TONY URANTA (1953-2021)
By Godknows Igali
On Friday 27th May, 2022 the Nigerian state laid to rest one of its veteran social activists, patriots and inveterate nationalists, Comrade Anthony Ipriye Uranta in his hometown, Queenstown, Opobo in Rivers State. The funeral obsequies spread between Lagos and Rivers States lasted a week, during which the most celebrated Nigerian civil society activists trooped out from around the country to salute one of their best. With heroic applause, they ushered his remains into his final resting place in the Uranta family vault in his hometown.
T.I.U. as he was lately acronymed by his close associates was aged just 67 years, but his legacy is towering beyond the greatest of riches and material well-being. He has emplaced a stamp on the future of Nigeria beyond mere abstraction and passed down to succeeding generations, messages and strides on nation building which cannot be derogated. No wonder both at the times of his passing on 24th November, 2021, and at interment, the fondest marks of acknowledgement came from around the world. Of particular, were the touches on his shoulders by Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari and the topmost of political gentry, including former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, Elder Statesman, Chief Edwin Clark and Afenifere leader, Pa Ayo Adebanjo as well as the glitterati of notables of his adopted home, Lagos, members of the Nigerian Civil Society Movement (NCSM) and from his own Niger Delta.
The King Jaja of Opobo-Uranta Connection
TIU was from Opobo, a leading coastal town founded by the great King Jaja (1821-1891), whose real name according to oral tradition was Jojo, given at his birthplace, Amigbo in present-day Imo state. The story has it that Jaja was later sold as a slave boy along with his brother to Akwete, Ndoki in present Abia State and finally ended up in the island kingdom of Bonny in Rivers State which by all standards was the biggest commercial, political and social metropolis around the area. In Bonny, Jaja earned a new Ijaw name, Jubo Jubogha (Ibani dialect) and rose from a life of slavery to the top of the social strata of the town, emerging as a leading entrepreneur and political figure. Chroniclers of 18th century happenings of the Oil Rivers Protectorate, as the area later became known confirm that Bonny, sadly, became a very toxic environment as very affluent Chiefs heading what is commonly termed ”War Canoe Houses” engaged in atrocious internecine rivalry.
It was at this point in 1879, that Jaja led a major faction with 14 of the prominent heads of houses and sailed off into this newfound land, Opobo. The progenitor of the Uranta group of families, Chief Captain Uranta, the genetic thread from which TIU was birthed was among the key leaders who moved into Opobo. In course of time, Tony’s forefather, along with his friend Jaja, became defiant in bypassing British trading companies such as John Holt also operating within the area to deal directly with the markets in Liverpool, United Kingdom. Chief Uranta was also part of the diplomatic horse trading which eventually led to the epic kidnapping and the exiling of that great African monarch, King Jaja of Opobo in September 1887, a plight which he and few other notable Chiefs escaped by the whiskers. In the midst of all these developments, Capt. Uranta led few others in founding Queenstown, a community deeper in the creeks in 1887 and the Uranta Quarters in particular.
Jaja was actually tricked most treacherously by British Vice Consul, Henry Hamilton Johnston into the waiting warship HMS Goshawk for “friendly discussions” after assurances in writing of safe return. Conversely, he was abducted and tried in Accra in the Gold Coast, later moved to London for a supposed meeting with Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and ferried to the Caribbean where his presence created a scare of uprising among the predominantly black and freed slave. After strenuous legal processes and unending debates in the British parliament to regain his freedom, Jaja was given a reprieve and asked to be returned to his hometown but passed on at sea under mysterious circumstances. Thereafter, he was laid to rest in Tenerife in the Canary Islands but later exhumed to his beloved Opobo, in a tumultuous gathering similar to what occurred at TIU’s interment.
TIU’s own direct father, Allswell Uranta, a High Court judge later became the 9th King (Amanyanabo) of Queenstown and was able to restore the special place which the Uranta’s occupy within the Opobo traditional hierarchy and with the descendants of Jaja as being represented today by Dandeson Jaja V, King of Opobo.
On the maternal side of TIU’s bloodline, he carried in his bones, no less genetic strands of royalty and activism. His mother, Princess Allswell-Uranta was the daughter of the Henshaw Royal Dynasty in Calabar. Their part of the traditional hierarchy continues to play a major role in the governance of Calabar, including producing several Obongs of Calabar, indigenous political potentates that, at the cusp of colonial rule, entered into treaties with the British Crown as sovereigns.
Life of Activism and Defiance
The source of TIU’s life of pursuit of valour, truth and honour is therefore self-evident. As the saying goes “the blood that was in his veins foretells the story of his heroic past even without language”. From both his Efik and Ijaw ends, he was born into royalty, wealth and affluence, but was also formed from combined DNA of social and ideological militancy. As a campaigner, reformer and social zealot, TIU battled to create more awareness for political and social reforms in Nigeria. He fought for good governance, transparency and accountability without caring whose ox was gored.
Another of his main preoccupations was how to build a Nigerian state that is truly egalitarian, welfarist and inclusive. He therefore championed the building of coalitions across ethnic, creeds and linguistic lines to canvass one Nigeria out of the motley, atimes, atomistically proclived ethnic groups. He advocated for political reform and worked with the likes of Chief Gani Fayehinmi, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, Sir Olawale Okunnu, Prof. Pat Utomi, Yinka Odumakin, Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti and Joei Okei-Odumakin, amongst others to contrive models for free, credible and acceptable elections.
It was in this respect that he joined these and other leading civil society activists to form such groups as the Nigeria National Summit Group (NNSG) in 2012. Few years afterward, in November, 2017, he erected a Social Media platform for intensive dialogue and debate which was bynamed TIU’s People. Again, in 2020, he also created another forum, the Justice and Equity for Peace and Unity Initiative in Nigeria (JEPUIN) as a pan-Nigerian construct for all who believe in a fairer and forward looking country. JEPUIN itself came about as a result of a national dialogue which brought together at Sheraton Hotel in Lagos, a broad spectrum of political leaders from around the country.
In this flurry of activities, what stood him out from other activists and social critics is the fact that he ran all these platforms simultaneously and was the fulcrum of all their activities. Besides these, Tony was a regular guest columnist and commentator in virtually all radio and television networks in the country, at which national issues were being discussed. Even under the pain of ill health, he remained a warrior struggling to make his voice to be heard as dim as it was, on where Nigeria should go and what Nigeria should ultimately be.
A Niger Delta Peace Connoisseur
TIU’s obsession with the situation of Nigeria minisculed on the Niger Delta, taking a good part of his activist work. Having had a stint in journalism with the erstwhile Newbreed Media Organization where he rose to become an editor, he was very much at home with the parlous existential condition in his own part of the country where the entire wealth has continued to come from crude oil first exported from Oloibiri, in Bayelsa State in commercial quantities in 1958. However, the footprint of the hydrocarbon industry in the region is still a tale of woes, characterized by relatively scant physical infrastructure, grave social impact and pervasive environmental degradation. In recent times, global agencies such UNEP have adjudged the Niger Delta as the singular most polluted terrain in the entire world! The end result was the high level of militancy as youth from the region took up arms against the state for much of the 2000’s. At certain times, oil production came to as low as 800,000 barrels a day as against the country’s potential of over 2 million barrels per day. The Nigerian economy was on its way to total collapse as government was unable to meet up its economic and social obligations.
In its efforts to restore peace in the area and avert total breakdown of government business, the Federal Government embarked on various forms of engagement. Prominent among these was the setting up in 2005 of the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Liaison with the militants, handled briefly by security czar, Chief A.K. Horsfall and from 2006-2008, by Godknows Igali, a career diplomat. Thereafter, the Niger Delta Peace Committee headed by late Senator David Brigidi and later Chief Timi Alaibe, who had previously served as Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission. Eventually, the noted Ogoni activist, Barr Leedum Mittee Technical Committee was set up in 2008 and worked until 2010. Still in search of solutions, another platform was put in place headed by Gen. Godwin Abe who at the time was also Minister of Interior, all with a view to bringing peace to the region. Interestingly, one common strand which all these efforts had was the presence of the man Tony Uranta, either as a member or as a resource person. It’s worth mentioning, that while recovering from his heavily debilitating illness in Sweden in early 2009, Tony earned the censor of his hosts for spending his entire days and nights on the telephone, discussing Niger Delta. Eventually, on 25th June, 2009, Amnesty was granted by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to Niger Delta agitators, a policy to which Tony played a major role.
Besides participating in various Federal Government initiatives, Tony was one of the founding members of what grew to become popularized as the Niger Delta Dialogue in 2015. Indeed, from 2015, a resurgence of insecurity started in the Niger Delta with the mushrooming of various groups which became known as the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA). The NDA started a new wave of insecurity and threat to the peace of the area, including attacks on the economic live wire of the country. This led to a swirling gust of meetings in Warri, Yenagoa, Port Harcourt and Abuja with the aim of addressing the yearning of these groups and restoring peace to the region. In the course of all these meetings, TIU was a vocal participant and formed part of the interim committee that drew up the so-called 16-Point Agenda on the Niger Delta that was presented to President Buhari on 1st November 2016. Additionally, as debate started as to the name of the new omnibus umbrella to which all nationalities in the Niger Delta would belong, he was one of those behind the coinage PANDEF as the shortened form of Pan Niger Delta Forum.
While remaining a member of PANDEF, the rather nervy and mettlesome TIU, along with his friend, Pat Utomi, again branched off in January 2021 to form what he called the United Niger Delta Energy Development, Security Strategy Group (UNDEDSS). The difference being the fact that PANDEF was an umbrella body of the peoples of the region while the UNDEDSS was an intellectual platform for interrogating issues and proffering solutions as it pertains to the country.
Tony also remained active in all other matters of national service. It in this respect that he was one of the arrowheads demanding the convening of what became the National Conference, convoked by the government of Dr. Jonathan in 2014. As a member of that Conference of 494 of the nation’s very best, TIU galloped through so many of the thematic issues which dealt with unity and development of the country.
Back to His Formative Years
This patriot started life in the bustling city of Lagos as a student at the Ladi Lak Institute (Primary School), Yaba between 1960-67 before proceeding to the Methodist Boys High School, also in Lagos. From there, he got moving to the renowned town of knowledge, Ibadan which hosted the country’s pioneer university, University of Ibadan, which had been established since 1948, to pursue a degree in Economics, which he earned in 1976.
From a youth age, he was remembered as an arranger, an organizer and an intrepid mobilizer. He protested at being left out at whatever mattered and always created a role for himself, often ending up dominating the course of events.
In 2006, that hideous sickness which medical practitioners call cerebrovascular accident (stroke), placing Tony at a difficult peril of mobility, of speech, numbness in limbs, and immense fatigue (balance disorder). These however did not deter him. Against medical advice, against counsel from all that cared, became more virulent and vociferous Though rather challenging to be on the move from his base in Lagos to Abuja, to Port Harcourt and to the creeks of the Niger Delta, he was addicted to daily ingress and egress across the country.
His Stamp on Tomorrow
Nigeria has no doubt produced many outstanding and unforgettable citizens whose commitment to lives of social activism have helped to shape how the country has progressed till now. In various ways, they combated to make our country safer and crafted through voice of reason a home for all. Although such combined labour is inchoate, indeed some may argue, still perfunctory, their memories will endure beyond them. The case of Tony however stands out because he believed in a dream and passion of a renascent Nigeria. Even at the risk of disagreeing with his soul mates in activism which occurred quite often, Tony like the late Albert Okumagba whom he has now gone to join, also rather at cockcrow, was optimistic that Nigeria will one day rise beyond the doldrums of recurring rigged elections, of unabashed kleptomania, of social atavism, and of condemnation of a majority of its population to marginal existence and life of misery.
Martin Luther King Jnr never saw his dream come to pass, but in less than four decades after his exit, an African-American, Barack Obama became President of the United States of America, steadily drowning as it were, the journey from the hundreds of years of servitude.
As Nigeria inters the remains of TIU, hearts are crossed that the seeds of his works would soon sprout aglow, and even more, mushroom and grow into oak trees for the building of a truly virile nation, even though he has departed midstream.
TIU is survived by his journalist wife and co-comrade, Baroong and daughter, Emy.
Igali, is a Niger Delta leader and Secretary, Board of Trustees of PANDEF