Mohammed Fawehinmi is the first child of late legal luminary, Chief Gani Fawehinmi. After a car accident in 2003, the 47-year-old lost his ability to walk. He told Eric Dumo how the incident changed his life and how he has managed to keep hope alive.
What was it like growing up under the roof of Gani Fawehinmi?
It was like growing up in a military camp. He gave the order and you must comply. You failed to do so and you got thoroughly punished. I particularly have been displaced with any sort of rod that you can imagine. Until the anger in him calmed, he would not stop punishing you. The only time you would offend my father and he let you walk away was whenever he sighted his mother. No matter your offence, he would not punish you once she was there.
Being the first child, my father made sure he disciplined me the most.
Did he groom you differently from the others being the first child and son?
Yes, he did. He’d always tell me that once he was gone, the mantle would fall on me. For the fact that I was very young then, I would always wonder what he was saying. But he never allowed me to rest; he ensured that I did more than the others in every aspect just because I was the first born. He groomed me like a man even as a boy.
What dreams did you nurse as a child?
I wanted to become an army general. I had three uncles in the army. Two of them were captains while one was a major. I loved the uniform and personality of military men, being like them was just what I wanted for myself.
When I was 14, we were given forms in school for the Nigerian Defence Academy. I hurriedly filled mine and took it to my father for him to sign; I never knew I had courted trouble. Till he died, I don’t think he had ever been that angry. He said I wanted to go and join the people that were throwing him in jail all the time. He said I wanted to join those who wanted to kill him. He said that it was better he killed me before I joined his enemies.
It took four senior lawyers to hold him down that day. One of them was OAR Ogunde, a senior advocate, Mr. Tayo Oyetibo, Mike Philips and one other person. I had to run away from the scene as fast as I could and managed to jump the fence before tearing the form. I thought he had forgotten about everything but I was surprised when he woke me up with the cane at about 2:30am the next morning. He dealt with me thoroughly that day.
Later in life, I wanted to become a business administrator even though the desire to become a military man never left me. When I went to England to study law after my first degree in Business Administration from the University of Lagos, I met a military general who further aroused my interest in the profession.
But immediately I finished my studies, my father was on my neck to return to Nigeria to attend law school. For a while, that interest waned in me but whenever I come across a military cantonment and I see the way the officers move, I feel like being a part of them.
You were not born with disability; at what point did this challenge occur?
I was coming from the chambers at night on the evening of September 23, 2003. The accident happened around 9:48pm. I used to stay at Ajao Estate then and I usually took the airport route to connect Ikeja. It was a Mercedes E320. By the time I got to the toll gate, I bought call card and prayed, something I had never done before because when I was at that place, I didn’t usually stop. I thereafter turned to link the express, as I approached a popular filling station on the axis, my car skidded off the road and leaped into the place. As the car landed, I tried to apply the brakes but it wasn’t responding. Eventually, the outlet where they used to check for petrol gauge stopped the vehicle. The airbag from the front came out and pinned me to the seat while the one from the side shifted me and broke my neck. After about one-and-a-half minute of struggle to burst the airbag, my entire body went numb. It was a naval officer who stopped to rescue me from the car, otherwise I could have been burnt alive in it because petrol was already spilling from it.
The first hospital I was rushed to at Ajao Estate said they could not handle my case, so I was taken to Maryland Specialist Hospital where we were advised to go to the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi. It was while I was there that my parents were informed that I had been involved in an accident. I was there for about two days before my father secured a visa and moved me to England for further treatment.
I underwent several scans and examinations over there but the specialist surgeon said he didn’t see anything. I had to be operated upon. After the operation, the surgeon said I could have been walking the following week after the accident if not for the way I was handled at the hospital in Nigeria. He said the particular spot where the injury occurred should have been frozen with a special spray after the accident rather than being handled anyhow. That spray cost about N8,000 when converted to our local currency. It is so common abroad but up till now, many hospitals don’t even have it in Nigeria.
However, I was told that by 2006 I should have been walking. That year, I went for check-up in Isreal where they removed my bone marrows to go and inject in Turkey. After that procedure, my legs and hands jerked as if they wanted to detach themselves from my body. But since that time, I have not seen any sign of walking. I have been to several places since then for solution but there has been no significant luck.
So, how tough was it for you adjusting to your new situation?
I look at my ordeal as part of life’s ‘buffet’, just like it served my late father on several occasions. I feel I’m in a mini detention centre at the moment, but then, I’m positive that one day, I’ll be free.
But I’m glad that I have been able to practise as a trained lawyer despite the tragedy that I’ve encountered in life.
Are you able to access all the courts your cases are assigned following your inability to walk?
This is where I am not happy with government in Nigeria. In all the courts in Lagos, there is nowhere that lifts are functioning. On several occasions, my cases are assigned to courts on top floors, so I have to be carried by at least two people to be able to attend such sessions. It shouldn’t be this way.
Personally, I have written several letters to the Lagos State Government to call their attention to this but nothing has been done. I am really saddened by this because it is really affecting people like me.
Apart from not being able to move around freely, what other areas would you say the accident of 2003 has changed your life?
I am a man who was trained to work through the night. This accident has affected me in this regard because I am not able to do that now. The pain I go through at night is too severe for me to even think of doing such.
Also, the number of cases I’m able to handle in a day and week has reduced. This is a very painful restraint for me because I am somebody who loves to multi-task.
The accident has also affected my social life. I am somebody who loves to go out and have great times with friends but since this restriction occurred, I have been forced to abandon that aspect. But once in a while, I go out to eat ‘isi ewu’ and ‘nkwobi’.
You are yet to marry, what is the reason behind this? Is it that you’ve not found the right woman or your taste is high?
I certainly wish to marry and have children but then, there are so many things responsible for why I’m yet to do so.
I was around 32 when I had that accident and I already had a lady I wanted to marry. She was a very beautiful Igbo lady I met close to my father’s chambers. Even after the accident happened, she still wanted to stay with me; I was the one who advised her to move on because she may not be able to cope with the demands of my new condition. I couldn’t do anything on my own but depended on the help of others to survive. I didn’t want that huge burden on her, so I told her to move on and get herself another man. I was just being considerate. The lady went away disappointed.
I just felt that I shouldn’t bother any woman with my condition. I didn’t want anybody to marry me out of pity. Even though I always have females around me, it is not every woman that can stay with a person with disability of my kind. Most of the women I have met in recent times are not the ones that can stay with a man, they are the type who would want to attend parties and keep all sorts of friends instead of looking after me. Of course, a few have come close to what I want but the temperament is nothing to write home about.
Is there no pressure on you to marry from family members?
In fact, words can’t describe the intensity of the pressure on me right now as far as marriage is concerned. My mother and uncles disturb me about this topic almost every day. But what they don’t understand is that most women I have met hardly want to commit themselves after the initial meeting because of my condition. As it is, I am just praying that there’ll be a miracle from God in this aspect.
I am very optimistic that one day, I am going to walk again but then I’ll be glad if it will be to walk down the aisle with my soulmate. I really want to marry and have children. I think about this every day.
As successful as you are as a lawyer and even coupled with your father’s name, do people still stigmatise you?
A lot of people treat me like a leper on many occasions as a result of my condition. People say all sorts of nasty things to me and call me all sorts of names. But because I know that those words cannot limit my progress in life, I just ignore such.
What are some of the biggest barriers you’ve had to break to get to where you are today?
At every point in my journey, I’ve had to convince people with my performance that I can still achieve a lot despite my disability. Getting my chamber registered and even handling big cases have been huge barriers I’ve had to surmount to get to this point in my career.
Would you say your father’s name has opened or closed more doors against you?
It’s a balance. Some people appreciate me for being his son, while others stylishly turn me down for being his child.
Are you sometimes under pressure to fill the vacuum left behind by your father being his first child?
I am perpetually under pressure to fill the void left by my father. As a result of who my father was, there are certain things I must not be involved in. In fact, there are things I must make my own business whether I like it or not. It is a huge role to play and sometimes, I feel the heat.
How do you think government can make life better for people living with disabilities in Nigeria?
They must first of all do an in-depth study on the needs of the people in this category. It is only through this means that a comprehensive policy that would cater for the needs of people with special needs can be addressed.