MEND Leader, Henry Okah
By Yemi Ajayi
Whichever way the trial went, it was only a matter of time before Henry Okah, leader of a Niger Delta guerrilla outfit, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), got justice. Given the grievous charges against him, the weight of evidence proffered by the state and his own robust defence, the pendulum of justice could have swung either way. When it swung yesterday, it was against Okah, a man who made his name and fortune from militancy in the Niger Delta area.
Okah, born in 1965, came into the spotlight as a key leader of MEND, one of the armed groups involved in the struggle for resource control in the Niger Delta, a region that has suffered age-long degradation of its environment due to the exploitation and exploration of hydrocarbon resources by multinational companies.
MEND, where he wielded enormous influence, was in the vanguard of the struggle for redress of the neglect, which the people and their environment had suffered owing to the activities of the oil companies.
Okah, the fourth son of a naval officer, was enraged by the living conditions of his people when as a young impressionable man, he visited his ancestral family home in Bayelsa State at the age of 19. His privileged background, notwithstanding, he became a rebel with a cause.
Years later, his experience as a gun salesman and working as a merchant navy mariner stood him in good stead for his self-chosen career as a rebel leader. He organised and funded rebel groups to prosecute the struggle. At a point, Okah relocated to South Africa, where he continued with his struggle.
The amnesty programme initiated by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, which his deputy, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, faithfully executed upon assumption of office following Yar’Adua’s death, changed the story of the Niger Delta struggle and Okah’s.
He was never a supporter of the amnesty and he strongly believed that his travails had something to do with his opposition to the programme.
In September 2007, Okah was arrested in South Africa while trying to buy equipment and arms for use in the Niger Delta. He was deported to Nigeria in February 2008 and detained in solitary confinement during his trial on a 62-count charge for treason and terrorism. But the Niger Delta militants protested his detention and embarked on a campaign of terror to force the government to release him.
Freedom came for him in 2009 when the late Yar’Adua ordered his release as part of the amnesty programme.
However, on October 1, 2010, the 50th Independence Day anniversary in Abuja was disrupted by twin car bombings which rocked the vicinity of the venue. At least 12 persons were killed and some 36 others injured. MEND claimed responsibility for the bombing and a day later, Okah was arrested in Johannesburg and charged with engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy to engage in terrorist activity, and delivering, placing, and detonating an explosive device.
His brother, Charles, as well as Charles’ son and five others, were also arrested for their alleged involvement in the blasts.
Okah denied involvement in the bombings. In an interview with Aljazeera in October 2010, he accused the Jonathan administration of masterminding the bombing for political gains.
After a trial that started in October 2012, Johannesburg High Court Judge Neels Claassen yesterday convicted Okah on a 13-count charge bordering on terrorism. Given his tenacity, he is certain not going to give up the fight for freedom. But what shape the next stage of the struggle is going to take is in the womb of time.