Chief Gani Fawehinmi was a man many people would describe as a one-man army; fearless, dogged, disciplined but very compassionate. Perhaps, many more words would aptly describe the persona of the late legal practitioner and human rights activist, who, with every dint of passion and tenacity, fought for the rights of the masses.
Even though he was a wealthy lawyer, he preferred to fight for the poor and the less privileged in the society, such that he was named the Senior Advocate of the Masses and he also received the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights in June, 1993, among other awards he received in recognition of his struggles to promote human rights.
Arguably, the late legal icon was hounded and persecuted like no other since Nigeria gained its independence, for criticising military dictators. And he was so tormented that prison almost became his second home, as he was regularly being arrested and detained. Beyond the attack on his person, his books were confiscated while his library was set ablaze, coupled with several raids on his house and chamber.
He was detained 32 times, 17 of which were under the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida-led government; six times under Gen. Yakubu Gowon; six times under the late Gen. Sani Abacha and three times under the regime of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.
He was a regular guest at Ikoyi prison, Kuje Prison, Kaduna Prison, Gashua Prison, Lagos State Criminal Investigation Department, Alagbon, Panti Police Station, State Security Service (now DSS) Cell, among other detention facilities.
After two years of battling lungs cancer, which according to him, stemmed from his incarceration in the prison, Fawehinmi gave up the ghost in 2009. It was like the exit of a people’s adorable ‘king’. Even though he died at age 71, many people described his death as untimely and one the country may never recover from.
Monday, September 5, 2016, would make it seven years since he died, but his struggles are such that may never go away. In this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, one of his daughters, Dr. Idiat Fawehinmi-Aliu, shares some of her father’s beliefs, battles and last moments
Chief Gani Fawehinmi was a man loved by many and even before he became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, he was named the Senior Advocate of the Masses. What kind of man was he at home?
It’s painful we lost him and it’s been very tough admitting that he’s gone. We miss him. He was a very caring, considerate and loving father. He wasn’t one to be moved by ephemeral things; he was a deep thinker and a man of himself. I was a bit privileged to be close to him and all the pieces of advice he gave me while I was growing up still resonate with me every day and those have been very useful to me, even after he died. He encouraged his children and taught us life lessons. And he was a disciplinarian. He placed so much value on education. Then, if you fail, he would flog you. When we were in the United Kingdom studying, he would tell us that if we failed, we were coming back to Nigeria on board the next plane. And he would remind us of the exchange rate. That helped me, because it made me face my studies. In spite of his strict nature, he cared for his children. He was a very good man.
He was arrested more than 30 times and detained in several prisons, how did you cope with his frequent absence?
It wasn’t easy, but we got used to it. There were times we needed him but he was not around, with the travels and arrests. That reduced the time he spent with us because they were always coming for him. There were times we had to communicate through my mum who used to visit him. Sometimes we would write on a sheet of paper and sometimes on tissue paper, or we could make a small recording and send through our mother, just to communicate our thoughts to him and hear from him. But anytime he was home, we ate together, he taught us things and he was a lover of music; rock, pop and those old time Yoruba songs. I should add that he loved food as well. He loved pounded yam with good efo riro (vegetable) and bush meat, as an Ondo man, and after that, he would drink water and use toothpick (laughs…). He was just a lovable man.
His first arrest was in 1969 and there were some others after that. What was the first one you witnessed?
I wasn’t born when he was first arrested in 1969. But the first one I witnessed was in 1988. I was quite young then. That was a very significant year for me. It was during the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida as the Head of State. My dad was in detention, so my mum called all of us and asked who among us would carry a placard so he could be released. She feared they might want to kill him, so she wanted us to do a peaceful protest. Innocently, I volunteered. So, we went to Tafawa Balewa Square. The placard I carried read ‘IBB free my father’. My grandmother was there as well. I was matching with the placard. It was at that moment that I was to do my promotion exam into primary school, but unfortunately I fell ill after that and it took me about two weeks to recover. That exercise really affected me and it was something I had not really experienced before; I was a child and I really loved my father, so I didn’t hesitate to do it. That was a turning point in my life and I’m glad I did it. Looking back now, that was about my contribution to his freedom at that time. When I got back to school, I was told I had to repeat that class because the exam had passed, and that was how my sister met me in that same class. Later, I learnt that when IBB saw that clip, he had to let him go seeing his family members and his little daughter in the sun protesting. So, our effort was not in vain.
He dared the odds to pursue his belief. Were there times his children and wives tried to persuade him?
At some point; I can’t remember the year precisely. My mum called him and spoke to him, that his absence was affecting his relationship with the children. She wasn’t seeing enough of him, and she tried to make him see reasons why he should tone down his activism. My dad being resolute said ‘no’. We his children also tried to plead with him to take things easy so we could see more of him, but that didn’t change his mind. His mother also tried, cried and pleaded with him, but he was resolute. We had friends who would always tell us how their dad took them out and they spent time together, but mine was unrelenting in his fight for the masses. So, we tried, actually, but when he remained determined, we had to support him, since no one could dissuade him. There were times some of his friends also came to persuade him, but of course, he didn’t change his mind. He was very determined and strong-willed. And that trait is in some of us; being blunt. I miss him.
He was Dele Giwa’s lawyer. Given the circumstances surrounding his death, was your dad apprehensive of receiving letters from government?
He didn’t care. He would read his letter by himself. My dad was fearless; he didn’t care.
He loved to travel but there were times they seized his passport. Were there moments he felt frustrated that he couldn’t travel?
There were times he wanted to travel that his passport had been seized, but at such times, he would just travel to his home town. He loved his people and relatives. He accepted everyone.
Due to the incessant arrests, he had a bag he always carried, knowing they could come for him anytime…
(Cuts in…) Oh yes, he had a black bag he always went with anytime he was arrested. (laughs…)
One would wonder what he had in the bag. Would you know some of the items?
In the bag, he had tooth brush, tooth paste, the Quran, books and radio. He didn’t joke with that radio. He always listened to BBC, and he wouldn’t miss the news at 6am and 10pm. That radio was too important to him, because he needed to know what was happening.
What kind of books was he always going with?
It would have been biographies about world renowned activists, because anytime he travelled abroad, he would always go for such books, and of course his law books. When I was in the UK, I used to go with him to buy those books. So, most times, when he was arrested, he went with those books. He loved books so much.
Who packed the bag for him?
He packed it himself and put it aside, because he knew they could come anytime. He was never far from the bag. I witnessed one of the times they came to arrest him in the house. They were about armed 20 policemen. It was as if they were coming to take a criminal and they brought a big Black Maria. He told them, ‘Gentlemen how are you? Are you ready?’ He told my mum to take care of us and he followed them.
Was there ever a time he forgot his bag?
No, he wouldn’t have. He used to carry that bag to his chambers, because he knew they could come anytime. If he was in the office and he found that the bag was left in the house, someone would have to go back to bring it because they could come for him anytime. He didn’t joke with it at all.
Seeing that he didn’t care that he was being arrested from time to time, what was going through your mind at such times?
I was sad and confused, because there were times we wouldn’t see him for about six months, and we would keep asking our mum when he would come back. And she would always tell us to relax, that he would come back. There was a time we didn’t see him for a year. He tried for Nigeria. He made his mark, and he told us that we his children might not really appreciate him until he was no more, and we would see the impact of what he was doing.
There was another time he was arrested in the night. Did you witness that?
I was around but I was sleeping. We woke up, and when they took him away, my mum told us to go back to sleep. Of course, we knew what they came to do, and by morning he was nowhere to be found. We knew daddy had gone again.
Was there ever a time you visited him in detention?
Yes, when he was detained in Lagos. That year, he was arrested three times, so there was a time I was able to go see and him, but they didn’t let us enter. It was only my mum who could go in, while we were outside.
Something dramatic happened on his 50th birthday, do you still remember?
(Cuts in…) Oh yes, he went to court with all of us. It was an early morning. He woke my mum and told her to get the kids ready, and everyone was wondering. We got there and he mentioned it to the judge that it was his birthday. We were all surprised. But later in the day, he was arrested again. He wasn’t the type to really celebrate birthday, we would just kill ram and people would come to the house to eat. But when they came for him, he had to follow them.
Did he describe any of his worst prison experiences?
Yes, he did. He spoke about his experience at Kuje prison; the rats there, when they released some gases into his cell; and how they starved him. That was terrible. He said he thought that was the end. Being arrested and detained had become like a normal experience for him, and there were such times he was on hunger strike. But that of Kuje stood out among his experiences. He was starved and left in a bad state. He was very sick when he came back and he had to travel abroad to take care of himself.
Could that be what led to his cancer ailment eventually?
I would say yes, because he kept talking about the fumes released into his room. I’m a professional in the medical field and I know that when something like that happens, the effect might not be immediate, but gradual. It would continue to build up until you see the effect. So, that must have been the beginning of it.
How long was he sick before he died?
He died in 2009 but he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. My elder sister and I were there when they diagnosed him. It was in the United Kingdom. When he got the news, he was down. He was diagnosed to have cancer stage three. After that, he burst into tears. We started crying too and tried to console him. That is just to show that we are all humans. The next day, he was rushed to the hospital, obviously because of the news. We all cried. We went with him and stayed with him. I had just finished my second degree when the diagnosis was done. He visited many hospitals for treatment, but he didn’t survive it.
Those two years must have been his worst moments?
Yes, that was it. He was in and out of the hospital. He was always travelling for treatment; he visited many countries. He was a typical African who wanted to be with his people but there was a time he spent about six months there for treatment. Those two years were serious moments. The stage at which it was discovered was an advanced stage. It was late. I still miss my dad. I miss him so much. It feels like yesterday (cries).
Did he have regrets?
Yes, he did, especially before he died. He called everyone to come around him, perhaps he knew the end was near. He wanted to see all his children and grandchildren. He told us a lot of things. He said he was poisoned. We asked him who did it, but he just crossed his legs and smiled. Definitely, he had some regrets. About a year and half into his cancer treatment, he was in his house, and he just said ‘I have tried for Nigeria, but they don’t appreciate what I’ve done.’ He had cancer of the lungs, so his speech was a bit slurred. ‘Sometimes, I wish I didn’t sacrifice so much, but I have done it.’ There were things he would have enjoyed that he couldn’t because of his travails and sacrifices, but he said he would rather have it that way than any other way. Those were his words. Before he left the house for the hospital the last day, he looked up and looked down and smiled, as if he knew that was the end. He never came back alive (sobs…). In his lone moments sometimes, he felt disappointed that he wasn’t really appreciated. But the consolation for him, I guess, was that was what he was called to do. He had his sober times too because he was human.
Can we conclude that the military is to blame for his death?
Yes, I would say that.
When he died, how did you take the news?
We were confused. I felt a part of me had gone; it wasn’t easy. He was always encouraging me, so to know he was gone wasn’t easy. He taught me life lessons that have been helping me all along. He was a disciplinarian and there were times he would call me, even as a teenager and he would advise me. He did that for his children. Yes, he was away many times, he travelled a lot and he wasn’t always around, but he knew his children individually. I love my dad so much. I wish he was appreciated more because he did a lot. He sacrificed a lot; the time he would have spent with his family and his freedom. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he wanted to be closer to everyone but cancer took him away.
Were there times government tried to bribe him?
Yes, there were. I was privy to one like that. My dad was in prison then and I think he had spent about four months there, and there was a man sent to the house to give us rice and other food items and he came on a friendly note. It was a time we didn’t have enough in the house, but my mum turned down the gesture. I didn’t know how the story got to my dad but he was very happy and impressed.
Since you were very close to him, was there ever a time you confronted him to plead with him to reconsider his activism?
My dad was a disciplinarian and he inculcated fear in us that you can’t confront your parents. You just have to accept. So, I didn’t. Somehow, now, I believe in some of the things he did.
Anytime he came back home from those trips, what was his usual reaction?
The first thing he used to do was to write a note on the things that happened when he was there. He would review everything and then travel to see his mum. He was extremely close to his mother. As soon as he was back to Lagos, life had to go on.
His mother must have tried so hard to prevail on him to drop or tone down his activism. Were you privy to any of such moments?
There was a time she came around, on his invitation. She pleaded with him to stop, but he didn’t. She cried, but that didn’t make a difference to him. My dad said that was his preference and she had to accept his decision and pray for him. So, we all supported and prayed for him.
There was a day he was beaten on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way by Naval officers, was he sad when he got home?
He told us what happened; he didn’t hide anything from us. For him, life had to go on. Same thing happened when he was deported from Port Harcourt to Lagos. There was no big deal about it, to him. He simply moved on. He was just a very unique human being.
There was a time they confiscated his books and set his library ablaze in Surulere. Knowing he was a lover of books, how did he receive the news?
I remember that night. They came to search the house and his chambers and even attacked a security man on duty. He felt bad losing his books. He was very upset, because he didn’t joke with his books. There were some of those books that were no longer in the market, so, he felt bad about it. He placed so much value on books and education. There was a time he said ‘Idiat, I have left virtually nothing for you, so my advice is for you to take your education very seriously and work very hard’. That has helped me and is still helping me in my work now. The work here is not for the faint-hearted. So, anytime I’m becoming a bit weary, I remember his voice. Like I said, he was a disciplinarian. I once worked in his office at a time. I was resuming at 7am, and if I was late, I would be locked outside. There was no preferential treatment. I was paid like the rest of his staff members. There was a time I was sick for about seven to eight months because of the stress. If there was any misbehaviour, I would be disciplined. That helped me to adapt in any work situation I find myself. If anybody was late to the office, the person would go back home and the person’s money would be deducted for that day. That helped me in terms of work ethics. That is something I would pass on to my children because it is important. Those were the virtues he taught every one of us.
After forming the National Conscience Party in 1994, did you know or did he consult his children and wives to share his plan to contest for President or was it his sole decision?
One thing about my dad was that he was a ‘one-man personality’, and it worked for him. Even if he had asked his children, he would have gone ahead with his plan. The thing is, if he had a plan, he wouldn’t tell you until he was about to execute it or he had executed it and all you would have to do was to accept, so you wouldn’t make efforts to stop him. He knew what he wanted and he knew the result of such. The things he did sounded strange and weird but those were the right things to do. If we had stopped him or he had yielded to our counsel, he wouldn’t have achieved his goal. So, we just heard it and there were no options than to support him. My mum followed him from one state to another. There was a time they tried to assassinate him, and one of his drivers, Mr. Raji, (I won’t forget him) was attacked, because they thought my father was in that car. He went through a lot but what did he get from the people he fought for?
How did he feel about his performance in the 2003 election?
He felt disappointed, but not depressed. He simply moved on, even though he was a human being like you and me. The outcome of that election was quite discouraging, but he remained strong. Even in Ondo State where he hailed from, he lost. And we were equally disappointed. He funded the party with his money to see if he could make life better for the people. We all felt disappointed but we moved on. Perhaps people didn’t like him as much as they claimed, even though they kept encouraging him. But now, you hear people say, ‘If Gani was alive.’ He told us many things, but let me just tell you this; before he died, he told us to write it somewhere that someday one Pound would be N500. It sounded outrageous then, but that is our reality now. He predicted a number of things that are happening now.
Is there anything you wish Nigeria should have done to immortalise him?
There could have been a day to remember him. Not really for him, but something about activism. It’s very difficult to find someone like him. Integrity now is hard to come by these days. Many people have money, but integrity is somewhat a hard thing to find. When I was about seven years old, he told me integrity is key and it should always be above money. Right from childhood, he taught us those things.
Now, what do you do every September 5 to mark his death?
I always honour his memory. I used to go to the mosque to pray for the repose of his soul. As time goes on, I would want to do more on that day. I respect him and I love him so much. I still visit his tomb. I can imagine if he was still around, he would have taken up many things on behalf of the people. We need sincerity because the masses are truly suffering. That was his message then and that is still the situation now.