For Okah, The Gunfire Stops
On Tuesday, 25 March, the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, sentenced the leader of the Nigerian militant group – Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, (MEND) – Henry Okah, to a 24- year jail term. The CITIZEN looks at the story behind the conviction and more.
Some two months earlier, on 21 January, he was found guilty on 13 counts of terrorism, including engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy to engage in terrorist activities, and delivering, placing, and detonating explosive devices in Abuja in 2010, during Nigeria’s independence day celebrations. At least 12 people were killed and 36 others injured.
The sentencing proper was just to conclude a judicial process in South Africa's criminal justice system.
The court had established that Okah was the former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, (MEND). He also received a 13-year jail term for threats made to the South African government after his arrest in October 2010. But this runs concurrently with his 24-year sentence. The Johannesburg judge found that the state had proven Okah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt because he didn’t testify in his own defence during the trial.
Okah had repeatedly denied any involvement in the bombings. Prosecutors had argued that although Okah is not a South Africa citizen, the country had the jurisdiction to try him under the International Co-operation in Criminal Matters Act. Many analysts believe it would have been too dangerous for him to be tried in Nigeria because of the presence of his militant supporters.
Okah is thought to be the first foreign national to be tried for terrorism in South Africa. He has been in custody since his arrest in October 2010, a day after the Abuja bombings.
'Effectively, the accused Okah is therefore sentenced to 24 years imprisonment,' Judge Neels Claassen impassively intoned. The scenario is now provoking different reactions from Nigerians.
Perhaps, not surprisingly MEND – which said it was fighting to help Niger Delta residents gain a greater share of the oil wealth – was amongst the first to react to the sentencing of Okah, its leader. According to a miffed MEND, it received with incredulity the 24-year sentence on Henry Okah after a sham trial in a South African kangaroo court. MEND’s spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo said the group is disappointed but not surprised that the South African judiciary has allowed itself to be compromised by the highly corrupt Nigerian government.
His words: “The governments of South Africa and Nigerian should realise that this planned sentencing of Henry Okah would not in any way, shape or form, change our struggle as we will remain dedicated to our cause until we achieve full justice and emancipation for the Niger Delta and its people.”
It can be recalled that Okah was arrested on gun-running charges in Angola in 2007 and then transferred to Nigeria but was never convicted. He was released after two years under an amnesty for oil militants and he returned to South Africa, where he had lived since 2003. The 48-year-old was first arrested in February 2008 in Angola and then deported to Nigeria on a 62-count charge of treason, terrorism, illegal possession of firearms and arms trafficking.
Okah accepted late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's Presidential Amnesty Programme and was consequently freed on 13th July 2009. But he was rearrested on 2nd October 2010 – a day after the 2010 Independence Day bombing – in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the trial began on 1st October 2012, exactly two years after the bombing. Coming under the watch of his kinsman, President Goodluck Jonathan, the bombing remains something of a mystery to many as to its real motive.
The Man Okah…
Born in 1965, Henry Okah until his recent jailing is a guerrilla leader of MEND. MEND has claimed responsibility for attacks on oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, often through the use of sabotage, guerilla warfare or kidnapping of foreign oil workers. The rebels’ goal is to destabilize the foreign oil interest in the Niger Delta, who they claim have been exploiting the local populace. The Okah-led MEND announced its creation in early 2006 with several attacks on Nigeria’s oil infrastructure that have cut daily production by about one quarter, as well as a sophisticated media campaign involving e-mailing press releases to coincide with the attacks.
It created headlines in Nigeria when it announced it would participate in peace talks if they were mediated by former United States President Jimmy Carter or actor George Clooney. It also claimed the organization was considering a cease-fire after receiving an “appeal” by U.S. President Barack Obama, who denied making it in the first place.
Okah was arrested in Angola and deported to Nigeria in February 2008, and charged with 62 counts of treason, terrorism, illegal possession of firearms and arms trafficking, faced the death penalty. He claimed to be “championing the disenfranchised residents of the Delta region, who see little benefit from the oil being pumped out from under them.” Okah’s lawyer, Femi Falana, claimed that the Nigerian government offered to buy him off by granting ownership of several oil blocks, though he refused. The trial, which began in April 2008, was held in private, because President Umaru Yar’Adua said it would “jeopardize national security”. Lawyers for Okah said a closed trial was an infringement of his rights and asked a superior court to overturn the decision.
In response, on May 26, 2008, MEND attacked a Royal Dutch Shell pipeline in the Delta region, and claimed to have killed 11 Nigerian troops. While the Nigerian government denied the deaths, the price of oil rose $1 on world markets within hours of the attack. An e-mail from MEND warned “[their] attacks… are a retaliation to his unnecessary arrest.”
In July 2009, Okah’s lawyer announced that he accepted an amnesty, which had been offered by the Nigerian government to any rebel willing to lay down their arms, in a bid to end attacks on the oil industry. Senior MEND official “General” Boyloaf claimed that if Okah was set free the organization would indeed lay down its arms, and Jomo Gbomo, a spokesman of the organization, supported Okah’s decision since his health was failing. However, other MEND leaders said that they would reject the amnesty. On July 13, 2009, Judge Mohammed Liman announced that Okah was released, telling him in person “Having reviewed what the attorney general said, you have become a free man at this moment.”
According to an article by the Washington Post, Okah was again arrested in Johannesburg on Saturday, October 2 following the 2010 Nigeria’s Independence Day attacks that killed 12 people. He “claims that he knows nothing of any of these bombings.”
But on Monday, January 21 2013, a South African court convicted Okah of 13 charges of terrorism, including bombings that killed 12 people in Abuja on October 1, 2010. Handing down the verdict, Judge Nels Claassen said, “I have come to the conclusion that the state proved beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused.”
With this latest development and MEND's angry rejection of the court verdict, many are worried that a new chapter in vengeful bombings and militancy in the Niger Delta region maybe afoot. But for Okah, firmly tucked away in a South African jail, surely the familiar gunfire of his 'freedom fight' has stopped.