For a full decade, we were in touch with each other only sporadically. I recall two of those instances: once in 2005, at Terra Kulture, Lagos, where he was part of a panel discussion and I was in the audience and it was my pleasure to give him an inscribed copy of my newly released volume of poems on the Niger Delta, The Oil Lamp. And then again that same year when I sought his insider’s perspective on General Obasanjo’s wasteful and diversionary National Political Reforms Conference. The “South-South” delegates, of which he was one, had walked out of the conference when the rest of Nigeria would not countenance an increase from 13% to a mere 25% of the proceeds of the oil and gas derived from their land.
Then one smouldering Texas summer evening four years later, 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. In the course of our animated conversation, 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, for surely he must have been to the US any number of times since I had been at Cornell. Nor what was for me the greater shock: the awful news he bore or the calm, oh-by-the-way, manner he delivered it? His voice was as keen and he as jovial as I could remember. Apparently, tumour was yet to get the better of his tongue or demeanour. 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.”
And yet, our communications remained sporadic, until his father joined the ancestors and I sent him condolences. Or more precisely until July 2013 when, thinking of returning home, I began sounding out friends and close acquaintances on how best to be directly involved again in the struggle to salvage our beleaguered country. 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 and longer trips to the oncologists. But now we communicated more regularly, 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, then the university’s principal architect and soon to take early retirement to found a private practice. They would soon be joined by Godwin Uyi Ojo and together be the moving spirit behind the Civil Liberties Organisation’s Environmental Rights Project. In those days, the CLO was the incubator of many of the ideas that metamorphosed into specialised human rights NGOs. By the time I took over its acclaimed annual reports on human rights and began to devote a chapter to minority rights and the environmental, the need had arisen for the project’s autonomy. It was hard to let go, but I was glad to be one of the voices that spoke for the weaning of the baby, leading to what is now known as the 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 for their crimes against nature and humanity, of their unconscionable activities in worship of profit and their mindless despoliation of the Niger Delta. All in shocking collusion with a supine, 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 a position in his young state of Bayelsa as Commissioner of Information and Strategy, 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. That fine day might never come or come too late. 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 should be quick to add, however, that I’m not a proponent of the idea of joining any government in power in pursuit of selfish interest carefully disguised as the call of duty!
But I’m mourning Natei, my friend, not scoring his achievements in government, thought going by the number of men and women he brought into government, some of them occupying very important positions even now, and by the fact that virtually everyone I know who knew him well has nothing but the utmost regard for him, he did a lot of good in a very short time, my irreconcilable 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, as I say in effect in my column out tomorrow: ‘Buhari and Jonathan: Character as Destiny.’”
In one of his Dispatches from Tumortown, Christopher Hitchens, another intrepid victim of cancer whom I have kept thinking of since I learnt of Oronto’s death, 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 so 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 lifelong 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.