Activist-lawyer Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa relives his early days in the law firm of the late human rights crusader Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN).
In Gani Fawehinmi Chambers, it was normal for lawyers to gather and debate legal principles robustly, especially within the triumvirate, Mr Bayo Omotubora, Mr Festus Keyamo and Mr (now Dr) Sam Amadi. They were just unbreakable. So it was that a newspaper did an investigative story on the background of a sitting governor, alleging that he did not attend the schools listed in his INEC forms, the consequence of which would be that he lied on oath, if the story turned out to be true. The debate was already going on when Chief Fawehinmi stormed the main lawyers’ lobby to summon an emergency Chambers meeting, to discuss the issue. In minutes, roles were assigned. As usual, Mr Ugwuzor Adindu was to handle research and documentation, while Mr Edwin Anikwem was to anchor the legal principles and Mr Rotimi Jacobs (now SAN) was to coordinate. Mr Jacobs assigned me to handle the legal research. Not long, we combed out the Western Region case of Rotimi v McGregor, to the extent that a sitting governor has immunity against criminal prosecution. So we reported this to Chief Fawehinmi, but he would have none of that! He said he knew of that case already and this directed that research be focused on foreign cases. So we ‘travelled’ to America, Europe and finally ‘landed’ in India, where we got an authority from the Constitutional Court, that suggested the trial of a sitting governor. Though only of persuasive influence, Chief Fawehinmi keyed into it.
Adindu brought out all the facts. He had procured a certified true copy of the Declaration Form filled and submitted at INEC office, by the governor concerned.
We then decided to set some ambush, to write directly to the governor, to seek his own direct narrative of the allegations. Some other Nigerians claimed to have reports from schools abroad, purportedly indicting the governor.
So, we wrote several letters and finally decided to contact the Nigeria Police Force, to commence investigation. By this time the matter had reached a national boiling point. The police responded, citing Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution, as the reason for its inability to take any action, against the governor.
Irked by the response from the police, Chief Fawehinmi instructed that an action be filed against the police at the federal high court, Lagos. The case was assigned to Hon Justice S.W. Egbo-Egbo (now retired).
Prior to the hearing of the case, Chief Fawehinmi had received several threats from some perceived supporters of the sitting governor, who feared that the outcome of the case may prove damaging to their principal. But Gani was undeterred and he addressed a world press conference, in his Chambers, vowing to lay down his life for the case.
I was chosen to represent Chief Fawehinmi in court, Mr Sunday Ehindero (then head of legal department but later Inspector-General of Police) appeared for the police, whilst Chief (now Aare) Afe Babalola, SAN, represented INEC.
Since I came to the court from my house, I had no inkling of what was brewing for the day, as I had arrived the court premises very early. Chief Fawehinmi had just bought a Mitsubishi Pajero jeep, in which he rode to the court. I noticed later on before the proceedings commenced, that some protesters were gathering outside the court premises, but with local and foreign journalists, policemen and lawyers around, I had no fear at all. And then Chief Fawehinmi himself was on ground, pacing up and down and walking about in characteristic restless boldness, like a lion! I felt I was covered.
So we entered the court and started the legal fireworks, with the atmosphere in the court room so very charged. Of course if your are to appear for Chief Fawehinmi in court as his lawyer, God help you. Chief was always on his toes, having mastered all the legal arguments himself. On a particular day when I appeared in court with him to argue a bail application for Mr Nosa Igiebor of TELL Magazine, before the Hon Justice Olomojobi, Chief told me that he memorises all paragraphs of his affidavits and he was indeed addressing the court extempore on that day and citing relevant paragraphs of the affidavit, off hand! I was amazed.
So on this fateful day, Chief didn’t allow me much space in court at all; he would want me to respond to all points raised by the opposing counsel, especially Chief Babalola, SAN.
The arguments took very long and we finished in court very late. As usual, Chief waited in court to address journalists, whilst I was busy packing the books and the files. Suddenly, we heard shouts from outside the court. By now the protesters had increased in their numbers. The political thugs in their midst very well outnumbered the women. We thought it was a normal protest that would fizzle out after some time. But how wrong we were.
The protesters had smartly located and positioned themselves near Chief’s car, but his driver, the ever faithful Mr Ajibade, was ready for their game. He sent another guy to alert us in court of the plan to lynch (yes lynch!) Chief, right there in court. With the help of security men, Ajibade managed to drive the car right into the court premises, for Chief to enter, but the protesters blocked the entrance of the court, such that it became difficult for Chief to go out.
The police then started shooting tear gas to disperse the protesters, so that in that confusion, Chief could escape. But unknown to us, some of the thugs had positioned themselves far away from the court, on the exit point of Oyinkan Abayomi (Queens) Drive. So as Chief’s car drove out of the court and escaped the mob of protesters, the thugs were mounting barricades on the road, with iron rods and concretes. Thank God it was a jeep, so Mr Ajibade just kept climbing and speeding away. Just from nowhere, one of the thugs lifted a heavy concrete with which he intended to hit Chief, inside the jeep, but Mr Jibade had seen him and quickly faced him head on, with the car. In anger he smashed the whole windscreen of the car, while Jibade sped off, before the rest of the mob could close in.
With Chief out of danger, the mob then started looking for me, shouting and vowing that the small lawyer must pay for the sin of his master. The court security alerted me so I ran back into the court quickly and remained there. I had one old rugged Peugeot 505 car then, which my Uncle “dashed” me, parked outside the court but which the mob could not immediately trace to me, since I got to the court before them.
At the federal high court then, there was a small access road, linking the old revenue courts with the main registry. The security men were helping me to monitor the protesters, who vowed to remain in the court premises, till they have dealt with me. Sensing that the protesters may not go away, I was ‘smuggled’ through the narrow access road, to the registry of the court, to stay in the cash office area, till other members of staff were ready to close. It was later around 3pm that I was alerted that the protesters had gone, so I tip toed to the car park and drove off, in my jalopy. I just went home straight, to go and eat and sleep, God having saved me again, from the many travails of the young lawyer.
Suffice it to say that we lost the case in the High Court and indeed in the Court of Appeal, but the Supreme Court upheld our argument that a sitting governor has no immunity against criminal investigation, by which time the concerned governor had served out his two terms in office.
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