On 5 September Nigeria lost one of its most prominent human rights lawyers and activists, Gani Fawehinmi. In a country overrun with corruption, military violence and human rights violations, the loss of Gani Fawehinmi is a huge loss. Readers of this blog may not know who Gani Fawehinmi was, but to those Nigerians who yearn for social justice and true democracy he was a hero amongst few heroes.
Fawehinimi first came to prominence as a man of conscience and defender of human rights in the early 1970s. He was lawyer to the late Dele Giwa, founder and editor of Nigeria's main weekly news magazine Newswatch who was killed by a letter bomb in suspicious circumstances in 1986. Giwa, a radical journalist, had used Newswatch as a platform to expose the corruption and human rights violations of the then-dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, who had him arrested in 1992. Before he was taken away he wrote a message to friends and colleagues:
'I am taken away today, Friday, May 29, 1992 by the Government of General Babangida.
Even if they kill me, my spirit will continue to fight for the oppressed people of this country - Nigeria.
No leader has a right to turn his people into paupers. Surely there is an alternative to poverty and above all, there is an alternative to oppression which Babangida has subjected this country to. I crusade for that alternative. If I have to die, it is a noble death. I have no regrets.'
As a result of his activities, chief Gani Fawehinmi, was arrested, detained and charged several times. His international passport was seized on many occasions and his residence and Chambers were searched several times. He was beaten up time after time and was deported from one part of the country to another to prevent him from being able to effectively reach out to the masses among whom he was popular. His books were confiscated by the Federal Military Government and his library at Surulere, a suburb of Lagos, was set ablaze. His law chambers at Anthony Village, Lagos State, were invaded by persons suspected to be agents of the Government on 26 August 1994. The guards were shot, with two of them being seriously wounded.
Chidi Opara Writes alludes to the possibility of this continuous harassment as a contributory factor to the cancer that killed him:
‘But, as noted by Yinka Odumakin, there is a trend of sickness and death in those detained by the military junta: Fela died of AIDS-related sickness (his lifestyle was the cover) - who says HIV was not injected into his system while in prison? Beko died of lung cancer (his smoking habit was the cover) but he could have been given the Ganicidal treatment in prison; Mr Alao Aka-Bashorun, Comrade Ola Oni and Professor Akin Fadahunsi also died of terminal ailments. Chima Ubani died under suspicious circumstances. Gani never smoked, drank, moved in polluted environment or lived in air-polluted houses. The only place his lungs could have been cancerously poisoned was the prison’
Since his death, much has been written by Nigerian bloggers and media. One blogger wrote:
'Known as the "people's lawyer" Fawehinimi not only challenged injustice in the courts, but through his Weekly Law Reports, papers and books he made a huge contribution to Nigerian human rights law and made it accessible to the ordinary person.'
As reports come in that the Nigerian Government is preparing for war in the Niger Delta, the struggle for social justice in Nigeria becomes even more urgent. The loss of people like Gani Fawehinimi will leave a void for those in that struggle.