By Nengi Josef Owei
The Mingi-Yai of Nembe Kingdom Chief Nengi Josef Owei narrates his encounter with late King Okpoitari Diongoli. In his words Chief Nengi described late King Okpoitari demise as a great to loss to Bayelsa, Niger Delta and particularly the media industry.
He said, “MY FATHER was the first to draw my attention to the name Okpoitari Diongoli. He was listening to the radio that morning, reclining in his chair, when the news talk came up right after the main bulletin, and the name stuck out with all the quaint novelty that I came to associate with it.
My father was smiling when he repeated the name to me, imitating the sign-off on radio. That commentary was written by Okpoitari Diongoli. He thought it was a name I would find funny, and I remember laughing along with him at the very sound of it.
Okpoitari Diongoli. What a name. What could it mean? I came to know later that Okpoitari means a call for the love of the world. As for Diongoli, I could only relate it with the content of an unripe coconut fruit.
Before then, my father and I had become used to hearing names like Eriye Iyaye, Stan Opokuma, Stephen Oweibigha, Charles Ogan, Ibiwari Ikiriko, and especially Ogadinma Jim-Odoi, on the talking point in the heydays of Radio Rivers.
So, who was this new writer called Okpoitari Diongoli? As the days passed, the name became more frequent on radio. We could not help but notice that the writer took on ambitious subjects for analysis, and that he deserved some attention.
A few years later, when I took office as Editor of The Tide On Sunday in Port Harcourt, I came up with a story idea for the pages of my weekend paper. I decided to write a story entitled “Faces Behind The Microphone.” I was out to tear the veil behind which hid the faces of the men and women whose voices woke us from sleep with their endless chatter on radio.
I wanted to write about Brighten Sorgwe and Tony Binawari and Samuel Isenah and Albert Karikarisei. I wanted to write about Florence Ekiye and Tammy Alalibo and Terence Ekiseh and Kiddy Jenkins Tebedah and Mablas Macaulay Akpuluma Jr, the man with the longest name on radio.
I wanted to write about Nelson Oweifawari and Ibiso Billy-Peters and Dafini Gogo-Abbey and Jane Help Yahweh and Grace Peletiri. I wanted my readers to know what these people looked like, what they thought inside their famous heads, what their stories sounded like. That was how I ran into the man called Okpoitari Diongoli along the corridors of Radio Rivers, Port Harcourt.
He struck me as a young man who was preoccupied with his work, a man who wanted desperately to make a mark, a man who wanted to make the best use of an opportunity that had come to him, and he demonstrated that on Information Desk, a programme produced by the current affairs unit.
In the fullness of time, Bayelsa State was created and all sons and daughters of the new state had to leave for Yenagoa, our new state capital. We were going to start our own media houses from scratch. It turned out that Diongoli, like myself, was also from Bayelsa.
From the Tide, I went straight to become Speech Writer to Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, first civilian Governor of the new state. But my ties with the radio remained strong, and I continued to be on the news roster at Radio Bayelsa. Inevitably, I got to know everyone of my colleagues from Rivers even better.
Under the guidance of Stan Opokuma, pioneer helmsman at Radio Bayelsa, Okpoitari Diongoli fortified the news and current affairs desk along with his colleagues, Stephen Oweibigha and Felix Slabor. Among the lot of commentators, I counted Diongoli as a persistent, relentless and focused analyst.
He seemed to be obsessed with everything that was happening in every sector of the polity, and went out of the way to conduct his research with a dedication that always yielded good results. Diongoli’s commentaries were always to be heard, and they stood out for their objectivity and passion.
Over time, he was appointed as Press Secretary to Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State. His schedule became tighter and he could no longer write for the radio as often as he used to do.
Sharing offices next door in the early days of the Alamieyeseigha government, Diongoli and I worked in close proximity for the better part of six years, until he returned to his desk at the radio house. In the intervening period, we had grown to know each other well, and I could count him as my friend.
One day, I went to take the news at Radio Bayelsa and met with Okpoitari Diongoli at the car park. After we had exchanged boisterous pleasantries, I asked him how many commentaries he had written from his days at Radio Rivers to his days at Radio Bayelsa.
He laughed and said he couldn’t count. That’s the point, I said. You have to learn to keep track of your scripts. Why don’t you go back to your files and dust up all those old scripts, take a second look at them, and select the best of them into a pamphlet?
Okpoitari looked at me with a brand new eye from that day. It had just not occurred to him, but now that I had mentioned it, he would do exactly as I suggested. And so, indeed, he went to work.
When next we met, he confided in me that he had become restless since I planted the idea of a book in his mind, and he was amazed at the number of commentaries he had written for radio.
He had gathered a good number, he said, and his secretary was already retyping them. He would hand them over to me for a second opinion, and I was to write the foreword to the book. I assured him that the honour was all mine.
At our next meeting, however, Okpoitari did not hand me a collection of his news talks. Instead, he said he had gone beyond collecting his old scripts to writing something new. He was writing the story of his life, from the day he was born. I was glad to know that he had received inspiration from merely looking at his old scripts.
I took the new manuscript he handed me in a flash. When I opened the file, I was amazed to see how much new ground he had covered. He had written his life story in eighteen adventurous chapters that ran into a sizeable number of pages, and he was still writing.
In a career spanning three eventful decades, through military and civilian times alike, Okpoitari Diongoli brought his lenses into focus as a journalist who walked the corridors of government in Creek Haven.
I was surprised when Diongoli was named as General Manager of Radio Bayelsa over his seniors. I felt as if I had underestimated him. I was even more surprised when he was named as king over his people. At a colourful coronation ceremony on Monday May 10, 2014, he was endorsed as the new paramount ruler of Opokuma Kingdom, sitting on a First Class stool.
The radio went digital under his tenure, and he promptly appropriated the word as a title. As he was fond of saying, he transformed from being a Digital GM to becoming a Digital King. He wanted to set a new record as the first king to write a book in office and make a public presentation of it. He wanted me to edit the book for him and get it published.
I was only too ready to help him realise his ambition. I designed the cover of the book, wrote a short blurb for the back, and returned the first three chapters I had edited for him to see. I also suggested a title for him — The Journalist As King, with his handsome face on the cover.
As the dream began to take palpable shape, Okpoitari Diongoli felt he had more to write about. The more he read what he had written, the more he remembered to add what he had not written. He was still adding fresh material to the book when I was incarcerated at Okaka penitentiary over the content of my own book.
The king and I had discussed his book the last time in 2015. We did not get to see again for so long that I thought he had called off the project. On Tuesday May 1, 2018, we met at the first book reading event organised by Fourteen-Zero-Two Book Lounge.
I had been invited to give a short lecture on the importance of reading at the maiden edition of the programme, and I was glad to sit in the front row alongside His Royal Majesty Okpoitari Diongoli, Opu Okun IV, at the Trendy Event Centre in the heart of Yenagoa.
I could not miss the fact that we were the only two people in that hall dressed in red royal robes and red top hats to match, he in his capacity as the paramount ruler of the Opokuma people, and me in my humble capacity as Mingi-Yai of Nembe Kingdom.
At the end of my presentation, the king pulled me aside, and told me that he had received fresh inspiration simply by listening to me read from my book, Royal Mail. Now he wants us to get back on track with his own book project. I told him it was a great idea, and the earlier we pursued a public event that would witness its formal presentation in the near future, the better for everybody.
Nine days later, on Thursday May 10, 2018, we both sat on the high table again at the formal presentation of a new book by Gospel Roland Elekele at the secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Yenagoa.
As with anything to do with the activities of journalists in the state, King Diongoli was ready and willing to identify with his primary professional constituency, and he was there in prominent colours with a royal word to go with it. I had been invited to give a formal review of Elekele’s book entitled Anatomy of Parliamentary Reporting.
The occasion was designed as an ideal meeting point for members of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly to interact with the Fourth Estate of the Realm, and I had written my script with that distinguished assembly in mind. It turned out, however, that only two members of the House showed up, a situation that virtually deflated the historic significance of the event.
The king had listened to my review of the book with keen interest, and then thrown his royal word into the ring. He expressed his disappointment with members of the House, and he spoke with the forthright candour of a seasoned journalist with a royal imprimatur.
It so happened that his righteous vituperation was misinterpreted as an outright affront on the entire law-making body. The author of the book who had paid his dues in the press gallery of the House over the years, was fingered as having provided an occasion for the royal father to berate the respectable members of the House.
The king felt slighted when word got to him that Elekele had been suspended from reporting about the House on account of that event. He believed that it was wrong of the legislature in a modern democracy to be so suspicious of journalists in the state as to summarily evict a regular reporter from the press gallery. King Diongoli did not rest until he received confirmation that Elekele had been recalled to his duty post.
On the night of Wednesday November 21, just four days ago, I was working in my solitary study at home when I heard the door swing open and close. I raised my face from the depths of my laptop to see who had entered my study, but so no one.
I was still wondering who could have opened the door so obviously when I saw a mist begin to form before my eyes into a floating mass. I rubbed my eyes to see clearly, but even as I looked the mist began to dissolve as fast as it had gathered. I wondered if I was imagining things.
I was still wondering about the world of ghosts when I logged on to my Facebook wall, clicked the message sent to my inbox by Brighten Sorgwe, and was petrified to read a short message bidding farewell to the late King Okpoitari Diongoli.
I have been in shock since then, and my wife has been doing her best to comfort me, knowing that I found a friend in Okpoitari Diongoli from way back in time. I put a quick call to Brighten, and the veteran broadcaster has since confirmed the news for me. I am still trying to ascertain what time it happened, and how it happened. More than that, I am hard put to understand why it had to happen at all?
I have scrolled down the Facebook wall of the Digital King, and seen his last postings. I am staring at the pictures he took in America alongside his beloved wife, Queen Tessy Diongoli. This was evidently their first trip abroad, and the king was gushing with stories to tell. There was so much to talk about, and I was looking forward to my next meeting with King Diongoli. Alas, the plot of the story has changed.
Knowing my friend as I do, he would have since reacted to the news making the rounds about him. But four days after, the king has said nothing to anyone. He has not denied the story about his demise. He has not confirmed that he is alive somewhere. My wife reached out to his first son, her colleague at the state television. The young man is in shock but he has confirmed for us that his father was no more.
I am compelled to come to the conclusion, therefore, that it must be true. And now that the story is confirmed to be true, O, what a loss to Bayelsa State. The traditional rulers council has lost its youngest king, and the Nigerian Union of Journalist, Bayelsa State chapter, has lost one of its most ardent practitioners and its only royal patron.
In the words of an old hymnal, man shall be remembered only by the works of his hands. Many days from now, it will be said that His Royal Majesty Okpoitari Diongoli, Opu Okun IV of Opokuma Clan will be remembered only by his work. And what is that work that will survive him for all time?
It is the testimony he gave of his life, the account he has painstakingly written of the dizzying adventure that was the life of a journalist who rose through the ranks of the newsroom, through the corridors of Creek Haven, to become king of his people.
The only regret here is that the king will not be around to hold his book when, in the end, it rolls off the press for one and all to read. I am only comforted by the fact that my friend wrote the story of his life in his own words.
What’s more, he trusted me well enough to give me the assignment of editing it into a readable document that would serve to enrich the larger story of mankind. Peace be unto the soul of Okpoitari Diongoli in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.