Reminiscing on indelible footprints of Oronto Natei Douglas (1966-2015)
By IPIGANSI OKUMO
Oronto Natei Douglas, in my early years in secondary school, I was very fortunate to have met an uncommon soul called Oronto Natei Douglas, fondly known as OND by friends and acquaintances. Though our meeting was a brief one, it impacted greatly on me. It changed my perspective and approach to life.
However, little did it ever cross my imagination that I would be working with OND later in my life, to fight against injustice and build peace for the common good of the Niger Delta and Nigeria.
Until the mid-90s, Oronto and I never met again since our first encounter in the late ‘80s.As the religious enthusiasts would say, divine appointment brought us together and never to part again.
We worked together until that sad day of 9th April 2015 when death took him away. During the colourful ceremonies of Oronto’s funeral, the stoic side of my frail being was cajoled to saying it was celebration of life, but my inner being was immersed in an unending flow of tears and mourning.
Oronto’s death was a personal loss that created a huge vacuum in my life that I have to endure for many years. As I reflect on the good times I shared with OND, I find his great legacies very comforting.
However, one statement he had repeatedly said to me (which I have since classified as one pillar of Oronto’s creed), came knocking strongly on my mind. OND, my mentor and brother by grace and divine connection, had told me over a thousand times that life is not about the steps you have taken but the footprints you have left behind. As I grew older, I began to appreciate, even more, the wisdom in this significant statement.
On this seventh memorial of OND, I am certain that many like me are remembering Oronto for the uncommon and indelible footprints he left behind. Oronto was an uncommon and extraordinary soul that traversed Planet Earth in the soil of the historical Ebela Kingdom in Ogbia, where crude oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in West Africa. In his native home of Okoroba, he left his footprint as the first and youngest pupil of St. Mark’s Primary School he challenged his teacher, who went to equity with unclean hands.
This was OND’s first recorded public victory over injustice and oppression. Oronto later joined his uncle, Ikiriko Apusubh Okogolo, of blessed memory in Abeokuta, who was serving in the Nigerian Army, and continued his primary education at the Army Children School, Alamala, Abeokuta, Ogun State.
On completion of his primary education, he got admitted to the United Comprehensive High School (UCHS), Wasimi, Abeokuta, for his secondary education. He led the arts and school drama and debate team to several contests within and outside Ogun State and returned victoriouswith numerous laurels.
During his apex class at the school, he was appointed as the Deputy Senior Prefect. His academic performance in UCHS remains outstanding till date. Propelled by his passion to always stand for truth and justice, Oronto proceeded to study Law at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), now Rivers State University, Port Harcourt.
He also holds a master’s degree in Environmental Law from the prestigious De Monfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom. At RSUST, he became the Editor-in-Chief of the University’s Press Club. He also championed the activities of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) in the university.
Throughout his tertiary education at RSUST, he fought for the overall interest of the students. He was an intellectual freedom fighter. Oronto belonged to the special breed of humans who never forget their roots, The Trumpet gathered.
They understand that the reason God made you anindigene of one tiny village is for you to turn around the fortunes of that community and make it aplaceothers would desire to be. This was exactly what Oronto did in his ancestral home of Okoroba. In the late ‘90s OND initiateda programme tagged: Education First for his home town. It was an annual programme where Oronto personally gave out prizes and award scholarships to the best performing pupils. This step alone changed the attitude of the pupils.
There was intense hard work, as pupils engaged themselves studiously to win the prizes. This programme blossomed so much that the community benefited greatly. To boost the growing standard at the primary school, Oronto built and equipped a state-of-the-art kindergarten school (E.K. Clark Preparatory School, Okoroba for the community. The school was to prepare the little kids of the community before they are enrolled into the primary school. It was tuition-free. He provided uniforms, shoes, school bags, books and other study materials needed by the kids. This school changed the narrative and face value of his community.
If all who have passed through schools can return and give a fraction of support to the schools they attended, schools would not have been under the current state we find them in the country.
One of his personal beliefs is that the sure way to liberate a people from poverty is to give them quality education and he lived his life demonstrating this belief.
Apart from his unique contributions to advance the education of the people of his native hometown, Oronto contributed even in greater measure outside his home of origin. He built and equipped a library at UCHS, Wasimi, Abeokuta, Ogun State, his alma mater. Other libraries he built and equipped include the Melford Okilo Library in Ogbia Town; Goodluck Jonathan Library in Okoroba; Prof. Bruce Powell Library at the Federal University, Otuoke; Obigboc Mikimiki 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 and a library in Umuobuna-Ohaozara in Ebonyi State. It is also interesting to note that because of Oronto’s love for education, he converted his only building in Yenagoa to a public library and named it in honour of Prof. E. J. Alagoa, one of Nigeria’s leading historians. The library is equipped with laptops, desktop computers and e-readers that are available for use to registered members.
It boasts of about 60,000 e-books, 70, 000 digital materials that include journals and videos, 12,000 hard cover and paperback editions of books on various subjects. Sadly, this library is no longer functional because there is no one to provide funds to keep it going. He was to commence the building of another library in Ikot Nseyen in Ikono Council of Akwa Ibom State, before the cold hands of death snatched him away.
Oronto’s selfless service to humanity cannot be exhaustively highlighted in a short eulogy of this nature. He stood for the Ogoni throughout his life, particularly in the darkest chapter of the community’s history in the era of the dreaded Sani Abacha.
He was a member of the legal team that defended Ken Saro Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni pro bono. He was beaten and battered, locked up and subjected to unimaginable humiliating and inhuman conditions in course of his work in defence of the Ogoni. For the rest of the Niger Delta, he was a voice and a mobiliser.
He challenged the international oil companies (IOCs) operating in the Niger Delta to the extent that they described him as a bitter pill to swallow.
OND founded and cofounded several community-based organisations (CBOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Notable among them are the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Chikoko Movement, Niger Delta Resource Centre, Ogbia Study Group, Community Defence Law Foundation and Douglas Educational Foundation, among others.
It is also pertinent to note that Oronto’s activism was a contributory factor in the establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Ministry of Niger Delta, the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) and the 13 per cent oil derivation fund being paid to oil-producing states. He also stood for democracy in Nigeria.
He was at the forefront of the fight against military dictatorship in Nigeria. During the administration of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, when Oronto served as Special Adviser, he launched the Bring Back the Book (BBB) Initiative in Lagos, Benin, Jos, Yenagoa and Abuja to revitalise the reading culture in Nigeria, especially among the youths so as to empower and prepare the Nigerian youth for the opportunities and challenges they would be facing in the future.
The BBB provided books and computers to schools and student in Oronto’s quest to end book famine in Nigeria.
He also played key roles in conceptualising the idea of the Youth Enterprise with Innovation in Nigeria (YouWiN) programme that empowered many young Nigerians during Jonathan’s administration.
He was a brain box in GEJ administration and many attributed GEJ’s election loss of 2015 to Oronto’s ill health. Oronto’s life can be summarised as a life of sacrificial living.
To him, living was giving and giving was living. He gave his best to the service of humanity locally and internationally. His wish was the younger generation to do better than him.
Through his scholarship and philanthropy programme, he transformed many down-trodden lives for good. He was a God-fearing man who loved humanity especially the less privilege.
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As I continue to reflect on the life of this great patriot, seven years after, I see Oronto’s legacies everywhere around us to remind us of a glorious past, but a few questions come to mind. Has the democratic government of Nigeria, Bayelsa State, Ogbia Kingdom and his hometown, deemed it fit to immortalize this great soul?
Are the legacies of this detribalised Nigerian being preserved? Will the great works of OND go in vain without a reward? It is better late than never. Indeed, OND left uncommon and indelible footprints behind.
May God bless his inheritance and continue to rest his great spirit in eternal peace. Amen. Okumo, Secretary General of the Ogbia Brotherhood Unity, who worked with Oronto for about two decades, wrote from Abuja.