Last journey of Nigeria’s four-time cabinet minister, Tonye Graham-Douglas (1939-2022)
In the world view of the Ijaw people, who occupy Nigeria’s Atlantic coastline, the largest of whales never die. When the cycle of life eclipses, the master behemoth simply migrates to the deepest recesses of the oceans never to be seen again.
So is the parallel story of a once towering, perhaps most outlandishly colourful Nigerian statesman – Alabo (Chief) Tamunotonye Tamunotenyin Omubo Graham-Douglas (1939-2022).
He was differently known by the pet name “Ette” (popularized by the likes of IBB), Opu Alabo (Pre-eminent Ijaw Chief), Grandmaster and Leader (of ancient Masonic knowledge and mysteries but ultimately converted to Christian patriot), TOG (abbreviation of his names).
More visible to most Nigerians, he is the only citizen who had served the country as Cabinet Minister on four occasions under separate Heads of State. Graham-Douglas, joined the land of ancestral heights on 10th September, 2022 as his remains took final residence at Orubibi Head Chiefs Burial Crypt, Abonnema, Rivers State.
Heroic return to the creeks
To bid him farewell, true boon and congenial lustre of Port-Harcourt awakened aglow, throughout the first week of September 2022. Obviously, to celebrate the life journey of one of its greatest ever.
Not the least in diverse range were religious, cultural and creative engagements. Like the idiomatic passing under pyramids and obelisks, were the line-up of ancient boat regattas and masquerade displays in Abonnema, his home town; scarcely seen in modern times.
Indeed, Alabo’s triumphant exit from Port-Harcourt to hometown, Abonnema was by a flotilla of colourful ancient war canoes, mounted with bellowing cannons.
Port-Harcourt itself, founded or rather renamed in 1912 after the then Secretary of the Colonies, Lord Lewis Vernon Harcourt was totally unbuffered by the glitterati of the moment.
Look back at kinsmen and trail of national service
Of added significance to the events surrounding Alabo’s entombing lies the deeper import and symbolic worth of his life as a typology of statesmanship and national service.
The worth of his memorial also brings to focus the contributions which the Kalabari Kingdom, of which he held the inherited traditional title of Orubibi (spiritual mouthpiece) have made to the building of the Nigerian state.
The Kalabari Kingdom, which TOG popularized particularly with his dapper and impressionable attires, is a subgroup of Ijaw, Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group.
Although the Ijaws are indigenous in the five other coastal states of Bayelsa, Delta, Ondo, Edo and Akwa Ibom, and settled in other coastal areas, the Kalabaris are only concentrated in Rivers State.
They had originally moved about the 13th century from the Mein Cluster of clans in the present Bayelsa/Delta border region to settle in more eastern swamps of present Rivers State.
Their epochal ancestor, Perebo, who took them to their present location about 900 years ago was actually a senior son of Mein Owei. His name “Perebo” – a child of inheritance- underscores his standing in the family.
Unlike the familiar narrative of dispute as a source for migration, historical accounts have it that Perebo moved closely to the eastern Atlantic coast peacefully to enable explore new frontiers.
The eastward movement turned gratuitous and fruitful as his descendants became one of the first African groups to experience contact with European merchants and explorers.
This aided their rapid economic growth and social development. The Kalabari Kingdom, which had firm control over a fair amount of European trade therefore expanded exponentially.
From the original settlement of Elem Kalabari (Old Town), they built new cities such as Bakana, Abonnema, Buguma, Harrystown, Kula, all of which became thriving cities. The Kalabari people easily became more affluent than other Ijaw neighbours such as Nembe, Opobo and Okrika.
The Kalabari kingdom also quickly overshadowed other neighbouring non-Ijaw groups such as Ikwerre, Ibibio and Efik in terms of exposure to western education. Not surprisingly, in quick succession they produced some of Nigeria’s first set of educated persons, professionals and bureaucrats.
This is notwithstanding that the Church Missionary Society (CMS) established primary schools in nearby Nembe and Bonny Kingdoms in 1864 and 1868 respectively.
Also, agreed that Bonny’s King William Dappa Pepple had attended school in England as far back as the 1850s and the first university graduate of the Niger Delta, was George Jumbo in 1856 also from Bonny. However, the Kalabaris on whose soil the first school opened only in 1874 soon took over dominance in pursuit of knowledge.
The Kalabari people soon churned out, amongst others, Chief GKJ Amachree, first indigenous Solicitor General of the Federation, and first African Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, first Permanent Secretary of Federal Ministry of Education, Aroloye Feniobu Ajumogobia (father of former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Barr Odein Ajumogobia), first indigenous and longest serving Principal of Government College Umuahia, Isaac Erekosima and Professor Afonya Bestman, the first African ever to obtain a postdoctoral Doctor of Science in Mathematics from the University of London. Other great kinsmen of TOG were former Attorney General of Nigeria and pioneer Senior Advocate of Nigeria (along with Chief Rotimi-Williams), Chief Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas, Electoral Administrator, Chief Summer Dagogo-Jack, former Supreme Court Judge, Professor Karibi-Whyte, ace Diplomat and Administrator, Ambassador Joe Iyalla. No less were Musical Maestro and father of Highlife, ‘Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson, former Chief Judge of Rivers State, Chief Donald Graham-Douglas, academic and former Minister Prof Tam David-West, world acclaimed gynaecologist, Professor Kelsy Harrison and founding UNILAG Professor of Paediatrics Surgery, Professor Melford Graham-Douglas. Could be added to this list are Nigeria’s ace philanthropist and politician, Chief O.B. Lulu-Briggs, former Security Chief, Chief Albert Horsfall, Emeritus Professor and gynaecologist, Nimi Briggs, Oil and Gas Moguls, Odoliyi Lolomari and Tom Fabian, Academic and Diplomat, Dele Cole, former military era strongmen, Navy Commodore Ibim Princewill, beauty queen and former Miss World, Agbani Darego, great footballer and former Captain Green Eagles, Taribo West, etc. In the private sector, the impact of the Kalabaris remains indelible in virtually all aspects of the national economy.
Origins of family ‘big mannism’
Alabo TOG was raised in a family of merchants who later became public servants. From the founding of his town, Abonnema by eleven “Merchant War Chief” in 1882, his grandfather, Chief Orubibi (literally meaning “mouthpiece of divinity”), as the traditional spiritual avatar, started to carve out an enviable niche for his progeny.
The new town which was a breakaway from Elem Kalabari, the original ancestral home of Kalabaris, soon blossomed into the commercial entrepot of the area.
This was during the period of “Legitimate Trade” in farm produce, especially palm oil and palm kernel.
By 1884, Abonnema and all of Kalabari land became part of the Oil Rivers Protectorate and thereafter Niger Coast Protectorate between 1893 to 1900. As Imperial Britannia continued its colonial incursions, by 1900, this area became part of the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and ultimately January 1, 1914, when Lord Lugard’s Amalgamation Proclamation came into force.
Although grandfather, Chief Orubibi was a core traditionalist, he foresaw the new dawn and ensured that his main heir, whom his English trading partners named Graham Douglas, embraced Christianity and followed the ways of the ‘White Man’.
It remained for Alabo’s father to ensure that his children received the sound Anglo-Saxon foundation to rise to prominent positions in the new nation, Nigeria.
Hence all his elder siblings Dr. Nabo (former Attorney General of the Federation and pioneer SAN), Dr. Melford (Nigeria’s youngest medical doctor in 1949 and pioneer Provost, LUTH), Justice Donald (former Chief Judge of Rivers State), Ono, SAN (former Chairman, NBA, Rivers State) and others, all became mighty men and professional pace-setters, of their time.
Unfortunately, almost all of Alabo’s high profile elder brothers did not enjoy the benefits of tenured old age. Most of them, physically, were near giants, over six feet in height and with an imposing frame, sadly they all went to rest, habitually, before the basic biblical minimum of “three score and ten years”.
So, in making it to 80 years three years ago, TOG demystified a supposed jinx, which obviously never existed.
How life started
Young TOG attended secondary schools in Lagos and Port Harcourt. Thereafter, he proceeded to study at Acton Technical School, London (1963-1965) before rounding up undergraduate life at the University of Lagos (1965-1969).
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There, he earned a degree in Botany and Zoology. Following the family’s penchant for public service, his first working experience was at the Port Harcourt Refinery which was the premier industrial establishment in the country’s oil capital. He rose steadily to the top between 1969 to 1977.
The refinery itself was set up in 1965 with an initial 60, 000 barrels per day processing capacity. Unlike today when that premier refinery with a present capacity for processing 210,000 bpd is a shadow of itself, at Alabo’s time, this national asset operated at over 80% of installed capacity.
It was during that era, that Port-Harcourt, like Houston, Texas for the United States, gained its fame as Nigeria’s oil capital. The brief exit from paid employment enabled him enter into the private sector, emerging as one of the most outstanding in the city of Port-Harcourt.
Besides oil and gas which had become his area of proficiency, he made his mark in the hospitality industry, through a chain of hotels, numbering about three under the ‘Muriela Group’ – named after his wife.
He also formed other thriving business groups, IPCO Nigeria Ltd, and Oil and Industrial Services Ltd, both critical players in the oil and gas industry, at the time.
Recruitment into the home front
Coming from his family background, he soon found himself in government as Commissioner responsible for Youth, Sports and later Culture in 1986. While his portfolio was unusually loaded, Alabo showed a level of dexterity never seen before in Rivers State or across the country.
By the time he completed his tenure, his legacy had become credited, amongst other things with completing the iconic Alfred Diete-Spiff Civic Centre, the nation’s pioneer Sports Institute in the town of Isaka in the outskirts of Port-Harcourt.
He also initiated the construction of Port-Harcourt’s huge Liberation Stadium. Under his watch, Rivers State also became the most successful region at national competitive activities bordering on arts, culture and sports.
He also organised the first major “Caribbean style” modern carnival in Port-Harcourt in 1988. Today, city carnivals have become a national phenomenon, especially in other cities such as Calabar, Abuja, Owerri and Lagos.
In Rivers State, he also sat on the boards of countless State enterprises and played leading roles in their growth. Of particular significance were, PABOD Finance, which till date is a major financial institution. Others were Presidential Hotel, Water Glass Boatyard Company, amongst others.
Footprint of national service and politics
It was not surprising therefore when the government of former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, which was renowned in cultivating and incubating the very best around Nigeria, headhunted him into the Federal Executive Council in 1989 as Minister for Social Development, Youth and Sports arising from the good work in Rivers State. Under IBB, he was later in charge of Aviation till 1992.
He remains remembered as the main architect of a deregulated aviation industry in Africa’s largest economy. Hitherto, Nigeria Airways had an exclusive monopoly. He ended up as one of IBB’s favourite cabinet colleagues.
During the rest of military rule under General Sani Abacha and Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, 1993 to 1998, Alabo continued to serve in various ministerial portfolios.
He was known to have been exceptionally close and loyal to General Abacha, arising out of friendship built over the years when the latter was a Brigade Commander in Port-Harcourt. Clearly, Alabo leveraged on his relationship with Gen Abacha to attract attention to several Pan-Niger Delta initiatives.
Of particular note was the role which he and the likes of fellow Ijawman, Chief Dan Etete, then Minister of Petroleum played towards the creation of a wholly Ijaw state – Bayelsa – in October 1996 and creation of more local government areas in his home Rivers State.
The years of active presence at the federal level positioned Alabo as a major power broker in the politics of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. By the time political alliances were cobbled into interest groups, he emerged one of the founding fathers of the Peoples Democratic Party, which from 1999 to 2015, became Africa’s biggest political movement.
As a matter of fact, at the party’s first Convention in the north central city of Jos in December 1998, he joined other great Nigerians such as former Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, Former Petroleum Minister, Don Etiebet, Former Anambra Governor, Jim Nwobodo and former Super Permanent Secretary and National Planning Minister, Philip Asiodu and Sen Francis Ellah, to challenge Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for the PDP Presidential ticket.
Alabo emerged 4th in the primaries and became even more, a national phenomenon. Not surprisingly, President Obasanjo appointed him as Minister of Labour and Productivity in 1999 but in 2000, he replaced Chief Ojo Madueke as Minister for Culture and Tourism.
As Culture Minister, he conceptualised the first Abuja Carnival, as a socio-cultural nugget aimed at further integrating the country. Although, for nearly 20 years he became a major factor in the corridors of power in Abuja, he also became the power broker in the politics of the South-South, particularly in Rivers and Bayelsa states where he installed for years all the Governors, Senators, and the like after the country returned to democracy in 1999.
He held several high traditional titles in Kalabari and all across Nigeria. At the national level, he was conferred with the honour of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) and was conferred with the highest Rivers State award of Distinguished Service Star of Rivers State (DSSRS).
He devoted the closing years of his life to Christian work under the Port-Harcourt-based cleric, Apostle David Zilly-Aggrey. He also attended Salvation Ministry Bible School in Port Harcourt.
He also spent the closing years, documenting his thoughts and reflections of life and statesmanship. CLOSING WORDS He was a man of great charm, transcendental personality, amiable visage and prepositional gifts. Alabo’s high profile public service remains an spanning his entire adult life.
For example, he was till death, amongst very few people in the world and definitely alone in Nigeria whose services were found of value by several separate Heads of State of his country.
But more than all these are the didactic import of his story. Alabo was definitely not the only Nigerian who was born into a family of privilege. As a matter of fact, the greatest challenge which lay ahead of him in such setting was to live in the shadows of towering big brothers.
By relying on deep spirituality, hard-working lifestyle and perseverance, he had to carve out his own path. One underlying nugget which many easily recall was his true-hearted commitment to friendships.
With each of such names as former President Ibrahim Babangida, Gen Sani Abacha, Gen Theophilus Danjuma, the Obi of Onitsha, His Majesty, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, Oba Otudeko, the Chagoury family, General Ike Nwachukwu, Chief Ephraim Faloughi, King Ebitimi Banigo, Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar, Tom Fabian, Dele Cole, Gen Alani Akirinade, Gen David Jemibewon, this Alabo TOG, maintained an unusual bond and closeness.
Despite the vicissitudes of life, including hardnosed political manoeuvres, betrayals, repeated business failures and not the least, battle with cancer which he survived and closer to the heart, no few failed marriages, and loss of heir-apparent, Alabo remained unwavering about the beauty of life.
Alabo’s triumphant life recital is the more, a great source of inspiration and hope to many young people, especially Niger Delta, Ijaw and Kalabari youths. This is particularly so, because despite the region’s pioneering exposure to western civilization and contributions to national oil dependent economy, the people like their other neighbours remain largely on the side-lines, if not in outright exclusion on many fronts.
Hence, his ‘palace’ in Port-Harcourt became the meeting point for all the Niger Delta agitators at the time.
After years of violent experiences, he was able to prevail on them to pursue peace and dialogue as the region tried to chart a way forward for itself. To many, this departed grandfather remains a reference of success and a palpable hope for a new tomorrow for the Ijaws and for that matter, the people of the Niger Delta.
Till his death, he was an Elder in one of south south’s leading Churches, Apostle David Zilly-Aggrey’s Royal House of Grace. The legacy in service to Nigeria’s common good by Alabo and his kinsmen from Kalabari Kingdom and Ijaw ethnic nationality, in virtually all areas of national life remains unparalleled. His adoring wife, Muriel,11 children and many others are left to continue with his life’s works.