Jonathan Goodluck: In Tribute to Melford Okilo

As Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, comes under commendable focus in the face of frantic calls for him to step in as Acting President, following Yar’Adua’s incapacitation, King Nengi Josef Ilagha, Mingi XII, Bayelsa’s able research and documentation officer, relives the life and times of Jonathan’s foremost political mentor, Chief Melford Okilo, who did not cross over to 2010.

Tribute To A Fisherman by King Nengi Josef Ilagha

Death, thou shalt die.

– John Donne 

EARTH RETURNED TO Earth yet again on May 2, 2009, a Saturday. Dust returned to dust in Bayelsa. And it was all ash for ash when the remains of the famous fisherman, Melford Obiene Okilo, were laid to rest, six feet below the solid face of the earth. He was buried in the same soil that is believed to have swallowed his umbilical cord in Emakalakala, Ogbia local government area.

There was wailing in the open air when the news broke that Okilo was dead, having said thank you to Timipre Sylva-Sam, Governor of Bayelsa State, who named the oldest road in the New Jerusalem after Melford Okilo. There was sobbing in private corners. There was aching in the heart. Verily, verily, there was great weeping in the land, great gnashing of teeth. Even the sky was damp with mist. And the rain that poured down on the Niger Delta, in the week preceding Okilo’s burial, was heavy. There was thunder, and there was lightening. It rained cats and cattle when Melford Okilo died and was buried like Old Roger gone to the grave.

A noble chief of the Ogbia Kingdom, an ace politician, a master strategist, a spontaneous orator, a leader of men, a manager of materials, Okilo was born on November 30, 1933. Before he died on Friday June 4, 2008, at the Government House Clinic, Yenagoa, Okilo knew himself too well. He was confident of the gift God deposited in him, a talent for survival. And Melford gave a good account of his life and times in the things he did, the words he left us with, the words he took time to write down for posterity to judge him by, for Jesus to assess his application of that precious talent God saw fit to place in the person of Okilo.

Melford Okilo’s simplicity belied his awesome credentials. He was comfortable to describe himself in ordinary terms. He readily tagged himself as a fisherman, and became known, called and addressed by one and all, as a fisherman. He equally had the good sense to realize that he was our fellow country man, so he advertised the fact that he was our own country man, our friend and next door neighbour, just like Boma Erekosima.

In more ways than one, Melford Okilo had so much good humour that you couldn’t but laugh from time to time if you happened to be in his presence. He was that personable, that loveable. He was blessed with a natural ability to excite the next man, if he came close enough. His human sympathy was that magnetic. He could pull you to himself, if you made yourself available. He could stand on a podium and make a short speech, and you would be compelled to clap for him, for the heck of it. No wonder, he was a politician to remember, perhaps the finest from the Niger Delta, standing side by side Harold Dappa-Biriye.

Okilo could mesmerize you with words, and still take the credit for having taught you something worthwhile. He could reason with you, without meaning to. In short, Melford Okilo dispensed wisdom wherever he went. It was as though he carried with him an invisible pouch of knowledgeable proverbs, tit-bits, arguments and viewpoints which were all saleable. And Okilo did not hesitate to put his ideas on show at the market place. He did not hide his light under a bushel.

Like a typical fisherman, he fished for souls. He sought to win you to his side, and if he found you worthy of friendship, if his encounter with you was remarkable, your name or that incident involving you, would come up for mention in Okilo’s next analogy. In other words, he was always out to befriend exemplary people, and that was because Melford Obiene Okilo was an exemplary Ijaw man. 

Melford was a country man sympathetic to the feelings of his fellow country men, willing to give so that he might receive, ready to support so that he might be supported. Obiene was a typical farmer in the open fields of Ogbia land, reaping only where he sowed. Okilo was indeed a fisherman, familiar with the weather, at home with the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta. That was how he began life, paddling his canoe between Otuokpoti, Otuasega, Otuogidi, Otuabula, Otuoke right down to Idema. Okilo knew Anyamasa like the back of his hand. Okilo’s mother was Nembe, so he spoke Nembe like a blue-blooded prince of the prickly pen.

As for Oloibiri, the parcel of land where oil was first mined in Nigeria for export and for hard currency, Okilo could not stop weeping for Oloibiri. His spirit wept disconsolately for Oloibiri, on account of its age-long rejection, and it is probably still weeping before the heavenly Throne of Grace. Okilo’s heart, even in death, could jolly well go before God with a solemn plea for the Maker of Heaven and Earth to redress the plight of the Niger Delta. Only then would his soul truly rest in peace. In point of fact, Melford Okilo was perhaps the happiest man in the Niger Delta when his political son, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, was sworn in as the first Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to have emerged from the south-south since Nigeria gained political independence from the British in 1960.

Like every patriotic son of Ijaw land, Okilo looked forward to the day when the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria would produce the President, even if in an acting capacity. For, he strongly believed that Nigeria will change for the best the day a minority leader emerges to be at the helm of the nation, prepared to reconcile every disparate interest on the platform of justice, knowing too well where the shoe pinches. As with Harrison Ford, Okilo believed that “real peace is not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.”

As things stand, there is great wailing in the land, overwhelming neglect in virtually every sector of life in the Niger Delta. That is why Okilo wept, in the first place. That is why Okilo fought the good fight. What would happen to the beleaguered land and to the mass of long-suffering minority if the global economic meltdown were to go beyond this, as it were, occasioned by acute tectonic shifts in the underbelly of the earth? What would happen to the law-abiding people of the swamp, if and when oil and gas were to dry up, as indeed they would some day? These were some of the nagging questions that gave Melford Okilo sleepless nights. He was desperate to make a change. He wanted to make a difference, and he made a difference only because he was here, not necessarily because the power brokers let him.

On Saturday July 22, 2006, at the Isaac Boro Memorial Lecture, in the deep hold of the Lambeth Town Hall, Brixton, London, Melford Okilo gave one of his most rousing speeches in modern times. He called on the leadership of the Ijaw nation to take their prolonged disenchantment with the Federal Government of Nigeria over proceeds from oil and gas exploration to the International Court of Justice. It was as though he was already at The Hague when he declared that the Nigerian government was yet to take sufficient steps to redress the pathetic conditions of the Niger Delta people.

By the same token, he enjoined youths of the area to forsake violence and hostage-taking, learn the rudiments of dialogue and negotiation, and press home their grievances without shedding blood.  “We live in a civilized world where order, stability and justice are believed to be sacrosanct, and the International Court of Justice is set up precisely to settle long-standing disputes of great magnitude between nations and within nations. Ijaw leaders will do well to seek justice before that world body,” he said.

And this same Melford was a fisherman. He knew how to make his net, cast it in the open sea, pull in the fish, careful to pull out their sticky heads from the netting, and repair the net when it got torn. This same Obiene was a boy once upon a time. He could climb a coconut tree to the top, and shake the harvest down. He could play football under the rain and score for his side. He could swing a hoe like every farmer at Ota. In fact, this same Okilo was a relentless farmer of ideas.

He was never shy to enter into a conversation on any subject under the sun. And the longer you stayed with him, the more the conversation became boisterous, more engaging, more involving, more reasonable. He was that flexible, that versatile. His intelligence was that eclectic. To be in the very presence of Okilo was to be swamped suddenly by a flood of ideas. To enter into a discussion with him was to be overtaken by reason.

Okilo was in possession of what you might call native intelligence, the kind of intelligence that springs from a personal acquaintance with the world, a felt experience. He was powered by a daily application of the faculty of reason. He was a thinker in the best sense of the word. He was a kingmaker who never became the king he ought to be. Without his endorsement, without his goodwill blessings, no politician truly prospered. Yet his blessings came only on the heels of a widely acknowledged democratic choice. Little wonder that he was a friend to Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, as he was a mentor to Goodluck Jonathan.

Come to that, Okilo was such a fine orator that even Tafawa Balewa embraced him once upon a time. Obafemi Awolowo respected Melford Okilo for his wit, and so did Nnamdi Azikiwe. He dined with kings and princes who were quite happy to host him. He ate at table with the Queen of England in Buckingham Palace. Okilo was that influential, that connected. He recognized the power of knowledge, and invested in research. That is why he established the Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt, converting it from its erstwhile station as a mere appendage to the University of Ibadan, into a degree-awarding institution in its own legitimate right.

What is more, Okilo recognized the power of the Fourth Estate of the Realm and became a friend to the press early in his political career. If you sought Okilo’s opinion, for instance, as to whether or not to privatize the Bayelsa State Newspaper Corporation ahead of the next elections, he would say fund it first. Yes, equip the Corporation first, and if the reporters don’t give of their best, then give them more vehicles, get their machines working, give them tape recorders, place the paper on the worldwideweb, or be sorry for it. Don’t forget that the first Nigerian journalist of reckoning was from Bayelsa. His name was Ernest Sisei Ikoli, a man whom even Awolowo acknowledged as his mentor.

That would be Okilo’s line of thinking. He was that analytical, that frank to a fault. He traded in words, for he loved the company of words, and won ideas for himself the more he traded in words. As the scriptures put it, by their fruits, we shall know them. Melford Obiene Okilo was a good fruit. But last year, the lips of earth opened wide to swallow him, six feet deep. The presence of God departed from his body. Breath left the vessel that was Okilo. His body was without life. He was dead, gone the way of all flesh.

And that is why we wept our hearts out, all of us in the Niger Delta, when Okilo died. We still weep today. We miss his intervention at a critical time like this when Nigeria has failed so woefully to be guided by common sense, to say nothing of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, in a matter so obvious as to let a deputy hold brief for his ailing boss. We mourn the passing of an everyday philosopher. We regret the loss of this great son of Bayelsa whose forthrightness never left him idle all the days of his life. Woe, indeed, betide those who profit by death, those who delude themselves into thinking that they can only make progress in life, if and only if the next man is done away with. Death, that same death seized Melford Obiene Okilo, a simple fisherman from the Niger Delta, shall die a swift death when Jesus comes.

“Nengi Ilagha”