Gani Fawehinmi Chambers had become a haven for budding lawyers, revolutionaries, activists and nationalists, seeking knowledge and experience. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, had become more of a colossus, traversing virtually every facet of the Nigerian legal system, either as legal practitioner or litigant.
He had intervened to help preserve my ambition, by challenging my expulsion from the university in court and also prevented the law school from frustrating my legal career. So it was natural to gravitate towards him, upon completion of my law school programme.
When I raised it with my friend Bamidele Aturu, (God bless his soul), he declined tutelage in Gani’s chambers. His reasoning was that he had become too close to Chief Fawehinmi, who is reputed to be a very strict person. Aturu thought working directly with Gani may affect their personal relationship, as Gani may be unwilling to enforce some of his acclaimed disciplinary measures, against Aturu, on account of their closeness and friendship. Aturu stated that both of them are known to take extreme positions on issues, and this could lead to some clash. So he called Chief Gani and told him of our decision and opted to have his tutelage with Itse Sagay & Co, whilst I proceeded to Gani Fawehinmi Chambers. The interview for the job is another story in itself!
It was a great experience for me, to be listed as counsel in that reputable law firm. For the first three or four months, I was assigned to be proof reading judgments of various courts, meant for the law reports. And what learning opportunity it proved to be, just reading the reasonings of judges alone, days on end. I became familiar with virtually all principles of law, in all areas. Thereafter I was assigned to be filing processes at various court registries in Lagos. Finally, I started appearing in court and became very familiar with court proceedings.
At that time, TELL magazine was one of the leading weekly publications making wave in Nigeria, especially because of its indepth investigation of its stories. It’s popularity also attracted several law suits, across the land, against the magazine, which had retained Gani Fawehinmi chambers, as its lawyers.
And so it was that I was assigned to handle a case bordering on libel, filed by Chief Abiola Ogundokun, a notable politician and himself a publisher, against TELL, in Abuja.
I boarded a Chisco Transport luxury bus, for a night trip to Abuja, to be able to appear in court the following day. It was a very long and tortuous journey and the bus kept stopping to fix certain faults, so it took longer than normal. It was also a long trip, so most passengers had slept, including me.
Suddenly at about 4:30am, I heard a loud noise, and before I could say Jack, the bus had veered off the road and headed into the bush, with speed. Things happened so fast I just couldn’t recall it all, in its details. But I knew that the bus hit a tree, and then started somersaulting, in the bush. I just didn’t know what to do, as passengers were wailing, praying and some even cursing, all at once. My best prayers so far then was to always recite Psalm 91, but even then, I didn’t have a recollection of that passage, that fateful morning.
The bus finally stopped, with blood flowing everywhere. I was thrown out of the bus, and landed near a tree. All I knew was that I was bleeding seriously, from inside my nose. I heard of some fatalities but I couldn’t confirm. I just sat down there, in the dark, not knowing what to do. I didn’t know our location, I had no phone (no GSM at the time) and nobody to call for help.
I then removed my shirt, to be draining the blood flowing from my nose. At about 6:30am, Chisco staff came with another bus, and started searching for passengers. They located me, but I begged them to help me fetch my bag in the bus, since the case file and the Chamber’s books, were all inside. They were perplexed, insisting that I needed urgent attention because of my bleeding nose, but I protested and they took me to the mangled bus, to locate my bag; a locally made lawyer’s blue bag, where I loaded all my belongings. Though I didn’t disclose it to them, my major concern then was the case file of the famous Ogoni 19, which I was scheduled to argue their application for bail, in Port Harcourt, after my case in Abuja.
They took me and other injured passengers to the General Hospital, in Abuja, where my nose was treated and sutured. The news had traveled round Abuja, of the accident and the Chisco management had managed to call the Chambers, which in turn also called the court, or so I learnt later.
Later on in the day, Chief Ogundokun came to meet me in the hospital, took care of some of my hospital bills and offered to take me to a private hospital and even lodge me in his mansion in Abuja, so I could get better. I politely declined, wondering what would be my fate if Chief Fawehinmi even got to know that the plaintiff in my case even visited me in the hospital, how much less to quarter me in his house.
By afternoon, I told the doctor that I needed to leave, a request which he flatly turned down, insisting that I should allow my body to heal before I could travel. I requested for drugs and then discharged myself, and headed to Chisco park again. I bought ticket for another night journey to Port Harcourt, from Abuja. I had not showered or cleaned up myself at all.
Though I arrived Port Harcourt safely the following morning, I was weak and tired. I bought pure water at the park, washed my face, brushed my teeth and changed into my lawyer’s dress and headed for the court straight. I noticed that many people were glancing at me strangely, at times with long faces.
As soon as I stepped into the court room, the registrar of court shouted, wondering what had happened to me. I just smiled and told her it was a minor accident. Not long thereafter, the Rivers State Director of Public Prosecutions, the famous Dr Opunminji, came in and also shouted. Obviously everyone was seeing what I had not seen, since I didn’t have the benefit of a mirror at the bus garage. Dr Opunmiji insisted that our matter will not go on and that I should quickly go and check into a hospital for comprehensive treatment, after I narrated to him what happened. But I insisted that the case must go on, since it had to do with the liberty of the Ogoni 19, which had become a celebrated and an international case. So he obliged me.
But as soon as the Judge (Hon Justice Dan Kalio, now in the court of appeal) stepped into the court, he asked me to stand up and explained what has happened to me, which I did. My Lord was outraged, especially as I was telling him of my readiness to proceed with my application for bail. Dr Opinmiji also intervened, along with other lawyers in court, insisting that the case has to be adjourned for me to go and take care of myself, saying that it is only counsel that is alive that can prosecute a case.
At the time, Gani’s Chambers was collaborating with Ledun Mitte Chambers in Port Harcourt, for all the Ogoni cases. So Dr Opunmiji arranged for a taxi to take me straight to Ledum Mitte’s Chambers. It was when I got to that chambers that I saw myself in the mirror for the first time. My head, my eyes, nose and upper part of my head had become terribly swollen and now I was in serious pains, from the injury, the stitches and the long trip from Abuja to Port Harcourt.
Mr Kemasoude Wodu, then senior counsel in Mitte’s chambers, quickly arranged with other lawyers to take me to a hospital for treatment. I was later discharged the flowing day and they arranged a flight for me to Lagos.
Chief Fawehinmi was overwhelmed and was full of praises to God for safety and the goodwill shown to me by all. He gave me time off from work to go and treat myself and get well. It was a sweet experience for me.
And why do I narrate this? As a young lawyer in training, my uncle (God bless his soul), wanted me to focus solely on learning the law. I was earning about N4,000 as monthly salary. So my uncle called all my family together, and told them to steer clear of me. That though law is a lucrative and prestigious profession, he sent me to Gani Chambers to learn and so, nobody should put any financial pressure on me. In other words, tutelage is a time of learning, not much of earning. A hard working and God fearing lawyer will always prosper, ultimately. That’s certain as day and night. So, my young learned friend, keep pushing it, eventually you will get there, with God on your side.
In Isaiah 43:2, I read as follows:
“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee:
when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”
God bless you all.