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Where Cancer Feasts: Lamentation for Oronto Natei Douglas

By Ogaga Ifowodo
FOR a full decade, we were in touch with each other only sporadically. Then one smouldering Texas summer evening four years after our last conversation, he called me. He had heard that I was done with my doctoral studies at Cornell and had taken up a position at Texas State University. He was in the US for personal reasons and wanted to congratulate me.

And then he mentioned, casually,that he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was in California for treatment. I cannot tell now if intimations of mortality were behind his impulse to call me.Nor what was for me the greater shock: the awful news be bore or the calm, oh-by-the-way, manner he delivered it?So stunned was I that, ironically, it was he who fell to reassuring me that he would be fine, that he and not cancer would laugh last. I wished him the best of luck and medicine and he in turn wished me a successful career in academia, adding that I shouldn’t tarry too long before returning home as “there is still work for us to do.”

Oronto Douglas
Late Oronto Douglas

Our communications remained sporadic until July 2013 when,now thinking of returning home, I began sounding out friends and acquaintances. I recall him now doodling as we spoke in his office. He was delighted. He would do whatever he could to help with any final relocation plan. Unfortunately, by this time the Big C had begun to exact a heavier toll on his health, requiring more frequent trips to the oncologists. We communicated more regularly now, though primarily by text messaging to husband his energy for work. A man of boundless vitality, he had an infinite enthusiasm for work and good causes.

Which brings me to the first time we met. In Benin, while I was a law student and Secretary-General of the Students Union. He had come from Port Harcourt and found a fellow nature and environmental rights enthusiast in Nnimmo Bassey, an architect. They would soon be joined by Godwin Uyi Ojo and together be the moving spirit behind the Civil Liberties Organisation’s environmental rights project.

By the time I began to devote a chapter to minority and environmental rights in the CLO’s acclaimed annual reports on human rights, the need had arisen for the project’s autonomy, leading to Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Nigeria’s foremost nature preservation NGO and partner to Friends of the Earth.In the beginning, Oronto was ERA’s chief field officer and intellectual force. He would team up with Ike Okonta to write the seminal Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta, an unanswerable indictment of transnational oil companies’ despoliation of the Niger Delta in shocking collusion with our rent-crazed federal government.

So prominent was Oronto in the self-determination struggles of the Niger Delta, and by extension Nigeria, that when he accepted to be Commissioner of Information and Strategy in his young state of Bayelsa, a debate ensued in the human rights community on the proprietary of rights activists serving in government when the oppressive and exploitative structure of the state remained unchanged.

I had argued that to wait for a revolutionary government before good people would enter public service is literally to wait for Godot, as the master of absurdist theatre, Samuel Beckett,might put it. Besides, when good people scorn government, who takes their place and how much better do we fare? Just one condition would do for me: that the comrade be convinced of making a genuine contribution. And leave when that is no longer possible.

I’m mourning Natei,not scoring his achievements in government, but going by the number of men and women he brought into government, some of them occupying very important positions even now, and the universally good opinion of those who really knew him, he did a lot of good in a very short time, my differences with the governments under which he served the nation aside.

Indeed,the first part of my last, unanswered, text message to him on 7 April restates that very point: “Natei, you must be back home? And surely in better shape than when you last went to the US?Just want to say congratulations to President Jonathan for the historic act of statesmanship that doubtlessly marks a new chapter in our troubled search for nationhood. I was one of his fiercest critics but he deserves nothing but praise for putting country first even in the hour of his defeat. History will be kind to him on that very patriotic act.”

In one of his Dispatches from Tumor town, Christopher Hitchens, another intrepid victim of cancer, quotes Horace Mann, an American educator, thus:”Until you have done something for humanity,you should be ashamed to die.” Hitchens had wanted so badly to beat cancer that he might do some mighty deed before dying. Yet not many who lived longer than him (Hitchens died at 62) could boast half of his achievements.

Oronto was no Hitchens, moreover cancer made a feast of him a full 13 years sooner, but if the report that Bassey gives of his last days and hours is true, then in not being afraid to die, Oronto must have felt he had given a good account of the cruelly short time allotted him on earth. Certainly, his life long exertions in pursuit of a livable Niger Delta, a free and fair Nigeria, give testimony of his service to humanity at large. And he will continually call to us from the black waters of the Niger Delta creeks.

Adieu, dear friend.


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