By Engr. Ipigansi Okumo
Men come and men go. But does history make the man or does the man make history? When this old philosophical conundrum was put across to Nelson Mandela, he responded that history makes the man. Though others may have a different opinion, this was certainly the case of the Okoroba-born scholar, orator, activist, intellectual giant and philanthropist, Barrister Oronto Obebitazibanateiami Douglas, who sojourned planet earth for forty-eight years.
Oronto’s parents, Pa Obebara Douglas and Mrs Igoni Douglas, probably saw what others did not see and named him Obebitazibanateiami, which in the Ogbia language simply means “The good of God will get to me”. The Natei in the name took prominence and, indeed, the good of God got to many people and communities through Oronto Natei Douglas, popularly known as OND.
This was evident in the numerous tributes and condolence messages that poured in, six years ago, when OND transited to glory and ancestorhood on 9th April 2015. Oronto Natei Douglas meant different things to different people. To some, he was a philanthropist, to others he was a voice and a force. When I glanced through the testimonies in the tribute booklet, I wonder if there was any good word in the dictionary that was not used to describe him.
Oronto’s wife, Mrs Tarinabo Lovelyn Douglas, described OND as a dear loving and a trustworthy husband. His children Ogieltaziba Ebiegberi Douglas and Daniel Ekpartaziba Douglas described OND as a caring, warm and dependable father. To the people of Epebu Community, Oronto was a God-sent helper, a dogged advocate, and a benevolent man. To the pro-democracy enthusiast, he was one of the shinning heroes of the struggle against dictatorship in Nigeria. Still, to the civil society, Oronto was an unmatched environmental/human rights campaigner and an icon of social justice.
Different folks with different descriptions. Some people describe him as the Gladiator of Niger Delta. To the Ogonis, OND was not only a voice of a generation, but a courageous, loud and fearless voice that speaks for the poor and oppressed people of the Niger Delta.
Former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan GCFR described OND as an uncommonly gifted, courageous and steadfast fighter for the rights of the downtrodden and the good of our common humanity. He further remarked that in the death of Oronto, he had personally lost one of his most trusted and dedicated aides.
One of Oronto’s closest friends of over three decades Mr. Doifie Buokoribo aptly described OND as a Prophet of Resistance. Having bonded and worked with Oronto for about seventeen years, I totally agree with Mr. Doifie, that the real Oronto was a Prophet of Resistance.
Oronto’s resistance to oppression and determination to fight for justice was not something that he learnt. It was in his DNA. This special trait of his came to the fore in the serene community of Okoroba at St Mark’s Primary school where OND started his primary education before his uncle, Late Mr. Ikiriko Apusubh Okogolo, took him to Abeoukuta.
In those days, most of the primary schools especially those domiciled in the Ogbia Kingdom were owned and managed by the Anglican Church. The modus operandi of the schools then was that the school, the church and the community worked together. The synergy made it compulsory for all pupils to attend church services on Sundays. If any pupil failed to comply with this rule, then such an offender could be assured of some strokes of the cane on Monday morning. In fact, the punishment was in three categories. First were those who failed to attend the church service. Pupils under this group received a greater portion of the punishment. Second were those who attended the service but indulged in noise-making. The third category were those who attended the service but could not recall the sermon.
There was a particular Sunday OND could not make it to church. As it was the practice, all defaulters were lined up to receive their measure of flogging. Oronto was among the defaulters and was standing somewhere in the middle of the line. The teacher flogged the pupil until it got to Oronto’s turn and something spectacular happened.
Oronto moved away and shouted to the top of his voice that he will not allow that particular teacher to flog him. He caused a scene and the headmaster had to step in. OND said that the teacher doing the flogging did not also attend the church service and so he had no moral justification to flog him. Oronto further explained to the headmaster that he saw the teacher in a canoe going for a fishing expedition on that faithful Sunday morning. He stressed that if a teacher must flog any pupil for not attending a church service, then it can only be proper that such a teacher also attended the church service.
Oronto’s argument disarmed all the teachers and the headmaster. The headmaster, while wondering at the boldness of such a little boy, then ordered that the flogging be stopped immediately. Oronto saved himself and the pupils lining up behind him from the punishment of that day. Oronto’s protest also changed the dynamics of the school rules with a new order that all teachers and pupils must attend Sunday Church Service.
OND was born a man of uncommon courage. He was also lucky to discover his passion and niche at an early age in life. During his secondary education at United Comprehensive High School, Wasimi, Abeokuta, Oronto was a lover of literature and arts. He led the school debate team to numerous contests within and outside Ogun state winning several laurels in the process. As one of the school prefects, Oronto always ensured that no junior student was punished unjustly. His love for justice and humanity remains outstanding.
At the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST) Port Harcourt, where Oronto studied law, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the University Press Club. He was also deeply involved in civil rights through the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO). He used his talents and positions to fight for student rights all through his university education. Before he graduated, Oronto became a household name every student wanted to reckon with.
Shortly after returning from Law School, Oronto in collaboration with a few friends set up the renowned Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. Notable among the key players I saw and related with were Rev. Nnimmo Bassey, Barrister Uche Onyeagucha, Nick Ashon-jones, Doifie Buokoribo, Dr. Ike Okonta, Simon Kolawole, just to mention a few of those who helped in actualising his struggle.
The Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth Nigeria was the platform that Oronto used for his unsurpassed environmental/human rights advocacy, helping uncountable people and communities. On the framework of ERA, OND campaigned against military dictatorship in Nigeria. He also confronted the multinational oil companies (Shell, Agip, Chevron, Elf etc.) over the environmental degradation occasioned by the activities of the oil companies.
He laboured so hard and suffered in his work of advocacy. He endured several arrests, detentions, and torture from Nigerian Military dictators, especially during the bloody days of General Sani Abacha. Though he helped many Nigerian activists secure asylum in foreign countries, he chose to stay in Nigeria to join forces with other activists, regularly marching in the streets, demanding a return to democracy and respect for human rights. He never succumbed to the military intimidations.
According to Mr Doifie Buokoribo, “at a time, he was the most outspoken, most consistent and most fluent voice on resource control, self-determination and environmental security in Nigeria. At community-organised programmes, think-thanks and universities all over the world, he spoke on justice for the Niger Delta. He met with world leaders, including President Bill Clinton, and gave parliamentary briefings in Ireland, Belgium, Finland, Sweden etc., on issues of environmental rights and livelihood. Community people were at the heart of Oronto’s lifework”.
An instance that quickly comes to my mind was the beating OND and others received in the month of June 1994. After hearing that Ken Saro-Wiwa was bound, legs and arms in military detention, Oronto in company of Barrister Uche Onyeagucha, his undergraduate coursemate and Nick Ashon-jones, a British environmentalist, made a visit to Bori Military Camp Port Harcourt, to see Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni detainees. They were brutally beaten on the orders of the ignoble Lieutenant Colonel Paul Okuntimo, the commander of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, then.
After Okuntimo sighted them talking to Ledum Mitee inside Bori Military Camp, Okuntimo screamed to his men, “what are these people doing here? Who is this white man and those two men? Why can’t you people take common instruction? You beasts, why did you allow them?”
Okuntimo then pushed his pistol into one of the soldier’s mouth, kicked another soldier in the groin, and pushed a third into a cell along with Mitee. He then pushed Oronto, Uche, and Nick into a cell with some thirty Ogoni detainees. After about an hour, an officer known to the other detainees as the Regimental Sergeant Major took Oronto, Uche, and Nick to another room and ordered his soldiers to give each of the men one hundred strokes of the cane. They were forced to lie prostrate while one soldier beat them with three electric cables, and another kicked them. Later, they were brought outside to lie in the rain. After a thorough beating, they were pushed into a waiting car 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.
When Okuntimo returned, he told them that “God has said you people that Nigeria won the match, otherwise today would have been your end”. Okuntimo then ordered the soldiers to detain them at the State Security Services headquarters in Port Harcourt. In the night of that same day, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had reported the news and because of the image problem and the fact that a British national was among the detainees, the authorities had no option but to release them.
In Oronto’s battles against the high and mighty, principalities and powers, he also had an encounter with Former President Olusegun Obasanjo GCFR, when Obasanjo was in office as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Precisely on 6th June 1999 during his first tour of Rivers State, soon after his swearing-in, Obasanjo wrested a microphone publicly from OND, at Government House Port-Harcourt because Oronto dared to call attention to the injustice against the Niger Delta. While Oronto was still giving his speech on-behalf of the Ijaw Youths, calling the attention of the Nigerian government to the environmental degradation the region had suffered and demanding for self-determination, resource control and the abrogation of the Land Use Act which Obasanjo enacted as a military degree, President Obasanjo got visibly angry and stepped up suddenly and grasped the microphone from Oronto, in an attempt to forcefully take it from him.
Unfortunately, Obasanjo didn’t succeed, and the situation resulted to both of them dragging the microphone on who will emerge victorious. Oronto told Obasanjo to wait for him to finish his speech, but Obasanjo refused. It took the intervention of those present in the hall to calm down the situation.
When Obasanjo took the microphone, he thundered. “What do you know about injustice? Have you been jailed unjustly before, like I have? Where were you when I liberated your fathers? If I did not sacrifice my life to defeat the Biafrans, where would you have been to be clamouring for resource control?” Obasanjo then berated the traditional rulers of the state for allowing Oronto to talk to him “like that”. In the end, all parties left in anger and disappointment. However, Obasanjo received the message that the Niger Delta was not an area to be toyed with.
Oronto Natei Douglas was a rare gem who lived, resisting the high & mighty for the sake of the downtrodden. Losing such a courageous and charismatic personality at his prime was a great loss to the country of Nigeria.
As noted by Simon Kolawole, columnist and publisher of TheCable, Nigeria’s most respected online newspaper, “OND was a genuine patriot and democrat who haboured no ethnic sentiments or bigoted cells in his body.”
In Oronto’s death, people, groups, communities, societies, institutions, industries and regions are still counting our losses especially in his legendary works of advocacy and charity. Oronto had a large heart and was generous to a fault. As a lover of education, he made conscious and deliberate efforts at promoting the intellect. He built many libraries, a school, gave scholarship to so many, shared books, school uniforms, school shoes and school bags to primary school pupils in many communities. He also setup several intellectual groups, NGOs and CBOs and supported many institutions to stabilize and prosper.
Oronto was a special gift to humanity. He found his voice and helped others to find theirs as well. We do miss him greatly.
May God Almighty bless OND’s soul and may He continue to comfort, uphold and provide for his family and dependants even as we remember and cherish his unquantifiable and uncommon sacrifices and contributions to humanity, on this sixth year of his glorious transition.
Adieu, Oronto Obebitazibanateiami Douglas.
Engr. Ipigansi Okumo is a member of the Ogbia Study Group and writes from Ogbia Town.