In the many months preceding the March 28 presidential election in Nigeria, I used to wonder about the whereabouts of Oronto Douglas, President Goodluck Jonathan’s special adviser on research, documentation and strategy. I was wondering that at a time when a serious fellow like him should have been shilling for the government on whatever achievements it boasted, all you had were inarticulate ejaculations from some hangers-on and parasites in and around the government. It turned out Mr. Douglas had been laid low with cancer for months. He died last week. Mr. Douglas was 49.
I knew Douglas. An environmental activist, Douglas was a stocky man with a rather simple and amiable countenance, a man whose overall disposition radiated warmth and friendliness despite the fierce tenacity of the struggle he led then as a ferocious warrior for justice and restitution on behalf of the Niger Delta, a struggle that pitted him and the likes of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa against the federal government of Nigeria and multinational oil companies. Before Goodluck Jonathan ever became widely known, Douglas had already achieved renown as an environmentalist.
My first encounter with Douglas was one night 16 years ago in the island town of Abonnema where members of the Ijaw Youths’ Council had retreated after meeting with newly elected President Olusegun Obasanjo earlier in the day inside one of the executive chambers of Government House, Port Harcourt. From the look on his face the moment I introduced myself to him, it was as though a bulb lit up in his head. He pumped my hand vigorously and proceeded to thank me. At first I thought he was thanking me for the so many stories I’d done for Newswatch on the Niger Delta and its peoples’ quest for restitution. No, Douglas’ gratitude was essentially about this: http://www.essentialaction.org/shell/era/eraReview.html, a review of a 224-page book he’d co-written which appeared in the magazine’s edition of that week.
He said he liked how I reviewed the book and he promised to get in touch with me in case he had more things I could be interested in. A few months later, I would travel out of the country while Douglas would move on to greater things as a commissioner in Bayelsa State and, much later, as a key member of the Jonathan government where he helped shape policies. He would also later collaborate with Ike Okonta, the poet-journalist, on other vital environmental exertions, including another critically acclaimed book.
Unlike many other activists who quickly detoured and hankered after personal goals once they had been absorbed into government, Douglas, a trained lawyer, was sue generis — in a class by himself. He showed fidelity to his original cause while in Yenagoa and Abuja at different times. For Douglas, it can be said that the struggle was his life. He was a man of high purpose, a true original — and a humble one at that.
Long before he died, all that immediately crept into my mind each time I saw his name in print, was that moment as he apologized to Obasanjo “in my capacity as a son” on behalf of unruly Ijaw youths during that meeting with the president. Douglas was all sweetness and light — the very essence of reasonable comportment. For simply all that and many more, Douglas will continue to live even though he’s gone from this physical plane of existence. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and may the Almighty God rest his soul.
Ofuoku writes from Tampa, Florida