By Owei Lakemfa
SEPTEMBER is a special month for the family of Chief Gani Oyesola Fawehinmi, the matchless fighter for the Nigerian poor who committed his 45-year legal practice, wealth and life to the emancipation of the Nigerian people. For his beliefs, doggedness and commitment to social justice, he was jailed intermittently from the 1970s over a period of two decades with his library and chambers burnt.
Abandoned one lane colonial bridge at Sobe, Edo State
He passed away on September 5, 2009. That makes the month of special significance to both his family and those of us who are members of his political family. It is also the month his scholarship scheme for indigent students in tertiary institutions is awarded. That award goes with a lecture which for this year, I was privileged to deliver on September 13. For me, it was an historical duty and privilege.
As a student in 1981, I had been part of a delegation which briefed Chief Fawehinmi about moves by the then University of Ife authorities to victimise the student leaders and clamp down on the union following the Police murder of four students during a protest. His immediate intervention was decisive.
When in 1990, the then Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, national leadership barred me from contesting elections, he took up my case immediately and without hesitation. Like such other cases, it was pro bono.
As a young journalist, I was so influenced by Chief Fawehinmi that, although I was never a judicial correspondent, I went to watch him in court in a number of landmark cases. On a number of occasions, he advised I should also read law, promising to foot the bill. But I was wedded to journalism. My generation can never thank him enough. My choice of poverty as theme of the lecture, was partly an acknowledgement that it is a major challenge, more so when Nigeria has become what many call the ‘Poverty Capital of the World.’ The British Prime Minister, Theresa May on August 28, 2018 during a visit to South Africa said: “87 million Nigerians live below $1 and 90 cents a day, making it home to more very poor people than any other nation in the world.” Besides this, eradicating poverty, was a consuming passion that propelled Fawehinmi’s struggles.
I located the origins of the poverty ravaging Nigeria, to our encounter with the Europeans. My argument is that the pre-colonial societies that were amalgamated into Nigeria in 1914 were self-sustaining and self-sufficient. They fed themselves, ran rounded economies. They did not have problems of unemployment as every adult was a farmer, fisherman or artisan. Cases of homelessness were virtually unknown. There was also a lot of inter-trade amongst the peoples. We are not just talking about small communities; some of them were huge empires like the Oyo which spread to parts of today’s Benin Republic. The Benin Empire had diplomatic relations with Britain and Portugal and embassies in Lisbon and Liverpool. As far back as 1516, King Manuel of Portugal had established a full-fledged embassy in Benin Empire. Also, the Kanem-Bornu Empire spread to parts of today’s Cameroun Republic and had an embassy in Morocco.
Our political systems; some monarchical, some republican, served the communities. But when the colonialists came, they severed the rope that held our world together.
Our painful encounters with Europe included the imposition of ‘free trade’ under which leaders who insisted on autonomy were deposed, or as in the case of King Jaja of Opobo, were deposed, exiled to the Caribbean with the British Colonial Consul assuming headship of the Opobo monarchy. They included centuries of slave trade that depopulated many communities and greatly destabilised societies. There was the imposition of cash crops which led to the people in many cases abandoning food crops, leading to the breakdown of the food sufficiency system. All these combined to destroy our economy and make us dependent on that of the West and its various machinations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, and enslavement schemes like the ‘Economic Partnership Agreement.’
Also in the process, our political, cultural, traditional and religious systems were destroyed, turning us into aliens on our own soil. In some cases, we were told that Africans had no history and no worthy past. In other words, that we were not really human beings. Many, especially our emergent elite came to believe and imbibe this. They came to accept that the white man is superior, that our traditional health system, including orthopedic and psychiatric which served us well and were also scientific, were nothing but fetishism.
So we abandoned our knowledge, science, culture and history and embraced those of our colonisers; we accepted, and mainly still accept that we are inferior human beings. In other words, we became alienated so much that until today, even if our elite steal our common patrimony, they store them in the banks, lands or hands of our former colonisers. When they loot our treasury, they try to hide their loot in the banks of the old colonisers, buy property there and sometimes, actually live in Europe while pretending to govern us. Even in this 21st Century, when our elite or their families are sick, they head for the hospitals in the metropole.
Now, having destroyed our foundation, imposed a corrupted system, culture and an alien elite on us, the former colonial masters wonder why we are not developing. They ask why we are the poverty capital of the world. Yet, they tell us that we have no alternative than to continue with their bankrupt policies and system. They lure us into believing and accepting that their socio-economic and political system is the only way and any deviating, would be like a sinner leaving the righteous path to heaven. For our elite, the system of the old colonial masters, is a religion which we should not even interrogate.
It is not as if we have not tried to throw off this yoke and embark on building a nation based on social justice, but so far, we have not succeeded. Fawehinmi’s fights, were part of the struggles to set our country free. Africans have also fought in other climes. Patrice Lumumba led the Congolese to build a new, non-exploitative country. With the assistance of United Nations troops, he was seized, tied to a tree in the forest, and executed. Kwame Nkrumah tried the same in Ghana, he was overthrown and forced to spend the rest of his life in exile. Thomas Sankara rose in Burkina Faso, he was overthrown and executed. Muammar Ghadaffi followed a similar path in Libya, he was executed and the country destroyed by the West. All these show that to succeed, we must take on those holding us down locally and their international masters.