Africa, Nigeria — July 16, 2015 at 8:55 PM

Letter to Oronto Douglas


Oronto Douglas, 49, was Special Assistant on documentation, research and strategy to former president Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria. He was more than a Special Assistant. He was Jonathan’s confidant and arguably his chief political strategist.

Douglas was a lawyer by profession. Before joining the Jonathan administration he had a robust past, which continued to swell even as he worked for President Jonathan. His numerous works abound on the Internet and in books. He came to national and international prominence as an environmental activist on behalf of the oil-producing communities of the Niger Delta regions of Nigeria. Further, he was one of the lawyers who represented popular poet, playwright and human-rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, during his trial in the military regime of General Sani Abacha. Saro-Wiwa was later found guilty by what most people deemed a Kangaroo military court and sentenced to death by hanging. Public outcry across the world did not stop Saro-Wiwa’s execution by the draconian regime.

About three months ago Mr. Douglas passed away sending shock waves in Nigeria and the world. He was terminally ill, but only his family and close friends knew. So, when news of his demise broke most Nigerians and friends were blindsided.

Mr. Douglas was my friend. I knew him for many years. When I learned of his death I was devastated by the news. The following is my letter to him; a eulogy of sort.

Dear Oronto,

It’s been approximately three months this week since you were gone. To be exact, April 9, 2015 was the day the cold hands of death reached out and snatched you away like a thief. And boy, what a day it was. The news caught me off guard, sending me into a tail spin of confusion, sorrow, shock and panic. It hit me like a sucker punch from Iron Mike Tyson. Yes, I knew you had the stomach cancer which we talked about and which you battled for many years. Still, I was not prepared for the terrible news when it broke.

It was about 2 a.m Eastern Standard Time (EST) April 9, 2015 in the United States. I just finished some casual reading on my Kindle Voyage while laying in bed. Soon, I started getting drowsy with sleep. So, I put the kindle away and made myself comfortable between the sheets for a good night rest. Suddenly my cell phone rudely sprung into life, alerting me that a text message had arrived.

Slightly annoyed, I reached for the phone to see who was messaging me at that time of night. It was Mosy O’Gini, one of our mutual friends who lives in the United Kingdom, but was in Nigeria visiting. She had sent a text message stating something to the effect that you were dead. I jumped out of bed, upset and hysterical. Right away I initiated a phone call to Mosy. She told me Sahara Reporters had just broken the news. Oh, my God; what just happened? I asked to no one in particular. Dazed, I sauntered to my bedroom desktop computer, fired up Chrome browser and typed into it. And there it was.

Regardless, I was still in denial. I figured it was mischief from the main opposition party in Nigeria, All Peoples Congress (APC), to score a cheap political point over President Goodluck Jonathan who was seeking reelection. I feverishly scooped up my cell phone again and started typing a message for you. I wanted you to quickly refute the news and make it go away because, as far as I was concerned, you were not dead.

Something didn’t seem quite right with the news, I reasoned. But before I could push the send button a small still voice in my head whispered that suppose the news was true; then it would mean I was sending text message to a dead man. So, I stopped and decided to wait until it was day break. When dawn arrived it became crystal clear the news was true, not a prank. Social media were literally on fire, feeding on it like a hungry lion devouring red meat. It spread very quickly like a fast-paced harmattan brush fire.

In the days, weeks and months to come sweet memories of the times we shared together flooded me. Friends who knew how close we were called to console me. I told some friends how great a guy you were. The proverb that you never miss your water till your well runs dry now resonates with me.

I regret not telling you how great a guy you were. This letter is an attempt to make amend for my screw-up, and let you know some of your admirable qualities. In publishing, as you know, space is gold; therefore, it is not feasible to catalogue herein all your good traits. However, it will amount to “war crime” if I did not pen a few down.

You were highly intelligent and drawn to academic excellence. You wore these two qualities like a favorite shirt. When you spoke, these two qualities stood out unmistakably. If anybody you came in contact with had those qualities you were drawn to him or her regardless of tribe, country, religion, political affiliation or sex.

How we met is an example. Prior to our meeting I did not know you and you did not know me. The year was 2006. We were both in Atlanta, Georgia to attend same event. You came to represent Goodluck Jonathan who was then Vice President of Nigeria. I delivered a speech and presentation at the event. You also delivered a speech on behalf of Vice President Jonathan.

No sooner had you taken to the podium to represent the Vice President than I realized you were an intellectual power house. You had no prepared text, only a tiny piece of paper with the key points. Your delivery was masterful, and exposed your enviable oratory skills. What I didn’t realize was that something about me had caught your attention too. When the event ended you approached me and arranged a secret meeting in your Sheraton Hotel room for us, which I attended. And a friendship was born.

Later that year you facilitated my first meeting with then Vice President Jonathan. Although all my meetings with President Jonathan (which you facilitated) were remarkable, the one that stands out most was the one of Toronto, Canada. It was in Toronto that the book project on President Jonathan was cemented. I still remember clearly like it happened yesterday how the three of us sat during the meeting: I in the middle, President Jonathan sat to my left while you sat to my right. Again, that invitation came as a surprise. You called me out of the blue and told me to pack a bag and head north to Toronto for a meeting with President Jonathan. I am grateful. Thank you.

Since your death most people have talked about how kind-hearted and generous you were. I can relate to that. I recall vividly one day in December 2006 when you had stopped by to see me in Port Harcourt while I was in Nigeria visiting. Before leaving you surprised me with an eye-popping monetary gift for my nieces and nephews who had come to greet their uncle’s friend. Throughout that December you were the talk of my family. Thank you.

You were a great motivator. Judging by the comments on social media after your demise you were one heck of a motivational force. Most people now talk about how encouraging you were to them. I should know. Immediately after the meeting in Toronto per the book project, you shook my hand in the streets of Toronto as you saw me off and said I should not be scared because you knew I was equal to the task. Not that I had any iota of anxiety toward the project, but for you to deem it necessary to offer those encouraging words, made me feel special. Thank you.

You always looked for ways to make your friends feel that you cared. Often you would plan a surprise gift, gesture or something special for a friend without letting the friend know it was coming. This was a trademark you would not compromise. I should know.

One day in July 2013 I was driving on Colonial drive Orlando, Florid and talking on the phone. Suddenly another call came in and I had to put the current call on hold while I switched to the incoming call. The caller announced that he was trying to reach Chris Abili. I told the unknown caller that I was Chris Abili. “I have been instructed to invite you to have lunch with the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, the caller announced. For a moment I thought this must be a prank call, but before I could finish analyzing the situation the caller quickly added “will you attend because I was instructed to get confirmation from you.” Get confirmation from me? What in the world was going on here? I rhetorically asked myself. Since no one in his or her right mind would refuse a good will gesture from the President of a country, I told the caller that I would attend.

I asked the caller who he was. He said he was the ambassador of Nigeria to the United States of America. The ambassador of Nigeria to the U.S calling me? There must be a mix up, I thought. Then I asked the caller how he got my name and phone number. “Mr. Oronto Douglas instructed me to extend the invitation.” he said. Wow! I was speechless after that. What a surprise. Thank you.

About one week later you were in Orlando to visit me. I recall how excited you were to see me again. I was equally as excited. You lavishly introduced me to your other friend in our presence and even referred to me as your cousin. I was highly honored. Later as we sat by the pool side and having a discussion you rose from your seat and pulled you shirt up to reveal a bold incision mark at the center of your belly. You explained that it was from a surgery to tame the ailment which plagued you. I was surprised, shocked and speechless. You looked emaciated, but your voice was energized and your spirit strong.

One more thing before I go. President Jonathan spoke in Yenegoa at a funeral service in your honor. The President described you as a unique personality, who was worth more than silver and gold, pointing out that you left at a time when your wise and useful counsel were most needed. President Jonathan is not alone in thinking like that. Most of your friends (me included) feel the same way. But we submit to the will of God.

The President also noted in his speech at the service that it was you who introduced intellectual activism into the Niger Delta struggle for economic inclusiveness, and described you as articulate, an academic icon, idealist, proactive, strategic, courageous, humanitarian, and that you possessed a characteristic of never retracting from a cause you believed in. Those were some nice words from your former boss. Even in death you continue to attract accolades from the highs and lows of our society.

My eyes are misty with tears as I conclude. I miss hearing your voice. I miss our telephone conversations. Take care, my friend. Rest in peace. Adieu.

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