By Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN, OFR, Ph.D
We had joined Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, SAM ( Gani ) to fondly call his son , Mohammed, ‘Mo’.This was the pet name Gani had given to Mohammed. This was even as a little teenager in the early 80s. Mo was 52 when he died. His father, Gani the legend, had died at 71, on 5th September, 2009. Mo, his first son and the blossoming branch of Gani’s iroko tree fell, most painfully too soon, on August 11, 2021.
When I first joined the Chambers of iconic and unforgettable Gani in 1981 on part time basis, Mohammed was a little 12-year-old, giggling, starry-eyed boy in his nascent years in the secondary school. Initially, this was at 28, Sabiu Ajose Crescent, Surulere, Lagos. Later, Gani moved to his world-class Chambers and Library at Ajao, Anthony Village, Lagos, taking along his family to his new residence at Ademola Close, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos.
“Mo, come here and greet me”, I would order him. A chip off the old block in looks, carriage, gait and mannerisms, Mo would simply obey. It would then be his turn to ask, impetuously, “Uncle Ozek baba, what did you buy for me today ?”.
This was one of Gani (his father)’s pet names for me; the others being, “Mobile Dictionary” and “Mobile Library”. Anytime I hear someone call me any of these names today, I would easily know that such a person knew me as far back as the early 80’s when I literally burnt in the legal oven and furnace of fire that passed for irrepressible Gani’s Chambers. He was simply workaholic. No one who was not a workaholic fitted into the system.
Upon completion of his Kotun Memorial Primary School in Surulere, Lagos, and during his studies at the in Federal Government College, Sokoto, Mo, born to Alhaja Ganiat Fawehinmi (the Matriarch of the Gani family), dreamt of the Military. Military? Yes, you heard me correctly. He wanted to enlist in the then number one enemy of his father, the Nigerian Army.
For the records, Mo was born on February 21,1969, when Gani was firmly locked up in the military gulag, in one of his many detentions perpetrated by the very Military Mo now sought to embrace. Gani had been detained by the Yakubu Gowon military junta during the raving civil war in 1969, under the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No 24 of 1967. This was Gani’s first ever detention at the Kaduna Police Headquarters. The Gowonian military dictatorship was later to detain him three more times in Jos, Ilorin and Lagos. In all, Gani was detained a whopping 32 times; more than those of any other Nigerian, living or dead. The now 80-year-old Ibrahim Babaginda’s military junta took the diadem of detaining Gani a record 17 times out of his total 32 detentions. Gani’s house was searched 16 times; and his international passport confiscated 10 times!
Most ironically, IBB once said if there was one Nigerian he respected greatly, it was Gani. The other two, IBB said, were Professor Ayodele Awojobi and Dr Yusuf Bala Usman, both now late. Asked by newsmen why his government frequently detained Gani, IBB had quipped, with a cynical and curious sense of humour, “What kind of question is that? Every Nigerian President arrests Gani Fawehinmi. Why should my turn be different? It’s all in a day’s work. It’s just part of the job’s description.”
So, why would Mo, the first son and scion of Gani who had been shackled, manacled and detained 32 times severally at several dungeons across Nigeria by the same military, ranging from Ikoyi, Alagbon, Wuse, Abuja, Awolowo Road, Maiduguri, Kuje, Ikeja, to Inter-Centre detention outpost, Panti, Shangisha, Kaduna, Gashua, and Bauchi, want to flirt with the same military? Not just to flirt in sheer childlike romanticim, but to actually enlist into it? Gani could not understand this. He ruminated and agonized over it. He knew what he would do. He will not spare the rod. The strict disciplinarian that he was, Gani flogged Mo thoroughly with the cane.
Such was Gani’s no-love-lost relationship with successive military juntas that it was simply infra dig for any of his children to ever contemplate, even dream, of becoming a soldier. Mo had therefore touched the tiger’s tail when he enthusiastically obtained the form of Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). With the innocence and naivety of a child, he took the form and ran to Gani, with unrestrained éclat and excitement. He wanted Gani to sign a space after he ( Mo ) had already filled it. Gani was livid with rage and went for Mo. The tiny, spritely Mo fled with the speed of an impala escaping from a hunter. He quickly scaled the fence to escape his father’s wrath. Four lawyers in Gani’s Chambers “rescued” “poor” Mo that day. Unknown to Mo, it was not yet uhuru for him. Satisfied that the NDA imbroglio had ended, Mo went to bed with the innocence of a child that he was. But, not for angry Gani who, still belly-aching and seathing with rage, had kept awake. At about 2:30 am in the wee hours of the morning, Gani stealthily sneaked into Mo’s room with a cane in his hand.He was determined to discipline this “stubborn boy” ,Mo, who wanted to join his ‘enemies’. And he did so corporally. He whipped Mo thoroughly by his buttocks.
Let us hear Mo himself speak to this encounter in an interview he granted to Punch in 2018:
“I wanted to become an Army General. I had three uncles in the Army. Two of them were Captains, while one was a Major. I loved the uniform and personality of military men; being like them was just what I wanted for myself.
“When I was 14, we were given forms in school for the Nigerian Defence Academy. I hurriedly filled mine and took it to my father to sign; I never knew I had courted trouble. Till he died, I don’t think he had ever been that angry.
“He said that I wanted to go and join the people that were throwing him in jail all the time. He said I wanted to join those who wanted to kill him. He said that it was better he killed me before I joined his enemies.
“It took four senior lawyers to hold him down that day. One of them was OAR Ogunde, a Senior Advocate; Mr. Tayo Oyetibo, Mike Phillips and one other person. I had to run away from the scene as fast as I could and managed to jump the fence before tearing the form.
“I thought he had forgotten about everything, but I was surprised when he woke me up with the cane at about 2.30am the next morning. He dealt with me thoroughly that day.”
Ever precocious and energetic in his lifetime, Mo had bubbled with the “sap of life like a yam tendril in the rainy season” (thank you, Chinua Achebe: “Things Fall Apart”). Mo’s effervescence and inquisitiveness were to lead him to cross Gani’s path yet again. He attempted driving Gani’s car at their GRA, Ikeja, Lagos residence, without his permission. Gani would take none of such youthful exuberance from a boy he believed was not experienced enough to drive a car. He pursued Mo with the speed of Ben Johnson. But, Mo, a much younger and energetic youth, reached for Usain Bolt’s talismanic bag of speed.He sped, weaved, bobbed, skipped, sped and floated like a bee ( Remember the undefeated heavyweight champion, George Foreman versus Mohammed Ali’ s ‘Rumble-in-the-Jungle’ boxing tournament in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974?) Something similar.Mo thus out-sped sweating Gani with the speed of lightning. An elderly woman who watched with keen interest from the sidelines could be heard screaming, “Chieeefuuuooo, e fili le ooo” (Chief ooo, please let him be). Both Gani and Mo were extremely boisterous and highly animated.
Mo, like his father, was bold, daring, fearless, courageous, and with an unflagging independent mindwdness. These account for why Mo went to read Business Administration at the University of Lagos, as against his father’s natural first preference – Law. However, upon more maturity and also partly to satisfy his father’s fond wishes and desires, Mo went to the UK to study Law at Buckingham University, England. This was why Mo studied Law as a second degree. Upon Gani’s prompting, Mo ( who had wanted to simply be an Administrator of businesses, returned to Nigeria and attended the Nigerian Law School, Lagos. He was called to the Bar in 1998 at 29.Mo immediately commenced Law practice in Gani’s sprawling law office. By 1998, I had already exited his father’s Chambers as Deputy Head of Chambers by 14 years (1985), to set up my private law practice. However, colleagues and Chambers’ mates of Mo attest to the fact that he was humble, gregarious, dedicated, extremely hardworking and always ready to learn. He respected his seniors greatly and took instructions from them seamlessly. He did not have the usual ego and airs of the youth in his peculiar situation of “this-is-my-father’s-Chambers-so-you-cannot-toss-me-around”. He was said to have obeyed all rules and regulations like any other lawyer in Gani’s Chambers.
Mo had thus settled down to a very fulfilling life of advocacy, with a fiancée he intended to marry, by his side. She was a young, pretty Igbo lady from the South East. After his car accident, Mo was said to have politely told her to go seek her fortune elsewhere, as he did not want a marriage anchored on sheer pity. This is because the young lady was determined to stay with Mo after fate had struck. It was on September 23, 2003, at about 9:48 pm. Mo had a ghastly motor accident that permanently broke his spinal cord. Along the airport road after the toll gate in Ikeja, Mo’s Mercedes E320, which he personally drove, had skidded off the road, defying all his attempts to apply the brakes. While the front air bag of his car pinned him to the seat, the side air bag shifted and broke his neck. He went numb. A passer-by Naval Officer stopped and rescued him from being burnt alive as the fuel in the car had started spilling all over.
In his words, Mo narrated how hospitals in Lagos, including the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbodi, did a poor job of surgical operations. Mo was subsequently flown to the UK where his surgeon decried his Nigeran hospitals treatment, saying he would easily have walked the following week after the accident if only the Doctors had quickly frozen the particular spot of the injury, with a particular spray that cost only N8,000 at that time. That is Nigeria for you.
Being physically wheelchair bound however did not lead to Mo’s disability in the true sense of the word. Mo wrote seceral articles and Law books; attended some court sessions; serially spoke truth to authority; and interrogated governmental actions and impunity. He even participated in some street protests such as the January, 2012 “Occupy Nigeria” fuel subsidy protests, where he was sprayed with tear gas alongside his indomitable mother, Ganiat. Like Gani, Mo believed in using law as an instrument of social engineering to liberate the hoi polloi masses and the teeming Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” in Nigeria.
Before his passage at 52 on August 11, 2021, Mo kept his father’s activist inferno blazing luminously. He even set up his own Mohammed Fawehinmi Chambers, as Gani had wound up his Chambers in his Will. However, Mo remained, through the same Will, a Director in the Nigerian Law Publications, and the Gani Fawehinmi’s Library and Gallery. Perhaps, one of Mo’s greatest attributes was keeping together in a peaceful and non-acrimonious manner, Gani’s legacies in a highly polygamous home. As the head of the Gani dynasty, he was level-headed, mature, tolerant, mediatory and non-discriminatory.
Mo, though dead, will be remembered as a young man who etched his name in the pantheon of heroes, notwithstanding his physical disability. He was nt intellectually, politically and socially disabled.Mo fought life. Mo fought vicissitudes. Mo fought tyranny and impunity. Mo fought accident and his spinal cord injury. But, Mo could not fight death. Because all of us shall eventually succumb to it. We all wear death like a second skin, following us like our shadow. But, death, thou art ashamed. Death, where is thy sting? Death, remember that you too shall die, to give way to eternity of life. Mo has died in body; but his dogged spirit lives on. The words of Mark Anthony about Brutus in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 5, Scene 5) perfectly befit Mo: “this was the noblest Roman of them all; His life was gentle and all the elements so mixed in him that nature could stand up and say to all the world, ‘this was a man’ ”.
May God grant Mama Ganiat and all Mo’s siblings, friends, admirers and the Gani clan of lawyers, the fortitude to bear this irreplaceable loss. Adieu Mohammed.Goodbye, Gani’s reliable branch. Sleep well in Alijanah Firdausi; Ameen.
By Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN, OFR, Ph.D