Nigerian lawyer who championed the people

A lawyer who believed his training was not just a livelihood but a force for social change was beloved by the people but targeted by the authorities he attacked so relentlessly.

Ganiyu Oyseola Fawehinmi is surrounded by supporters at a pro-democracy rally in 1998 in Lagos.
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The civil rights advocate and prominent Nigerian lawyer Chief Ganiyu Oyseola Fawehinmi, known as Gani and nicknamed "Nation" as a young student, was beloved by the masses on whose behalf he railed vociferously against the corruption and irresponsibility of the various governments that have held power in his native country over the past half century. He suffered for his outspokenness: imprisoned on numerous occasions, his business premises were ransacked repeatedly.

Beaten, yet unbowed, this quintessential lawyer perceived his profession to be not merely a livelihood, but an instrument of social engineering. A colourful and energetic political activist, Fawehimni risked all in his battles against the authorities, believing sincerely in the responsibilities inherent to his position at the forefront of Nigeria's legal system. He often acted on behalf of journalists. One of the most notable cases in which he was involved concerned the murder in 1986 of Dele Giwa, Nigeria's leading newspaper editor at the time, by a parcel bomb. Fawehinmi accused the ruling military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida of complicity and took the case all the way to the supreme court. Fawehinmi lost and was imprisoned briefly for his involvement. The case remains unsolved to this day.

Such experiences seemed to be Fawehinmi's oxygen. Between 1994 and 1998 during the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, he continued to provoke those in power, at one point daring a soldier to shoot him, at the trial of the Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose protests against the extraction of crude oil by foreign companies and the subsequent environmental degradation of the Niger Delta resounded internationally.

In professional terms, Fawehinmi's legacy to the legal world was the introduction of the Nigerian Weekly Law Reports in 1986, which became an invaluable resource for law students and practitioners. Late in life, he was named Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He refused the higher accolade of Order of the Federal Republic in 2008 in protest at the years of misrule in Nigeria. His many supporters preferred the appellation Senior Advocate of the Masses.

In 1993, he was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize in recognition of his campaigning for human rights and pro-democracy work. The following year, he co-founded the National Conscience Party of Nigeria and stood for presidential election - unsuccessfully - under its aegis in 2003. Born to Muslim parents of the Ondo tribe - his father, a timber magnate, was credited with bringing Islam to Ondo State in southwest Nigeria - Fawehimni completed his education at the University of London. When the death of his father, and consequent lack of funds, interrupted his degree, Fawehimni took a job as a cleaner at the Russell Square Hotel. Later, he swept the floors at the old Gatwick airport. He succeeded eventually in passing his final examinations, and returned to Nigeria with nothing but a suitcase of clothes bought cheaply on London's Caledonia Road.

After practising in chambers set up by his brother, Fawehimni established his own practice in Lagos in 1974. His was a familiar face on university campuses wherever students were in revolt against the military regimes and civilian governments that proliferated in Nigeria after independence. To the last, he relished his role as a thorn in the flesh of unconstrained authority. He married twice and fathered several children.

Born on April 22, 1938, he died on September 5. * The National