A South African judge has sentenced Henry Okah, a Nigerian citizen, to twenty-four years in jail for twin car bombings in 2010. The bombings took place in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja on the fiftieth anniversary of the country’s independence. According to the Nigerian press, at least twelve people were killed and thirty-eight were wounded in the attack.
The judge declined to impose the maximum sentence, despite Okah’s lack of remorse, because he acknowledged that there was a political dimension to his terrorism. However, South African prosecutors are appealing the sentence; they are seeking imprisonment for life. Okah’s lawyers in Nigeria are denouncing the conviction, and certain Niger Delta militants are threatening mayhem.
Okah was a warlord associated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a loose, often criminal or quasi-criminal, group that fought the federal government for a greater share of the oil revenue produced in their region. They were most active from 2005 to 2009. They funded their activities through oil theft, gunrunning, and other illicit activities. Okah was widely regarded as one of the most successful gunrunners.
At times, MEND succeeded in reducing Nigeria’s oil production from over two million barrels a day to less than one million. The militia enjoyed some popular support among Delta residents, and probably still does. In 2009, then-president Umaru Yar’Adua offered an amnesty that included some disarmament and retraining of militants and, it is credibly alleged, massive payoffs to MEND leaders. His successor as president, Goodluck Jonathan, who is from the Niger Delta, subsequently incorporated some of the former gang leaders into his administration. A consequence was a significant reduction in attacks on oil infrastructure, though oil theft is probably greater now than it has ever been, and no political process is in place to address the genuine grievances of Delta residents.
Okah refused to participate in the amnesty; hence the independence day bombing. Some in the Delta see him as a “Robin Hood” figure.
At the time, President Jonathan blamed the Abuja independence day bombing on the Islamist militants from the North that he calls “Boko Haram.”
Okah’s political and criminal career would seem to be over, despite the fulminations of his supporters in Nigeria. Delta grievances persist, however, and kidnapping is on the upswing. The Delta remains a tinderbox of grievances fueled by oil money. Okah’s generation of MEND leaders are likely to be replaced by younger militants, and the Delta could re-ignite at any time.