Fawehinmi Would Have Been 81 Today: How Sapara Williams Influenced Him

Fawehinmi Would Have Been 81 Today: How Sapara Williams Influenced Him

Chief Gani Fawehinmi

By Ademola Adegbamigbe

The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi would have been 81 today. His birth anniversary was, last year, marked with two major events. The Lagos State Government unveiled a new statue to immortalise him at Ojota Park. Also, Professor Wole Soyinka gave a keynote address in his honour. Fawehinmi, popularly called Gani, born on 22 April 1938, the son of Saheed and Munirat Fawehinmi of Ondo, in Ondo State, was a lawyer, human rights activist and a nemesis of bad political leaders. He died on 5 September 2009 at the aged of 71.

This writer is one of those who will never forget Chief Fawehinmi. He was an interviewer’s delight in his Anthony Village Chambers and Ikeja GRA home, both in Lagos.

Before going there, a journalist had to be prepared. You must do your research well. You had to get your facts right. In fact it was always better to have more than enough questions. This is because, if you went there with five, by the time you ask number one question, Chief Fawehinmi would have answered all you had on your notepad and you would be there panting like a beached whale!

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Another striking way Fawehinmi granted interviews was his use of language. In an interview with TheNEWS, he described the late General Sani Abacha’s regime as “Nebuchadnezzaraic.” That was a reference to the brutal King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (605 BC – c. 562 BC). What’s more, Chief Fawehinmi would real out statistics to buttress his facts, a feat that would render the jaws of readers open.

I once asked who influenced him. He replied that apart from Lord Denning, an English lawyer and judge, it was Christopher Alexander Sapara-Williams, Nigeria’s first indigenous lawyer. No wonder, Sapara William’s eternal words adorned the walls of Fawehinmi’s Anthony Chambers: “The legal practitioner lives for the direction of his people and the advancement of the cause of his country.” That was exactly how Fawehinmi’s life and law practice could be summarised.

It was in acknowledgement of this that President Muhammadu Buhari, last year, paid tribute to Fawehinmi, describing him ‘‘as a true conscience of the nation, defender of democracy and people’s rights advocate.”

In the words of Buhari: “The late Senior Advocate of the Masses was not an arm chair-critic, nor a rabble rouser who fomented trouble for its sake; but a serious minded, articulate, cerebral and compassionate promoter of fundamental human rights, social justice, equity, fair play and national development.

“Gani was an extraordinary human being and a great reference for all progressive elements in society. He dared death and incarceration and was forced into prison 40 times without bowing to intimidation and molestation.

‘‘He fought for and stood by democracy with every ounce of his blood and immense intellect. He deserves a lingering respect,” the president said in his tribute.”

General Ibrahim Babangida, a former Military President, was quoted by Onigegewura, as saying this about Fawehinmi: “There was one vivid meeting that has remained in my memory about Gani, and that was in 1984. I was the Chief of Army Staff. Gani, in his characteristic manner, was as fearless as ever when we asked him to relate his own side of a particular issue as he blasted all of us irrespective of the fact that we were all generals in uniform and he was the only civilian among us and all what we did was to clap for him as we appreciated his courage.”

At a public function in Victory College, Ikare, Fawehinmi verbally attacked a former Ondo State military Governor in the Abacha years, Anthony Onyarugbulem, for having the cheek to badge in on and embarrass the late Chief Adekunle Ajasin (for hosting a meeting of the National Democratic Coalition in his Owo home). Fawehinmi’s boldness was legendary.

As narrated by Mary Odunuga: “Sapara-Williams had his roots from Ijeshaland. He was always proud of where he came from, he would fondly call it, ‘Ijesha wa’, meaning ‘Our Ijesha’. He did not love his roots only in words, he acted accordingly too by being instrumental to Nigeria’s decolonization. The part he played that wows me every time I read it was his condemnation of Seditious Offences Ordinances of 1909 and his collaboration with Herbert Macaulay to start the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. Sapara-Williams had a voice and he made sure his voice was heard.”

He, as Odunuga puts it, was Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association from 1900 to 1915. For him, the law is to be used as a force for positive social change and during his lifetime, he made this the basis of achievements and legacy to which we now remember him by. And the moral here is this: After you are long gone, make sure you make the history books – for good.”

Who Was Sapara-Williams?

Sapara-Williams, according to Wikipedia, was born on 14 July 1855. He was of Ijesha origin, but was born in Sierra Leone. He studied Law in London at the Inner Temple, and was called to the English bar on 17 November 1879. Returning from the United Kingdom, he began practising law in Lagos Colony on 13 January 1888. He had an unmatched reputation as an advocate, and had intimate knowledge of unwritten customary law. He enrolled in the Nigerian Bar Association on 30 January 1888, and was Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association from 1900 to 1915.

“Although Williams was the first indigenous Nigerian to formally qualify as a lawyer, he was not the only one to practice the law. Due to the shortage of qualified lawyers, until 1913 it was common for non-lawyers with basic education and some knowledge of English law to be appointed to practice as attorneys.

Political career

Williams was nominated to the Legislative Council, serving as a member from October 1901 until his death in 1915. In 1903 there was a crisis over the payment of the tolls that were collected from traders by native rulers, although Europeans were exempted. The alternative was to replace the tolls by a subsidy. Governor William MacGregor requested views from Williams, Charles Joseph George and Obadiah Johnson as indigenous opinion leaders. All were in favour of retaining the tolls to avoid upsetting the rulers. In 1903 governor MacGregor nominated Williams for a knighthood, but his recommendation was turned down.

In 1904 Williams moved that “the present boundary between the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria be re-adjusted by bringing the southern portion into Southern Nigeria, so that the entire tribes of the Yoruba-speaking people should be under one and the same administration”. Sir Frederick Lugard had opposed this proposal on the grounds of administrative convenience, and the eventual decision largely followed his beliefs. The principle applied was to group people who were at roughly the same political and social level into one province rather than to try to align the provinces with ethnic boundaries.

In 1905, Williams visited England. While there, he made several suggestions to the Colonial Office for changes to imperial policy. These included establishing a teachers training college in Lagos, and having more continuity of policy by the governors of the colony. Sapara Williams challenged the Seditious Offenses Ordinances of 1909, which suppressed press criticism of the government. He pointed out that “freedom of the Press is the great Palladium of British liberty … Sedition is a thing incompatible with the character of the Yoruba people, and has no place in their constitution … Hyper-sensitive officials may come tomorrow who will see sedition in every criticism and crime in every mass meeting”. Despite his plea, the bill became law. Williams encouraged Herbert Macaulay to convene an inaugural meeting of the Lagos Auxiliary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society on 30 August 1910, which gave Macauley a platform for producing popular opposition to colonial practices.

When Northern and Southern Nigeria were united in 1914, the new legislative council was headed by the Governor, and consisted of seven British officials, two British non-officials and two Nigerians, one of whom was Williams.” He died on 15 March 1915.

-This piece by Ademola Adegbamigbe, Editor, TheNEWS, was adapted from the one he wrote on the late Chief Fawehinmi on this platform exactly one year ago. molagbe63@yahoo.com. 08055002056

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