By Tobi Soniyi and Zacheaus Somorin, with agency reports
A South African court Monday found Nigerian militant leader, Henry Okah, guilty of masterminding the 2010 Independence Day car bombing, which killed 12 people and injured several others. Okah was convicted of 13 counts related to acts of terrorism.
In a reaction, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has called for the overhaul of the judiciary in order to speed up the dispensation of criminal cases in the country.
Okah, who was arrested in Johannesburg on October 2, 2010, a day after two car bombs exploded during the 50th anniversary of Nigeria's independence anniversary, was convicted in a trial that began in October 2012.
He had denied the charges of being behind the bomb attacks for which the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed responsibility.
Okah’s conviction has generated mixed reactions in Nigeria with the prosecutor of a similar case in the country involving Okah’s brother, Charles, and two others, Dr Alex Izinyon (SAN), welcoming the court’s verdict.
However, Lagos-based lawyer, Mr. Festus Keyamo, described the conviction as “politically motivated and legally incorrect.”
According to an AFP report, Judge Neels Claassen of the Johannesburg High Court convicted Okah on charges ranging from conspiracy to committing terrorism to detonating explosives.
“I have come to the conclusion that the state proved beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused,” Judge Claassen said.
Prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told reporters that Okah faced life in prison. South Africa worked closely with foreign law enforcement agencies “to make sure justice is done in Africa,” he said.
“This (conviction) is clearly indicative that South Africa cannot be seen as a safe haven for international terrorists,” Abrahams said.
Okah was arrested on gun running charges in Angola in 2007 and then transferred to Nigeria in 2008, but was never convicted.
He was released after two years under an amnesty for oil militants and returned to South Africa, where he had lived since 2003.
The violence subsided significantly after the government offered militants an amnesty in 2009.
At its peak, the instability in the Niger Delta cost Nigeria about $1billion (£630 million) in lost revenue.
Speaking on Okah’s conviction, the online news site, Premium Times, quoted the Chairman of the Ikeja branch of the NBA, Onyekachi Ubani, as saying the lesson Nigeria should learn from Okah’s conviction is how to fast track the dispensation of justice in its legal system.
He said the Nigerian justice system was slow, ineffective and inefficient to meet the wishes and aspirations of the people.
“Former Delta State governor, James Ibori, was jailed by a UK court, whereas the crime was committed in Nigeria. Now, Okah has been convicted by a South African court for an offence also committed in Nigeria.
“This shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system and it needs to be overhauled,” Ubani said.
He said had Okah been charged for the offence in Nigeria, the matter would not have reached conviction stage by now.
“His brother (Charles) and some other persons were arrested and arraigned for the same offence in Nigeria but the matter is still proceeding at a very slow pace,” Ubani said.
Also commenting on Okah’s conviction, Izinyon said it was a welcome development, adding that it was based on evidence presented at the court.
“I am the prosecutor; I don't want to say much,” he added.
The National Coordinator of the Human Rights Writers' Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), Mr. Emmanuel Onwubiko, also described Okah's conviction as the greatest indictment for non-performance and corruption of the Nigeria's judicial system.
He urged the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Maryam Aloma Mukhtar, to roll out a reform agenda to save Nigeria's constitutional democracy from imminent collapse in the face of anarchy and impunity.
But Keyamo, who is the counsel to Charles, slammed the South African judiciary for convicting the older Okah.
He said in a statement Monday that the trial was not free and fair as Okah was denied the opportunity to defend himself.
“The fundamental flaw in the trial is that Henry Okah was not given adequate facilities and the opportunity to defend himself.
“This is because after the prosecution closed its case in South Africa, the defence attorneys and my chambers here in Abuja tried frantically to summon the Henry Okah’s witnesses, who are based here in Nigeria to testify on his behalf. These witnesses include some government officials.
“In this regard, we wrote to the Attorney-General of the Federation who replied and directed that Henry’s counsel in South Africa apply to the court there for an order to secure the legal assistance of the Attorney-General of Nigeria. This was only two weeks ago.
“Without giving Henry’s counsel in South Africa adequate time and facilities to follow the directive, the South African court foreclosed his opportunity to call witnesses and rushed to convict him.
“This is a breach of his fundamental right to a fair hearing and an obvious attempt by the South African authorities to please Nigeria at all cost. That is why the judgment is nothing but political,” he said.
Keyamo condemned the judgment and urged Nigerians and the international community to do so, noting that Okah’s only offence was his refusal to accept the amnesty offered by the Yar’Adua-Jonathan administration and his insistence on the Niger Delta controlling its resources.
He also called on the Federal Government to use all diplomatic efforts to ensure that Okah does not die in a South African prison and to press for unconditional pardon for him.