7 September 2009

Nigeria: Slippery Art of Epitaphs


Abuja — Everyone else was rushing to outdo others in the showering of encomiums, but the death early on Saturday of Chief Abdul Ganiyu Oyesola Fawehenmi, known to all Nigerians as Gani, set me thinking about the dilemma of writing epitaphs and obituaries for departed men and women.

What should be said, and in what balance and quantity, in memory of a man who had so much impact on this country's political, legal, media and NGO scene in the last four decades, much of it heroic, but some of it controversial?

It was no small achievement, to start with, that Gani became a household name in Nigeria when he was not a political ruler, a traditional ruler, big businessman, a musician, a footballer or a notorious criminal. These are the people who normally achieve household-name status in Nigeria, but Gani achieved prominence in the hitherto unknown area of human rights, social justice and anti-corruption crusading. No small feat there, in Nigeria here.

In the last 25 years, I have seen and heard three shocking obituaries, for their audacity to say negative things about a person who just departed to the great beyond. The first was then Africa Now magazine publisher Peter Enahoro's epitaph for Guinean President Ahmad Sekou Toure, who died in 1984. Peter Pan expressly rejected Shakespeare's claim that "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is interred with their bones" and went on to reel out Sekou Toure's serial misdeeds, beginning with the killing of his former Foreign Minister and OAU's first Secretary General, Diallo Telli.

The second shocking obituary I read was in the Nigerian Tribune in the late 1980s by Tai Solarin, for the late Professor Sanya Onabamiro. Tai said he must tell the truth about Onabamiro's life, including that he stoned a headmaster when he was in Primary 1, beat up his uncle's wife when he was 11, and had the road blocked by his towns people when, as Western State Commissioner for Education, he came home on a weekend. [That was what Tai said, not me].

Now, the third shocking tribute, which I heard on BBC on June 8, 1998, was by Gani Fawehenmi for the just departed General Sani Abacha. He said, "Good riddance to bad rubbish! He was a bloodthirsty dictator, murderer, a thief...May the gates of Hell be opened wide enough for him!"

You see, Gani was a genuine hero of the Nigerian downtrodden, but there are still many people in Nigeria, mostly the powerful and once-powerful who, objectively speaking, cannot like him. They include Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, General Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Babangida, Malam Umaru Yar'adua and Mrs. Farida Waziri. At the weekend however, all of them fell over themselves to shower praises on the departed Gani. Never mind that they probably did not mean what they said. That is the African way.

Not just the African way, incidentally. Yesterday, Comrade Shehu Sani reminded me of what the great Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn said when powerful men showered praises on the deceased dissident Russian nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, "My nation has an incurable disease of emasculating the men of truth while alive and praising them when dead."

Let's forget what others are saying for now. When the great American politician Thomas Jefferson wrote the epitaph that he wanted to be affixed to his tombstone, TIME magazine said "he forgot to mention on it that he had been Ambassador to France, Secretary of State or even President of the United States." He preferred to be remembered as author of the Declaration of Independence, author of the Federalist Papers, and founder of the University of Virginia.

If Gani had written his own epitaph, what would he have wanted to be remembered for? He certainly would say that he published nearly 800 volumes of the Nigeria Weekly Law Reports since the 1980s. Maybe he may also want to be remembered as the most imprisoned Nigerian, who went to jail 32 times, including at the forbidding Gashua Prison, was beaten up six times and had his house searched many times for challenging governments. Gani may want to be remembered for the 5700 cases his law chambers handled in 40 years, especially the 1500 of them that were pro bono for indigent persons. Maybe he will add that he was the thorniest thorn in the flesh of authoritarian Nigerian governments, military and civilian ones alike.

Maybe Gani will add that he did more than most Nigerians to ensure that Nigerian judges earn their keep, with his endless and titillating cases against mal-governance, corruption, abuse of office and abuse of human rights. As a schoolboy in the 1970s, I first heard of Gani during the epic Minire Amachree versus Festus Iwowari case, when aides of the Military Governor of Rivers State shaved a journalist's head with a broken bottle. In the ensuing decades, Gani sued governments for everything from increasing fuel prices to imposing arbitrary taxes to illegal detentions, frivolous spending and the blossoming office of First Lady.

Among the Gani crusades that will be remembered for a long time, and which did much to expose Nigerian mal-governance, was his tireless efforts to find the killers of Dele Giwa, his spirited fight against General Babangida's endless transition program culminating in the June 12 election annulment, his fight to get the 1991 Gulf War oil windfall accounted for, and his battles against President Olusegun Obasanjo's numerous foreign trips.

Gani came through as one of the most meticulous men in Nigeria, never going to court until he copiously marshalled his evidence and identified which law was being breached. At that, he was better than all Nigerian newspapers; it was Gani who counted the number of amendments that Babangida made to his transition program [38 at one point], and it was Gani who compiled the number of foreign trips Obasanjo made in two years [101].

If Gani had written his own epitaph, he may or may not add his long battles with comrades in the human rights struggle who later went, in his view, wayward. Such as his battle with Tai Solarin, who shed his trademark Khaki shorts and adorned Mrs. Maryam Babangida's Better Life ankara uniform in 1990. Or with Dr. Olu Onagoruwa for becoming General Abacha's Attorney General in 1993, and with Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, for receiving foreign funding to prosecute human rights struggle. Chiding Beko for abandoning his medical practice, Gani famously said at the time, "In the last 10 years, he has not prescribed even Panadol!"

Gani was also the father of the philosophy that, in the battle against corruption, the end justifies the means, a philosophy bought hook, line and sinker by former EFCC chairman Nuhu Ribadu, with controversial results.

It will take awhile to write the final epitaph for Chief Gani Fawehenmi, but no matter who writes it, it wouldn't look like those epitaphs for Ahmad Sekou Toure, Sanya Onabamiro or General Sani Abacha.

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