The Foundation Interview Series 4: Chief Gani Fawehinhimi

Chief Gani Fawehinmi in conversation with Onyeka Onwenu (Part 1)

ABOUT CHIEF GANI FAWEHINMI (
SAN)

Chief Gani Fawehinmi was born in 1938 to Saheed Tugbobo and Alhaja Munirat Fawehinmi, the Seriki and Iya Suna of Ondo Moslems respectively, in Ondo town in Nigeria.

He graduated from Holborn College of Law, University of London in 1954 and was called to the bar in 1955. Gani as he is fondly called by the masses, whose interest he has defended all his working life is Nigeria's foremost Human Rights Lawyer as well as a vocal critic of bad government in the country.

In 2003, Gani Fawehinmi was the presidential flag bearer for the National Conscience Party (NCP). After his unsuccessful bid, he returned to his law practice in Ikeja Lagos from where he has continued to publish the well respected "Nigerian Weekly Law Report", which he started in 1985.

Although his law practice remains one of the most lucrative in the Nigeria, a large percentage of those cases are done on pro bono bases as Gani refuses to turn down worthy causes. Also, on a yearly basis, Chief Gani Fawehinmi awards about 30 scholarships to indigent students

In 2001 Chief Gani Fawehinmi was awarded the much deserved title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria SAN but only after a more "meaningful" Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM) given to him by the Nigerian people in compensation for the belated SAN.

ONYEKA ONWENU

Onyeka
Onwenu is a Singer/Songwriter, Journalist and Actress.

She is a graduate of Wellesley College, Wellesley Massachusetts and the New School for Social Research in New York, where she obtained a B.A in International Relations and Communications and a Masters Degree in Media Studies respectively. Onwenu recently veered into politics when she contested the Local Government Chairmanship for Ideato North in Imo State in 2002.

Though unsuccessful in her bid, Ms. Onwenu plans to seek further opportunities to serve her people at the local government level.


THE GANI FAWEHINMI INTERVIEW

Onyeka: This is a rare honour, sir….

As I walked into this room (Chief Fawehinmi's office), and glanced at the wall right behind your desk, I noticed a sign, which says: "The Legal Practitioner lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country." You have been described as a gift to Nigeria, and we thank God for your work on behalf of the people of this country. I would like to begin our conversation with the issue of the Political Reforms Conference. It is not quite the Sovereign National Conference that Nigerians have desired all along. You have had a lot to say about the issue in the past. The Conference was declared open on February 25, 2005; where do you think we are heading with it?

Gani: We are not heading anywhere. We have no destination in this respect. We are moving backwards. We are taking false and faulty steps backwards, rickety steps indeed. February 25 2005, was a very sad day in the history of Nigeria. The President acted as a dictator, and not as an elected democrat. He assembled 400 men and women, all of them nominated, but not a single one elected. In charging them with the responsibility of finding solutions to the problems of the country, he made some heretical statements.

First, he said that sovereignty of the people of this country has been transferred to the elected representatives, including the president; therefore, he did not need a Sovereign National Conference because he had sovereignty. That was unconstitutional nonsense. Because even under the constitution that brought him to power, it was provided, in section 14 sub-section 2a of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom all authorities and persons derive their power. Thus, the President within the context of section 14, sub-section 2a has committed a constitutional goof.

Secondly, he went on to say that the decisions of the conference will be by consensus. And so, if there is any dissenting opinion, he is at liberty to reject the decision; because according to him, all decisions of the conference will be recommendations to him as the President. He has put himself on a very autocratic and dictatorial pedestal.

Finally, he made a nine point no-go-area. He said the unity of the country should not be discussed; nothing outside federalism or presidentialism could be discussed, or anything outside the fundamental objectives and direct principles of state policy, among others.

Onyeka: So what exactly were they prepared to discuss?

Gani: We all know that the presidential system in this country, today, breeds dictatorship. Within the context of our diverse features, we need a parliamentary system of government. We even need to re-orGanise the structure of the country; we don't even know that Nigerians may prefer a confederation, depending on how it is presented. And when you insist that these topics should not be discussed, you are asking people to come, talk, and go away without any substance – because you can't discuss the problem of Nigeria without discussing the structure of the federation itself. So, you go from there to the abnormal area of his (the president) inaugural speech. He outlined a number of papers that would be presented at the conference.

One, the preparation document, the Constitution of Nigeria 1999, the Oputa panel report, and also the NEEDS – that is the current socio-economic programme of the current regime -- amongst other issues. Now it is assumed that the people are assembled to come and re-examine the Oputa report, and they would reach that re-examination by consensus. The Oputa report has indicted so many people for certain crimes. The report indicted Babangida for the murder of Dele Giwa. It indicted Abdulsalami in connection with the murder of Abiola, and so on and so forth. The tribunal commission went around the country for three years – from 1993 to 2002, and reported its findings to you (the president) in May 2002. For three years, you (the president) have done nothing about it, and now you are bringing it to the conference of 400 people, demanding they reach a consensus. You are indirectly telling the world that you have killed the Oputa panel report.

When you look at the most abominable aspect of the Conference, the Nigerian people whose problems you want to resolve have no input as to who should be their delegate. At the end of the deliberation there is no referendum, and it is this conference that will resolve their problems? So either way we have lost. Whose problems are you trying to resolve then? That is why I believe that the entire exercise is spurious, bogus; only to deceive the unwary.


Onyeka: Apart from the Oputa Panel Report, which has just been made public, there have been other reviews of our constitution, other review panels which have been set up. The last one produced a report in 2001. The secretary of that review panel was a fellow journalist who was a former Ambassador to Spain, Yusuf Mamman. That report was never made public. If we keep putting up these reviews, and they are never made public, and nobody makes use of the findings, what is the purpose of setting them up in the first place?

Gani: There are many purposes which the presidency wishes to achieve by establishing panels here and there. It is to divert attention and cool the temper of the moment. You remember that in 1999, the Christopher Kolade Panel was set up to look into failed contracts. That report has not seen the light of day. He also set up the Brigadier Rotimi Panel to look into the misuse of government buildings. That report has not been made public. You also remember the committee set up to review the Constitution? That report has not seen the light of day.

Now, the Oputa Report, the most outstanding of all the commissions I have encountered -- I mean, I have never seen such a commission devoted to details, and philosophical in its approach. The Oputa Commission was thorough and honest in its methodology. Not just because it was headed by one of our most renowned jurists, one of the greatest philosopher jurists of the Supreme Court, and one of the most honest judges I have ever seen in my life and career, but simply because it was the most thorough job ever done by any commission in the history of this country. For three years, Oputa went round the country, every nook and corner, and the report was submitted. It gathered dust. For three years, the President did not apologize to anybody for not making it public.

Onyeka: Well, some people will say that even though it [The Oputa panel report] was not made public for a long period of time, at least it was not lost like the Dr. Pius Okigbo Report.

Gani: (bursts into laughter) That's correct, and I am surprised that the present Secretary to the Federal Government, Ufot Ekaette, who was a member of that (Dr. Pius Okigbo) Commission, has said to the government that its report is lost completely. He even said he has no copy of it. The government has no copy of it. Who has a copy, now? (Laughs the more) it is a laughable matter. The way they run the affairs of this country is tragic.

Onyeka: The National Assembly has not been in support of the Political Reforms Conference?

Gani: No! No! Not at all, No!

Onyeka: Does it not make their work redundant; they were elected, but not a part of this setup?

Gani: They are not part of this. And they are not prepared to release funds. Mr. President has not disclosed the source of his funds, and this is very dangerous for the integrity of this country. When you take funds from sources that are not known, you can compromise the integrity of Nigeria.

Secondly, the President is oblivious of section 9 of the constitution of this country that gives power to the National Assembly and other State Assemblies to amend the constitution of this country; any part of the constitution of this country. If the National Assembly can amend any part, why should there be no-go-areas in the confab?

Onyeka: This is all very interesting. Let's delve a little more deeply into the conference…

Gani: (interjecting) Oh! Well, to start with, they started on February 25, 2005, and they adjourned for one week. There are four hundred members for three months, and if we go by four hundred members divided by 90 days, many of them will never speak at all. And yet, they have taken one week off from the start. They have gone to rest.

Onyeka: Among these 400 men there are 30 women…..?

Gani: (cuts in) that is a disaster

Onyeka:
In a country where more than fifty percent of the population is made up of women, the female delegates are just a handful. The women are protesting all over the country…….

Gani (cuts in again) they have the right to…

Onyeka They are not finding it funny…whether the conference has legitimacy or not, the point is that the women and youths are not well represented. You made a statement recently that grabbed me. It is something that Nigerians don't often think about. The schism in this country has historically been based on ethnic loyalties. There is another schism between the poor and the rich. You have always been a man of the masses, so much so that when there was a delay in giving you a well deserved ‘Senior Advocate of Nigeria' (SAN), the masses gave you their own - ‘Senior Advocate of the Masses' (SAM). You have come out to say that a conference such as this that does not represent the interest of the masses is not a conference that should be given attention.

Gani Yes, there is only one way by which the people can be involved in a serious National Conference; call it National Confab or Sovereign National Conference. First of all, government has an involvement in any serious Sovereign National Conference, because of the scale and magnitude of the work to be done. There needs to be State power. We are advocating that there should be a Sovereign National Conference planning committee. Half of the members can come from the government; the rest can come from the private sector.

There are two types of delegates that are needed to encompass the totality of Nigeria. You have delegates that are elected by each community in Nigeria, represented by the Local Government of the community. We have 774 Local Governments in this country. Each Local Government should elect a member to the Sovereign National Conference. The advantage of this is that when you elect a member to the Sovereign National Conference, you are electing not that person alone, but also the ethnic group to which that person belongs, the social thinking of that area, the economic factor of that area; the cultural affinity of that area.

So, if you elect somebody from Ikot-Abasi, he is bound to be Ibibio, or you elect somebody form Calabar Local Government Area; he is bound to be Efik. You elect somebody form Uturu in Abia State, he is bound to be Igbo. You elect somebody form Enugu, he is bound to be Igbo. You elect somebody from Ondo; he is bound to be Yoruba. You elect somebody from Maiduguri, he is bound to be Kanuri. You elect somebody from Kanama Muda, he is bound to be Hause or Fulani. You elect somebody from Adamawa, he is bound to be Bachama, if his local government is Bachama. If his Local Government is Hausa/Fulani, he is bound to be Hausa/Fulani.

Therefore, you don't need a special slot for the ethnic groups, because once you are elected from the Local Government community base, all the ethnic groups will be represented. There are more than 300 ethnic groups in Nigeria; but every ethnic group has a Local Government to which it belongs -- that is number one.

The second category of delegates will be those representing interest groups – the Lawyers, the Doctor, the Journalists, the Accountants, the Surveyors…

Onyeka: The Musicians…

Gani: Yes, the musicians – but you belong to many groups. The Intellectuals, you belong there too; the traditionalists, students, OrGanized Labour, OrGanised Industry etc. We have identified about 235 interest groups in Nigeria. So you elect from each of the interest groups to hold a congress; the musicians will hold a congress. Maybe one or two slots are given to the musicians to hold a congress and openly elect their representatives. Lawyers will hold a congress, and elect their representatives supervised by both the planning committee of the Sovereign National Conference in collaboration with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). It will not be on party basis. It will be on an individual basis. Since the election is by the community, there is no party business. If you are an interest group, there is no party business. So, if you elect people from both Local Government Area and interest groups, you have taken care of the entire federation; so the people are involved.

Thirdly, another area of the masses interest is after the deliberation. There should be a referendum. This referendum means that everything that was discussed will be taken to the Technical Committee of that Conference. They will put it into a constitutional form then it is referred to the people in a referendum -yes or no. When they say yes, then a new article of faith is found in Nigeria. A new Constitution is born in Nigeria.

The unfortunate thing, Onyeka, is this; Nigeria became an entity in 1914, the constitution was imposed on us through Lord Lugard. In 1922, another constitution was imposed on us without reference to the people of this country, called the Clifford Constitution. In 1946, the Richards Constitution was imposed on us, which divided Nigeria into regions, and another Constitution was imposed by Whitehall Colonialists. In 1951, we had the John Macpherson Constitution imposed on us, and in 1954, we had the Lord Littleton Constitution. Even at our Independence in 1960, the James Robertson Constitution was imposed on us from Whitehall. Then we had the first Republican Constitution in 1960, and there was no referendum. Babangida did the same in 1987 with no referendum, and Abacha, in 1994.

For the first time, let us have a referendum that allows Nigerians to participate in the process of governance. Nobody is prepared to die for Nigeria, because nobody is involved in the way Nigeria is governed, in the way Nigeria is operated. But once Nigerians are involved, in the delegation input and in the referendum input, they will have a country for which they are prepared to die.

Onyeka: Why is it that we are running a democratic system, and we have a President who, as you have said, ‘seems to be running this government all by himself?' And it seems like there is nothing we can do about it; no one is calling him to order. The National Assembly seems to be powerless as to what they can do to draw his attention to how we feel.

Gani: There are two reasons. One, the Court of Appeals has given us an insight into one of the reasons. On the 28th of December 2004, the court of appeals decided that even the President's party rigged the election in his home state, and the Court of Appeals dismissed that election and nullified it. The meaning of that is very clear; that elections of those said to have been elected, were porous, filled with malpractice, forgery, manipulation and rigging. Most of them were involved. Take Wabara (the former Senate President) for example. Elder Imo won the election, but Wabara was given his position. Thus, right from the start, he lacked the moral legitimacy to become a senator.

So, people such as I have mentioned, have to bow to the wishes of their party, and protect the status quo, because they are all, more or less, involved in irregularities. Number two, Nigerians in power love the ‘perks' of public office so much that they are unwilling to rock the boat. To rock the boat will affect what accrues to them, and, therefore, they are prepared to keep the boat steady, even as it is heading perilously towards the rock, as the Nigerian ship of state is now heading. They are oblivious to the catastrophe before them. So, everybody now wants to maintain even the rickety posture, until crisis begins. Those are the two reasons. "Selfishness, one, and the lure and love of power that brings money, prestige "honour…" all the where-with-all of Nigerian society. And that is a crime of vengeance and corruption.

Onyeka: That is why we have this Political Reforms Conference going on. Maybe the suggestions and the ideas that will come out of it, will ensure that whatever happened in 2003 never happens again. Do you agree with that?

Gani: I don't, I don't. One of the documents they are supposed to consider is the drafted electoral bill presented by INEC. Of course, that bill is very defective. There is no where in that bill that is suggestive of the need to have the representatives of the political parties in the electoral body that supervises election in this country. I would like us to buy the Indonesian experience.

Indonesia has more than 56 political parties. Indonesia has about 225 million peoples. The Indonesia Electoral Body accommodates the representative of each of the political parties so that individual interests are protected. One makes sure that one's own interest is no sabotaged. That is one aspect. Secondly, there is so much power given to Mr. President, even under the electoral bill, that I don't think that we can have an independent incumbent trying to surrender power to the will of the people. It is not possible. Thirdly, one thing is to have a law, another thing is to have the institutions to execute that law. Our institutions in this country are so weak, because the major institutions that enforce the law are under the nose and armpit of Mr. President. The Police, the Army, the SSS, the NIA, the DMI, are all controlled by Mr. President. So, these are dangerous situations we have.

We are told not to discuss the Federal structure; in truth, we don't have a Federal structure. We have a unitary form of government in Nigeria, masquerading as Federalism. We don't have a Federal structure in Nigeria. Out of 327 sections of the constitution, you have Mr. President mentioned in more than 111 sections. A single individual with near absolute power…he appoints the members of the INEC…and there is one aspect that people don't understand. There are Resident Electoral Commissioners in the states directly appointed by the President, but without the approval of the Senate. So, if the president says he wants to win a particular state, the Resident Electoral Commissioner has no choice. There is so much power in Mr. President's hands.

Onyeka: I am sure you were not invited, sir - as a delegate to this conference. And I am sure that had you been invited, you would not have attended, since you have been calling on others not to.

Gani: They (the Federal Government) wouldn't dare. If they did, I would do what one of my heroes, Chinua Achebe did in respect of the honour they gave to him. Ofcourse, I will come to the public place and decline it.

Onyeka: People will say - why don't you go in there…that it is better to fight from within than to fight from the outside. If you go in there and raise all these issues we have been talking about in this interview, it might be of greater help to the Nigerian people.

Gani: It's like saying that before you catch a robber you have to engage in robbery to know how robbery is done. I don't have to do that.

Onyeka: Thank you. Let's talk about corruption. In 1984, I was involved in producing a film about corruption in Nigeria with the BBC and NTA - "Nigeria, A Squandering of Riches." It was widely acclaimed in Nigeria, and all over the world because it proved that if Nigerians could take a critical look at themselves, and, maybe, find solutions to their problems. Well, that film is still relevant today, probably more relevant than it was in 1983/84 when it was first released. Why does corruption in Nigeria only become progressively worse?

Gani: There are social reasons and there are political reasons. Quite frankly, everybody is afraid of poverty. Everybody is scared of poverty. This is a poor society. We have all been poor. I don't know of anybody now who says he is a multi-millionaire, who has properly inherited money, nobody. I do not know of the father of Mike Adenuga as a millionaire. I have never heard of the father of Subomi Balogun as a millionaire. I have never heard of these rich people, Dangote – well I know of Dantata, but not Dangote…and so on and so forth. So, you have the nouveau riche. This shows you that we don't have a legacy of general wealth in our society.

Let us be frank, I mean we know of Ojukwu, the great transporter, the father of the present Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu as a rich man. He may be the first in his family, but he made it. Now social problems account for why we fear what will happen to us. But there are ways that Western democracies have developed to exterminate rampant corruption. You see when you wake up in the morning and you don't know where your next meal is coming from, and you have no succour, you don't know where to go, you either prepare to tear the state apart or join in and rob and do whatever you can, using unorthodox means to get money. What have they done in the West? Social Security…it started in Britain. If you are taken out of employment, you go to a shop, and you are given a coupon, money for the week. Then of course, you can maintain some social sanity. Social security is one of the ways of fighting social corruption in the society.

Onyeka: Nigeria is a very rich country; why can we not provide for our poor.

Gani: Yes, you have mentioned that this country is rich. This country is more than rich. Everyday the government, without investing a kobo, makes sixty to seventy million dollars from our God given oil. But this oil is not being extracted by our government, but by foreigners. The government merely receives royalties from foreign companies.

Onyeka: We don't even know how much these foreign companies are charged?

Gani: We don't know if they pay us sixty million, we don't know whether forty million had gone the other way. So, in essence we need a committed government, a committed leader, a masses oriented leader, a man who hates poverty not only for himself but for others; who wants to lift the people from the throes of poverty and degradation to that of reasonable opulence, of adequate social amenities.

There is no justification for any Government in this country to put the right to education under the direct principles of the state policy; it is not justifiable in the court of law. You can't go to court and say I want free education, the government must give me my free education...no, it is not a right. There is no justification why the right to good health or the right to be treated free of charge in the hospital should not be a fundamental right, and why it should be under the principles of the state policy. That is not justifiable.

These are what some of us are campaigning for, the right to health, free education, social security and so on. Once you take care of the fundamental issues of life – a place to lay your head, food to eat, education for children, your health is taken care of and if you have no job, you are given social security, you will minimise corruption in the society. That's number one. The other corruption is for the big people in governance. Give the whole world to a greedy man in government, he will ask for the Creator – "who has created this world", I own it but I want to own the Creator? They are never satisfied.

Look, you can shout about Abacha from morning to eternity, corruption at the helm of affairs was not institutionalized by Abacha. He post-graduated it, now we have even reached a D.Sc. level, not even post-graduation. So it existed before him, and it is worse after him. Today the level of corruption in this country, is unprecedented, and yet the Government is just glossing over it through propaganda.

Onyeka: But this government says fighting corruption is one of the tenets of its administration.

Gani: Now let me ask you this; when the President came to power, the first speech he made at the Eagles Square was about fighting corruption. Yes?

Onyeka: I remember…

Gani: Yes, but what has he done? We have laws under the constitution of this country, the criminal code and penial code, which have been there and are still there for several years now. And we know those who have run this country aground. He is not prepared to touch them under the old laws. He now brought up new laws called ICPC laws, in June 2000 that could only catch those who are involved in corruption thereafter, not those who were involved in corruption before. So, the likes of Babangida are out, the likes of Abdulsalami are out.

Onyeka: Is he afraid of them?

Gani: It is because they put him in power. He has to compensate them. He did not want to preside, he was afraid to preside. Babangida and Co, and Abudulsalami and Co, pushed him forward, and drove away those that would compete with him. Nobody can tell me Abacha died ordinarily. Nobody can tell me Abiola died ordinarily. So, those people whose hands are full of blood have to explain to us why those people died and how they died. That is one. These people have put him there to compensate them, and he does not want to touch them. That is one of the reasons why the Oputa Panel Report was delayed.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural orGanization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.


Please register before you can make new comment