By Banji Ojewale
Some years ago after my relocation from Lagos to Ota in Ogun State, I ran into an ex-banker, who sought to give me a low-down on Femi Falana, activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria. A news story he was reading in the daily featured a prominent lawyer, with his photograph coming along. Drawing my attention to the grey strands that had taken possession of Falana’s head, the old banker said the learned personality didn’t acquire his hoary crown from ageing. Nor was it the result of excessive mental and physical toil.
He told me white hair sets in early for those whose days and nights are in the abode of silvery-hair juju men. You get their hirsute features, mainly the colour, transferred to you as you patronise them for supernatural counsel and power. So, the man concluded, Comrade Falana is a closet voodoo person, seeing his age (then under 60 years) was dissonant with the advent of his white strands.
I asked if he had met the man. He hadn’t. But he didn’t need to, to arrive at the private ruling he was sharing with me, he insisted. Inerrant tradition he subscribed to was his tutor and guide in such matters, he argued. So, unwilling to start a war of words I wouldn’t win where I was outnumbered by priests and votaries of culture, I refrained from telling my friend that I knew Falana, that I didn’t think he owed his exploits as a legal giant to some esoteric source.
Did my friend really know the Femi Falana I first met in Ilorin, Kwara State, in the 80s? The lawyer was in the town, where I served as a member of the Editorial Board of the government-owned newspaper, The Herald, along with my good friend, Dapo Olorunyomi, a journalist of great regard and now publisher of the revered online Premium Times. Dapo and Femi were old boys at University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU).
The barrister showed up at The Herald to see Dapo, who promptly introduced us. The Marxist solicitor, upon hearing the mention of my name, dragged me into a warm déjà vu hug, exclaiming, “Ahhh…You wrote, the article, ‘Between Xtianity and Marxist Revolution’ in The Guardian newspaper. The piece was my small contribution to the massive Liberation Theology movement in Latin America. Christian leaders and members of the region’s Marxist Left were coming together on a united front to battle governments and monopoly entrepreneurs that took dictation from US and other capitalist powers of the day.
We realised we shared the same ideology, namely, standing in the gap for the oppressed of society by diligently seeking to apply our privileged social positions and professional bestowals. Femi and I, in later years, would meet again a couple of times. He would take up legal issues for me pro bono as well as for the popular southwest evening paper, PM News, which I edited in the 90s.
This angle of the world of Femi Falana is only a fraction of the whole. Yet, it’s one of the cases where seeing a little of the whole leads you into the whole. The centre of gravity of the lawyer’s universe is the condition of the vulnerable. To understand society, you must look, not at the gluttonous and greedy grandeur of its leaders’ lifestyle, (although this may come into consideration later), but at the poverty levels of the majority.
This is my understanding of the foundational Marxist propositions: the way a man earns his living determines his outlook to life. And “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc.” (Frederick Engels in a speech in London on March 17, 1883 at the burial of his friend Karl Marx).
So, for Femi Falana, the legitimate and legal pursuit of the defence of the harassed and humiliated hoi polloi, wherever he can locate them, in his own profession, among journalists, in officialdom, in schools, in marketplaces, in entertainment circles, in organised private sector, in religious centres etc, is his lifetime preoccupation. He has used his law practice to try to attain the goal.
He has failed to attempt to employ the instrumentality of partisan politics to grab power and continue the struggle to save the poor. His shot at the governorship seat in Ekiti hit the rocks. What happened? Why did the people he would have delivered reject him? Why did they prefer being governed by their oppressors?
These setbacks, including brutal treatment at the hands of government, military and civilians, sometimes entailing imprisonment and detention, have not discouraged him, nevertheless. Instead, they have led him to other adventures and initiatives in the interest of the underclass. He has established a ubiquitous presence in the media, social and mainstream, joining numerous other concerned patriots to denounce the nation’s jejune leadership responsible for the second cycle of degrading colonialism we’re facing. He’s also a constant figure in the labyrinth of the legal system where he battles injustices against the lowly.
That he is succeeding in wielding his profession to rescue society’s weak after he couldn’t make any inroad in politics returns us to the Marxists’ rejection of the idea of “art for art’s sake”. The argument here is that you’re not kitted (trained for a career) to work and live solely for yourself. You acquire your skills or education in order to use them to liberate humanity. It is, as Georgi Plekhanov, a follower of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels puts it in his book, entitled: Art and Social Life, “to assist the development of man’s consciousness, to improve the social system”.
In the same book, Plekhanov quotes the 19th Century socialist literary critic, Nikolay Chernyshevsky as saying: “The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ is as strange… as ‘wealth for wealth’s sake’, ‘science for science’s sake’, and so forth. All human activities must serve mankind, if they are not to remain useless and idle occupations. Wealth (all the resources known to man) exists in order that man may benefit by it; science exists in order to be man’s guide…’’
That’s the way Femi Falana correctly views his profession and the profit therefrom in relation to his environment: all must be laid at the feet of the people. Our public office holders and the elite need to learn from him. Your enduring worth as a leader is benchmarked, not by what you amass, but by how, as you serve sacrificially, you become poorer in attending to the people.
You follow the precept of late Mother Teresa of Kolkata: you give and give until it hurts…and you keep on giving. If you don’t subscribe to this, you’re not qualified to lead. Nigeria has continued to writhe in ritualistic rings of ructions because we don’t have leaders of such mettle. Happy Birthday, Comrade Femi Falana!
Ojewale is a writer at Ota, Ogun State.