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Oronto Natei Douglas: The Man, The Land, and the People [MUST READ]

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I am certain that Horatius Bonar, the prince of Scot­tish hymn writ­ers did imagine less as to how this inspirational work of his, will become so famous, centuries after him. Indeed, only minds infected with insanity can argue the contrary with reference to this great hymn of Dr Bonar. Truth be told! Men, women, boys or girls, especially those whose journeys have ended on planet earth, will only be remembered by what they have done, be it good or evil.

The lyrics of this remarkable hymn suggest that we all have our choices as to what we want humanity to remember us for when we are no more. For my dear mentor, master, friend and brother, Barr. Oronto Natei Douglas (OND), he chose the part and path of good. Since 9th April 2015 when Oronto transited to the heavenly realm, friends, acquaintances, family members, relatives and loved ones have continued to remember him for his good works when he lived on earth.

“Fading away like the stars of the morning,
Losing their light in the glorious sun,
Thus would we pass from the earth and its toiling,
Only remembered by what we have done.”

9th April 2024 is Oronto’s ninth memorial. To many of us who had the rare privilege to interact and work closely with this amiable soul, our hearts are heavy with remembrance and reverence for a man who left indelible marks on the landscape of environmental activism, political and social justice in Nigeria. Oronto Douglas, a prominent lawyer, environmentalist, and human rights advocate, continues to be celebrated for his unwavering commitment to defending the rights of marginalized communities and protecting the natural heritage of the Niger Delta region. As Nigerians honor Oronto’s ninth memorial, it’s essential to reflect on his remarkable legacy and the enduring impact he had on the land and its people.

Born on the 9th of October 1966, in Okoroba Community of the great Ebela Kingdom of the Ogbia Nation in Southern Nigeria, Oronto Douglas was intimately connected to the land and its people from a young age. As he grew, he learnt about his beautiful environment with kin interest. The more he learned, the deeper he fell in love until he became one with the land. Growing up in the midst of the region’s rich biodiversity and witnessing firsthand the social and environmental injustices perpetrated against its inhabitants, he developed a deep sense of responsibility towards both the land and its people. This profound connection shaped his life’s work and inspire him to become one of Nigeria’s most vocal advocates for environmental sustainability and social equity.

Oronto Douglas’s journey as an activist began as a child in his native home of Okoroba and gained momentum during his time as a student at the Rivers University of Science & Technology Port Harcourt, where he became actively involved in Civil Liberty Organization, student politics and grassroots movements advocating for democracy and human rights. It was his passion for justice and equality that led him to pursue a career in law, using the legal system as a tool to fight against oppression and exploitation. However, it was his tireless efforts to address the environmental devastation in the Niger Delta that would define his legacy.

The Niger Delta, often referred to as the “Heart of Nigeria,” is a region of immense ecological significance, blessed with abundant natural resources, including oil and gas reserves. Yet, paradoxically, it is also one of the most environmentally degraded and economically impoverished regions in the world, largely due to decades of oil exploration and exploitation by multinational corporations. Douglas was at the forefront of the struggle to hold these corporations accountable for their actions and to demand justice for the communities affected by their operations.

As a founding member of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Douglas played a pivotal role in raising awareness about the environmental and social impacts of oil extraction in the Niger Delta. Through grassroots mobilization, legal advocacy, and international networking, he effectively challenged the impunity of oil companies and government agencies complicit in environmental degradation and human rights abuses. His efforts helped to galvanize a global movement in support of environmental justice and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Beyond his environmental activism, Douglas was also deeply committed to promoting sustainable development and empowering local communities to assert their rights and assert control over their resources. He believed fervently in the principles of environmental stewardship and community self-determination, advocating for participatory decision-making processes that prioritize the needs and aspirations of ordinary Nigerians. His vision of a just and equitable society where both people and the planet thrive continues to inspire generations of activists and changemakers.

Additionally, OND’s contributions to the enthronement and strengthening of democracy in Nigeria are as significant as his environmental activism. His commitment to justice extended beyond environmental concerns to encompass broader societal issues, including the struggle for democracy and good governance.

In the tumultuous era of military rule in Nigeria, Douglas emerged as a fearless pro-democracy activist, using his legal expertise and grassroots organizing skills to challenge the authoritarian regime of that time. He was actively involved in the pro-democracy movements of the 1990s, which sought to restore democratic governance and respect for human rights in Nigeria.

During the dark days of military dictatorship, Douglas risked his personal safety and freedom to speak truth to power, advocating for the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the rights of citizens to participate in the political process. He played a crucial role in mobilizing civil society groups, student organizations, and other stakeholders in the struggle against military oppression, often at great personal sacrifice. The dictators tried to stop him. They locked him up and tortured him, but once they let him go, he spoke even louder and wrote even stronger against them. Oronto’s words were a great source of strength to the oppressed people of Nigeria. In him, communities and minority groups found their voice.

One of Douglas’s most notable contributions to the democratization process in Nigeria was his involvement in the legal defense of political activists and prisoners of conscience including Ken Saro Wiwa. As a human rights lawyer, he provided legal representation to individuals who were detained or persecuted for their opposition to the military regime, ensuring that their voices were heard and their rights protected in the face of state repression.

Moreover, OND was among those instrumental in advocating for electoral reform and the establishment of democratic institutions that would uphold the principles of transparency, accountability, and electoral integrity. He recognized that free and fair elections were essential for the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria and tirelessly campaigned for electoral justice and reforms that would ensure the people’s right to choose their leaders without interference or manipulation.

Following the transition to civilian rule in 1999, Douglas continued his efforts to strengthen democracy in Nigeria by monitoring elections, promoting civic education, and advocating for political participation among marginalized groups, including women and youth. He understood that democracy is not merely about holding elections but also about fostering a culture of democratic governance, respect for human rights, and inclusive development.

In addition to his grassroots activism, Douglas also served in various official capacities within the Nigerian government, including as a Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on Research, Documentation and Strategy. In this role, he worked to promote good governance, transparency, and accountability in the administration while advocating for policies that would benefit the Nigerian people, particularly those in marginalized communities.

Oronto Douglas’s dedication to democracy and human rights in Nigeria earned him admiration and respect both at home and abroad. His unwavering commitment to justice, coupled with his courage and integrity, made him a beacon of hope for all those who yearned for a democratic and egalitarian society. Though he may no longer walk among us, his legacy continues to inspire Nigerians to strive for a future where democracy thrives, and the rights and dignity of all citizens are upheld.

The man Oronto was a man of the land and the people. His love for the land was to the extent that everywhere he travelled to, he took his love with him such that strangers were drawn to the land, and they saw what he saw and felt what he felt. He fought for the land and the oppressed people of Nigeria. He fought with words and not the bullet. He spoke and wrote, and the world heard from him about the wicked attacks on the land and its people.

In his works, children were given their pride of place and honour. He built and equipped schools with modern facilities for them. The objective was to create an enabling environment for teaching and learning so that the children would grow to use words like him in continuation of the call for environmental and social justice. He gathered the entertainers and artists of the land and provided a stage for plays and songs to be written about the land.

Oronto Douglas’s untimely passing on the 9th of April 2015 robbed Nigeria of one of its most passionate voices for justice and sustainability. However, his spirit lives on in the countless lives he touched and the enduring impact of his advocacy. As we commemorate his ninth memorial, let us not only honor his memory but also recommit ourselves to the ideals for which he so passionately fought. The struggle for environmental justice and human rights in the Niger Delta and beyond continues, and Oronto Douglas’s legacy serves as a guiding light for all those who dare to dream of a better world.Top of Form

In the words of Dimeari Von Kemedi, “Once there lived a man, Oronto Natei Douglas, we called him OND and he really lived”.

May the Almighty God continue to rest OND’s soul in perfect peace and uphold his family in safety and progress.

Engr. (Chief) Ipigansi Okumo is the Chairman of the Ogbia Brotherhood Unity Branch – Abuja & Northern Nigeria, and a member of the Ogbia Study Group. He worked with Oronto Douglas for about two decades.

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

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