Gani Fawehinmi: Defiance as a Cause

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Gani Fawehinmi
Gani Fawehinmi

By Lanre Arogundade and Hassan Soweto

Gani Fawehinmi lived a life that was quintessentially defined by uncommon defiance of manifestations of abuse of power, especially corruption at the top levels of society and governance. He simply detested such and fought it with all he had in his nerves and veins.

The echoes of the beneficial impact of such defiance by way of courageous legal and political battles continue to reverberate ten years on, such that here and there, ‘there can be no other Gani’ remain a common refrain; the same way Nigerians talk of the impossibility of the existence of another Fela, the Afrobeat creator who also had his own twin-terrain of struggle, music and politics.

If Karl Marx was right in saying that Philosophers have interpreted the world, one way or the other, the point however is to change it, then we could say that Gani, is a Nigerian philosopher-king, who interpreted the Nigerian world in several ways, with the crucial task of changing the country for the better being the unresolved issue.

On this tenth anniversary therefore, what might come across as astounding is how far the country is from such goal despite the monumental struggles that a person like Gani waged. Naturally, there would also be the question of what Gani’s stand would be around a number of critical issues of public concern today, some of which actually border on absurdity, if situated within the context of how things should be in a supposed democratic dispensation.

The absurdity, for example, of keeping an Omoyele Sowore in ‘renewable’ detention for calling for a revolution via public peaceful protests against lack of development, while alleged looters of the Nation’s treasury as being evidentially argued by the EFCC, are being granted bail, one after another. It would seem that the fundamental right of alleged corrupt elements matter more than that of someone raising his voice against how their pilferage of the common patrimony has buckled the Nigerian Nation on her knees.

To be sure, Gani was loud and clear about his stance on the rule of law. He was not the one to go with popular thinking that alleged corrupt public officials could not have their ‘right’ infringed whenever detained in the cause of investigations. He would shout himself hoarse asking: ‘what rule of law permitted them to steal public funds?

On the other hand, he held as sacrosanct the right of citizens to protest against social, economic and political injustice, up to and including defying unjust laws such as the ones banning public protests or denying citizens the right to unionize, to mention few examples.

So, briefly back to Sowore; Gani might say in his usual sonorous voice that students understand the kind of revolution Sowore was planning with T-shirts and berets in orange colour. He might even jocularly and sarcastically ask: ‘Is it orange or red that is the colour of revolution?’ But the moment the state declared his intention to clamp down on the protest, Gani would announce that he would be there, and he would have been there. And naturally, he would be the one leading Femi Falana (SAN), in the battle to free Sowore from the shackles of his traducers.

The clear definition of what the rule law should mean for the oppressed and the oppressors therefore defined the radical, if not revolutionary, path of Gani. The phenomenal rising up to the occasion first became public knowledge with the free legal defence of Bala Abashe, who had alleged that the then Secretary of Benue-Plateau State Government, Andrew Obeya, violated his rights by engaging in adultery with his wife. Obeya was compelled to resign but Gani got detained for nine months for the legal challenge.

Then followed series of legal battles on behalf of victimised students’ leaders including the late Segun Okeowo who got dismissed from the University of Lagos after he led the famous Ali-Must-Go protests of 1978 against increase in tuition fees in the universities as the then president of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS). The court battle over, Gani offered Okeowo temporary refuge in his chambers as a staff before he later got readmitted into the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University); same university whose students’ union, by a coincidence of history conferred Gani with the title of the Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM) in 1988. As if taking a cue from the students of Great Ife, the Bruno Kreisky Prize was awarded to him in 1993 for advancing the human rights cause.

As an advocate of the masses, Gani relentlessly fought abuses of power by the military, something which made his radical path to become thorny as he was detained several times by the military, especially the regimes of Yakubu Gowon, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. Gani was in the thick of the June 12 struggle for the validation of the mandate given to Bashorun MKO Abiola by fourteen million Nigerians and at a stage formed and led the Joint Action Committee for on Nigeria (JACON) for the that purpose, and for the objective of seeking the convocation of a sovereign national conference to enable the representatives of Nigerian people decide on the governance system that suit them and the basis of the relationship of her diverse peoples.

It was in that period that Gani would embark on his ultimate act of political defiance, when in reaction to the ban on political activities by the military regime of General Abacha, he formed the National Conscience Party (NCP) in 1994, asserting in the process that the right to associate freely was a fundamental right that not even the military junta could take away. But, it was an act of defiance that he paid for dearly as it led to his arrest, yet again, and prolonged detention in Bauchi prison in the North-east. Back from that inhuman detention, Gani did not relent in his anti-military struggles until the military was forced out of power and civil rule returned in 1999.

It only took few years under the Obasanjo presidency for Gani to come to the conclusion that the NCP was needed to challenge for power. Thus began the titanic battle that was waged politically and legally up to the Supreme Court before the NCP was cleared to contest the 2003 elections on the basis of a 10-care programme that encompassed education care, health care, women care, to mention a few. That battle also benefitted other political parties that had been denied registration by the Independent National Electoral Commission following the Supreme Court’s pronouncement to the effect that a political organisation should be registered once it fulfilled the conditions stipulated in the constitution.

In joining the NCP and contesting the 2003 elections on its platform, socialists and trade unionists organised around the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) of Nigeria, were not unmindful of the fact that the welfarist or reformist programmes put forward by the party could not be effectively implemented unless the exploitative capitalist system was overthrown. Nevertheless, given Gani’s antecedents as a fighter for the masses, it was felt that the NCP at that time was a step forward. This perspective eventually turned out to be true. Against the overwhelming forces of the political parties of the money bags, the NCP made an impressive showing in the 2003 elections. Gani came fifth in the presidential elections and in the particular case of Lagos State, the NCP came third in the presidential, national assembly, governorship and state assembly elections of the year. It meant that if Nigeria was practising a proportional system of governance, NCP would have in 2003 formed a third of the government in Lagos State.

In examining the situation of Nigeria, ten years after his demise, it is understandable if vast sections of Nigerian masses continue to wish that Gani was still alive to lead the battles for social, economic and political advancement. To say that things have turned worse since Gani’s death could actually be an understatement. Today, the contradictions of Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalist system have become even more convoluted and social inequality more widespread than the time of Gani.

With a high number of people in multidimensional poverty and youth unemployment at about 38%, there is no doubt that a resurgence of the essentials of Gani as an irrepressible and uncompromising fighter who was prepared to lay down his life for the struggle is now urgently needed. Tragically, it is this kind of radical qualities coupled with conscious understanding of a revolutionary programme to end capitalism and enthrone a workers-led government on socialist programmes that is lacking among the crop of leadership of the labour, students and community movements today.

It is not a coincidence that just a few days to Gani’s own anniversary, specifically on September 1st 2019, a section of the students movement still conscious of its history marked the 20th anniversary of the passing of Moses Osaikede widely acclaimed as the last radical president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). All of these only confirm what Leon Trotsky, the co-leader with Vladimir Lenin of the October 1917 Socialist Revolution in Russia once said that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”. In Nigeria this is sharply expressed in a labour movement leadership whose outlook, mood and consciousness lags behind the mood and temper of the working and toiling masses whom if provided with a bold leadership and a clear programme of struggle will not hesitate to revolt to replace the pro-elite and pro-capitalist ruling classes with a workers-led government armed with socialist policies which would take into public ownership and democratic management, the wealth of the country thereby establishing the vital condition for improvement in the life of the mass majority. The declared intention of the Buhari government to change things for the better notwithstanding, the stumbling block remains its subscription, like previous PDP governments, to neo-liberal policies like privatisation and reduction in public expenditure on social programmes, which continue to put the bulk of collectively produced wealth in private pockets with nothing much to show for it as evidentially seen in the power sector.

But rather than despair or lament, the urgent task for all change-seeking Nigerian workers, youth and oppressed masses is to begin to actively organise to rebuild the declining platforms of struggle, especially the trade unions and the mass organisations of the working class as well as the students unions, making them genuinely democratic mass platforms of struggle and replacing their class-collaborationist leaders with those willing to fight like Gani. Above all, a mass workers political party which would even more clearly than the NCP was able to do with the 10-care programme, advance clear alternative socialist socio-economic programmes to capitalism is needed to serve as the piston to harness the flood of discontent in the direction of revolutionary change. The Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) formed by members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and collaborators can serve as the basis for such a mass party if actively built by trade unionists and activists. It is only the consummation of the above outlined processes that can ensure that in another 10 years, the 20th anniversary of the passing of the irrepressible Gani Fawehinmi does not find Nigeria and its people wallowing in the same murky waters of despair and misery.