FALANA, THE ‘COMRADE SAN’

Filed in Law by on September 17, 2012

Falana, the ‘Comrade SAN’
September 17, 2012 by Malachy Ugwummadu

As we all bask in the fascination of Mr. Femi Falana’s elevation to the prestigious rank of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, we cannot afford to gloss over the consensus that his “elevation”, like that of Late Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAM, SAN, popularly called Gani, was long overdue and became an embarrassing commentary on the credibility of both the rank and the process of its conferment.

Surely, for a conservative organisation such as the NBA, operating in a perverse society like Nigeria, there must be direct victims of any serious reforms. Falana, like his professional progenitor, Gani, clearly falls within this category of direct victims. As we worry over this factual reality, we must intensify our collective determination to re-examine the integrity of a process that mortgaged the respect, confidence and support of its members.

The likes of Gani and Falana established the pre-conditions for the “professional tribulations” they suffered just to sanitise their country using the platforms they operated in. In other words, they were conscious of the fact that the degree of success they could achieve in their endeavours for social change was directly proportional to the extent of sacrifice they were ready and prepared to make including witnessing the conferment of the rank of “SAN” on junior professional colleagues, some of whom passed through their chambers as junior counsel for their tutelage.

A week before the announcement of his elevation, I wrote Falana, expressing my confidence that the battle was won and over this time around in the following words:

“I can see that your long tortuous journey to ‘SANship’ is almost over. You have over these long years bore the burden of history as defined by tough principles, integrity, courage and conviction with grace and candour. As we get set to mark this watershed, remember that we are not scandalized to travel this path of honour with you as that alone has crystallized the contents of our collective history and identity. We are proud of you sir”.

In 1996 and 2008, Falana was the proud recipient of two international awards which were resounding testimonies of his professional competence amongst several other awards for his human rights crusade and credentials. They were the International Human Rights Award by the American Bar Association (1996) and the prestigious Bernard Simons Award for Human Rights conferred on him by the International Bar Association at Buenos Argentina in 2008.

He was the third African to receive the award after the inimitable the late Gani and the former counsel for Nelson Mandela, George Bizos.

Both awards were global acknowledgements of his modest endeavours towards the growth of the Nigerian legal profession as well as his rigorous campaigns for the human rights status of Nigerians.

About the same time under review, he was consistently denied the title of a SAN by the Nigerian legal community. It is only natural that I should seize an occasion such as this to testify that Falana has been my benefactor in so many respects and at very critical times.

First, in 1999 when I eventually graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the university authorities seized my degree certificate while the Faculty of Law refused to recommend me and my associate, Princewill Hillary Akpakpan, to the Nigerian law school for the compulsory one year programme.

It is already a public knowledge that I lived a very active and eventful life as a student activist in that institution where we vigorously mobilised students and consistently campaigned against anti-students and anti-people policies of both the university authorities as well as those Nigeria state.

My era at the UNN coincided with the repressive military juntas of the duo of Babangida and Abacha. I recall with pride, that in 1996, I mobilised nine other students and sued the UNN before the Federal High Court in Enugu where we successfully challenged the over 3,000 per cent increase in school/service fees.

I was absorbed into the National Secretariat of the Committee For the Defence of Human Rights led by Falana as the then National President and ably assisted by an administrative guru – Mr. Jiti Ogunye. Ogunye, a highly cerebral and dynamic lawyer was the National General Secretary and Head Legal Aid Services of the organisation.

With this leadership, it was only a question of time before Falana constituted a team of eight tough” legal practitioners” scattered all over the country led by himself but effectively coordinated by Ogunye.

Although, the court matter was effectively over in year 2000 but we were not admitted into the Nigeria Law School until the end of the first semester of the law school programme for the year 2001/2002 session. By May, 2002 when I was called to the Bar, Falana instantly offered me an opportunity to join his firm as a junior counsel in his chambers just as Obele Chuka bought me a wig and gown before our Call to Bar. I concluded my Youth Service programme there and spent two additional years with him before I ventured out to establish my own firm in 2005. Ordinary Nigerian people whose lives you have touched by your tireless crusade for social justice that are rejoicing over your election.

They probably do not understand the full purport of this development, but the mere fact that the recognition is extended to “one of them” ignites the genuine joy that presently resonates in every down trodden Nigerian. I write not as your beneficiaries but as one who is in touch with the people whom you have rescued from the grip of their oppressors. They request that you continue to wear those harmless smiles even when you deal deadly blows on their oppressors.

Such will be the greater benefit of this investiture for a professional body like the NBA whose role in a developing economy like ours is pivotal. In exiting the moribund and unproductive past, we must clearly locate this fresh role that must be strategically discharged.

•Ugwummadu, an activist and legal practitioner, writes from Lagos.

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