I FIRST met with Oronto Douglas on the opinion pages of The Guardian, and was struck by the simple musical notes in his name. By the time I read his script, I knew I would read another, more than that. I knew in my heart that this man would be my friend someday.
I did not get to meet Oronto until I left Lagos. A friend of mine, a fellow poet, Chiedu Ezeanah, had taken up a new assignment as the Port Harcourt bureau chief of The News magazine, and I had been recalled home to Rivers State to help build the state newspaper under the professional guidance of Dr Kudo Eresia-Eke, Commissioner for Information under the Dauda Komo administration.
Chiedu and I went in deliberate search of the ERA office in Port Harcourt. He had a report to file on environmental degradation in the Niger Delta. I was hoping to meet, for the first time, a man call Oronto Douglas.
We did not meet him, to cut a long story short, and I bided my time while Chiedu took responses from the officer at work. Long before that, Oronto had become a pet subject in the conversation between me and Doifie Buokoribo Ola, a young student of political science who simply wanted to let go and belong in the vanguard of the intellectual struggle for the restoration of equity and justice in the beleaguered Niger Delta. Doifie had ventured into active journalism as a first step to that ambition, and had the good fortune of meeting with Oronto long before I did.
When eventually I met with Oronto, I was surprised by what he said. He had been on the look-out for me, he confessed, and he was rather disappointed that I didn’t wait to meet with him when I visited the ERA office at 13 Agudama Street, D-Line, Port Harcourt. To begin with, I was struck by the size of the man. He was a voluble drum rolling on his brief legs, animated and excitable, apparently bent on spelling out the best intentions for the world. In a way, he reminded me of Danny Devito.
Without mincing words, Oronto told me how much he enjoyed the poetic content of my doodles in the newspapers and in my first book, Mantids. “I see us working together,” he said. “You cannot run away from it. We need strong words from you, elegantly put, in the struggle for our patrimony. You are hereby recruited for the cause of the Niger Delta peoples.”
It is not as if I had any choice in the matter. I am a prince of the Niger Delta in my own humble right. It is not as if I needed to be persuaded about helping to put out the fire in my own backyard. But Oronto’s cocksure dedication to the imperative of seeing to the materialization of the dream of Isaac Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa got me going, in more ways than one.
My respect for Oronto Douglas gained ground when I got to know that he was in the team of lawyers for Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow Ogoni compatriots who were held bound by the shackles of a dictatorial junta under General Sani Abacha. I began to put pen to paper with an honest resolve to lend my gentle voice to the newbreed advocacy for change in the polluted creeks of Nigeria’s swamp country.
Oronto Douglas knew he had but a short time to live. Yet he was devastated when word reached him on his sick bed that President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan had conceded defeat to his principal contender, General Muhammadu Buhari, retired. The second term bid he had looked forward to was not to be. Jonathan was returning to Otueke.
Oronto may have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the electoral loss, the obvious shift of opinion in Nigeria against the incumbent, and the over-arching ambition of the opposition party. In many ways, the loss of Oronto Douglas epitomizes the early concession of defeat by the Goodluck presidency.
I remember the last time Oronto and I met. I was walking to the bus stop in the chill breath of London when my phone rang. I saw an anonymous number on the screen and picked it up. I said hello, and then I heard my name spelt out in deliberate tones from the gritty voice of my good friend, Oronto.
“Nengi Josef Ilagha,” he said and laughed in that rich bubbly manner that is unique to him. I paused in my strides, walked to the side of the kerb, looked around me with appropriate wonder, before I spelt out his name in like manner, in that peculiar way we greet whenever we met or spoke over the phone. We simply reminded each other of who we are. We held our identities out into each other’s face.
“Oronto Natei Douglas,” said I in return. But he was still laughing. He was the last person in the world I expected to call me at that precise moment.
“I am in London,” he said. “Where are you?”
“I am in London.”
“Good. Meet me at the prestigious hotel on the other side of Hyde Park. I’ll text the name and address to your phone. Can you make it now?”
I couldn’t make it. I was cold and tired, and it was late. I had a pack of snacks with me, and I was looking forward to my bed. To sign off for the night, he spelt out my identity one more time, and I was obliged to repeat his three names in like manner, placing the appropriate stress where it should be. Oronto Natei Douglas laughed to his heart’s content. Even from that impersonal distance, I could see his lips widening into a broad smile, his eyes narrowing to delighted slits and his voice, gruffly fighting every guttural boundary to spell out what he had to say to me.
At about noon the following day, I was ushered into his room at the hotel, and we repeated our traditional greetings, surrounded by a loud shower of laughter. Then he sat back and told me that he was on his way to the US, and stopped over for a short rest, because all flights had been cancelled on account of the overwhelming fog. He would wait for the meteorologists to declare the air free to fly again.
“This is Michael Jackson’s favourite hotel,” said Oronto as if it was the next logical thing to say. “Whenever he comes to London, this is where he stays.”
I was suitably impressed. My eyes popped with wonder as Oronto recounted the noble history of the hotel, and ended by confiding in me that he was staying there at the expense of a publisher friend who had cancelled his flight to the UK.
“He didn’t want to lose the reservation, so he handed me the details and here I am.”
Oronto and I shared a three-course meal that afternoon. But I did more of the eating. He simply talked about the great dream he harboured for Nigeria, and how I was part of that dream. In fact, he would like to introduce me to his very good friend, a chap who is so possessed by his national identity that he now goes by the name of Nigeria. “He’s right here in London. Do you know him? Do you know Nigeria? You guys should meet. I’m sure you’ll get along very well.” And so saying, Oronto gave me a phone number that I promptly saved as Nigeria.
I asked Oronto to grant me an interview right away. I am familiar with his opinion on national issues, I said, but I wanted his voice on tape. Oronto Natei Douglas obliged me. A few weeks later, when I returned to Nigeria, I published that exclusive interview in the first edition of Coastline News Network for 2011. It was entitled “The Strategist Behind The President.” Even as I write this, I can hear his voice resounding with passion and perspective in the warm comfort of that hotel.
Oronto is not gone. If anyone provokes him now, he will speak up. I know my friend. If Shell dares pollute our creeks now, Oronto’s voice will play back from many tapes and video clips and photos and quotes. The words he articulated while on earth still resonate in the open ears of the world.
I remember the day I heard Oronto Douglas give an impromptu speech in the early days of the Goodluck Presidency in London. The Ijaw Youth Association of Great Britain and Ireland were receiving Nigerians all around the UK, in corporate association with a resident number of public spirited non-governmental organizations rooting for democratic stability in Nigeria.
It was the first and only time I saw Oronto Douglas, my personal friend, address an international audience of diplomatic and sundry humanity in perhaps the most famous capital of knowledge in the whole wide world. Oronto wore a simple suit, a pair of blue jeans on brogues and a brown blazer to match. Atop his head was the cap of a sheriff.
I wish Oronto Douglas had joined us in the photo we took that day, Ebiye, Richard Ogbe and I in the ebbing winter of London, in the half hour after Oronto had given that stirring speech to sons and daughters of Bayelsa in Great Britain and Ireland, in his capacity as representative of the President, Federal Republic of Nigeria.
He was a consummate agitator tormented by the ideas which propelled him into tireless performance. He believed in believing that life is all about achieving results, and any waste of time frustrated his kinetic search for resolving the next problem, overcoming the next challenge. He was a man in a hurry to take the next assignment, assured that he was done with the last one, and it would stand as a testimony to his involvement.
Our communication thinned out to the occasional call when he left for the Villa, and I could feel him coming to grips with the task of advising President Goodluck Jonathan on the next worthwhile strategy.
Alas, on the night of Friday May 2, 2015, I saw Oronto Natei Douglas with his eyes shut, a black bow-tie balanced on a penguin-breasted tuxedo. It was the first time I saw Oronto asleep. The fact that he didn’t wake up to shake hands and say hello to friends and family at a gathering in his honour confirmed to me that he was clinically dead.
As I drove away from the precincts of Ijaw House, wearing a dress embalazoned with the image of Oronto, driving in the company of Izontimi Otuogha, a fellow journalist, I came face to face yet again, with a sober reality. The body is home to the man. It is like a dress. It can wear out. Like a temple, it can collapse.
He is gone with the pass words to his Facebook and twitter accounts, gone with the secrets of his heart, gone with all that authority that vibrated in his voice, gone with all that respect he could command simply by being Oronto Douglas. He knew he wasn’t the tallest man in the Niger Delta. He knew he couldn’t speak with a fluent British or American accent. He was simply himself.
No affectations altered his person. He gave of himself, raw to the world, that the world may marvel at what God can do with one piece of stone. For that is what Oronto was. He was a living stone in God’s hand transformed to perform a particular assignment, to convict the strong mind of Pharaoh to let the people go.
Oronto was a miracle. Oronto was a parable. Oronto was here. We dare to speak of him in the past, as uncomfortable as it sounds. For all you know, Oronto could break through the grave, and tell what lies on the other side of the Great Divide, to all the friends of the earth. Oronto was that energetic, that muscular in spirit and in flesh.
But see what we have here today. He lies enlarged on a billboard, smile transformed, beaming down at the mourning multitude. It remains a great pity that even the angelic soloist in a long white gown, voice so tremulously piercing, could not wake him up from sleeping in public. In the end, his humility spoke for him. Oronto Natei Douglas was not buried at the Ijaw National Heroes Park. His remains were interred in Okoroba where his umbilical cord was rooted.
But if there is any national hero, other than Isaac Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa who deserved a place at the customized cemetery for heroes of the resource control struggle, Oronto Douglas fitted the bill, especially because he was alive at the time the Dickson government designated a place for that purpose. It still beats me why Oronto’s remains had to be diminished to a puny parcel of land in Okoroba.
Our ranks have been depleted by a wide margin. The struggle for resource control and self determination amongst the peoples of the Niger Delta has been diminished by a hefty pound of intellect, a bundle of energy, a bank of resourceful creativity. Oronto Douglas embodied all of these and more. He deserved the encomiums that were poured out on him, the fresh outbreak of love for a dogged fighter who gave in too soon.