Life truly has its ways, its rhythm and reason. In 2006, an incident that tested my will and inner strength as a person, journalist and activist occurred. By the time the incident ran its course, I learnt how powerful and impactful we can be walking through life’s rough paths with like minded people. At the centre of the event and its denouement, were two powerful brothers and friends I met as members of civil society, Patrick Naagbanton and Uche Wisdom Durueke.
Thursday July 20, 2006 was a day of frenetic activity. I was in Port Harcourt in frantic preparation to travel the evening of that day, to London, United Kingdom for Boro Day celebrations scheduled for Saturday, July 22. Boro Day is an annual celebration by Ijaw people in Nigeria and the Diaspora of Jasper Adaka Boro, the Ijaw and Niger Delta rights agitator who in February1966 led his band of men to declare a short lived Niger Delta Republic. It is usually a day of paper presentations on development, speeches eulogizing Boro and other Ijaw greats who have impacted the lives of Ijaw and the Niger Delta people, cultural dances and a beautiful reunion for Ijaws at home and the UK, US and Europe.
I was scheduled to travel with Annkio Briggs, my Ijaw/British sister in the struggle. We had gotten close, two passionate, completely self assured women, totally committed to pursuing Ijaw/ Niger Delta justice and self determination issues.
Wisdom Uche Durueke
Comrade Patrick Naagbanton
We got to the airport and she proceeded to check in. I couldn’t check in, as I was still expecting the delivery of a package containing 115 copies of my new book, Oil In Water: crude power and militancy in the Niger Delta, which were being sent by my publishers in Lagos. I was anxious, having put in weeks of stress getting the books readied for publishing.
The books finally got to the airport, brought graciously in a black bag on wheels by my younger brother. I raced through check in and went through the general, very crude process with Omagwa’s 1960’s quality equipment with customs staff pawing one’s property. Then, commotion. The security operatives watching the entire process at the screening point soon swooped on my black bag of books, asking for the bag to be opened. When they went through the contents of the bag, one of them shouted, looking in my direction, ‘these books are seditious material capable of inciting violence in the Niger Delta’. I was angry but asked calmly, “How?, The books are collections of my published reports”. It was as good as talking to a wall. About three or four people were all talking excitedly. I guess they felt they had made a major find. They threw questions at me left, right. I refused to be intimidated and calmly asked for their superior officer. I was led to an office where I was kept and grilled for over three hours, I was asked all sorts of questions about myself, my work and the event for which I was supposed to travel. I was threatened when I tried to use my phone. In the meantime, Annkio who witnessed the entire episode had made calls to persons within Nigeria and outside about my detention by men of the State Security Service, SSS now DSS. A few minutes to flight take off, I was finally allowed to board the aircraft, without my books.
Some newspapers carried the reports about my detention at the airport and the seizure of my books. In London, my compatriots had heard and were very concerned.
When I returned to Nigeria, I went to the DSS Office in Port Harcourt to request for my seized books. My request was turned down severally.
Then, Patrick Naagbanton and his organization, Centre for Human Rights Environment and Development, CEHRD stepped in to encourage me fight for the enforcement of my rights. Uche Wisdom Durueke was the man for the job. We went to court in November, 2006. In late 2007, the High Court in Port Harcourt delivered judgement in my favour, and awarded costs against the SSS.
Today, part of my inner core is ripped off. These men who worked to get me through that dark journey are no longer where I can reach them through a visit or quick phone call. On Saturday September 21, 2019 Patrick Naagbanton, one of the deepest persons I have encountered in life, passed on following a strange road traffic accident, a few metres away from his home in Port Harcourt.
Then, we were confronted with news of the horrifying death of Uche Durueke. We were informed that he died May 14, 2020 at the Federal Medical Centre, Owerri, following burns he received from a generator fire accident, whose cause members of civil society are demanding an investigation. Within the space of eight months, I have lost two brothers and friends for whom I have the utmost respect and affection. I recognize in them kindred spirits, the sort of men I would have loved to be, were I to be given a choice for a day.
Okechukwu Nwanguma, a rights activist in a piece summing his tribute to Durueke, in Sahara Reporters wrote of Durueke that, ‘We should, in the long run, as well think collectively about how we – as Durueke’s civil society colleagues – can help to uphold and sustain his legacies and advance the cause and struggle for which he lived and died, that his ideals and legacy may not die with him. That is the only way we can help to give life to the dead and hope to the living”.
I think of him truly as one of those who are the salt of the earth. Without them, humanity loses its soul, life empties of its vital force, beings cowering in dread of terrors experienced and imagined. He was mentally deep, humane and humble. He displayed courage in a landscape full of cowardly men and women, trapped in a godot wait for heavenly beings to fly in to solve purely human generated problems and inequities that fester, awaiting human intervention and resolution.
Encountering him enriched my life and my work, him and my soul brother Patrick Naagbanton. Through their acts of courage and solid support, I walked tall, my feet larger than my apprehension. With these two brothers holding me up between them, I defeated the forces of injustice and oppression and the victory from that collaboration expanded the space of possibilities for the democratic experience, rule of law, freedom of expression and human dignity in Nigeria.
Durueke has gone home to his maker to join the gods, of whom he is one by virtue of his contribution to human progress. He will not be alone there, a hefty over 6 feet 3 gentle giant just created space for him on that mountain top from which the gods view humans, ‘O! boy come stand here, See your people’. Then, the booming laughter combined with Durueke’s gentler twinkling laugh and the clouds clattered with gentle thunder.