by Ipigansi Okumo
At 5:00am on Thursday 9th April, 2015, a great journey filled with lofty hopes and ideas came to a painful end. It was the journey of courage, struggle, hard work and philanthropy of Oronto Natei Douglas. It all looked like a tale, a bad dream, to us who were very close to him. About a month to his glorious home call, he had sent me an unusual mail from the United States of America where he went to see his doctors. It read “O God our help in ages past”. I knew immediately from this common song of faith and hope, that something was wrong. That night, I stepped on my keyboard and played the hymn, over and again, and prayed for him.
When he returned from the USA, we constantly held evening prayers with him and his family. His faith in God became so strong that the terminal date given to him by the doctors became no issue of consideration. In spite of his worrisome state of health, he never stopped working. Indeed, he worked even more. But at about 6:00pm on Wednesday 8th April, 2015, his health worsened and he was taken to the State House Clinic. We all thought it as the usual reaction whenever he overworked. The doctors fixed a drip on him. Oronto was still in high spirits and chatted with his wife. Then at a point, he could no longer talk very well and started complaining of shortness of breath. The doctors brought in an oxygen support.
At The Trent, we remember Oronto for his wisdom, spirit, love for democracy, and his uncommon courage.
You may also view the page we opened in honour of Oronto Douglas on The Trent HERE. You will read heartfelt tributes to a great hero of the Earth.
My heart started racing. The situation did not get better. A body monitor was brought in and connected to his body. My heart raced even more as some of the figures displayed on the machine dropped speedily. I tried my best not to cry so that his wife could remain strong. His wife made a few calls to family members and close friends. Standing around him, Dr. Sam Amadi led us in prayers. Isoken Omo and her husband, Wale, Mrs Douglas, Michael Afenfia, Isaac Joshua, myself and a few other doctors and nurses prayed for him. We also sang praises to the Almighty God. In all these, my heart never stopped racing. I constantly watched the body monitor’s unimpressive results, still with hope, even if fading.
My hope got dashed at the point when OND moved his right hand and placed it on his chest — a sign of loyalty. I held his hand but he did not respond. I quickly moved out of the ward and prayed in tears. I returned and joined the rest as we all stood helplessly, watching our beloved brother pass on. If I had the powers, I would have strangled death. The convoluted graphs on the body monitor were all becoming flat. I left the ward to sit at the reception, praying silently for God’s intervention. Uncle Wale came out of the ward and told me that we have lost the battle. We all broke down in tears. It was a painful experience. It is better heard than experienced.
If I were told that a dying man could, on his deathbed, be preoccupied with giving support to those who are very much healthy and full of life, I would have taken such a story with a pinch of salt. In this case, however, I happened to be the agent through which the support was sent by OND. This financial support was not only to individuals, but to institutions as well. I was overwhelmed by this uncommon gesture which can only come from uncommon men of love, one of whom our Almighty God gave me the privilege to work and journey with, until death do us part.
My journey with this great exceptional creature of God called Oronto Natei Douglas began two and half decades ago. It all started in Ogbia Town, when Oronto (fondly called OND by friends) gave a speech at an event organized by the Movement for the Reparation to Ogbia (MORETO). Then, I was a student in the secondary school. In my school uniform, I summoned the courage to approach him and appreciate him for mobilizing our people and communities to the worthy course of environmental justice.
We chatted for few minutes and he gave me a pen that writes in flourish as my parting gift. As I walked back to where I was standing, Oronto called me and said: “You can be part of this movement, but you will only become very effective if you are properly educated. Go back to school, study very hard and pass in flying colours. We shall meet in the future.” I left in high spirit brandishing my new pen from Oronto Natei Douglas. His words remained with me until I sat for the SSCE and to the glory of God, I passed in flying colours.
Years later, Oronto and I met again in Port Harcourt. This was at the peak of the Ogoni struggle. I attended several Ogoni rallies with him and learnt the art of community mobilization. I was particularly thrilled that Barrister Oronto Douglas was in the legal defence team of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists. Oronto Douglas struggled for the Ogonis and will be remembered for his intellectual sagacity and rare courage.
My friendship with Oronto grew and became stronger during my undergraduate studies at UST, Port Harcourt. I constantly thought of what I could give to this great man of struggle and service but found no solution until he invited me to his house at Agip Estate, Port Harcourt. On arrival at his home, I acclimatized with his younger brothers, Gift and Otonye, and gave a helping hand in his laundry. He was impressed. I spent virtually every weekend in his home assisting with laundry.
Apart from our meeting at his office, Oronto would ensure that he invited me to major rallies, seminars and workshops. In 2000, after years of training, I got my first major assignment from my mentor, Oronto Douglas. This was to travel to all the host communities of Agip in the Niger Delta and to collate cases of environmental and human rights abuses. I concluded the assignment in relish. The following year, Oronto Douglas addressed the Italian Parliament on the atrocities of Agip in the Niger Delta. A few months later, a fact-finding team came from Italy to visit the communities. To my amazement, Oronto put me on the team to lead the crew from Italy to the communities. The events of this mission were enough to write a book.
Oronto was a man who deployed his intellect to the Niger Delta struggle. He helped set up the Chikoko Movement, Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) etc. The Kaiama Declaration demanding justice and resource control in the Niger Delta was his brain child. In that same year, Oronto Douglas set up the Ogbia Study Group, a human resource development think-tank. Oronto brought the best brains to give lectures to this group. His idea was to build a generation of selfless and detribalized leaders dedicated to service of humanity.
Oronto Douglas also set a world record. He was the first Niger Delta activist to be invited and hosted in the White House by a serving President (Bill Clinton) of the United States of America.
In December 2002, I offered to serve as a Volunteer Field Officer of the Environmental Rights Action. In 2003 on the instructions and guidance of Oronto, I set up the Niger Delta Resource Centre at Koko House in Yenagoa. The centre till this moment serves as the major intellectual powerhouse for activists, civil society groups and community based organizations.
In 2004, I got a big shock from my mentor, when he asked me to serve as his best man for his marriage. We both travelled together to Nembe for the periwinkle counting and had the grand event in Yenagoa at the Women Development Centre. His wife, Mrs. Tarinabo Lovelyn Douglas, is a virtuous woman whose encouragement and support I will continue to remember as long as I live.
The passion of Oronto Douglas to serve his people made him accept a government appointment as Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Bayelsa State in 2004. Shortly after his swearing-in, I proceeded to the University of Ibadan to further my studies. Oronto Douglas supported me in this pursuit tremendously. In 2005 at the National Political Conference organized by the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Oronto Douglas was a rallying point. He struggled for and served the people of Bayelsa State and the Niger Delta without blemish.
Oronto and I kept our relationship warm and cordial until he became Senior Special Assistant to Vice President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Oronto was full of surprises for me. In 2008 while I was studying in India, he paid me a visit. We had a good time and fruitful discussion.
In 2009, I visited Oronto on my return from India and he mentioned to me that he had just begun another struggle, but this time, with ill health. I encouraged him that all would be well by God’s special grace. Little did I imagine that this struggle will be the one that would bring him down, years later.
In September 2010, Oronto Douglas invited me over to Abuja to join him in his dedicated service to our country – Nigeria. We got to work and one of the early publications that culminated was the ‘150 reasons why Goodluck Jonathan should be elected President’. Then came ‘My Friends and I’ and the business of publication became a norm. Oronto Douglas had a strong network of reliable friends across the world. He used his wide contacts to assist Mr President. He was a very hard working man and a great thinker. From when I started having close contact with him, I can confidently say that Oronto Natei Douglas never slept for more than four hours in a day. No wonder, he was named among the twenty greatest thinkers in the world. Oronto achieved so much in his short life span.
One very interesting and challenging attitude of Oronto Douglas was that he had his eyes on the future. He always emphasized on the need to build and train intellectuals for the future generation. It is for this reason that he converted his only property in Yenagoa, as at then, to a public library named after Prof. E. J. Alagoa. Oronto also built and equipped several other libraries: Chief Melford Okilo library in Ogbia Town; Goodluck Jonathan Library in Okoroba; Bruce Powell Library in Otuoke; Obigbo Mikimiki in Opume; Prof C.T.I Odu Library in Brass; Obafemi Awolowo Library in Irele-Ikole Ekiti; Resident Tuodolo Library in Bomadi Delta State; one in Umuobuna-Ohaozara Ebonyi state. He also built and equipped a library at the United Comprehensive High School Wasimi, Abeokuta Ogun State, where he had his secondary education. He was about starting another library in Ikot Nseyen in Ikono LGA in Akwa Ibom State before he passed on. What other gift from a man could be greater than the gift of knowledge. Oronto was a great giver.
Apart from these libraries and as a lover of education, Oronto gave scholarship to many persons who I personally knew. In his home town of Okoroba, Oronto set up a free Kindergarten School named after E.K. Clarke. It is interesting to note that this school is under the management of British Educational Specialists. In this school, everything is provided for the pupils free of charge. As a generous man who thought about the welfare of other communities as well, Oronto provided school uniforms, shoes and books to over five thousand pupils from other communities. Oronto lived a life of giving.
For the period I worked with Oronto Douglas when he served as Special Adviser to the President on Research, Documentation and Strategy, he used all his networks to serve the President and our country. As the Chief Documentation officer of Mr President, Oronto documented the Progress Report of the Transformation Agenda of the Jonathan’s Administration in over thirty volumes of books. This, he continued until about 5:00pm of the evening leading to the day he passed on. He did not live to see the final product of his last two books on the legacies of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.
Oronto Natei Douglas lived all his life struggling for the greater good of our people and country, serving and giving his best to humanity. His exit is a monumental loss to our people and country. Nigeria has lost one of its finest and greatest minds. Personally, he will remain in my heart and spirit even as I do miss him dearly. But one thing I am sure of is that the candle light of Oronto Natei Douglas can never go off. He touched so many lives positively during his stay on earth.
Oronto Natei Douglas did not die! Oronto Natei Douglas only transited! Oronto Natei Douglas lives on!
May God bless his soul and grant him eternal rest. Amen.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on April 21, 2015. It is published on April 9 in memorial of Douglas’ passing.
Ipigansi Okumo was Oronto Douglas’ Personal Assistant and worked with him for 17 years.