Fighting for the Niger Delta: the extraordinary life of DMU alumnus Oronto Douglas


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Environmental scientist Nick Ashton-Jones was welcomed to De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) to share the remarkable story of climate activist, human rights lawyer and DMU alumnus Oronto Douglas.

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Oronto, who was born in Nigeria in 1966, became a key campaigner against the environmental destruction and polluting effects of oil production in the Niger Delta – a densely populated, petroleum-rich region in Nigeria. 

Growing up, Oronto saw first-hand the activities of the oil companies and the devastating effect on his local region, with oil spills contaminating drinking water, land, creeks and ecosystems.

The impact on the local community of the Ogoni people motivated him to become one of the leading figures of the anti-Shell campaign.

Meeting Oronto in 1994 was a ‘life-changing’ experience for Nick, when the young activist insisted on accompanying him during an ecological survey of the region.

“We spent three months together in the Niger Delta on my initial visit, experiencing conditions that challenge its inhabitants every day of their lives. We witnessed ecological destruction, social disintegration and terrorism, instigated by the oil industry,” said Nick.

“It was a crucial point for me and I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Oronto for what he taught me.”

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Oronto on the way to Sangana

They were subjected to aggression from authorities and detained during their visit, but Oronto remained committed to non-violence and utterly dedicated to his cause.

“He was a man on a mission,” said Nick. “Nothing could distract him from that mission, which was justice. I never once saw him lose his cool, or be angry with anybody, or talk badly of anybody. But he saw the world clearly and he had no doubts about what was wrong.”

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A fractured flow line and fire damage in the Niger Delta 

Deciding that further education in the UK would be helpful to his work, Oronto looked at many universities, but it was the course and ethos which made Oronto choose DMU for his Master’s in Environmental Law in 1995.

“We discussed it at huge length and the course at DMU was the right course,” Nick said. “Certain UK universities had a big problem with institutionalised racism, but DMU seemed very inclusive and forward-thinking. We thought it would be perfect, and it was – he was very happy at DMU.”

During his time in Leicester Oronto remained an active campaigner against the oil industry. Examples of press cuttings and posters showing his protests at Shell petrol stations are now held along with his papers in the DMU Special Collections.

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Press cutting from the Leicester Mercury, 27 November 1995

The collection also includes field notebooks recording the lives, circumstances and conversations of villagers from the survey of the Niger Delta, essays dating from Douglas’s studies during his MA, and his work from the trial of fellow activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, for which Oronto acted on the defence team.

After his studies, Oronto returned to Nigeria despite the potential danger and continued to fight for justice for the Ogoni people, presenting the Niger Delta struggle to US President Bill Clinton and becoming special adviser to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Oronto was diagnosed with cancer and died in April 2015 – leaving a hole for everyone he met.

“Everyone who met Oronto is grateful for having known him,” Nick said. “He had a special charisma, everyone trusted him.

“People would have taken off their shoes and followed him, in their bare feet. I was quite happy to go with him to places I’d never dreamed of going before. He had that effect.”

The DMU Special Collections are housed in the Kimberlin Library. More information about how to view Oronto’s papers in the archives can be found here.

 

Posted on Monday 11th November 2019

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