Nigeria arrests, then frees top opposition figure in bomb probe

Critics claim the arrest of media mogul Raymond Dokpesi, the director of opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Babangida's campaign, was politically motivated.

With the arrest of Nigeria’s top media mogul – who also serves as the campaign director for former Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida – the investigation into last week’s deadly bombing in the capital, Abuja, has taken a decidedly political turn.

Raymond Dokpesi, owner of Africa Independent Television, turned himself in to police on Monday morning and was detained for hours without access to his attorney or family. Nigerian police say that there was a series of text messages between Mr. Dokpesi and other arrested suspects in the bombing both before and after the blasts.

With Dokpesi’s arrest, Nigerian authorities say their investigation is now leading them away from pinning sole responsibility for Friday's dual car-bomb attack on the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the top militant group in the oil-rich region.

Even though MEND, whose attacks on oil facilities in the No. 3 supplier of crude to the US have frequently caused oil prices to spike, claimed responsibility for the attack, Nigerian authorities and some analysts are wondering whether other groups may have been in on the attacks for political reasons.

“I think this is just domestic politics,” says Charles Dokubo, director of the Nigerian Institute for Security Studies in Lagos. “I don’t think this was MEND [that carried out the attacks], because the president is a man who comes from their region and if there is anyone who would give the Niger Delta the attention it needs, it is him. No, this comes from those people who are worried they will not be allowed to get their way in Nigerian politics.”

Refusing to “name names,” Mr. Dokubo adds, “No person from a minority has ever been president before, and there are people who are trying to upset all this.”

Upcoming presidential vote

With national presidential elections expected as soon as January 2011 the arrests of a major opposition campaign figure is almost certain to signal the start of a very contentious election period for Nigeria.

Even before the blasts, tensions were rising as members of President Goodluck Jonathan’s own party – especially those from the Muslim north of the country – were putting pressure on Mr. Jonathan to step aside to allow the Muslim North to have a president of their own faith.

Nigeria’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, has imposed a policy of power sharing to ensure communal harmony between Muslims of the north and Christians from the south. Under the policy, power shifts from region to region to ensure both Christians and Muslims are represented. Since Jonathan’s predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, died in office after just over a year in power, many Muslims from the north believe that their community was denied a full term in office.

In all, nine people have been arrested in the Oct. 1 bomb blasts, including the accused “masterminds” of the attack, Chima Orlu and Ben Jessy. Police say that all nine suspects “have direct links to Henry Okah, not MEND.” Mr. Okah, the former MEND leader, was also arrested this weekend in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he has been living for the past year under an amnesty deal with the Nigerian government.

Babangida campaign denies involvement

Dokpesi’s office and the Babangida presidential campaign deny any involvement in the bomb blasts in Abuja during Nigeria’s 50 year independence anniversary.

MEND continues to insist that it carried out the attacks on behalf of that region’s long neglect by the Nigerian government.

Jomo Gbomo – a nomme de guerre for spokesmen representing MEND – told the Monitor by e-mail that MEND definitely carried out the car bomb blasts, and that they gave warnings both to the government and to the news media an hour in advance of the blasts.

“The attack was meant to be a one-off thing and symbolic, not strategic,” Mr. Gbomo wrote in his e-mail. “Unfortunately, the security agencies who we gave prior notice failed to take our warning seriously causing avoidable loss of lives. Imagine that the WTC (World Trade Center) building was given a one hour notice, do you think lives would have been lost? The twin towers would have been evacuated to the last kitten.”

Gbomo also insisted that former MEND leader Henry Okah – who took asylum in South Africa last year as part of an amnesty program and has been arrested this weekend in Johannesburg for alleged involvement in the bomb blast – has nothing to do with the attacks or with the organization.

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