HENRY OKAH: The Struggle of my life


HENRY OKAH: The Struggle Of My Life

HENRY Emomotimi Okah, under normal chimes, is the archetypal son in-law any parent would dream of having - fair in complexion (although 22 months of incarceration under harsh conditions first in Angola and later in Bauchi State had taken the tone off his former shine), strong white teeth, round penetrating eyes, ebullient, 5ft 4in. tall, scalp-shaven, baritone voice and above all, kind spirited - even now that he took to deadly militancy.

He is comfortable although he denies he is wealthy. As his elder brother, Charles, had told Punch newspaper last year, the Navy Commander Wilson Okah (rtd.) children were raised in highbrow GRA Apapa, Lagos, from the 1960s and as such did not lack.

Henry is also a shrewd business man who while he was a marine engineer sailing with ships in the 1980s, found the arms trade lucrative and went into it legally. He made some good fortune before relocating to South Africa at the turn of this millennium when "business in Nigeria became suffocating".

He married his heartthrob, Azuka, by whom they have two lovely adolescent daughters he dotes on.

He is also a strong-willed man.

In his childhood, he was a turn in the fresh of his father who died and was buried on January 20, 2007 in Amasoma, Bayelsa State (the same town of former Governor Deprieye Alamieyesiegha).

It is this quality that led him, like many of his Ijaw kindred, to take up arms against the fatherland in what he admitted before The Guardian last week Friday for the first time in a direct interview with any media house, that "injustice in the land provokes" even the meek.

But he is a self-effacing man. To get him to come to The Guardian corporate headquarters took a lot of persuasion, promises and undertakings.

Several times, working through his lawyer, Wilson Ajuwa, Okah gave many appointments that were never kept. He would either call to apologise for his inability to come or at times, changed his SIM card to another network so that it was difficult to pin him down.

Even when it was leaked that on their way back from a trip to consult Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka in Abeokuta, Ogun State to help the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in its negotiation with the Federal Government for peace and on the contentious issues that engendered the struggle in the Niger Delta, the foursome in the new Honda car of Tony Uranta were robbed by armed gun men, Okah still declined to give an interview to confirm the incident.

The Guardian had to go through Uranta to get the confirmation. After he learnt that his friend and co-victim had confirmed the robbery story, all Okah managed to say was that it was true and that he was not frightened when AK 47 riffles were pointed at them - the other person in the car besides Uranta's driver was Okah's lawyer during the treason trial, Ajuwa.

He did not want in print his reaction during the "robbery". But Uranta said only Okah in the car was not ruffled when the guns were trained on their faces from all the windows of the car.

Henry had said that he ordered the driver not to do anything irrational when the guns were pointed at them. "I know the power in those guns. I told the driver to stop and obey all instructions because if the driver had done anything funny, the young boys holding those guns, even though their grip was not professional, would just spray the car until the magazine was empty and we would not be talking to you today".

In his usual magnanimous spirit, he did not share entirely the conspiracy theory of Uranta that the "robbery" might not "have been a robbery", because policemen across the road on the opposite lane feigned not to know what was going on.

Okah said he would want to wait to see more facts that would link the act to the government of the day.

During the robbery, Okah's travel documents, foreign currencies, telephones set and personal property of the other occupants of the car were stolen alongside the new car. That action delayed his traveling out of the country until last week Friday.

He refused to confirm that he moves at all times with three pistols "for his safety", a fact that is known to security agencies. He had said years ago that "he just likes guns".

Because he did not want to discuss the robbery incident, it could not be confirmed if the trade-mark three guns were with him on the day of the robbery and if they were stolen or not.

Several times after he was released from the treason trial which carried the death penalty, The Guardian got across to Okah in Abuja where he was a guest of the Federal Government without agreeing to grant an interview one-on-one.

All he said were that he did not go into "this thing" for the limelight of it.

That was the difference between him and his kinsman, Alhaji Mujaheed Dokubo-Asari. In fact, Okah was different from all his forerunners in the militancy art.

Their progeny, Major Adaka Isaac Boro launched his militia formed to force the Federal Government to give the Ijaws their rightful due in the old three regions in the early 1960s with fanfare. The same as the environmental restoration movement campaigner, Ken Saro-Wiwa of the 1980s before the emergence of Dokubo-Asari, the most vociferous of them all. Dokubo-Asari matched his bulky frame with his showmanship in front of the klieg lights.

That was the state of affairs when Okah stormed the scene with his MEND in October/November 2005.

Okah has the heart of a lion, even though he does not oppress weaklings. That must be the reason behind the MEND's handling of all the kidnapping of foreigners during his active days in the creeks of the Niger Delta.

Under the watchful eyes of President Olusegun Obasanjo (1999 to 2007), Okah arranged and brought into the country in 2006, 18 foreign journalists to feel the action of MEND in the creeks. The journalists came, completed their assignment and left before security agencies and the government know about it. Yet, the journalists entered the creeks from Warri, the home base of the military Joint Task Force (JTF) in Delta State.

He swears repeatedly even up till last week Friday that he had never been bought over by government; not for lack of trying but because he is focused on one goal: Emancipation of the people of the Niger Delta.

His philosophy of justice, true federalism, resource control, environmental cleanliness, reparation for years of oil pollution and degradation did not take long to be embraced by his, first, Ijaw people and later, Niger Deltans in general.

From the onset, the militant group changed the tactics of engagement with the oil majors and the security agencies behind them. How the group did it was to say the least, baffling.

All of a sudden, the militant group took white men working for oil companies and construction firms, with ease, sometimes in the presence of armed Mobile Policemen and later military men.

Usually, after every successful operation, the group put out an e-mail statement claiming responsibility for the action. With more successes in their operations, MEND even introduced advance information of what they intended to do. That was when they went into the phase of remote-controlled bombing of oil facilities. There were at least two or three of such remote-controlled bombings of oil facilities in the Niger Delta.

The more the government refused to listen to the group, the more deadly they became. The country was lucky that the group did not carry out its threat to go into suicide bombing, the fashionable weapon in the Middle East for dealing with opponents.

There was no name the militant group was not called by government functionaries: Militants, criminals, rascals, oil bunkerers (a corruption for oil thieves).

After Okah was arrested in Angola on September 3, 2007 for, first, money laundering but when no more than $12,500 was found on him as the law allowed $15,000, the holding charge was changed to gun running and an organizer of renegades to topple the government of Equatorial Guinea.

At a point, the government of Angola just wanted Okah and his ship captain friend who had gone with him to inspect a fishing trawler, Edward Atatah, to be removed from their country. It was understood that at that time, Nigeria was preparing treason charges against him.

Is Okah and MEND, the group he formed and led from late 2005, not to be blamed and even reviled for taking up arms against the fatherland?

Is he right after being released unconditionally from detention and trial not to wholeheartedly embrace the amnesty proclamation of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua on June 25?

Maybe a look at one of the early messages of MEND would help us to reach a conclusion.

From the third or so e-mail of the MEND when the group took into custody the first group of oil workers, the philosophy of the militant group has not changed till date.

That message, slightly edited here because some of the people mentioned in the text had changed, spelt out the direction of one man that changed the character of the nation forever.

The MEND statement signed by an unknown entity called Jomo Gbomo and posted on the Internet the next day after they struck in Bayelsa State, reads:

"On January 11, 2006 commencing 1000Hrs, forces of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (M.E.N.D.) attacked and destroyed oil installations in Bayelsa State of the Niger Delta. These installations include three pipelines blown up with explosives and one oil export tanker and naval escort vessels attacked with rocket propelled grenades, light machine guns and assault rifles. The following foreign mercenaries were also captured by our forces in this attack: Milko Nichev (Bulgarian), Harry Ebanks (Honduras), Patrick Arnold Landry (American), Nigel Watson Clark (British).

"This is sequel to the earlier warning attacks we carried out in December 2005, in Andoni, Okrika and Bonny areas of Rivers State. The intention of the earlier warning attacks was to recall to focus, the real issues of resource control in the Niger Delta and highlight the repressive measures being taken by the government of Nigeria against legitimate agitation by the impoverished and abused peoples of the Niger Delta. That warning appears not to have achieved the desired results as there appears to be no shift in the government's position as regards the release of proponents of resource control held in disregard of the due process of law. Such individuals include Chief Alamieyeseigha and Alhaji Asari. Rather the government of Nigeria, Rivers State and Shell Petroleum embarked on a campaign of public disinformation in an attempt to downplay our actions.

"So far, we have shown remarkable regard for the loss of human life and deeply regret the deaths of our kin in the Andoni explosions. Sadly though, they have become victims of the struggle we fight. To forestall a recurrence of this unfortunate loss, we hereby appeal to all communities and fishing settlements around oil installations to immediately relocate, otherwise shift their boundaries to a reasonable distance from these facilities.

"We are capable and determined to destroy the ability of Nigeria to export oil or other petroleum products for that matter. We use this medium to issue a first and final warning to the EU, particularly Britain which we single out as an ally of the Nigerian government in its repressive actions, to advise their citizens resident in the Niger Delta to leave at once as they have never been welcome on our soil. For the safety of its citizens, the United States and other European nations with citizens on our soil will do well to advise these individuals to leave immediately.

"Be warned that we have no desire or interest in abducting for ransom. All expatriates will be viewed as mercenaries and considered legitimate targets. Finally, a note of warning goes to those amongst us who live by collaborating with the government and oil companies, a certain fate awaits you! It is obvious that the fraudulent and illegal impeachment of Chief Alamieyeseigha with the connivance of some traitors was not aimed at accountability but suppressing a voice for the oppressed peoples of the Niger Delta.

"For several years Mr. Obasanjo and his gang have plundered our region with aid from western governments and therefore lack moral foundation to pass judgment on even the most common of criminals. We demand the immediate release of Chief Alamieyeseigha along with all assets confiscated by the British and their Nigerian puppets. The Ijaws alone have the right to decide who governs them and who owns what.

"It should be understood that we are a union of all armed groups in the Niger Delta, aligning to fight a common cause and enemy. We are devoid of political affiliation. Traitors such as...and those who choose to associate with him and his illegal government have no where to hide. We are fighting a just cause and require the prayers of all lovers of freedom and justice. Victory will be ours at whatever cost".

Several things stand out here. First, from the tone of the mail, it was obvious from the beginning that MEND welcomed affiliation of other militant groups in the Niger Delta. It is a confirmation that Okah's MEND was not the first armed group in the region.

Two, the group set out to be apolitical. "We are devoid of political affiliation", the statement proclaims. That is why it is baffling when some "members of MEND" started endorsing political office seekers in the course of time. Politicians also sought to ride on the back of the group when it became convenient to do so with time.

Three, because it is an amalgam of many groups, Okah lost firm grip of the original group of fighters. That was bound to happen at some time because the small group he must have set out with could not take on the might of the Federal Government over many fronts without buckling.

How then did kidnapping for ransom creep into the struggle for resource countrol? From so early in the life of the group Okah founded, he was very clear about kidnapping but not kidnapping for ransom.

MEND was meticulous in documenting its quarry as was done here. It gave the names and identity of all abducted persons. From later interviews granted by released hostages, it was clear that MEND treated them well save for the uncertainty of life in the mosquito-infested creeks and the reduced quality of life all the white men were used to.

The armed group also did not descend so low as to abduct women, children, clerics, doctors, just about anybody as is happening today.

Five, as stated by the group, it respected the sanctity of human life. "So far, we have shown remarkable regard for the loss of human life and deeply regret the deaths of our kin..." said the statement. All through the life of the armed group until May this year when the Gbaramotu in Delta State invasion by the JTF escalated the rules of engagement in the creeks, MEND was careful not to cause the death of a civilian. There were several times the group sympathized with families of military and police officers they killed inadvertently in the cause of their numerous attacks.

It is obvious that Okah never wanted to "return fire for fire" for his kinsmen who, during his incarceration, seized the opportunity to lionized and criminalize him. An example of that is his refusal during the interview with The Guardian to hit back at his "fellow militants and cousins and brothers".

He deftly parried questions on Dokubo-Asari who had been hitting him hard while he was under going the treason trial. Same for his views on Vice President Goodluck Jonathan and his home state Governor, Timipre Sylva.

The two gentlemen and fellow Ijaws like Okah went to South Africa in early 2007 on behalf of the Federal Government to negotiate peace with MEND.

What went wrong? Okah refused to discuss it till date.

"Not now, please," he boomed out.

Another thing that is difficult to pin Okah down to is the pervasive knowledge that the oil majors were routinely paying "protection" fees to militants to allow them work in the Niger Delta. In those previous encounters, he also refused that he should be put on record.

But he was quick to let you know then that MEND never engaged in oil stealing (bunkering).

"The military top brass, the businessmen from other sections of the country and some of our people who collaborated with them, did all the bunkering. We had said so repeatedly in our numerous messages which many people in the country did not believe.

"Let me ask you", Okah said, his big eyes bulging out, "would it not be better to make the waterways safe for bunkering if we were the ones doing it? Those military officers fighting us and trader-politicians are the ones who know how to pay protection fees to cult boys to escort the big ocean vessels with our oil into and out of the creeks.

"Of course, it was convenient as part of the disinformation process of government to pin it to our fighters", he added then.

If the militants or freedom fighters were not engaged in illegal oil lifting as he claimed, how then were militants getting their weapons, he was asked in the penultimate Friday interview?

"Simple," he replied, "all over the world, wherever there is a crisis, especially in third world countries, weapon suppliers ship in their armaments."

Okah is still waiting for government to spelt out in bold relief, what freedom fighters would get at the end of the amnesty programme. It was the same point the six governors of the South-south region harped on after their Asaba, Delta State meeting last month.

The governors, piqued that the Federal Government had reeled out several policies in the recent time that they saw as unfavourable to their people, particularly the alleged reversal of the Petroleum Training Institute in Effurun, Delta State from a university to its original status; the draft Petroleum Industry Bill before the National Assembly; and a lack of a definite plan of a post-amnesty package for militants who would renounce militancy, the governors threatened to ditch the amnesty plan.

Okah had to come out to appeal to the governors not to contemplate the action because, according to him, there were genuine criminals in the Niger Delta who had infiltrated the struggle that needed rehabilitation. The governors have since withdrawn their threat.

But he was against the cash-for guns initial plan of the amnesty policy.

In the interview last week Friday, he emphasized it again that that would never be the solution.

According to him, no one knows for sure the number of guns in the creeks. There is no inventory of the number.

Two, militants who were putting out a show in Abuja and Port Harcourt and Yenagoa were being induced by politicians who have an eye for 2011 gubernatorial elections.

Three, knowing his people as he does, the fighters would not surrender up to 25 per cent of the stock they are holding. Then, there is no concrete post-amnesty plan people like him could sell to the boys in the creeks to renounce amnesty. Hence he came out with a predictive conclusion: "It will not work".

But many of his former "boys" are surrendering their armaments already to the Amnesty Committee, he was asked? And he said, "let's wait and see".

On why he has not gone to see President Yar'Adua to shake hands with him at Aso Rock, he replied that it was not necessary because he does not want the show that would be made of it.

There was a story that he also refused to confirm. While being "escorted" in a bullet proof limousine from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja to Aso Rock after his court release on July 13, Okah was reported to have asked the motorcade to stop, hopped off and took a cab to a nondescript hotel where he stayed for several days before he slipped out of Abuja to Bayelsa.

An exasperated security official in the convoy was reported to have exclaimed: "This Okah boy self, we don't understand him-o!"

But he explained that he does not need the protection of security agents to move about the country, especially in the Niger Delta.

"I never hid while in Port Harcourt or Yenagoa or any part of the Niger Delta I visited after I was released," he said. "Not all fighters who have sold out before their people could walk on the streets of Port Harcourt as I do".

How was he treated while in detention first in Angola and later in Nigeria?

"In Angola, it was a different matter entirely. The prison officials were used to their people groveling before the equivalent of our (Nigeria) Minister of Interior. The man could not understand when he came into my cell, I did not jump to my feet to pay obeisance to him as his own people would have done. He was perplexed.

"When he found out that I was a Nigerian, he still expected some form of difference to him which I did not offer him. He left my cell fuming.

"But you know, the country had no concrete charges to keep me in because, as they alleged when I was arrested on my way out of their country at the airport whereas I should not have been troubled because I was already on my way out, that I was laundering money. When I was taken to their court, the court threw out the charge because their law allows a visitor to bring in up to $15,000. I had just about $12,500. They were hoping that about $100,000 or more would be found on me.

"I had only gone there to inspect a ship with a captain friend of mine. I had not gone there with the intention of paying for the fishing trawler on my first trip.

"When that lie fell flat on their face, next they said that I was a gun runner. Yet no gun was found on me. But they could still not sustain that charge when I was taken to court a second time.

"Some time during my incarceration there, someone told me that they were waiting for my country before they would make the next move. It was the first inkling I had that my country was behind my illegal arrest.

"At a point, the Angolan authorities pleaded with me to admit that I know and was helping coup suspects in Equatorial Guinea so that I could be left off the hook. I know I would not do such a thing.

"So, I was not surprised when during the trial in Nigeria, the Equatorial Guinea coup plot connection came up again".

During his detention in Bauchi State, he said he was kept in a small room with a bright light overheard that was never put off day and night. "Would you say that was kind treatment?" he asked back.

He admitted that he ate well as he was served good meals.

But who exactly is the elusive Jomo Gbomo that ditches out all those e-mails of MEND?

"Jomo Gbomo is not one person. It is the publicity part of the movement."

Little wonder intense publicity was sustained during the 22-month detention of the 45-year old head of MEND.

What exactly does he think will make militancy to stop so that there can be development in the country, he was asked.

"A good faith plan. The government should involve the communities in a good faith plan in which they are made stakeholders or joint venture partners. When a community has a stake in an oil project, they would police the project jealously. They would not allow their own boys to destroy their own project. And why would a militant go to destroy his own project?"

Okah would not want to be drawn into naming, even if only five, eminent Nigerians MEND could entrust negotiations with government on its behalf.

But he commended Prof. Soyinka, one of the people he led a delegation to meet recently to take up negotiations on MEND's behalf.

"He is a quintessential Nigerian. With people like him, Nigeria still has hope," he said.

The unrepentant freedom fighter who left the country to undertake a possible kidney transplant if his only functional kidney is diagnosed to be in a bad shape, prayerfully said: "I hope the country has peace soon".

We can only hope that the "house" Okah built in the creeks will not be there before he returns to the country some time in the future. That will be too bad.


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