By Tatalo Alamu
Pardon my petulant perversities. It has become the obsession of this writer to find, at the end of every year, the single most powerful metaphor of our national condition – 1986, if you still remember, was the year of pepper soup.
The pepper soup man himself, in case you have forgotten, soon became one more variety of the delicacy – thanks to our culture of political cannibalism. His remains, on the way to final rubbishing, were sent to the land of pepper soup – thanks again to our macabre sense of humour. 1987 was the year of soccer, when our two supreme artists of political football collided without either being carried off the field.
1988? Well, 1988 was the year of several formidable symbols: From the symbol of the great exodus of professionals which left the nation slightly brain-less, the symbol of the great NEPA strike which left the image of a nation in absolute darkness, to the symbol of a clinically-dead naira which made it possible for us to be officially admitted to the prestigious league of the poorest nations. No symbol, however, seems to press its claim more powerfully than the symbol of the solicitor. The lawyer as a warrior: law as the continuation of war by other means.
We are, of course, talking about Gani Fawehinmi, Nigeria’s indomitable and tempestuous legal Spartacus. Marching, storming, stomping, eternally darting in and out of our law courts, sometimes as the complainant, more often as the accused, Fawehinmi has become the major protagonist in the frenzied drama of our national existence. A tragic figure to behold in these tragic times, Fawehinmi reminds one of those equally formidable and noble personages in the mythology of his people. These were men who chose to dare, who chose suicide as a profession.
It is possible that to his less visionary colleagues, Fawehinmi might be nothing but a squalid nuisance. He might even have come across to them as an incorrigible self-promoter. The question we ask of them is this: is it possible for a man to sustain a pose for 20 years – especially where such a pose invites pain and discomfort? Let any of this man’s detractors exchange the cosy comfort of his stately bedroom for a night in the cell.
One event which brought this writer close to tears in 1988 was the sight of Fawehinmi celebrating his 50th birthday in the dock. The matter is, of course, sub-judice – as they say. But let us observe that the event has a profound symbolic significance. For, in that supreme moment of history, Fawehinmi became savant, servant, and slave of law all rolled into one. For a scene with an equal symbolic power, one must reach back to one of the numerous legends about the Russian revolution.
A privileged lady of the time, on seeing her father’s law chamber set ablaze by a revolutionary mob, screamed: “The law books! The law books are burning!” To this, a member of the mob replied: “No! It is the law itself that is burning”. Those who still believe that it is Fawehinmi, rather than our entire legal system, that is on trial, had better book an urgent appointment with an ophthalmologist of history.
The crisis of our legal system has been long in coming. Fawehinmi has nothing to do with it. Those who accuse him of bringing our legal system to disgrace and disrepute are only structurally adjusting the truth. The real culprits are not hard to fish out. A quick glance at the infamous Second Republic will suffice. It is now part of history that our entire legal system was complicit in the scandalous depravity of that era. It was a period when many of our lordships, with their fatally underdeveloped sense of history, hid under empty legal technicalities to wreak havoc on our political system.
It was a period when the entire land was awash with tales of huge envelopes dramatically changing hands. It was a period when our legal titans turned the law and themselves to asses by defending white in one breath and black in the next. The inevitable military coup merely gave muscle to a popular vote of no confidence in our political and legal cultures.
If after this tragedy, many of our learned friends had gone home to do some anguished reflections on their less than patriotic role in it, the nation might have been grateful. But no sooner had the military come with a firm determination to punish the crooks of the Second Republic, than our learned friends rushed out again with their empty legal technicalities. This, precisely, was the moment Fawehinmi stepped out not on the side of “law” but on the side of justice.
Given this background, it is a great irony that a military government which, at least, has not publicly renounced its predecessor’s attempt to right the wrongs of the Second Republic should find itself at mortal odds with a man willing to risk the status of a pariah in his own profession for the sake of the military.
It is even a greater irony that a man of Fawehinmi’s political acumen could not foresee that in its heroic but inevitably flawed quest for justice, the Buhari regime, sooner than later, was bound to shoot itself in the foot, that this had to be so because the military itself is not exactly innocent, and that the only solution to this dreadful impasse is a quick return to legal technicalities, to “civilized” procedures.
It should be obvious that this dreadful impasse, because it is itself only a part of the many contradictions eating away at the very fabric of our society, cannot be settled in our law courts. This is part of the contradictory significance of Fawehinmi for our emerging civil society. And it is not for nothing that Fawehinmi himself as the exemplary symbol, should be steeped and drenched in contradictions: a self-confessed autocrat who has become the rallying symbol of democratic awareness; a man who favours the military route to development, who has become the instrument for showing up the limitations of the military; a legal guru who has become the nemesis of the law. This is the man and this is his season.
Newswatch, February 27, 1989