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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Oronto Natei Douglas (1966 – 2015): An Exceptional Enthusiast for Justice and Development, By Ipigansi Okumo

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‘Life is short. Life is short. Life is short. Make hay while the sun shines. Make hay while the sun shines. Make hay while the sun shines,” the preacher bellowed. While I was still in a state of bewilderment trying to grasp his drift, the preacher said, “Work while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work”.

It was not a lengthy sermon, but the clergyman concluded by calling on all who heard him to channel their time, energy and resources to do the things they wish to be remembered for, before their time on earth is over, because, according to him, life is short.

As I drove home in sober meditation, the words of my mentor of blessed memory, the unforgettable Oronto Natei Douglas, popularly known as OND, came knocking in the innermost recesses of my heart: “Ipi, the world is not waiting for us. We must work fast and work right too.” But why would Oronto be so much immersed in a work that he profits little or nothing from directly? This was a question I couldn’t ask him for the close to two decades period that I worked with him as an aide. On the other hand, was Oronto like the children of Issachar, who were men that had the understanding of the times?

In my curiosity to link the words of the preacher with those of OND, I perused through the several Bible references the preacher quoted and I discovered the hidden secret of OND’s untiring commitment to his advocacy and developmental work in John 3: 16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”.

I came to the understanding that the only thing that would make someone to give his or her best sacrificially to others is love. OND lived a sacrificial life of service, powered by love. He gave his best to his community, state, region and country. Oronto joined his ancestors on 9th April, 2015 at the prime age of forty-eight (48) years. His departure has created a very large void that is still noticeable, eight years after.

Oronto did contribute to the advancement of the human race much more than most people who lived for over a century, and this is a lesson that age is only but a number. His enduring legacies as a brand of exceptional enthusiast for justice and development remain glaring.

OND’s life as a crusader for social/human rights and environmental justice manifested in his childhood age. Growing up, the Okoroba, Ebela Kingdom-born activist challenged his teacher at St Mark’s Primary School, Okoroba, in his early years of primary education. The contention was that OND failed to attend a Sunday Church Service (which was compulsory in those days for all pupils) and a particular teacher who was on a fishing expedition instead of being in church wanted to flog him as punishment.

OND vehemently protested to the headmaster of the school, contending that the teacher had no moral right to flog him since that teacher also failed to attend the church service. The headmaster listened to the case and set Oronto and the other pupils who were yet to receive their punishment, free. From that day till Oronto left his community, he became a voice to all the pupils in the school, and he never disappointed any. He was loved by both the pupils and teachers as well because he was not only brilliant but would always speak the truth.

Oronto’s voice against injustice became louder as he grew older. At the United Comprehensive High School (UCHS), Wasimi, Abeokuta, where he had his post-primary education, Oronto became a symbol of justice. He defended severally, especially the weak students in the school, against unwarranted punishments. At a point, his name became a brand. When OND was appointed as the Deputy Senior Prefect, he ensured that no student was punished unjustly. Oronto’s personal belief was that good must be rewarded with good and evil must in same manner receive its due reprimand. Academically, OND was a force to be reckoned with, in the arts subjects. He was the leader of the UCHS Wasimi drama/debating society and he won several laurels for the school within and outside Ogun State.

During his tertiary education at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), now Rivers State University, Port Harcourt, OND served his favorite platter of intellectually fighting against injustice, to the university community. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the University Press Club. He also coordinated activities of the Civil Liberty Organization. Through these platforms, OND defended and promoted the rights of students on campus. His press work became so strong that the University authorities of RSUST as well as the leadership of the Student Union Government were kept on their toes throughout the duration of his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) study. Oronto also attended the famous De Monfort University, Leicester – United Kingdom, where he obtained a master’s degree in environmental law.

Like my beloved father of blessed memory (Elder Elegumo Jackson Oruwari Oghe) would always stress – the greatness of a man is not in his possessions, but in the sacrifices he makes for the good of others and the society. Oronto’s greatness was neither in his possession nor in his intellectual/oratorical prowess. Oronto is remembered today for his life of sacrifice and service propelled by love. In his lifework, communities and peoples were at the center stage. OND was a voice for the voiceless, a defender for the defenseless, an environmental and human rights advocate and above all, a lover of peace, justice and development.

It was for the love of Nigeria that Oronto joined others to fight for the return of democracy. He suffered several arrests, detentions and brutalization from the Nigerian military in the struggle to end military dictatorship in Nigeria.

It was for the love of Ogoni that Oronto joined the team of lawyers that defended Ken Saro Wiwa pro bono. In his stance and battle on the side of justice for the people and land of Ogoni, OND and others received the beating of their lives on the orders of the despicable Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Okuntimo, the commander of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, then. Oronto, Uche Onyeagucha and Nick Ashon-Jones, a British national, each received one hundred strokes of the cane and forced to lie in the rain thereafter.

The plan was for the trio to be shot once Okuntimo returned from the Officer’s Mess, where he had gone to watch the FIFA World Cup football match between Nigeria and Bulgaria. It was the victory of Nigeria over Bulgaria, that made Okuntimo to change his mind. Indeed, God moves in a mysterious way.

It was for the love of the hapless people of the Niger Delta that OND confronted the multinational oil companies in Nigeria such as Shell, Agip, Chevron and Elf over the environmental degradation occasioned by the activities of the oil companies. He advocated for resource control, self-determination and environmental security in Nigeria. On this cause, he met with world leaders, including President Bill Clinton, and gave parliamentary briefings in many countries on issues of environmental/human rights and livelihood.

Oronto believed that oppressed people only had their chains to lose. In this regard, he founded and co-founded several non-governmental and community-based organizations to serve as platforms for the oppressed communities and locals to confront the brazen injustice that was being dished out on them daily. Organizations such as the reputable Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA), Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Chikoko Movement, Niger Delta Resource Centre, Ogbia Study Group (OSG), Community Defence Law Foundation (CDLF), Douglas Educational Foundation, and many more. His commitment to strengthening the organizations was unflagging and strong as if the entirety of his life depended on them.

OND committed his body, soul and spirit to doggedly fight, not only for the people and the environment of the Niger Delta, but also for a better Nigeria. He was fearless in his call for the abrogation of the Land Use Decree and the restructuring of Nigeria.

I recall vividly in 1999, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo forcefully grasped a microphone from Oronto in Port Harcourt, when Oronto called onhim to retract the Land Use Act and grant the Niger Delta Region self-determination and resource control. It resulted in a physical struggle between Oronto and President Obasanjo on who should have the microphone, but thanks to the elders who intervened.

It is worthy of note that the tension and resistance Obasanjo met from the Niger Delta under the intellectual command of OND were the major factors that made him establish the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). His crusade as well as pressures on the Federal Government from other credible voices in the region resulted in the increase in oil Derivation Fund to 13%.

Oronto’s exploits are too numerous to be listed in this short piece of eulogy for want of space. He did a lot to advance the prosperity of humanity. In all his outstanding legacies, one area that displayed his exceptional love for children and youth progress was in his well-crafted educational programmes.

When in the 90s Oronto initiated an annual programme he christened “EDUCATION FIRST” in his native home of Okoroba, I never knew that it was a prelude to what is set to spread in different dimensions. The idea of the programme was to promote education as the nerve centre of community development and to make it available to all children of his hometown.

In the programme, Oronto gave prizes accompanied with an award of scholarship to the three best pupils in each class. He also provided complimentary prizes and educational gift items to all the pupils. It was a programme that thrusted a new concept of academic competition amongst the pupils on who next to win Oronto’s prize and scholarship.

In pursuit of his vision to provide quality education for all kids living in Okoroba, OND later built and equipped a world-class nursery school to serve as ‘feedstock’ to the primary school. At the kindergarten school, Oronto provided all educational materials needed by the enrollees, ranging from school uniforms, shoes, bags, books/writing materials to snacks, etc.

As one who believes in the collective growth and development of all, and not just his native home, Oronto provided educational support services to some schools in rural communities. Oronto launched the “FREE SCHOOL UNIFORM PROJECT” to make it exciting for children to want to go to school. Under this programme OND provided free school uniforms to pupils. Notable amongst them are Community Primary School, Obeduma, State School I, Idema, State School II, Idema, State School, Agrisaba, State School I,Epebu, State School II, Epebu, Community Primary School Ewoma II, State School I Anyama, State School II, Anyama, Oruamabiri Primary School, Nembe, Okoroba School I, Okoroba School II, etc., all in Bayelsa State. This was done in 2005, 2007, 2009, 20011, 2013 and 2015.

When OND served as a Special Adviser to former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, he launched the Bring Back the Book (BBB) Initiative. This was a strategy to revitalize the reading culture, with knowledge serving as a tool for development. This programme derived from OND’s belief that the secrets of good governance, amazing discoveries, development, progressive management principles and every legitimate desire of prosperous nations are hidden in books, and that only through reading, can the leaders of tomorrow nurture dreams and values that can change society for the common good. The programme which was launched in Lagos attracted Nigeria’s literary giants in attendance. One of the highlights of the BBB was the distribution of books in tens of thousands to attendees and children in the slums of Lagos such as Makoko. The BBB programme spread to Jos, Benin City, Yenagoa and Abuja before the transition of OND.

As a lover of academics and driven by the need to provide a resource base for the continuing support of communal development and for the public good, Oronto also initiated the COMMUNITY LIBRARY PROJECTS, wherein he built and equipped several community libraries. Under this project, OND facilitated the construction of libraries in communities across the country.

The first library and pilot project started in the personal house of Oronto Douglas in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State,and he named it in honour of foremost educationist, historian and specialist on Niger Delta, Professor E.J Alagoa. Others include the Chief Melford Okilo Library in Ogbia Town; Dr. Goodluck Jonathan Library in Okoroba; Prof Bruce Powell Library at the Federal University, Otuoke; Obigbo Mikimiki Library in Opume; Prof C.T.I Odu Library in Twon Brass; Obafemi Awolowo Library in Irele-Ikole Ekiti – Ekiti State; Resident Tuodolo Library in Bomadi – Delta State; Nkwot Library/Resource Centre Akwa-Ibom State, and a yet-to-be-named library in Umuobuna-Ohaozara – Ebonyi State.

Oronto also provided support to several organizations. Groups such as Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA), Human Rights Writers Association, CORA Art & Cultural Foundation, Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER), Association of Women Librarians (AWLIN) etc., were beneficiaries of OND’s benevolence.

As I reflect on the departure of this great soul, I am pained that many of Oronto’s projects, especially the ones in Bayelsa State are left to rot away. As I pen this piece of tribute in remembrance of Oronto, the Professor E.J Alagoa Library, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan Library, Chief Melford Okilo Library etc., are no longer functional. I therefore wish to use this medium to appeal to the Bayelsa State Government to revive these legacy library projects and bring them back to a state of usefulness. This is necessary as it will serve as a means of encouraging others who have good intentions to impact on their communities. Also, the libraries are viable resources that can positively shape the minds of our youths for greatness.

Like my grandmother will say “he who gives you a book, gives you a great future”, Oronto indeed, gave a great future to Ogbia, Bayelsa, the Niger Delta and Nigeria. But how are these regions memorializing this great soul? Will the good works of Oronto go unrewarded? On this 8th memorial of OND, thesethoughts now cloud my brow.

Though the erudite Oronto Natei Douglas lived a short life, he greatly impacted positively on humanity. He was a lover of people, a crusader of peace and equity, a detribalized Nigerian, a scholar, a strategist, a philanthropist, a helper, a giver, a mobilizer, a mentor, a motivator and a conduit for blessing others. He was a brand of exceptional enthusiast for justice and development. One of the global best and Nigeria’s shining light has gone. What a pain! What an irreplaceable loss!

However, I am particularly grateful to God for the privilege to know and work with this extraordinary soul, whose heart for charity was legendary. May God who never rests by day or night, continue to rest OND’s soul in eternity and grant his family peace and comfort. Amen.

Ipigansi Okumo, an engineer, is the general secretary of the Ogbia Brotherhood Unity Abuja Branch and a member of the Ogbia Study Group. He worked with Oronto Douglas for about two decades up till his death after a long fight with cancer in April 2015. He can be reached by email HERE. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 

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