7th December, 2010
He may be shackled, but he is not silenced. From his prison cell in South Africa,Â Nigeriaâ€™s militant leader, Henry Okah, is still promising bombs and gun fire to theÂ Nigerian military authorities.
Okah, who is on trial in South Africa on terrorism charges, said thereâ€™s no militaryÂ solution to the rebellion under way in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
â€œThere are thousands of people who are willing to fight and theyâ€™ll continue toÂ fight,â€ Okah said in an interview with Bloomberg on December 5 after he calledÂ Bloomberg from prison in Johannesburg.
â€œIf I can have access to weapons, Iâ€™ll give thousands ofÂ weapons to people in theÂ delta to defend their lives and their land.â€
His comments came as fighters of the Niger Delta Liberation Front ruptured aÂ pipeline belonging to the state-owned oil company on Dec. 5, the group said in anÂ e-mailed statement yesterday. MEND, which claimed responsibility for recent attacks,Â said in an e-mail last week it was planning new assaults on the oil industry.
Okah, 45, was arrested in Johannesburg after two car bombs exploded in Abuja, onÂ October 1, as President Goodluck Jonathan was marking Nigeriaâ€™s 50th independenceÂ anniversary. The blasts were claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of theÂ Niger Delta, the main armed group in the oil-producing region that the governmentÂ says Okah is leading.
Attacks in the delta by armed groups including MEND cut more than 28 percent ofÂ theÂ countryâ€™s oil output between 2006 and 2009. MEND wants the region to have exclusiveÂ control of its resources, while paying tax to the central government.
While he denied being the leader of MEND, Okah said he has influence among variousÂ armed groups, who, he said, â€œcall me master.â€
Nigeria is Africaâ€™s biggest oil producer and the fifth- largest source of U.S. oilÂ imports. Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp.,Â Chevron Corp. of San Ramon, California, Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures withÂ the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. that pump more than 90 percent ofÂ the West African nationâ€™s oil.
Angolan authorities arrested Okah, a resident in South Africa, in 2007 on suspicionÂ of arms trafficking. He was later deported to Nigeria, where he was put on trial onÂ 62 charges, including capital offenses of treason and terrorism.
Okah was freed under an amnesty plan initiated in August last year by formerÂ President Umaru Yarâ€™Adua and returned to South Africa. Jonathan succeeded Yarâ€™AduaÂ after he died on May 5.
Even if rebel commanders surrender under the terms of the amnesty, others will takeÂ their place, Okah said. â€œItâ€™s like gang warfare: When you leave your turf, otherÂ people take over,â€ he said.
The Nigerian military has stepped up raids against militant camps in the past monthÂ in response to a renewed surge in attacks by the rebels. The increased violenceÂ followed a period of relative calm when thousands of fighters disarmed under theÂ amnesty.
Troops raided a militant camp south of the oil-industry hub of Port Harcourt lastÂ month, freeing foreign hostages, including an American, two French nationals, twoÂ Indonesians and a Canadian, seized by MEND fighters. Camps operated by anotherÂ militant group, the Niger Delta Liberation Force, or NDLF, have come under air andÂ ground attack since last week.
â€œThe military should have a better way of dealing with the individuals theyâ€™reÂ seeking,â€ Nnimmo Bassey, the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action, aÂ Nigerian non- governmental organization, and chairman of Friends of the Earth.
â€œEntire communities are being targeted and punished. When an individual is wanted, aÂ whole community shouldnâ€™t be punished.â€
Military spokesman, Colonel Timothy Antigha, denied civilians were being targeted,Â saying in a December 2 phone interview that â€œa civilian has no business in a campÂ where there are machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and dynamite.â€
While both Okah and Jonathan are ethnic Ijaws, the dominant ethnic group in theÂ region, Okah said the Nigerian president lacks the vision to manage the grievancesÂ of different parts of Africaâ€™s most populous nation.
â€œThe Niger delta is just one part of the country; everybody in Nigeria hasÂ grievances,â€ he said. â€œCan Jonathan manage all these grievances? The answer is no.â€
Presidential spokesman, Ima Niboro, dismissed Okahâ€™s comments yesterday in aÂ telephone interview from Abuja.
â€œOkah is talking nonsense, all heâ€™s looking for is an avenue to sell his weapons,â€Â he said. â€œEven as vice president, the president was the one driving the amnestyÂ process under Yarâ€™Adua.â€