On March 24, 2015, I got an SMS from Oronto Natei Douglas (OND), who was in the U.S. to see his doctors. OND wrote: “Will be in London Wednesday afternoon. I suggest we see.” Knowing the poor state of his health, I was very worried that he was returning to Nigeria. I thought it was because of the presidential election, scheduled for March 28. As a very trusted aide of President Goodluck Jonathan, Oronto would very much like to be in the thick of things, but cancer had done so much injustice to his body, especially in the last one year, that he could not but watch proceedings from the sidelines. Returning home was not a good idea for him, I thought.
I instantly replied: “Must you come back now?”
He responded: “It is important that I am home. See you soon.”
In the evening of March 25, I went to meet him at a hotel close to the London Heathrow Airport. He was trying to catch some rest after a long-haul flight from the U.S. before flying back to Nigeria. As I entered his hotel room, he hailed: “Live!” That was the nickname he gave me some years ago, obviously derived from the title of my THISDAY column. Although I was worried by the state I found him, I had learnt to put up a brave face ever since his condition started deteriorating last year. But it was difficult not to be disheartened by the frail figure of someone who used to be robust, healthy and bubbly. It was heartbreaking.
After some banter, he called in his friend and asked him to sit down and listen to what he had to say. OND began: “You may not know my relationship with Simon. We have come a long way. We met in 1995 or 1996, when I was in the trenches fighting for environmental justice in the Niger Delta as deputy director of ERA (Environmental Rights Action). Simon had a printing business, so he used to help us design and print our newsletter called ‘Niger Delta Alert’ which we used to sensitise the world to the plight of Nigeria’s oil-bearing region. Simon also helped us print our magazine and other documents that we were using to fight for justice in the Niger Delta.”
He went on: “When I joined government, Simon did not abandon me, even though he said he would never take up a political appointment.” Then he began to pour accolades on me. I did not understand where he was going. He spoke about how, despite our closeness, I still regularly criticised President Jonathan. He described me as a balanced critic and said I believe passionately in Nigeria.
At this stage, I was becoming uncomfortable. What was this about? What was OND driving at? He continued: “Many people do not understand my relationship with Simon. They think it is a business relationship, but Simon is my friend and brother. I believe in him.”
He finally began to let go of the bombshell.
“Simon, thank you for your interest in my health,” he started. “You are indeed a brother. You have always been looking out for me. When I told you I was returning home, you said I should stay back in the U.S. You thought I was going home because of the elections. No, I am not embarking on a suicide mission.” At this stage, he laughed. I reciprocated with a half-laugh. My heart was racing madly. My head was spinning. He took me on a brief history of his cancer diagnosis in 2008 and how he had managed to survive till now, thanks largely to his doctor in Portland, Oregun, U.S., who gave him the best treatment possible and prolonged his life by seven years.
“Simon, my doctor said I have just a few weeks to live,” he announced, dispassionately.
I was devastated. I broke down, unable to tame my tears. As the tears freely soaked my cheeks, he protested: “No, Simon, don’t cry. Please, don’t cry. Instead, you should thank God for me. How many people have the opportunity of preparing for their death? Now, I can prepare to meet my God. I can put my house in order. Who knows, God may choose to surprise the doctors. If God heals me miraculously, I will go from church to church to testify, to say the doctors wrote me off but God intervened.” Helplessly, I watched him struggle on the bed. He could not eat much. He only bit one or two leaves from the salad ordered for him. My heart could not take it.
I stayed with him for over two hours until he was ready to board his flight back to Nigeria. As he made for security screening at the Heathrow Airport, he shook my hand and promised to call me on his arrival in Abuja the following day. I stood still, tearful and mournful, as he disappeared from sight. I asked myself: is this the last time I am going to see Oronto? It was too painful for me to take. I left the airport and battled tears throughout the one-hour journey back home. When I entered the house, my wife ran downstairs and greeted me excitedly, but paused on seeing the look on my face. I collapsed into her arms, sobbingly telling her Oronto was dying.
I wept all through the night. For three days, I struggled to eat. I lapsed into a mini-depression. OND was just 48. Why do so many nice guys die young? Life became tasteless. I lost interest in everything. Oronto was not just my friend, he was my dear brother, my mentor. We often disagreed on the politics of President Jonathan, but he did not throw me away because of that. He always sought to explain things to me. He preferred an intellectual engagement on the president’s stewardship. He always jokingly called me “Buhari man”. He was extremely loyal to Jonathan. He never uttered one negative word about the president to me. I learnt a bit of loyalty from OND.
In the 19 years that we were friends, Oronto touched my life. For the rest of my life, I will be grateful to God that I was friends with such a remarkable human being. I learnt humility, dedication, optimism and modesty by merely observing his life. He was generous and kind, selfless and humane. He touched so many lives. He set people up in business. He kitted school children. He built libraries for schools and communities. He was astonishingly upright. He helped people without asking for anything in return. This is a common testimony about him, right from the time I met him in 1996, through Doifie Ola, my colleague and friend.
Oronto harboured no ethnic sentiments or bigoted cells in his body. He spoke fluent Yoruba with an Egba accent. He ate amala and ewedu like an Ibadan man. He was a proud Niger Deltan, an Ogbia man from Bayelsa, but his inner circle of friends was dominated by non-Ijaw. He was a genuine patriot and democrat. In the bloody days of Gen. Sani Abacha, he helped many Nigerian activists get asylum in Europe and the U.S. through his international contacts, but he stayed back in Nigeria and regularly marched on the streets along with other activists, demanding democracy at a time it was equal to committing suicide or an open invitation to state murder.
And OND was so hardworking. Last Wednesday, at 11.30am, he called me on the phone. He had asked me to help him critique the manuscript of his book on Jonathan. There was now an urgency in his voice, as if he was about to go on a long journey and needed to quickly sign off on the book. I told him I would finish by the end of the day. His last words to me were: “Thank you.” That moment still traumatises me, for he was probably expecting to die later in the day. As it turned out, it was exactly the final day of the three weeks his doctor had given him. In the evening, before I could share my comments on the book with him, he lapsed into unconsciousness. He died before daybreak.
Oronto fought so hard. He worked so hard. Till the very end. What a man. Adieu, OND, and may God comfort your loved ones and your young sons who now have to live life without your smiles and compassionate heart. You are unforgettable. Unforgettable you are.