Oct 4, 2012 | 10:01 GMT

5 mins read

Nigeria: Courting Accused Militant Leader Henry Okah

Nigeria: Courting Accused Militant Leader Henry Okah

Nigeria's government on Oct. 2 effectively offered to pardon Henry Okah, the accused leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta militant group, commonly known as MEND. During court proceedings against Okah in South Africa, Nigerian Minister for Niger Delta Affairs Godsday Orubebe said the administration wants to hold an amnesty-related dialogue and reach an agreement with Okah. Abuja could eventually reach an agreement with Pretoria for Okah's release to Nigerian authorities and his return to Nigeria.

The Nigerian government's conducive participation in Okah's trial could be partly about making sure he remains silent regarding MEND's political patronage in Nigeria. Another aspect of Abuja's involvement in Okah's trial could be to secure MEND's cooperation as the government prepares for upcoming elections.

Okah has been held on terrorism charges since MEND carried out a car bombing in Abuja on Oct. 1, 2010. Although MEND's theater of operations principally was in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta region, Okah resided in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although Okah — who exhibits the traits of a very disciplined intelligence operative, though his background and training is not publicly known — is believed to be a senior leader of the militant group, but field commanders in the Niger Delta were responsible for conducting attacks. The operations, such as blowing up crude oil pipelines, kidnapping expatriate oil workers and intimidating regional and local politicians and rival armed groups, were meant to enforce political control.

Throughout Okah's trial over the past two years, he has not revealed any information about MEND activities or the group's patronage network involving senior Nigerian government officials. Only rare lapses in communications and operational security have revealed the relationship between Okah's militant group and the elite in Abuja. For instance, South African police raided Okah's jail cell in Johannesburg after the alleged militant leader made threatening phone calls directly to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Nigerian ministers, including Orubebe. Okah reportedly had 17 mobile phones in his cell, each likely assigned a purpose, such as calling a specific Nigerian official. Okah also was flown from South Africa to Nigeria aboard a Nigerian presidential jet in 2009.

Niger Delta Oil Fields

Niger Delta Oil Fields

MEND field generals' favored treatment in Abuja since the launch of the government's amnesty program in 2009 also reveals familiar relationships between Niger Delta militants and senior government officials. Okah and other militant leader rivals like Asari Dokubo of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force never accepted the amnesty program, but these leaders benefited from Abuja's largesse in the form of living lavishly, openly and outside the reach of Nigerian jurisprudence.

It would be politically controversial in Nigeria were Okah to disclose in court the extent to which Jonathan benefited from — if he did not help coordinate — MEND activities. Furthermore, if Okah is released and complies with Orubebe, Nigerian officials could ask for his group's cooperation ahead of elections.

Militants' Interest in Elections

Though national elections are not scheduled until roughly April 2015, the ruling People's Democratic Party leadership election is scheduled tentatively for December 2014. Two years is not a long time to secure a candidate's position, and the race for party leadership clearly is under way. Jonathan has not unequivocally stated his position other than to say his government's performance should be used as guidance for his candidacy. Jonathan's opponents, especially from northern Nigeria, are discussing various possibilities — such as a multiparty alliance — to defeat Jonathan should he run and to return presidential power to their region. 

Settling political disagreements in Nigeria frequently involves violence. Persuading militants to attack political rivals is a common tactic. But the Niger Delta region raised the bar in late 2005 when the region's elites began orchestrating a coordinated campaign using local armed groups, political activists and grassroots socioeconomic activists to assemble a region-wide militant capability. Political protection from the region's governors and security officials ahead of the 2007 national elections empowered MEND to effectively hold the region and country ransom. Nigeria's one significant natural resource is crude oil, and the majority of this resource is in the Niger Delta. The region essentially told the rest of the country that if it did not gain political influence in Abuja, the oil would not flow. MEND attacks destabilized the oil sector, resulting in production decreasing from roughly 2.5 million barrels per day to less than 1.5 million.

In the 2007 election, Jonathan — then governor of Bayelsa state — was elected vice president. Until then, the Ijaw, the Niger Delta's main ethnic group, had been neglected or used as pawns in the political competition among Nigeria's three dominant ethnic groups: the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. Jonathan succeeded Umaru Yaradua, former governor of Katsina state in northern Nigeria, as president when Yaradua died in 2010.

The North's Answer to MEND?

MEND's activity in the Niger Delta could have inspired disgruntled northern politicians to activate a similar capability. Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group based in northeastern Nigeria, has conducted a widespread campaign of attacks on government and civilian targets throughout northern Nigeria for the past few years. Northern Nigeria does not hold any significant natural resources, but the Boko Haram campaign has undermined the local population's confidence in the Jonathan administration's ability to effectively govern and secure the region.

Nigerian security agencies are waging a counterterrorism offensive against Boko Haram, but as long as political insiders give the group protection — in the form of intelligence, weapons and money, just as MEND has received from government officials — the group will survive. Boko Haram simply needs to restrain its operations and limit attacks to internal (not international) targets in order to avoid triggering an international response that could harm their political patrons' careers. The region's politicians have disagreed about how high the tempo of Boko Haram operations should go.

With significant political battles ahead, Nigeria's political elite will be refining their campaign strategies. Boko Haram is active. MEND field commanders are visible in Abuja and in Port Harcourt and other Niger Delta towns. MEND does have internal rivals, and Okah will not necessarily immediately become the group's operational commander. However, should Okah be pardoned and returned to Nigeria, it could be a move by the Jonathan administration to ensure that it retains its militant capability to fight for its political interests.

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