Former Nigerian rebel leader arrested in South Africa

Henry Okah, the former leader of the Nigerian rebel group that claimed responsibility for a car bomb that killed 12 people in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, on Friday, is due in South African court Monday.

Sunday Alamba/AP
A Nigerian police officer films the aftermath of a car bomb explosion in Abuja, Nigeria, Friday. Two car bombs blew up on Friday as Nigeria celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. The former leader of the Nigerian rebel group that claimed responsibility, Henry Okah, has been arrested in South Africa.

Two days after bomb blasts killed 12 in Nigeria’s capital, during celebrations meant to mark Nigeria’s 50th year of independence, a former rebel leader arrested in South Africa is due to appear in court.

Henry Okah, former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), interviewed by the Monitor last January, has denied any involvement with MEND since being released under an amnesty program three years ago by Nigeria and sent to live in exile in South Africa. But the organization he once led, MEND, has accepted responsibility for the car bomb attacks in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Friday morning.

The bomb blasts come just months before an expected Nigerian presidential election, and just as Nigerian oil production appeared to be increasing under a brief unilateral cease-fire by MEND in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Nigeria is the third largest crude oil supplier to the United States, and attacks on oil pipelines by rebel groups frequently cause spikes in global oil prices.

MEND’s spokesman, calling himself Jomo Gbomo, blamed the Nigerian security apparatus for the death toll in Friday’s three separate blasts, saying they had been given five days notice of the pending attack and “were also warned one full hour to the first bomb blast … and told to steer the public from all parked cars which was not done.”

Nigeria's 50th anniversary

The Friday morning car bomb blasts marred what should have been a proud day for Nigerians, a time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the handover of power from British colonial rule to an elected Nigerian government in Oct. 1960. But instead, the date showed the growing frustration of Niger Delta rebels with the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who comes from the Niger Delta region himself, and who promised substantial changes in Nigeria’s balance of power and distribution of wealth.

Yet, on one level, the bomb blasts come as no surprise. MEND had been telling reporters for months that they had given up on negotiating with the Jonathan government. In e-mail exchanges with the Monitor back in October 2009, Mr. Gbomo – who had arranged meetings with active MEND members during a recent Monitor trip to Lagos – told the Monitor that MEND’s militant attacks would soon begin again, and that oil companies in the region should prepare for “an all-out onslaught.”

Amnesty program a 'sham'

Mr. Okah himself, who repeatedly said he had left the MEND movement when going into exile, said that he felt the government’s amnesty program with Niger Delta rebels was “a sham.”

“We want to own our land, we want control of the land and the resources, so we can determine who comes to our land, but instead we have communities that have been forcibly relocated from their land so that oil companies can start operations,” said Mr. Okah, in an exclusive interview with the Monitor. “It challenges all your senses, so you either submit to it or you do something about it.”

Okah due in South African court

South Africa’s arrest of Okah comes after South African police searched Okah’s Johannesburg home on Friday morning, before the bomb blasts, on a tip from Nigeria security services. He was arrested on allegations of taking part in terrorist activities, said Okah’s lawyer Piet du Plessis, who added that Okah denied the charges. He is due in court on Monday.

South Africa is not the only country to give shelter to former or current African rebel leaders.

Former Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam currently resides in Harare, Zimbabwe. Nigeria sheltered former Liberian President Charles Taylor before buckling in 2006 to international pressure to hand him over to the International Criminal Court at the Hague to face war-crimes charges.

South Africa has given shelter to a number of Rwandan political exiles, including President Kagame’s former army chief Gen. Faustin Nyamwasa, who survived an assassination attempt in Johannesburg last May.

South Africa’s cooperation with Nigerian police is not unprecedented, but it is also not common.

In the spirit of non-interference in one another’s domestic politics, most African countries refuse to arrest or extradite the political gadflies, opposition leaders, or former rebel fighters of other African countries, if those individuals abide by the laws of their adopted country.

In this, the Nigerian handover of Liberian president Charles Taylor is the striking exception. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough evidence against Mr. Okah to add him to this rather short list.

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