But for a poem or two written during the early years of my writing career, I find elegy a difficult and tedious genre to engage. The pain that goes into writing an elegy, or eulogies generally, often leaves me distraught that I find it hard to overcome the sadness of lament for the dead and the grief or simply put myself back together again. Beyond the pain and the melancholy of it all, composing the first line-a task every poet says is arduous-is even more difficult whenever I write in honour of a departed friend, brother or comrade. So, I seldom venture into it.
Death forms one tragic aspect of the Nietzschean moment of crisis. So profound that when it draws its dark curtains, it eclipses the physical life and all that comes with it and diminishes humanity. Thus, every personal loss becomes the loss of humanity. In a way, death transcends the personal when the absences it brings become part and parcel of the meaning we collectively attach to our individual lives. Life can’t be life without death, so we own death as an integral or incipient conception of our own nature- as nature’s sad gift and as a sad reminder of our own end. So, when I received the telephone call from my friend and comrade, Uzo Nwaogbe, in the early hours of Thursday 9th April, 2015, I knew something was amiss. “Mahmud, we have lost Oronto”, Uzo quietly announced before he hung the phone up on me. I felt the pain in his voice as the name, Oronto, dropped. I broke down in tears and wept at the edge of my bed. “So we have lost Oronto?”, I repeatedly asked myself.
I first met Oronto late September 1991. I had just been released from The Maximum Security Prison, Kirikiri and was struggling with my health when I turned up at the Students Union Building of the University of Lagos after the long but arduous all night journey from Jos to attend the Senate Meeting of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). “I am Mallam Mahmud, President, NANS” and “a graduate of the Maximum Security Prison, Kirikiri”, Uche Onyeagucha jokingly screamed as I introduced myself to Oronto Douglas, who stood with Uche Onyeagucha on the flight of stairs of the imposing building. Oronto was particularly impressive during the debates at the Senate Meeting of NANS that came at the heels of our first meeting. He came across as a peace-loving fellow who stubbornly insisted that NANS trod the path of peace when activists of an ideological section of the students movement were intent on decapitating those they claimed compromised the students’ ACAREF protests of that year. In later years, our paths crossed as colleagues in the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and the Democratic Alternative (DA).
Just over seven weeks ago, precisely on the 13th day of February, 2015, I saw his missed call. I immediately sent him a text. I received a reply from him the very moment the successful text delivery report was delivered to my phone. In his usual laconic style, he texted: “Mahmud Baba, how bodi? You dey kontri? I am fine. If you are free and in Abuja can we see briefly at 6pm in my house. All the very best”. That evening, I stopped over at his Asokoro home and I was informed by his staff that he was asleep. I left. A few meters from his house, he called. “I am very sorry, Mahmud. I fell asleep on the couch. Where are you? Come back”, he said.
“OND Baba”, I hailed him as we shook hands at the sentry of his living room. “How bodi? How are you feeling now? Are you getting any better?”, I asked him in quick succession. He didn’t answer my questions. Untypical of Oronto, he pretended he didn’t hear any of the questions I asked him. I took a furtive glance at him as he led me to the dining section of his modest home where we spent time on civil society, the elections, President Jonathan, etcetera. He looked pale. He had lost weight. But, his mind was fascinatingly sharp. I thought about the best way of putting my questions again to him without sounding intrusive. “The cancer has become malignant”, he said as if he had read my mind. The slow manner he counted the letters and the vowels of the adjective, m-a-l-i-g-n-a-n-t, came like an electrifying jolt to every conceivable joint on my body. I broke down in tears. “Mahmud, come on, don’t do this to me; you should comfort me”, he said with his right arm slung across my shoulder. I gathered myself together. All I could utter to him was: “Christ will heal you, have faith, don’t give up, Oronto”. “Amen. But, I am ready for death. All I am doing now is putting things together”, he said with a certain assurance that shone bright in his eyes. We parted a little while later and I drove into the Abuja night a broken man. That night I called our mutual friends, Uche Onyeagucha, Uzo Nwaogbe, Sam Amadi and Tony Akika and pleaded for intercessory prayers for Oronto.
Oronto was a good man. Inspite of our disagreements over some policies of this government, he didn’t for once take our disagreements personal. “It’s better to engage me as you often do as a scholar and activist than resort to attacking us on the pages of newspapers as many of our friends who have access to me do”, he once told me in his office. Oronto was kindhearted. To my embarrassment on a certain day in September 2013, I received a text message that read: “Mahmud, I have just been told you are feeling poorly. I am sorry to hear about this. Hope you’re getting better. Abeg send me your account number”. I hadn’t finished reading his text message when Uche Onyeagucha called to inform me that Oronto asked after me and that he had told him I took time off work because of my poor health. I didn’t respond to his text. Later that day, he called me and asked for my account number which I graciously gave him. Next day, he credited my account. Later, in December of that year, another unsolicited sum was credited to my account by his Personal Assistant, Okumo Ipigansi. I called Oronto, he didn’t take my call. I sent him a thank you text message. He replied: “I am in California. Abeg, you dey embarrass me. Get a flight ticket and return to madam and kids in London and rest for the Xmas. They’ve missed you”. Bless his kind soul, Father!
The death of Oronto is a huge personal loss. The pain and the grief, which come with this loss not only compound the miseries his physical absence brings to those who knew and loved him, are relived as those unforgettable feelings the passage of time carries into memory. I am thankful to God for the eventful forty-nine years he lived, the love his good heart nurtured and showered on humanity and for the pleasure of knowing him! To friends, brothers, comrades, wife and his two young boys, I paraphrase and commend Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Say Not in Grief that He is no More’ to them:
Say not in grief that he is no more
But say in thankfulness that he was.
Death is not the extinguisher of a light;
It’s only putting out the lamp…
Goodnight, Oronto Douglas.
*Abdul Mahmud is the President, Public Interest Lawyers League (PILL), Abuja.