in Nigeria. “Don’t worry, he’s going to see you, but you have to understand that he leaves tomorrow morning for Abuja. So take it easy.” This secretary has been promising for two weeks that I’ll be able to pin down the most famous opponent of the military dictators who ruled the country for 16 years until the return of democracy in May 1999. After countless nights spent in Gani’s Anthony Village compound, waiting for his employer to complete an issue of Weekly Law Report, or to finish writing a new, stinging critique of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the secretary seems inured to delays.

But since it’s so late, it’s going to be hard to leave the lawyer’s office without encountering, at best, a checkpoint manned by nervous policemen, or, at worst, a band of armed robbers whose nighttime evildoings briefly halt the infernal traffic that by day flows unceasingly through the troubled neighborhoods of this megalopolis of 12 million people.

But after all, this is Nigeria. This is Lagos. You don’t roll into town and see Gani just like that, even if you’ve come a long way. What’s more, he has become even more important in Nigerian public life in recent months.

Today, at the age of 64, this Yoruba Muslim is not only one of the most incendiary spokesmen for Nigerian civil society; he is not only the lawyer for the family of the murdered journalist Dele Giwa, founder of Lagos’ independent Newswatch magazine, as well as for the family of murdered activist Ken Saro Wiwa and the entire Ogoni ethnic minority; He is not only the man whom the former U.S. ambassador, Dr. Walter Carrington, described this way: “If there were a Nobel Prize for human rights, it would have been given to Gani.” He is now a candidate for the presidential elections in 2003. On April 22, Gani declared his candidacy with the fiery announcement that “democracy is now threatened. There is urgent need for the intervention of goodwill to prevent catastrophic slide. Based on the foregoing, I have come to the irresistible conclusion that, provided my party accepts to field me, I am prepared, I am ready, and I am willing to contest the presidential position in the forthcoming general elections in 2003.”

A burr under the soldiers’ saddle

If the news of Gani’s entrance into electoral politics caused a tumult—and annoyed U.S. business interests who make no secret of their firm support for President Obasanjo—it was no real surprise to Nigerians. Gani long ago crossed the thin line dividing activism from political entanglement in Nigeria. When, on June 12, 1993, former Nigerian dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida—whom many Nigerians nicknamed “the evil genius”—annulled the presidential elections after they returned a result he didn’t like, Gani was among his most outspoken critics. At the head of his National Conscience Party, set up underground and illegally in 1994, Gani, who boasts of having argued 5,500 cases in Nigerian courts since his career began in 1965, has tirelessly used all legal means at his disposal to battle Nigeria’s succession of military regimes. In 1996, at the nadir of Gen. Sani Abacha’s dictatorship, this opposition cost him 10 and a half months in the federal prison at Bauchi. His passport was confiscated a dozen times. But in the process, he gained the respect of diplomats and human rights advocates around the world.

In 1993, Gani won the Bruno Kreisky Prize for human-rights advocacy. In 1998, the International Bar Association chose him as the recipient of their prestigious Bernard Simmons Award in recognition of his human-rights and pro-democracy work. Yet Gani has never let the bit slip from between his teeth. At a time when many opposition figures from the Yoruba elite—such as Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, or Chief Anthony Enahoro—chose to go into exile and combat the dictatorship from abroad, Gani stuck it out during the 1990s at his office in Anthony Village—a suitcase always at hand, as rumor had it, in case the soldiers came to arrest him again. And when, in May 1999, Obasanjo was inaugurated Nigeria’s first civilian president after 16 years of military dictatorship, Gani, using his position as a respected Yoruba chief and head of a law office made up of 191 lawyers from 24 states in the federation, continued to pursue his party’s mission: “The Abolition of Poverty.” From then on, Gani’s target would be another former general, President Obasanjo.

The advocate of the masses

Fanned by the socio-economic crisis of the young Nigerian democracy, this slogan has consistently won support for Gani. In 2001, when I met him for the first time, Gani’s was the best-known name in the ghettos of Ajegunle and Mushin, as well as on the campuses of Ibadan and Ile-Ife. He was the hero of the Nigerian Labor Corporation, the trade union congress, and the popular Marxist reggae singer, A.J. Dagga Tollar. Unofficial surveys showed that 74 percent of the Yoruba population in the southwest of the country was prepared to vote for him. Even Gani’s best-known enemy, Gen. Babangida, was obliged to recognize that “There [were] only two dogged fighters of [the] June 12 [1993 elections] in Nigeria: Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Col. Dangiwa Umar.” As for the rest of the current crop of politicians, said the general, “They are mere sycophants who have fed fat on June 12.”

In his office at Anthony Village last year, Gani told me at the end of a stormy half-hour soliloquy: “A great change is coming. Yes, we have democracy; yes, we have a civilian government. But there is a big difference between the two. Most Nigerians are dissatisfied, and I’m not talking about the people you meet at cocktail parties, I’m talking about the true Nigerians. They are disappointed and disoriented by this government. The regime has no ability to work for the people.”

”I’ll make this country ungovernable”

It’s now 9:30 p.m., eight months after that first meeting, and Gani is finally available. Behind a door that still bears the marks of the latest police raid on his office, the lawyer seems more relaxed than at our previous meeting. On the face of it, there’s no reason for such cool. Among the Yoruba intelligentsia, formerly united under the aegis of an organization known as the National Democratic Coalition but fragmented into smaller blocs since the end of the dictatorship, Gani’s rise has not been a cause for universal elation. To be sure, everyone admits that he is incorruptible—something almost unheard of in Nigeria. Bako Ransome Kuti, the brother of the late singer Fela Kuti and another historic figure of the post-June 12 movement, famously praised his incorruptible commitment to reforming Nigeria. But a number of prominent Yoruba figures don’t hesitate to scold Gani for his populist rhetoric. The assassination of Justice Minister Bola Ige in December 2001 triggered a ferocious duel, fought through the media, between Yoruba intellectual Wole Soyinka and Gani. Some commentators have gone so far as to opine that Gani prefers to remain the perpetual opponent, and is unable to propose realistic solutions to the economic stagnation that plagues Nigeria, world’s sixth-largest oil producer, or to the silent internal war that has cost 10,000 lives in three years. The most vocal of his critics assert that he’s playing the game of democracy’s enemies by continuing to criticize President Obasanjo.

One also wonders why such a man—who has spent his life attacking the men in power—would now want to undertake a career in electoral politics.

“I see Obasanjo, the way he is going; the military will soon take advantage of that,” Gani explains. “And I don’t want that to happen. And to prevent that, I think you have to stand it, coming to politics and give an alternative in order to give satisfaction to the people. So everybody will be happy and the military will have no excuse to come back.”

Before he can hope to move into Aso Rock Villa, the seat of the national executive in Abuja, Gani must get his party registered with the INEC, the Independent Electoral Commission responsible for running the election. This step isn’t a foregone conclusion. In late June, the commission refused to register a new batch of parties, including Gani’s National Conscience Party. This drew an immediate reaction from the lawyer: “The INEC was only acting a script written by the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to disallow the NCP from entering the race because of the effective competition we [were] going to provide against the dream of the president to return to power in 2003.”

Since then, the Obasanjo government has failed to mollify the tempestuous lawyer by inviting him to argue the federal government’s case in a court action brought by Gen. Babangida, contesting the declassification of the May 21 Oputa report—named after Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, who led the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission’s inquiry—on crimes committed by his military dictatorship. Gani not only rejected the government’s offer, he also promised: “We shall make this country ungovernable. I call on all Nigerians to resist this government and its type of democracy. I have been to prison before and I am prepared to put my life on the line again to defend our people. Enough is enough.”

Obasanjo has no reason to doubt him. The latest postponement of local elections, which were to have taken place Aug. 10, has fueled a long-simmering groundswell of discontent with the government in Abuja. On Aug. 13, representatives from Nigeria’s House of Representatives told Obasanjo to resign within two weeks or face impeachment.

Who cares whether the West is openly supporting Obasanjo for another term? As Gani puts it: “There is nothing America can do about that. The fate of a president of a country is determined essentially by the people of that country, and that’s the message he’s not getting. He relies so much on the influences of the Western democracies and ignores its own people; I mean unemployment is too high, the economy is in a comatose state, corruption is everywhere, the currency is collapsing, there are communal clashes, religious wars, bloodsheds, but he doesn’t care.

“Obasanjo was welcomed with open arms when he was elected. Today it is not so. Most Nigerians hate this man, just hate him. The North doesn’t like him, the masses don’t like him, the East is disturbed because they feel marginalized, in the West he has done nothing, even in his own town, he has done nothing.”