The story began one fine Sunday morning in 2002 in the heart of Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun State. Till this day I cant help but think if I had bothered to go to church that morning, the story I am about to tell you would have been much different.
Time and chance happens to every man I suppose.
I was doing some washing on the said morning when I saw two boys walk in through the pedestrian gate of the house where I lived. I knew who they were…..Femi Century and Saheed. Femi Century in particular was nearly a legend in Ago-Iwoye at the time. Among the notorious cult boys who terrorised any and everyone on campus in those days, he was without a doubt primus inter pares.
As an example of his notoriety, he once went into an exam hall to sit an exam. Upon entering, he sought out the most intelligent guy in the class and chased away everyone who had taken positions around him as a means of guaranteeing a pass for themselves in the exam they were about to write.
The guy of course knew what this meant….he was to open his exam booklet as much as possible during the exam to ensure Mr Century was able to copy everything he wrote copiously. You cannot begin to imagine how terrified the boy must have been.
In any case the exam began and the boy began to write with Century sitting directly behind him. He began to write furiously…..exams in Nigerian universities are always a race against time. Whenever he got to the end of a page and was about to turn the page leaf, he would lean back and ask Century if he had finished copying what he wrote. Century would reply immediately with a ‘Yes’. After turning about 5 pages with Century answering ‘Yes’ each time, he began to wonder how he could have been writing that fast as to have copied everything he wrote.
So he turned round and was shocked to find that Mr Century hadnt written a single line in his blank exam sheet. He meekly enquired what the problem was from Century who then responded with the immortal words ‘Mi o fe disturb e ni..mo fe ko ko tie tan…ntori iwo na lo yi ma ba mi ko temi’.
Mr Century could not be bothered to even copy an open book….he was waiting for the poor boy to finish his own upon when he would hand him his own script to write for him!
Back to that fine Sunday morning; as soon as I saw Femi Century walk into my house I knew there was trouble. Saheed immediately brought out a gun and they asked me to lead them to my room.
If you never went to a Nigerian university, bear with me…these things were commonplace.
I was asked to lie down on the floor and the gun pressed down on the back of my neck. They began to ransack my room and as I lived alone at the time, it didnt take them too long to find all the money I had in the room. They also helped themselves to a wristwatch I had on the table and a pair of shoes lying on the floor.
They made the obligatory threats about returning to kill me if I ever mentioned the incident to anyone. And then bizarrely proceeded to humiliate me by spraying insecticide all over me. Just before they left, I begged them to at least give me N20 so I could get into town as where I lived was quite far from the towncentre. Nice chaps they were, they obliged.
For too many people in my university in those days, cultism was all too real and an everyday occurence. I had just gotten my first real taste albeit in my penultimate semester of what was, to put it euphimistically, a hell hole.
After narrating the incident to my friends, I decided to report the matter to the police to at least prevent it from becoming a regular occurence. After filing the report, I was given 2 armed policemen to escort me to where I had seen Saheed earlier that day. We got there and before he could run away, the policemen nabbed him, put him in handcuffs and marched him off to Ijebu-Igbo police station.
By the next day, his mother turned up at the police station and was told the story of what her son had done. By the way, Mr Century was nowhere to be found by this time as Saheed’s arrest happened a couple of weeks after the robbery itself happened. Saheed’s mother was amazed…she apparently had no idea her son was a gun toting cultist going about robbing people.
She managed to come up with the money that had been stolen from me plus compensation for the wristwatch which was now nowhere to be found. I also insisted on her signing an undertaking that if anything was to happen to me in the form of a reprisal, she would be held personally responsible..she happily obliged…anything to get her son out of detention.
Saheed was released after spending 2 nights in the cell and he and his mother went their merry way. The police however advised me to lodge the case with the DSA [department of student affairs] as it was standard practice to inform the university authorities of any police case involving a student of the university. I drafted a report of the entire incident and submitted it at the DSA’s office and was told I would be contacted shortly.
This didnt happen for months. But eventually I was called to give an oral narration of what had happened. A couple of months later, Saheed was summoned to appear before the disciplinary committee and next thing I know Saheed’s mother is back, kneeling on the floor in the middle of campus..pleading with me to have mercy on her son. I was of course embarassed by all this as I had practically forgotten about the case at this time.
After much begging and pleading, I offered to accompany him to the committee sitting to explain to them that as far as I was concerned, the case had been closed and I had been compensated for my loss financially…..if for no other reason than to put Saheed’s mum out of her misery. She had visibly aged during the episode as I could see.
Committee sitting day came and I went inside with Saheed and explained to them about how the original police case had panned out and why I was no longer interested in pursuing a case against him solely because of how much suffering his mother had gone through on account of her wayward son. One of the lecturers asked me if I had been beaten and came close to me ostensibly to look for signs that I had been ‘tortured’ into coming to give evidence on Saheed’s behalf. He also flatly put it to me that he thought I was a cultist myself. I laughed it off and told him in no uncertain terms that I had never been a cultist and had no intention of becoming one in my penultimate semester in university.
I was dismissed and Saheed was kept behind for more questioning. A couple of days later, I ran into him on campus and asked if everything went ok. He said Yes, but the committee had insisted they would only clear him if he produced Femi Century or gave information that would help them arrest him. I wished him all the best and moved on.
Exams came and went and we resumed for our final semester. A few weeks into the semester and a friend asked if I had seen the latest list of students who had been rusticated for cult activities and various forms of exam malpractice. I immediately wondered why she was asking if I had seen the list….it certainly wasnt a list I would be interested in seeing on a normal day. After hesitating for a bit she then told me she had seen the list and my name was on it….sandwiched between Femi Century’s and Saheed’s names. I laughed and asked her to try a funnier joke.
Less than an hour later, another chap knocked on my room door and this time he was clutching the list he had torn off the notice board where it had been pasted. And there it was….my name alongside those of cultists with names like Jagungo. Yes, the university authorities did not know the real names of some of these boys so they put their nicknames on the official expulsion list. Again, bear with me, this was normal in the university I went to and I suspect many other Nigerian universities.
I’d love to tell you how I took it like a man and gathered my thoughts on how I was going to clear myself from this mess I had landed in. But I locked my doors that evening and cried like a baby. I couldnt believe how it had all come to this….whatever had I done to deserve such ignominy?
Anyway, the next day I ran into one of the lecturers who had been on the panel when I went there with Saheed and asked him why I had been expelled. He said the panel decided after I left that for me to have come to ask for the case to be dropped against him, they concluded that I too, must have been a cult boy.
I tried to explain to him that kind of reasoning made no sense at all especially as I had stressed to the panel that I only did it on account of his mother doing my head in with her begging. He told me to get lost and walked away.
A couple of weeks later, ASUU went on strike for 6 months and my case went into limbo.
There I was in my final semester of University…after all the pain and suffering of a 4 year education, that was frankly a waste of time…not sure if I was a student or not. Words cannot describe how I felt in those dark days.
The strike came and went and I began my campaign of explaining my case to every lecturer all over again, writing letters I wasnt sure were being delivered and generally finding it impossible to concentrate on anything related to academics. I was alone in Nigeria at the time so this made it even worse.
After weeks of this uncertainty and not making any headway, I decided to do what I had been reluctant to do initially….call Gani. I hadnt informed him initially as I thought it was a bit of a joke and would be resolved in a matter of weeks and I would be reinstated.
And so I went to see him and narrated the whole story to him and explained that I hadnt told him earlier because I appreciated how busy he was and I didnt want to disturb with what was a small matter as far as I was concerned. He let rip at me for being rather naive and not letting him know from day one.
He called in Mr Sikiru Akinrele who was one of the senior lawyers in the chambers at the time and told him to listen to my story and begin drafting a letter to the school authorities. SK took the details of the story and started drafting the letter.
A few days later I went back to the chambers to get the final copy of the letter to take back to the school with me. I was amazed when I got there and saw that 17 copies of the letter had been drafted and addressed to practically everyone on the school’s governing council starting from the Vice Chancellor. I read through the 3 page letter where SK had briefly described the events and then stated my innocence on the matter. It ended with a not so subtle warning that there would be trouble if I wasnt reinstated with immediate effect….a few choice statutes were thrown in for good measure.
It was signed ‘Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN’.
I began to gather the A4 size envelopes to put in a bag when Gani told me to put them down immediately. He had arranged for one of the chamber’s despatch riders to hand deliver the letters to the university. He told me to go home and not worry about anything…..blessing me with a wad of naira notes for good measure.
48 hours later, back in Ago-iwoye, I got a message summoning me to appear before another panel relating to my expulsion from the university. The next day I went before a group of white haired, hardcore professors.
The first thing one of them said was ‘Did you have to involve Gani Fawehinmi in an ‘internal’ matter? Why did you have to go that far?’
I explained to them that I had been trying to resolve the matter for 7 months to no avail and as I was running out of time, I couldnt afford to take any more chances. They had my case file in front of them and they even had the letters I had written to them in the months before protesting my innocence and painstakingly restating the facts of the case.
15 minutes later, I walked out of the room as a reinstated student complete with an apology from the panel for whatever discomfiture they might have caused me. I was amazed. In 72 hours, what I had been struggling to accomplish for 7 months had been resolved.
I went back to Gani to report how the events panned out. He merely smiled as I narrated everything. At the end of my story, he asked if I wanted them to put an apology in a national newspaper as well. I told him that since the original expulsion list had not been published in the newspapers yet, I was happy to waive that option. Besides I only wanted to complete my exams and never see the school again.
After it was all over and I reflected on the events, it had not been lost on me that the name I had benefitted from had been made inside various prisons and myriad court rooms and had also been put at my disposal for free. I was also in awe that in a country like Nigeria, a private citizen’s name could carry so much weight and influence.
In a country where your ‘connections’ to those in government are the name of the game and who you know is the difference between a meal ticket and a great injustice being done to you, Gani had taught me that, government is not the only way to make a name for one’s self in Nigeria. He had never been a government official neither was he a military man…and yet his name commanded so much respect from ordinary citizens.
I cannot remember the number of times I have been asked ‘are you the son of the people’s lawyer?’ and even when I answer ‘No’, the person asking the question still does me a random kindness or favour.
Whatever the Fawehinmi name has come to represent in Nigeria today, it certainly had nothing to do with me. I contributed nothing towards it….it was all his work.
But by George, I cannot tell you how proud I am to bear the name. It’s why I refuse to mourn him. It will be a disservice to the man himself. His was a life to be celebrated. Nothing else will do.
Nigeria’s foremost constitutional lawyer and irrepressible defender of the downtrodden, never afraid to speak truth to power and always standing for what he believed even when he was standing alone. Now gone from us.
All the world’s a stage…and all the men and women merely players…they have their exits and their entrances…and one man in his time plays many parts.
If only you had stayed around till December when I was planning to show you a draft of the vision I was putting together.