Gani Fawehinmi, leader of the unregistered National Conscience Party, died on Sept. 5.
Remembrances - September 15, 2009
An Advocate for the Masses, He Braved Nigerian Dictators
By Stephen Miller
A persistent critic of the military dictators who ruled his nation for decades, Gani Fawehinmi was Nigeria's leading human-rights lawyer.
Mr. Fawehinmi, who died Sept. 5 at 71, took some of Nigeria's most controversial cases, including that of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a critic of the government who was executed in 1995 to gales of international protest.
Mr. Saro-Wiwa was one of a string of Mr. Fawehinmi's clients who had run afoul of Nigeria's government for offenses ranging from speaking out against the military to leading protests against foreign oil companies.
Mr. Fawehinmi was jailed and harassed by successive governments. Many in Nigeria expressed astonishment that the legal gadfly survived, given the number of powerful people he offended.
"I called him 'Ayorumbo' -- that's a Yoruba expression for somebody who has gone through the door of death and somehow come back," says Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright and human-rights activist.
Mr. Soyinka and Mr. Fawehinmi first established contact via smuggled notes, when both were imprisoned on political charges in the 1960s. Later, they worked on several cases, including one in which Mr. Soyinka was the plaintiff in a lawsuit Mr. Fawehinmi brought challenging the constitutionality of the Abacha military government in the 1990s. Mr. Soyinka fled the country, but Mr. Fawehinmi remained in what many political activists characterized as a perilous environment.
"I nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in that period," says Mr. Soyinka, himself the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.
Mr. Fawehinmi was often referred to as "chief" because his father and grandfather had been prominent leaders in the southwest Nigerian city of Ondo. His own leadership abilities appeared early, and he was nicknamed "Nation" during his legal studies at the University of London. After joining the Nigerian Bar in 1965, he gained a reputation for defending clients unfriendly to the government. It was an unsettled time as Nigeria fell into civil war, and a series of military coups ensued.
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Starting out in his brother's law office, Mr. Fawehinmi built a thriving practice of his own. He became publisher of the Nigerian Weekly Law Report, and his salary supported him through much pro-bono work. Despite offers from nongovernmental organizations, he refused foreign funding for his human-rights work, insisting that it be bankrolled from within the nation.
Mr. Fawehinmi came to international prominence as an opponent of Nigerian ruler Ibrahim Babangida's military junta. Mr. Fawehinmi accused the government of murdering one of his clients, a national magazine editor and critic of the regime named Dele Giwa who was killed by a letter bomb in 1986. When his court actions failed to bring Mr. Giwa's killers to justice, Mr. Fawehinmi was again imprisoned. He was still trying to reopen the case last year from his hospital bed.
Mr. Babangida left office after successful elections in 1993, and Mr. Fawehinmi declared a rebirth of democracy. He was quickly disappointed after another coup, this one led by General Sani Abacha, and became a determined critic of the new regime.
To protest the Abacha government, Mr. Fawehinmi sued on behalf of Mr. Soyinka and established his own political party, the National Conscience Party. He held a rally in one of Lagos's most notorious slums.
During the years of military dictatorship, Mr. Fawehinmi told a group of supporters, "I was beaten, tear-gassed, detained, jailed and humiliated. I lost my health, but I did not lose my life." In 2001, after civilian rule was re-established, Mr. Fawehinmi was named Senior Advocate of Nigeria, the nation's highest legal title. He had been denied the title and targeted more than once for disbarment in previous decades. He became known as the "Senior Advocate for the Masses," an informal title. He was also the recipient of the 1993 Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights.
In an interview published in 2008 by the All Africa news service, Mr. Fawehinmi, ailing with the cancer that killed him, spoke of his legacy.
"I want to exhaust this brain, put everything on paper, so that Nigerians yet unborn would learn from the way I lived."