Gani Fawehinmi was born on April 22, 1938 into the prominent Tugbolo Fawehinmi family in Ondo. His father, a timber magnate, was fully responsible for his education and welfare. His hope of becoming a lawyer was almost dashed when he lost his father while he was a law student in London. All efforts to raise a loan to enable him to complete his university education proved abortive. So he had to fend for himself.
Although he eventually succeeded in becoming a lawyer, Gani decided to dedicate his entire life to struggle for the establishment of a society where every needy child would be educated at the expense of the State. Chief Fawehinmi and his estates have given scholarship to many indigent undergraduates on an annual basis since 1976.
Having identified law as a tool of oppression in the hands of the ruling class Gani provided legal services, on pro bono publico basis, to thousands of workers, students and other victims of social injustice, abuse of power and oppression.
Gani made most of his money from publishing the Nigerian Weekly Law Reports (NWLR). Before his revolutionary intervention in law reporting only a handful of privileged lawyers who had access to cyclostyled copies of the judgments of the appellate courts were winning cases in our Courts. Chief Fawehinmi sent his lawyers to courts around the country to obtain such judgments but decided to popularise legal knowledge by embarking on regular publication of law reports.
Upon the completion of his legal education in London Gani returned home and was called to the Nigerian Bar in January 1965. Barely a year later, the first republic was sacked by the armed forces. The Constitution was suspended while draconian decrees were imposed on the Nigerian people. In 1969, he took up the case of a factory worker whose wife had been snatched by a powerful permanent secretary in the service of the Benue Plateau State Government. Not withstanding that he was a rookie lawyer, he defeated the late Chief Rotimi Williams, QC, who was the counsel to the permanent secretary.
For daring to challenge the corrupt establishment the Yakubu Gowon regime arrested and detained him without trial for several months. The experience strengthened him as he resolved to wage a decisive battle against injustice in all its ramifications.
For instance, in the Garba v. University of Maiduguri (1986) 2 NWLR (PT 18 ) 559, the fundamental right of students to fair hearing before rustication or expulsion was upheld.
The injustice in the Legal Practitioners Act which made the Attorney-General of the Federation the accuser and the prosecutor with respect to allegations of misconduct involving lawyers was highlighted by the Supreme Court in the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee v. Fawehinmi (1985) 3 NWLR (PT 7) 300. The decision led to the amendment of the Act.
The dismissal of the case of Fawehinmi v. Nigerian Bar Association (1989) 2 NWLR (PT 107) 558 by the Supreme Court on the ground that the respondent was not a juristic personality led to the registration of the Nigerian Bar Association under the Companies and Allied Matters Act.
In Balarabe Musa v. INEC (2003) 10 WRN 1, the political space was liberalised when the Supreme Court struck down the stringent conditionalities imposed by INEC on new political parties.
In Fawehinmi v. Akilu (1987) 2 NWLR (PT 67) 767 the Supreme Court relaxed the anachronistic doctrine of locus standi so as to permit the private prosecution of criminal offences by concerned individuals on the ground that “we are all our brothers’ keepers”.
Since the Attorney-General of the Federation has never sued the Federal Government as a defender of public interest, the locus standi of Gani to challenge the violations of the Constitution and other illegalities was upheld in the case of Fawehinmi v. The President (2007) 14 NWLR (PT 1054) 275.
In Abacha v. Fawehinmi (2001) 51 WRN 29 the Supreme Court held that since the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights has been domesticated by the National Assembly, our domestic courts have the jurisdiction to construe and apply its provisions whenever there are allegations of human rights infringement.
In Fawehinmi v. Inspector-General of Police (2002) 23 WRN 1 it was declared by the Supreme Court that the public officers covered by the immunity clause in Section 308 of the Constitution can be investigated while in office.
However, one of Gani’s post-humous rewards for his contribution to the legal system in Nigeria is the enactment of the Fundamental Procedure Rules 2009. Under the new human rights regime in Nigeria, concerned individuals and public spirited organizations can now file actions in courts challenging the violation of the human rights of other citizens.
In 1986, while Chief Gani Fawehinmi was Dele Giwa’s Lawyer, the latter was killed in a bomb blast under suspicious circumstances.
Gani died in the early hours of 5 September 2009 after a prolonged battle with lung cancer. He was 71 years old.