………..Oronto Natei Douglas, builder of public libraries, died on March 31
By Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi
There was no way the late Pa Obebara Douglas, a fisherman from the small, remote village of Okoroba in Bayelsa state, and his traditional midwife partner, Igoni, could have envisaged the impact that their little son, Oronto, when he was born without fanfare on August 6, 1966 would eventually have on his country. The military counter- coup that ousted General Aguiyi Ironsi had just taken place; Gen Yakubu Gowon was trying to settle down as Head of State, but a brutal civil war that changed the country’s destiny forever was to follow less than a year later.
So, from the outset, Oronto Natei Douglas did not enjoy any special privileges. He grew up watching, with some confusion, the environmental chaos that pervaded the entire Niger Delta area. The rivers had been blackened and thickened by endless spillages from oil pipelines, the network of which zig-zagged across the length and breadth of his fatherland, stifling fishes and economic activities and rendering his kinsmen helpless.
Perhaps, his hapless father’s complaints about how the oil giants, like Shell, were making fishing and farming impossible for himself and the rural populace, coupled with the level of poverty among his people, persuaded him to study Law at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, from where he graduated in 1991.
It was there, with the benefit of hindsight, that he found much of the answers to several of the nagging questions that had been bothering his mind. He embraced activism and began to plot his graph for a dignified life of struggle.
He saw the future. Rather than take to the guns, he reasoned that intellectualism was a better weapon to tackle the oppressors. But he was also aware of the dangers. When you decide to confront the old order in a country like Nigeria, where the quest for control over the land flowing with milk and honey had become a matter of life and death, you could end up some six feet below the earth rather quickly, or be maimed, or if you’re lucky, be banished to a foreign land, very far away from home.
He, indeed, got a taste of it. When the federal government got so irritated by his activities, it sent the Military Task Force after him in 1994 in Ogoniland to teach him a lesson. For four days while the lesson lasted, he was thrown into jail with his collaborators, flogged with a six-millimetre electric cable and severely tortured. “It was a most horrible experience that I don’t wish for anybody,” he later recounted, but he had realized how lucky he was to have left the jail alive. His kinsman and Ogoni leader, Ken Saro Wiwa was not so lucky. As the youngest member of the Saro Wiwa’s legal team, he became helpless, like everybody else, when the Sani Abacha junta found him guilty and sent him to the gallows.
But that bitter experience rekindled his resolve to fight on and he travelled far and wide, armed with books, maps and photographs, preaching his gospel and calling the world to action against the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta. He found listening ears where it mattered – in the United States and in Europe. Former United States President, Bill Clinton hosted him at the White House. Other foreigners were impressed by his oratory and presentation skills. When Oronto took you on a journey of how much suffering oil exploration had caused the Niger Delta region, you ended up joining his army.
When he decided to join former President Goodluck Jonathan’s team as Special Adviser on Research, Documentation and Strategy, he knew what the stakes were. There were protests from his constituency and some of his friends, because of the fear that he might be polluted by power and politics.
But he saw it differently. At one of his several meetings with News Editors of Nigerian newspapers, he said, “it is when good, focused people stay away from government that mediocre politicians get in and ruin lives.” He not only defended his principal tenaciously, he did it with facts and figures.
But for him, nobody would have believed Jonathan achieved any laudable feats as President. The accomplishments in agriculture, transportation, road construction, aviation, education and energy, would have been belittled. And when Jonathan became everybody’s punching bag, he remained resolute, regardless of the terminal illness that had reduced him to half his normal size.
As the cancer steadily ripped through him, and up till the very last moments, he was still busy campaigning for his principal, holding up his achievements, defending his administration and building bridges. For him, there was no carpet crossing or change of tune. It was Jonathan and Jonathan alone. It made people wonder. Nobody in Jonathan’s cabinet or even in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) showed that level of commitment.
A middle-aged man narrated a story at the Ijaw House on May 1, during the well-attended evening of tributes. “Oronto and I were childhood friends in the early 70s when he used to live with his uncle who had typewriter,” he began. “We used to practice typing on that typewriter. Then I lost contact with him. Many years later, when I ran into financial difficulties during my doctorate programme, I reached out to Oronto through a friend who gave me his number. I hadn’t spoken to or seen him for over 20 years. When he heard my voice after I had introduced myself, he screamed. He remembered me. I told him my problem and he asked for my account number. The next day, he paid N200, 000 into my account. I was shocked. I tried to reach him immediately, just to say thank you, but he did not pick my calls.”
Such stories abound. Even one of his lieutenants, Akinbode Oluwafemi attested to his selflessness. “Oronto would give all his money to people and then ask me for money,” he recalled instances in those early days. Nobody could understand his penchant for kindness. Giving to those in need, over and over and over again was his addiction. He solved problems, gave cash, property, gifts. Whatever it was that could make the other man or woman happy was not too much for him to part with. Service to humanity was his calling; making an impact on human lives was a joyful activity. To underscore his belief in education, he built several libraries, including the one that was commissioned at the Federal University, Otuoke on May 2. After all, he would say, “all is vanity.”
A time to die
It’s not how long you live that matters, he once said, shortly before he fell asleep, but how much positive impact you were able to make while alive. His doctors in California tried all they could to fight the cancer. He obeyed the instructions on the dos and don’ts and took the prescribed drugs religiously. But in the end, when he was told there was nothing more to be done, having exhausted all available options, he knew what was coming. But he took it in magnanimously. He was not angry with God. Rather, he bowed down in gratitude for the opportunities he had had.
Even the heavens also honoured him. At the night of tributes organized by Nollywood stars at the Eko Hotel in Lagos, Hilda Dokubo, Monalisa China and Rita Dominic led a pack that put up an impressive performance. Sammie Okposo and Timi Dakolo gave separate, emotional renditions. At the Ijaw House in Yenogoa, where he became the first Ijaw man to be so honoured, tributes filled the air. His friends from all over the world, including his long time collaborators, Laura Livoti and Michael Watts came all the way from the United States.
In his tribute, Watts wrote: “close to the end of his life, he gathered a small group of us together in California where he was receiving treatment for the cancer that first appeared seven years ago and which was to return – as he knew from the first diagnosis by his doctors in San Francisco in 2008 – to ultimately take his life. There was no need for sadness and emotion, he said. Oronto had called us together to thank each and every one of us for our friendship, for comradeship that was central to how he saw the world. Life is beautiful, life is harsh. Oronto knew this better than most.”
A grateful principal
Jonathan admitted a deep sense of personal loss at the final church service held in Yenogoa before the lowering of the body on May 2. With his defeat at the Presidential election just days earlier, Jonathan described Oronto as a devoted friend and brother. He also extolled Oronto’s unwavering loyalty to his government and his commitment to the common good. He said. “When Oronto says he will be with you, you can be sure that come rain, come sunshine, he will always be with you, unlike others who will leave when the going is no longer good. And because of Oronto, I am now the most documented President (of Nigeria).”