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Gani Fawehinmi- the greatest Nigerian (A tribute)

Gani Fawehinmi who died on Friday, September 5, 2009 is the greatest Nigerian of the modern era. I don’t expect anyone to disagree with this emphatic statement. But because even the most fundamental truth can be challenged and falsified if not substantiated beyond doubt, let me argue why I think that Gani is the greatest Nigerian of our generation.

What is the evidence that Gani is the greatest modern Nigerian? There is no better witness than Professor Eskor Toyo, a man with the best of records of fidelity to his ideas and intellectual courage. Eskor Toyo described Gani as “the greatest Nigerian politician”. How can?

Gani did not win election into any elective office in Nigeria apart from being the Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association when that organization was still little known. Someone may wonder whether Gani was even a politician, before he is even considered a great politician?

Why is Gani the greatest? Eskor Toyo provides the answer. As he put it, Gani was the greatest Nigerian politician because he, more than any other politician, sided with the poor, the abused and violated masses, on every issue.

While some politicians were great for a season because they defended the interests of the ordinary Nigerians when those interests converged with their personal pecuniary or political interests, Gani sided with the people every time and on every issue. No one can dispute this.

Now that Gani is dead many self-serving politicians compliment him with every virtue. I guess, lip-service is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. But no one should be deceived. These politicians despised Gani greatly when he incessantly took up the gauntlet for the poor Nigerians they love to cheat and abuse.

In heaven, where I believe he is, Gani would be deriding these shameless scourges of the Nigerian state as they futilely attempt to purge their conscience at the altar of Gani’s deserved canonization. I can’t forget an encounter with one such politician. He relentlessly vituperated against Gani for being stubborn, confrontational and quarrelsome.

He did not even credit Gani with any serious professional competence. For him, Gani was a nobody. Today, I am sure this hopeless politician is savoring the sunshine Gani’s death has provided for fiends who should be wasting in Dante’s inferno.

Those who despoil the poor and destroy the hope of life of dignity have every cause to deride and hate Gani. The sad thing is that now that Gani is dead they are coming out of the woodwork paying lip-service to Gani’s great life.

Before his death, Gani prophesied that it is only at his death that his true worth will be known, when he would not have the opportunity to reply anyone. Now, we hear what people are saying about this unusual politician. Gani was a politician, even though an unusual one.

Oftentimes we forget what politicians do. The mark of a politician is not that he or she always jostle for every available public office. Politicians are so called because they intervene in public life to resolve conflict over distribution of resources. Most Nigerian politicians intervene to resolve this conflict against the poor.

They make laws that profit the rich and penalize the poor. They craft policies that either increase the holdings of the rich or reinforce their possessiveness at the detriment of the poor. They give judgments that acquit the rich, the privileged, and convict the poor and the powerless.

And worse, they soon become predators who fast-track state failure. But this is where Gani’s greatness as a politician comes clear. Gani sided with the poor. Gani understood the only great divide that matters: the divide between the poor and the rich; between the righteous and the wicked; between those who oppress the people and those who defend them; and between the corrupt and the upright.

Nigerian politicians need to learn something from Gani. Oftentimes, those who mean well, those who in their previous lives as student unionists, human rights activists or academics advocated for the welfare of the ordinary people end up in politics fighting for the privileged and reinforcing the structure of oppression and exclusion.

These people lose their voice and vision and end up as technical assistants to the decadent ruling class. There are many living illustrations of this recurrent tragedy. But, Gani’s brand of politics shows we need not all end as the technical assistants of the oppressive class. We can remain on the side of the people.

Politics is the art of the possible and not just the art of compromise. Gani may not be the wizard in cutting political deals. His greatness as a politician is that he would be dead than abandon a policy or program that would promote the welfare and dignity of ordinary Nigerians. He had one master in politics: the ordinary Nigerian.

Gani was no opportunist. He did not join politics from vain glory. He did not join partisan politics because he reckoned that he could pawn his extraterritorial reputation for plum political job. If it was so he needed not form a revolutionary party like the National Conscience Party.

He could have joined the dominant party. Which political party would not want to launder its image by having Gani’s face on its platform? No. Gani established a new party: the National Conscience Party. I remember how the party was birthed. Everything about its birth illustrates Gani’s unwavering commitment to the poor and oppressed.

While Gen Abacha tightened his murderous hold on Nigeria and professional politicians scampered to safety, Gani communed with a few of us working in his chamber on the way forward, especially as the erstwhile vibrant Campaign for Democracy has got itself compromised in the politics of Abacha’s ascent to power.

It was decided that we establish a political party in defiance of Abacha’s ban on party politics. The party was formally launched on October 1, 1994 in spite of Abacha’s scaremongering.

The interesting thing is that the party Gani formed adopted its slogan as ‘Abolition of Poverty’. The manifesto of the party was unmistakable about the priorities of any government formed under the party. It will fight poverty and create wealth for ordinary Nigerians.

The party will dismantle the unproductive privileges which Nigerian successive ruling classes have consolidated for themselves. Gani’s party would not fall into the atavism of regionalism or any form of ethnic-oriented politics. The crisis of state in Nigeria would be resolved through a national movement that reverses the priorities of government in favor of the poor. It would be a party of the poor by the poor for the poor.

Gani’s commitment to ‘abolition of poverty’ is not a clever sound-bite. It is a life-long commitment. Gani cared passionately about poverty and believed that no government fulfills its social contract if it does not seriously fight against the poverty of its citizens. Although Gani later became very rich he never lost his love and commitment to the poor.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, even those who barely escaped poverty, he did not revere the wealthy and did not tilt advocacy of social policy in their favor. Until his death Gani had very few wealthy and privileged Nigerians as his friends. The poor remained his constituency and masters.

As a lawyer and politician Gani sought equality for all Nigerians. In this sense, he was an egalitarian. The usual objection would be, to paraphrase the tile of G.A. Cohen’s book, “if Gani was an egalitarian how come he was so rich”. Yes, Gani was a man of immense wealth- wealth garnered in typical working class manner.

He worked smart and became wealthy for providing services which were valuable and visible. He did not trade in paper money.
Gani is the greatest.
By Dr. Sam Amadi
Abuja, Nigeria