Femi Falana: I was a rebellious teenagerHenry Akubuiro
At first, there is little in his mien that suggests that he is the vocal, never-say-die human rights activist. His name resonates across the country. He isn’t gifted in size and height, and it doesn’t seem he would browbeat you with a supercilious gaze, as familiarities take precedence for a while. Fiery lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, has earned his spurs in legal practice, having battled successive military and civilian governments in Nigeria.
You would probably know him as Fela’s lawyer, but he sees himself as the commoners’ advocate. Sitting amiably in a swiveling chair in his Lagos office this evening, he interrogates a new client on the crime he was accused of committing somewhat with a fiendish tone. Then, moments later, he begins the story of his life: “I grew up in Ilawe Ekiti, a rustic part of Ekiti State”. HENRY AKUBUIRO brings you the excerpts of his rebellious streak that has endured for decades, his trials and triumphs as a lawyer, as well as his scathing views on current political developments in Nigeria.
You were born shortly before Nigeria’s independence. What’s your childhood experience like?
I grew up in Ilawe Ekiti, a rustic part of the present Ekiti State. It was then an environment of peace and tranquility. There were functional social services like post offices, maternities and health centres. The schools were properly run, while the roads were narrow but well maintained. It was unthinkable to see a dead body on the road. There was security of life and property. People travelled during the day and at night. We attended primary schools without payment of school fees. Farming was taken seriously in my community. Even, when the schools closed for the day, some of us joined our parents in the farm. There were no fears of armed robbers and kidnappers. I accompanied my dad to Ado Ekiti when I was about five years, old and I saw water running from public taps in the streets. We grew up to dream dreams. Integrity was valued in the society. During local festivals, those who had committed offences or breached societal ethos, were exposed in songs. Anyone who was convicted and jailed never returned to the community. There was no celebration of criminality. The source of everybody’s wealth was known.
The political crisis of 1965 introduced violence to the society. I witnessed part of operation “Wet e”(spray and roast him). My dad was the leader of the Action Group in my town. The “demo” people, as they were called, invaded our house with thugs in military uniform, beat up my dad and only left him when they thought that he had given up the ghost. He was rushed to the General Hospital in Egbe, now in Kogi State. He was discharged a few months thereafter, but he never fully recovered until he died five years later. Although I was helpless, I believe that the incident impacted on me as I swore never to allow injustice to rear its head without a challenge.
Although we were happy when the military struck on January15, 1966 and stopped political violence, we were disappointed when they introduced their own brand of violence through bloody coups and counter coups. By 1967, the military rulers had plunged the country to a civil war which lasted 30 months. Over a million lives were wasted. After the war, armed robbery, army civilian clashes and extra judicial killings became the order of the day.
As a kid, what were your ambitions and who were your role models then?
I was an altar server in the Catholic Church. So, I had my initial role models among the reverend fathers. I loved the way they devoted their entire life to the service of God and humanity. At the political level, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the role model partly because my dad was an Action Group member. But I developed a special interest in President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana because of his pan-African perspectives. I regretted the overthrow of the Osagyefo when Ghana deported Nigerians and other Africans to their countries. The returnees in our community told terrible stories of harassment and humiliation.
You had your secondary education in a Catholic seminary school. Why didn’t you become a reverend father after all?
I attended the Sacred Heart Seminary, Akure, Ondo State, with a view to becoming a priest. But one of my rectors, the late Fr. Joseph Asanbe, discouraged me. He punished me on several occasions for asking questions which he considered blasphemous from a rebellious teenager. I later got answers to those questions after I had given up the idea of becoming a reverend father. That was when I came in contact with liberation theology which was popularized by radical priests in Latin America in the 1980s. Essentially, my questions had to do with the role of the church in the face of poverty and oppression in the society. We had an Irish priest, Fr A. Smith who was our Geography teacher. In his class, we had heated debates on President Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire now Democratic Republic of Congo, Field Marshal Jean Bokassa and other dictators who were messing up Africa at the time. I became particularly interested in the massive abuse of the human rights of the African people under military rulers.
When I left the seminary, I took solace in the biblical injunction that many are called but few are chosen. It was at Ife that I found a fecund soil for the growth of radical ideas which sharpened my intellectual horizon. I fell in love with Marxism, as it provided scientific and verifiable explanations to social reality. In the course of studying law, I found that progressive lawyers, like Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, had impacted positively on their societies. I felt that I was in a good company. In fact, it was the public spirited role of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN during the “Ali Must Go” crisis of 1978 that influenced my decision to read law.
Did it make you feel you were in the wrong profession when the heat became unbearable at the time you set out in law practice?
I did not start law practice under military rule, but at the tail end of the second republic. In spite of the glaring shortcomings of the legal system at the time, you were proud to be a lawyer, particularly the few of us who were defending the poor whose rights were infringed upon by law enforcement officials and the bourgeoisie. Then, you could conveniently predict the outcome of a case. Once a judgment was delivered, there was compliance as there were few appeals in political cases. I was yet to cut my teeth in legal practice when the second set of military adventurers in power struck on December 31, 1983. I did not feel I was in the wrong profession, but saw military intervention as a challenge to the rule of law. I quickly got in touch with my comrades and allies in the struggle for change to reposition ourselves to confront military dictatorship. It took us 15 years before they were chased out of power. The three decades of military dictatorship were totally wasted as the crisis of underdevelopment got much more compounded than whey they came. The military politicians left the country worse than they met in all ramifications. One of them made corruption the directive principle of state policy, while his comrade in arms engaged in state-sponsored terrorism.
Which was your worst experience as an activist in the military era? What kept you going amid those trials?
My worst experience was when I was detained in Mawadashi prison in Jigawa State in 1996. Before then, I had been held in Lagos for a month. Altogether, it was a 10-month incarceration in one year. The weather was so hostile that I thought I won’t return home alive. I was kept incommunicado and denied access to reading materials. I had to embark on hunger strike before I could win some of my rights. Unknown to me, my wife had gone to court to enforce my visitation rights. She eventually secured a court order to visit me. After a series of frustrations by the Abaca junta, she was allowed to visit me. Unknown to the prison management, one of the warders who was detailed to monitor and report on me became my informant. He was convinced that I committed no offence to warrant my detention. He went out of his way to improve my detention conditions. For instance, for the first three months, I was served a tiny piece of meat daily. When I complained to him, he got his wife to prepare a whole chicken for me which the fellow smuggled into my cell in the dead of the night. I devoured the whole chicken and returned the bones to him at 4am the following day. He kept me abreast of development in the country. He took other risks on my behalf. Such courageous and patriotic prison officials never gave us cause to regret our actions. Apart from encouraging us not to feel despondent, those guys reinforced our belief in the unity of the country. Unlike the selfish elite who hated us for fighting a regime headed by their tribesmen, those warders saw us as fighters for justice and the progress of our country.
Your NYSC discharge certificate was withheld following your bailing of detained students held by the military in 1983. What motivated you to go into that case, knowing the implications?
I was undergoing the national youth service at the Oyo State Public Complaints Commission in Ibadan. The students of the University of Ibadan had staged a protest against the administration of the late Professor Olajuwon Olayide, the then Vice Chancellor. Seven of the students were indiscriminately arrested by the police and charged with conspiracy, murder, rape and other serious offences. They contacted me for legal assistance. I took up the matter. Chief Magistrate Emanuel Kolawole, who later became a high court judge in Oyo State, refused the application for the bail of the students. I rushed to the high court where I challenged the arrest and the remand of my clients in custody via a holding charge. The trial judge was the late Justice Timothy Ayorinde. He later became the chief judge of the state. In a courageous judgment, he upheld my submissions, declared the detention illegal, ordered the immediate release of the students, awarded them damages and pronounced holding charge unconstitutional.
As that was the first time a holding charge had been declared unlawful, the police kicked against the ruling albeit in a crude manner. The orderly of the judge was withdrawn. All the other judges sent back their orderlies to the police commissioner, Mr. Umoru Omolowo. The then Inspector- General of Police, Mr. Sunday Adewusi, had to intervene before the matter was resolved. My own punishment was the illegal confiscation of my NYSC discharge certificate after the successful completion of the service. Even though the law states that a university graduate cannot be employed without a discharge certificate, Mr. Aka-bashorun engaged my services and dared the NYSC to charge him to court since they had illegally withheld it. But the NYSC decided to let the sleeping dogs lie in the circumstance. However, on the orders of the Oputa Panel on Human Rights Violations, the certificate was released to me by the NYSC in 2001. Whatever it was worth, I collected it after 18 years of the illegal seizure.
I went into the case because I had unimpeachable evidence that the students were innocent. The police did not conduct any investigation before they were arraigned on a holding charge. One of them was not even an undergraduate, but extra mural student at The Ibadan Polytechnic. As for those who partook of the protests against the university authority, I believed they were exercising their freedom of expression.
You cut your legal teeth in the chambers of Alao Aka-Bashorun, can you recall your first experience in the law court? What did you take away from that experience?
The UI students case was my first experience in court. It was quite challenging. When I later joined the Alao Aka-Bashorun’s people chambers in Lagos, I found legal practice very interesting. Being leading chambers with bias for progressive causes, it was a theatre of the struggle. Even though the neo-colonial legal system was ideologically poised against the people, we were able to record victories in court. The experience prepared me to practise law with integrity, dedication and commitment to the cause of social justice. We were also taught to be involved in the politics of our country and the Nigerian Bar Association which Aka-Bashorun led creditably well from 1987-1989. It is generally agreed by lawyers, irrespective of ideological orientation, that that has been the glorious era of the Nigerian Bar Association.
You regard Fela as your most intelligent client, how easy or difficult was it working with Fela?
As a student leader in Ife, I was close to Fela Anikulapo-kuti. We had invited him to the campus for musical shows and lectures. For Him, any undergraduate, who did not read Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was not fit to be in any university. I was Fela’s lawyer for about 15 years. I found that he was very familiar with the criminal justice system. You know that he was at different times charged with abduction, armed robbery, illegal possession of Indian hemp, illegal trafficking in currency, illegal possession of narcotics, murder, etc. Notwithstanding his regular brushes with the law, he knew how to get out of trouble. He also engaged in encounters which terminated at police stations for want of evidence. The only time he was jailed by the system the government pardoned him, as he was found to have been corruptly dealt with. Fela had a penchant for contravening the criminal law, but he usually prepared his defence in advance. All you then needed to do as a lawyer was to look for the law to back up Fela’s defence. He enjoyed the cooperation of his younger brother, Dr Beko Ransome-kuti, who always arranged his defence, while his elder brother, the late Professor Koye Ransome-Kuti, was ever ready to stand surety for him. Even, as a serving minister, he was Fela’s surety when he was charged with murder. His cases were very serious and sometimes politically influenced, but easy to handle.
What’s the most memorable case you handled for Fela?
It was the 1997 encounter between Fela and General Musa Bamaiyi, who was then the chairman of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. Fela was arrested with substances suspected to be Indian hemp. General Bamaiyi handcuffed and interrogated him. He played into Fela’s hands by sending the video cassette of the interrogation to the media. When asked to sign the exhibit form, Fela did but inserted the words “under duress”. The charge of illegal dealing in narcotics against him was pending at the Miscellaneous Offences Tribunal when the NDLEA discovered that the document could not be tendered in evidence, as it was obtained under duress. The NDLEA was compelled to withdraw the case against him. Although I had told Fela that it was going to be the last drug-related case I was going to handle for him, I never knew it was going to be his last case, as he died shortly after we secured his freedom from remand at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison.
Your experience with politics in 2003 with the National Conscience Party ended in fiasco, what does that tell you of Nigerian politics? Do you still nurse political ambition?
My intervention in partisan politics did not end in fiasco. I gained a lot from the experience. It coincided with the reckless capture of the Southwest region by the PDP with the connivance of the INEC and the security forces. The electoral manipulation was so total that the ruling party stole virtually all the votes. In the election to the Ekiti State House of Assembly, of 26 members, only two seats were conceded to the defunct Alliance for Democracy and the National Conscience Party. But, three years later, I was prevailed upon to lead the battle to rid the state of official terrorism. I decided to intervene in defence of human rights and the rule of law. The governor was sacked and, since then, extra judicial killings of political opponents have stopped. No doubt, there are still pockets of violence, because the masterminds are continually treated like sacred cows.
I have never nursed any ambition to be a governor. I attempted to serve at the provincial level of Ekiti State. I wasn’t going to acquire wealth or build a new house, as I am totally contented. I wanted to mobilize the Ekiti people to take their political destiny in their own hands and be self-reliant. Now, I have moved on. Whether I will contest for any elective post again depends on many factors.
But, for now, I am completely involved in the struggle to ensure that politics is made to serve the interests of the people. I have just completed work on the collation of all welfare laws in the country. Very soon, we are going to join issues with the Federal Government and the 36 state governments with respect to the enforcement of such laws. Indeed, we are starting with the Lagos State government over the deportation of beggars and destitute. Since there are laws that have obligated the Lagos State government to establish rehabilitation centres in every local government for disabled people, we have decided to challenge any other deportation in court. For me, that is much more beneficial to the people than running around to contest gubernatorial elections.
If you were not a lawyer, what would you have been?
I would have become a journalist. I was admitted to read English language with the hope of becoming a journalist. But, along the way, I had cause to make a decisive detour in my life. As an undergraduate at the University of Ife, I edited some magazines. Unlike others who were harassing female students on campus, we joined issues with the authorities and the government. We were training to become journalists of relevance and integrity.
You are reputable for providing free legal services to the poor and the disadvantaged. Why did you embark on such? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by such requests?
When law practice started, lawyers were not charging professional fees from clients. The pocket attached to the gown worn by lawyers was meant for coins which might be dropped by anyone who was impressed with the performance of a lawyer in court. That was when lawyers were considered as priests in the temple of justice. But, with the rise of capitalism, law became a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie deployed to facilitate exploitation. Those who needed legal services were charged fees in line with capitalist guidelines. In other words, legal practice became a commodity which many people could not afford. But progressive lawyers have always rendered pro bono publico service to the poor. In my own case, I charge and collect fees from rich clients to service the poor. Institutional impunity and abuse of power on the part of the ruling class forced me to defend all victims of oppression, exploitation and injustice. We are certainly overwhelmed, but we are in a position to direct victims to seek redress through other avenues. But we make it a point of duty not to turn away people who have genuine grievances and complaints.
How did you meet your wife and have you been able to destroy the myth of incompatibility among lawyer couples?Two lawyers can really live together if they decide to make their union succeed. I met my wife through my friend, Dele Adesina, SAN. As my wife is more meticulous than I am, she manages the office and the home. I only give a helping hand. It is an arrangement that has worked perfectly well for us. It has equally helped me to devote more time to human rights work and political engagements