I met him six times, between 2017 and 2018, three of which were in the most unlikely place — court. Well, unlikely, for someone unfamiliar with him. Truth is, anyone who knows Maurice Fangnon well, who follows his work or antecedent, won’t consider his appearance or trial in court unlikely or strange. For Maurice Fangnon courts trouble. He does.
When a 61-year-old man, who should be content spending and enjoying time with his family or savouring the fruit of his labour, prefers, as it seems, to fraternize with oppressed or poor residents of Lagos who have been at the receiving end of Lagos State government’s might and determination to possess their land, it isn’t unlikely he could end up in court one day. That was what happened this month — December 6 and 20 — when Fangnon appeared before an Igbosere Magistrate Court in a suit instituted against him. It wasn’t, however, the Lagos State government that dragged him to court, but the police based on a petition allegedly written by the Elegushi royal family which claimed that Fangnon had maligned their name in a matter involving Otodo Gbame community.
Otodo Gbame used to be a fishing community in Lekki, Lagos. It was a poor fishing community in a rich neighbourhood. Both the poor and rich within that part of Lekki appeared to co-exist until the Lagos State government headed by Akinwunmi Ambode came up with a plan to rid the state of slums.
In October 2016, Ambode announced his government’s intention to “start demolishing all shanties on waterfronts across the state within 7 days". A week after issuing the order, Ilubirin, a waterfront community in the state, was demolished. The threat had become reality. Efforts by a non-governmental organisation, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives-Nigeria (JEI) lawyers to some waterfront settlements in the state to stop the Lagos State government from demolishing more waterfront communities, amounted to nothing as the Lagos State government carried out more demolitions, including the one of April 9 last year, when it let loose its security officials to attack and set fire to Otodo Gbame. Armed security officials invaded the community at dawn while shooting sporadically.
That caused a pandemonium that led to residents of Otodo Gbame, many of whom were asleep at the time of the invasion, fleeing their homes on canoes. By the time the chaos and fire subsided and many of them returned to assess their homes, they found nothing but debris. Gone with the fire were properties that took years and sweat to acquire. It was incredible. Nigeria isn’t new to bizarre incidents and cases of arson by government officials.
Many still remember the case of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose Kalakuta home in 1977, was burnt down by what a commission of inquiry later described as ‘unknown soldiers'. But what happened in Otodo Gbame on April 9, 2017, was unprecedented.
Thousands of residents of a community lost their homes in one swoop with no alternative accommodation provided by the Lagos State government. And not just that, two persons reportedly died in the process from police bullets. One of them was Daniel Ayer, a 25-year-old man, who left behind a wife and two children. Following his death, I met and interviewed Ayer’s wife days after the incident. This was on the same day the Otodo Gbame case came up for hearing at a Lagos High Court after JEI filed a suit on the matter against the Lagos State government.
Though the court, months later, ruled in favour of Otodo Gbame victims, declaring their displacement unconstitutional and ordering the Lagos State government to resettle them, Ambode’s administration appealed against the ruling. Final judgement on the matter is yet to be given. I had, before my interview with Ayer’s wife, met and interviewed Fangnon at Igbosere court — my first encounter with him. He was one of those who came to witness the trial. He expressed strong views that day, saying it was an irony that Ambode, who committed terrible crimes against Otodo Gbame people, should be walking the street free when people who had committed far lesser crimes, are in jail.
Before the April 2017 destruction of Otodo Gbame, however, there had been a series of attacks or disturbances in the community which led to the death of some residents. Some Otodo Gbame residents blame the crises in their community on outside forces seeking to dispossess them of their land. Given its choice location, some Otodo Gbame residents suspected that some people, including land speculators, had set their eyes on acquiring their land. Among those suspected were the Elegushi royal family in Lekki, which had some of its members, HRM Oba Saheed Elegushi, Olusegun Elegushi, Wasiu Elegushi, Anofiu Olarewaju Elegushi, and two others, Ogunyemi John, Joke Adebayo Chukwuma fingered by some members of Otodo Gbame community as revealed in a police report dated March 15, 2017, and signed by Assistant Inspector General of Police, C.K. Aderanti.
The suspects, based on a 2014 disturbance, were accused of arson, murder and forceful eviction of Otodo Gbame indigenes from their land. According to Aderanti’s report, Hennu Solomon, the chairman of Otodo Gbame, said the community “engaged the services of an NGO (Centre for the Defence of Human Right and Democracy in Africa led by Fangnon) who came to their aid when virtually all security agencies failed them.” Solomon was further reported as saying that “the NGO reported on their behalf the attack of 11th September, 2014 that led to the death of three members of their community to the commissioner of Police, Lagos State Command who directed the State CIID Panti Lagos to investigate which they judiciously did until the Elegushi family used (their) influence to transfer the case to FCIID, Alagbon Lagos, where those detained were released without prosecution.”
Fangnon, who is the Secretary-General of the Centre for the Defence of Human Right and Democracy in Africa, in a separate police statement, admitted that his NGO wrote a petition in 2014 to the Lagos State police commissioner, informing him of the killing that took place in Otodo Gbame after thugs invaded the community. However, Aderanti, in his March 15, 2017 report, states that “the allegations of arson and murder leveled against Wasiu Elegushi and others in the alleged attack of 11th and 17th September, 2014, had been knocked out by the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) in their report No. LSP/HOM/2015… dated 23rd April, 2016, wherein he was completely exonerated” and that “there is no evidence to either indict or link HRM Oba Saheed Elegushi, High Chief Olusegun Elegushi directly or remotely to any of the alleged attack".
Probably based on this report, Fangnon was arraigned in court on December 12, 2017 and subsequently, including December 6 and 20 this year which I witnessed, for giving a false report. He was now a defendant as the police and counsels to the Elegushis sought to prosecute him based on the DPP report. Fangnon wasn’t the only one as the police also charged Bamidele Friday, a resident of Otodo Gbame, along with him. They are now standing trial and were both in the dock on December 20 in Court 14 presided over by Mrs. Osinbajo. The case was later adjourned to January 14, 2019. Professor Akin Ibidapo-Obe, lawyer to Fangnon and Friday was however not in court at the December 20 sitting. When he arrived after the court sitting, Ibidapo-Obe filed a preliminary objection challenging “the competence of the institution of the criminal prosecution". He noted that “the prosecution failed/omitted to seek nor obtain the legal advice of the Lagos State Ministry of Justice as stipulated in sections 74 (1) (2) (3) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Lagos State, 2011".
In my conversation with Fangnon at the court premises on December 20, he told me the funny story of how, in December 2017, on the same matter, the magistrate (not Osinbajo) asked that he be remanded in prison. He was then taken to a holding centre in the court awaiting transfer to prison. When the time for him to be moved to prison came, a prison official who probably knew his antecedent asked him which of the prisons — between Ikoyi and Kirikiri — he would like to be taken to and Fangnon replied that since he already has an idea how Kirikiri looks, having previously spent time there when he was arrested by the police over a protest by retrenched maritime workers, he would prefer to go to Ikoyi. I could not but smile to this. That was how Fangnon and Friday were driven to Ikoyi prison. Friday said he and Fangnon spent two weeks at Ikoyi Prison and that while he was released on December 21, 2017, Fangnon was released the next day, December 22.
In all, I spent over six hours at Igbosere court on December 20, as the day’s proceeding was longer than that of December 6. That included time spent waiting for Fangnon and his lawyer, Professor Ibidapo-Obe, after the court session. In-between the wait, I recalled the last time Fangnon and I visited Ibeju-Lekki, on August 4 this year, to meet with some residents of the area who claim that they are yet to be compensated by the Lagos State government which acquired their land where the Dangote refinery is currently being built. On our way back from Ibeju-Lekki, we witnessed a terrible accident that left its victim with a broken leg and arm, such that reminded me again how nasty life is. That day, Fangnon wore a suit atop a T-shirt with the picture of Gani Fawehinmi, the late radical lawyer, and the words “Our Hero Lives on” inscribed on it. He told me he knew Gani personally and that the lawyer’s death is a huge loss to Nigeria. I feel so too.
Like Gani, Fangnon and his Centre for the Defence of Human Right and Democracy in Africa champions the cause of the poor and oppressed in the society and the number of people, former residents of Otodo Gbame who came to identify with him in court on December 6 and 20, in a sense, shows that some people appreciate his effort. They came, bearing a banner stating: “Genocide in Lagos: Otodo Gbame People Demand Justice!! Withdraw All Trumped-Up Charges Against Professor Maurice Fangnon!”
Amnesty International also considers Fangnon a brave man “risking everything to shine a light on injustice” and demanding that all charges against him be dropped.
A native of Benin Republic who has lived in Nigeria since 1981, after escaping the claws of Mathieu Kérékou, then military leader of his country for his activism, Fangnon has fought many battles in Nigeria and Benin. He says jokingly that while he ran to Nigeria for safety decades ago, he now freely visits his country, a way of asserting that he outlived his enemies as Kérékou, who quit power in 2006 after his third stint in the saddle, died in 2015. How Fangnon’s current case will end is unknown but the man says he won’t give up the battle for a better world. He considers the court case instituted against him by the police and Elegushi royal family a ploy by his “traducers and their agents” to silence him as they have “boasted that they will keep me personally occupied with legal cases and criminal exposure to the point of surrender” but says he cannot be cowed. “I will never give up, never. I will fight to the end,” he says, in an unmistakably defiant tone.
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian freelance journalist