Conversation with Henry Okah
Sabella Ogbobode Abidde
Long before the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) selected a group of eminent Nigerians to represent its interest in an anticipated negotiation with the late Yar’Adua’s administration in 2009; I had penned a series of essays articulating what the problems were, and what the solution should be. Frankly, I never asked why I was chosen, but my suspicion was that my public commentaries brought me to the attention of the justice-seeking group.
MEND named the negotiating group The Aaron Team and it consisted of former Chief of General Staff, Vice Admiral Mike Akhigbe (rtd), Professor Wole Soyinka, Major General Luke Kakadu Aprezi (rtd), Mr. Amagbe Kentebe, and me. A couple of days after the team was formed; a channel of communication was opened, for the first time, between Mr. Henry Okah and me. And even though the team is now moribund, Mr. Okah and I have kept in touch.
In the past, I had suggested the idea of a formal biography. But he declined. Recently, however, I suggested conducting an interview. After weeks of hesitation, he finally agreed. Over the years, I have come to notice that (a) this is a man who hates undue publicity; (b) has unwavering commitment to fighting the injustices and environmental deficiencies that pervades the Niger Delta; (c) has no regard for his oppressors; (d) was willing to pay the price for whatever he believed to be a just and noble cause; and (e) has a universal understanding of what is right, fair, and humane.
What follows is the conversation -- as opposed to a formal interview -- that took place over a couple of weeks. As you read this, please keep two admonitions in mind. The former is by Lillian Hellman, and the latter is by Elie Wiesel: “Since when do we have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”; and “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Please read on.
It must be really hard on you and on your family (wife and children) since your arrest and detention in October 2010. How are you all coping?
Things are not as bad as they appear. My wife is a strong woman who has long understood what I am fighting for and the possible consequences of fighting for justice in such a lawless continent as Africa. My kids are also taking this relatively well and believe like me that all this will someday come to an end. For me, my incarceration has presented the opportunity for a holiday I thought I could not afford to take. Besides missing my family, I am very well.
How is your health, and is the South African government treating you well? Is the prison condition humane? Are your fundamental human rights being violated?
I have a lower back injury which the South African authorities have still not adequately attended to; otherwise, I am in good health. My rights were violated from the moment the South African government started interfering in this case at the behest of President Jonathan hours after the bombing of October 1, 2010.
The South African government went as far as knowingly presenting forged and fabricated “evidence” to prevent my release on bail at my initial bail application. My lawyers are presently consulting with constitutional attorneys with the aim to challenging this illegality at the constitutional court of South Africa, the law which enabled my bail denial based on the fabricated evidence presented at that hearing.
What’s your background in terms of your date and place of birth, your parents, siblings, education, hobbies and passion?
I was born at the military hospital in Yaba, Lagos, attended St. Gregory’s College and Federal Government College Lagos. I am also a graduate of the Maritime Academy of Nigeria. Most of my life has been spent in Lagos. I am resolute in doing what I know to be right. Fighting the cause of my people is now my only passion.
Long before the world knew who you were what was your career or occupation?
I have lived and cherished a peaceful and obscure life engaging in various legitimate business ventures to cater for my responsibilities to my family.
Could you please give us an insight into your childhood? Were you a happy and outgoing kid or where you shy and introverted?
I am naturally reserved -- preferring music and the company of my friends. By choice I can stay indoors for months at a time which is what has made incarceration manageable.
As child or as a teenager, who were your heroes? And what was so special about them?
Without a doubt, it is David in the holy bible. His story taught me that no man or government is too great to be confronted and defeated with the help of God.
How would you describe yourself? What are the misconceptions people generally have of you?
It is difficult to alter people’s misconceptions of me and I have no intention of trying. I am subject to my conscience and believe with time, those who have judged me based on the negative publicity generated in the Nigerian media by the Nigerian government, will see me in a different light. Truth is light which cannot remain hidden forever. I am regularly amused by negative claims in the media made by government sponsored hoodlums who pretend to have had a relationship of some sort with me.
At what point or at what age did you decide you were going to be an activist, a justice-seeker?
All my life, I have been unable to stomach any form of injustice directed against myself or anyone else.
What was it about the Niger Delta that made you angry? Was it the poverty, the terrible environmental conditions, the rate of youth unemployment, or the lack of development and other social dislocations?
Everything! Everything! But most of all, the arrogance of the oil companies operating in the Niger delta. These oil companies are on our land against our will, daily draining our resources and destroying our ecology, believing we were helpless due to the protection provided to them by the Nigerian military.
Oil companies in the delta are no longer as cocky as they now realize that their continued existence in the Niger delta can only be guaranteed by the people of that region. One can say that militancy in the Niger delta has restored the pride and dignity of the people of the delta.
The next phase of armed struggle which appears inevitable will reclaim the land of the Niger delta.
When the late President Yar’Adua offered the general amnesty, did you accept it? Did you sign official documents saying so?
With President Yar’Adua’s offer of amnesty, there was a standard form signed by all who accepted the government’s offer of amnesty. This form renounced militancy, armed agitation and was supported by other conditions laid out by the government for fighters to be assimilated into the ensuing demobilization program.
I refused to sign this form and rejected all conditions attached to it by the Nigerian government. I merely accepted to be released to assist in dialogue towards a just resolution of the crisis in the Niger delta. My position was acceptable to President Yar’Adua.
What’s your view of President Yar’Adua? What type of a man was he? Did you both get along?
It is my opinion that President Yar’Adua was a kind man with good intentions for Nigeria. His untimely death diminished the possibility of a lasting resolution of the Niger delta crisis.
Like many people, President Yar’Adua may have misunderstood me initially. But our meetings helped him understand me and vice versa.
What are the personal promises he (Yar’Adua) made to you? For instance, did he offer you money and contracts and oil blocs? Did you accept? If yes, why and can you quantify them; if no, why not?
All meetings with President Yar’Adua were discussions towards finding a just solution to the never ending circle of violence in the Niger delta. He promised to do all in his power to justly address the concerns of the people of the Niger delta and he was doing just that before his death.
What were the promises he made vis-├á-vis the Niger Delta struggle? And did you think he was going to keep to his promises?
President Yar’Adua explained the complications involved in repealing legislations which robbed the people of the Niger delta of their land and promised measures to alleviate the suffering of the Niger Delta people and policies intended to promote participation of Niger Delta communities in the oil industry. President Yar’Adua never ruled out the possibility of national dialogue aimed at restoring the stolen lands of the people of the Niger Delta and other parts of Nigeria. His death prevented his sincerity from being tested.
It’s been three years or so since the general amnesty was offered. What’s your assessment of it? My understanding is that thousands of youths are being sent abroad for training.
President Jonathan’s demobilization program has no direction and is a massive fraud on Nigerians in several ways. Firstly, he is promising the country peace in the Niger delta without addressing the underlying factors responsible for militancy. Secondly, those benefiting from President Jonathan’s misuse of public funds were not involved in the armed struggle.
Virtually all fighters who partook in the attacks subsiding in 2009 are in the cities of the Niger Delta or re-armed and in the creeks, so who is Jonathan’s government training in universities abroad?
Presently there are ten times more camps than existed in 2009 and a steady influx of weapons into the creeks and cities of the region. Nigerians should wait a few months or one year at the most to test President Jonathan’s boast to having achieved an enduring peace in the Niger Delta.
The military avoids explaining to Nigerians that “bunkering” is facilitated by well-armed militia groups which have taken over territories previously occupied by those commanders now hiding in Abuja. If these ex-commanders had any sort of control over their former territories there would be no need for security contracts or the re-equipping and strengthening of the JTF. Piracy, abductions for ransom, hijacking of vessels carrying refined products and criminality is on the rise. Oil industry vessels and trawlers now pay toll daily to traverse the territories of new commanders and it is only a matter of time before the delta re-erupts.
How did you feel after the untimely death of President Yar’Adua? After his passing, did you reach out to his family?
I had no direct access to Mr. Yar’Adua’s family but extended my sympathy to them through a few of his close aides who I met on my earlier visits to Aso Rock.
Upon the death of President Yar’Adua, I sensed that the Niger Delta and Nigerians were in big trouble. President Jonathan, though from the region, to this day does not understand the problems of the people and how to solve them? Goodluck Jonathan has adopted tactics employed by President Obasanjo such as bribing a few people; arresting dissenters and suppressing the media and news from the Niger Delta to create the illusion of peace in the region.
These short term measures are intended to mislead Nigerians long enough for President Jonathan to complete a term in office if possible. All his policies relating to the Niger Delta do not, in any way, address the root cause of agitation; but rather reward violence and those engaged in violence as a means to seeking justice in the delta.
If President Jonathan survives a full term in office, he will be bequeathing to his successor, a worse Niger Delta than he inherited.
What, in your opinion, are the fundamental differences between Yar’Adua and Jonathan?
I did not know President Yar’Adua well enough to compare him with Jonathan. I however believe him (Yar’Adua) to have been sincere in his intentions for Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan on the other hand I know to be lacking in initiative. He is indecisive, vindictive and sometimes petty. President Jonathan relies heavily on gossip in making major policy decisions and is unable to form an independent, unsentimental and unbiased opinion on any serious matter.
Several media houses, at home and abroad, have reported that you are a member and also the leader of MEND. Are you a member of MEND, and are you its leader?
Labeling me the leader of MEND is a gross misrepresentation of my contribution to our struggle. If I am the leader of any one group how will I be able to get the ears of a rival group?
It suits the Nigerian government to brand me as the leader of MEND whilst trying to imprison me in South Africa. In the same breath, they present people to the local and international media as leaders of the same group when claiming to be in good relations with all armed agitators in the region. As I have maintained, I am respected by a great majority of true fighters in the Niger Delta -- not the politicians paraded as fighters by President Jonathan. I can with little effort access every weapon bearing individual in the Delta due to the respect they have for my continued contribution to the fight for justice in our land.
Fighters in the Niger Delta should be proud of their achievements so far and should never be deceived into believing that attacks on invaders and military occupiers amount to terrorism. No! In light of recent bombings of communities in the Delta and other unprovoked attacks by the Nigerian military, communities and militia groups are wisely preparing better for the foreseeable confrontation with the Nigerian military and oil companies.
Are you responsible for the Independence Day Bombings in Abuja? If not, then, who or what groups do you suppose is responsible for the bombings?
This question should be directed at President Jonathan. He has repeatedly claimed to know those responsible for the Abuja bombings and their reasons for carrying out the bombings of October 1, 2010. Remember President Jonathan also publicly exonerated me of complicity in these attacks. My lawyers hope to obtain a statement from President Jonathan to be used during my trial proper. He may have immunity in Nigerian courts but must defend himself here. If President Zuma can appear in court in South Africa, so can President Jonathan or at least he can provide a notarized statement to be used in my trial.
You’ve said elsewhere that the charges against you (by the Nigerian Government) were all false: made up charges. Why would the Jonathan government want to frame and destroy you? What would he and his government gain by so doing?
Goodluck Jonathan is fearful of being exposed by me, in many ways and believes it safe to keep me locked up far away from home. Though the South African government is acting as a henchman of Goodluck Jonathan, South African courts are not Nigerian courts and I am not James Ibori. I am confident I will be freed eventually.
One of those on trial in Nigeria, Edmund Ebiware was arrested on October 2, 2010 at the Bolingo Hotel by the SSS for failing to provide them with information which they hoped would have prevented the bombings of October 1, 2010. This young man (Ebiware) had for sometimes been supplying false intelligence on me to the SSS for a fee even though I have never met him. This practice which is common and usually requires the connivance of an insider in the security services is termed “networking.” He had also claimed to the director general of the SSS to be close to MEND.
Upon his arrest the SSS discovered in his car, documents incriminating President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience in numerous financial crimes including money laundering to England, the same crime for which James Ibori is now imprisoned. The SSS concluded that I provided him with these documents to pass on to General Babangida. They arrived at this conclusion based on Ebiware’s earlier claims to be close to me and the presence of Mr. Dokpesi’s cell phone number on Ebiware’s phone.
The SSS immediately decided to arrest Mr. Dokpesi in the hope that these still available and very incriminating documents would be retrieved if Mr. Dokpesi had by chance taken delivery of a copy. The government then proceeded swiftly to blame the bombings on General Babangida. The original intention of the government was to blame these bombings on General Buhari and Babangida in an effort to prevent Northern participation in the last elections.
Edmund Ebiware’s upcoming trial will reveal these details which may not be published by the Nigerian media for obvious reasons. The Nigerian media is under sustained attack from the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. Media houses are bribed or threatened. The Nigerian government has squandered colossal sums on individuals paid to insert positive comments about President Jonathan, daily on internet sites.
At one of the court sittings in Nigeria, Edmund Ebiware, disregarding the presence of the judge in an outburst recorded by Channels TV and other media houses, told of being offered a house in Gwarimpa and money to falsely testify to meeting me in a bar at the Sheraton hotel Abuja to discuss the bombings. He refused this offer and this has led to his perpetual incarceration. According to Ebiware the SSS informed him that they had done same for Sgt Rogers to testify falsely against Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. After this outburst, the SSS threatened in court to shut down Channels TV if they dared to air that video without muting the audio. Channels TV aired the video in question, muting Ebiware’s utterances.
In a sane society, the fact that Sgt Rogers was paid by the state to give testimony is sufficient grounds for Rogers’ contribution to have been disregarded by the courts with all testimony from this witness expunged from the records of the court proceedings.
President Jonathan is afraid that I will expose to the world that he does not have the support of even one fighter from the Niger Delta. All the talk of bloodshed if President Jonathan is removed from office is cheap propaganda. Not one shot will be fired in the creeks of the Delta if for instance, President Jonathan is impeached. I am however averse to his removal by military coup.
All so called activists in Nigeria should be ashamed of themselves for celebrating the conviction of James Ibori without demanding the heads of Obasanjo, Jonathan, his wife Patience and others like them who are also guilty of the same crimes for which James Ibori is imprisoned. Though James Ibori is in prison where he deserves to be, his trial and imprisonment were politically motivated and the use of foreign governments and courts for political leverage in Nigeria should be decried by one and all.
Going back to the issue of the Nigerian governments attempt to frame me; I must confess, I was shocked at the poor quality of the forgeries presented to South African prosecutors by the Nigerian intelligence services.
All the “evidence” provided by Nigeria are an embarrassment to Nigeria as a whole and as much as these forgeries negatively affected me. As a Nigerian, I was greatly embarrassed by the poor quality of forgeries my country could muster to bolster its case against me. My lawyers and I expected to be confronted with better quality forgeries.
In one instance the name of one advertised victim Tahir Zakari Biu is conspicuously absent from the states indictment and all records from Nigeria. This, as the EFCC publicly paid compensation to the family of this man in a well-advertised ceremony. This shows a lack of coordination between individuals involved in preparing the forgeries.
After the recent release of my affidavits in the Nigerian media, the government could not even pretend to question anyone I mentioned in that affidavit. Proof that the government of President Jonathan is well aware of all I alleged. On its part, the South African government has still not had the decency to feign an arrest of the alleged bomber Ben Jesse to whom they claim I made 1126 calls ordering the bombing of 1 October, 2010.
What’s your relationship with people like Oronto Douglas, Tony Uranta, Asari Dokubo, Deziani Madueke, and Edwin Clark?
It will be inappropriate for me to speak about individuals I barely know. I have never physically met Mrs. Madueke. After my release in 2009, I met with Chief Clark once, for one hour and Timi Alaibe on three very brief occasions, also after my release in 2009. Tony Uranta and Dokubo Asari I have met not more than six times in all my life. Uranta I met for the first time in 2009 after my release and Asari I have had no contact with since 2005. As a rule I avoid noisy and aggressive people incapable of contributing to my intellectual wellbeing. Oronto Douglas I started relating with after his appointment as an adviser to the Nigerian president. He seems like a good person.
Regarding threats made by some of these individuals in favor of President Jonathan, firstly I advise Nigerians to find amusement in the unguarded utterances of Chief Clark. Every other threat coming out of the Niger Delta is also sponsored empty talk unsupported by facts on the ground. Together, these advocates of “Goodluck for President” do not control more than 300 people. This number includes members of their families, some Niger Delta governors and commissioners. Every other voice is a rented voice.
There are those who believe that you hate President Jonathan, and that he in turn despises you. Could this be true?
I do not hate President Jonathan. Rather, I pity him for accepting a job he is incapable of handling. By so doing, he has exposed himself to the world and is now a source of embarrassment to the entire nation. President Jonathan fails to understand that his personal love for power must not override the common good of the nation. Even though he is clearly incompetent, he expects to be supported by everyone from the Niger Delta.
Those from the delta who openly proclaim support for Goodluck Jonathan are mostly parasites who like leeches, will not survive without a host. His supporters cannot give one sensible reason why he should remain as president.
I have persisted in the fight for justice through the regimes of Obasanjo and Yar’Adua and feel insulted to know that President Jonathan expected everyone to halt all agitation because he is from the Niger delta.
He has done nothing for the Niger Delta since assuming office and is incapable of effecting any meaningful changes in that region or in Nigeria.
President Jonathan despising me is of no relevance to me or my quest for justice and I have therefore not given this possibility any thought. If the serious issues affecting the Niger Delta remain unresolved, I will continue agitating after Goodluck Jonathan’s exit from office.
Back to the Niger Delta Crisis: what can be done to bring the struggle to an end? In other words, what should the multinational oil companies and the Nigerian government do, if peace and tranquility is to reign in that part of the country?
Multi-national oil companies in Nigeria are businesses whose sole aim in investing in Africa is outrageous profits for their home governments and investors. Corruption has prevented successive Nigerian government from acting to check the irresponsible and criminal activities of oil companies operating in the region. It is pointless to advice a government which claims to have successfully resolved the crisis in the Niger Delta. President Jonathan’s government is in denial otherwise, the solution to the crisis is not out of reach. One thing I can say without any hesitation is that the government of President Jonathan is squandering a golden opportunity to address and end the crisis in the Niger Delta.
A decade or so from now, would we still be talking and fighting about the Niger Delta? What are your hopes and fear regarding the oil-producing communities?
It is unreasonable to expect such a serious problem to simply fade away without a fair resolution, the unrest in that region will persist for as long as it produces oil.
Some Niger Deltans have mentioned to me the possibility of secession. Are you in favor of splitting the country? Would the Ijaw, for instance, be better off with their own separate country?
I do not think Nigeria can break up without fragmenting. In my opinion, Nigeria requires greater autonomy for its component states and a much weaker, administrative central government. A drastic amendment modernizing the Nigerian constitution will also be helpful. The practice of true federalism in Nigeria will assist in ensuring all states in the federation do not groan simultaneously under the weight of an inept president as is currently the case.
Once bail is granted -- and assuming you are acquitted by the South African court -- what does the future hold for you? Would you want to remain in South Africa, or you’d rather return home to Nigeria?
I leave my future for God to decide. If Nigeria had responsible leaders, I doubt that any Nigerian would wish to live in South Africa. The South African government and a majority of its citizens have no respect for Nigerians who are regularly harassed, intimidated and murdered by the South African police without consequence.
The South African government’s maltreatment of me is a clear example of the mindset of the typical South African in relation to Nigerians. South Africans who claim to have fought a war against injustice are now like their former oppressors in just eighteen years. Government abuse of power using the police, tax man and other agencies of state, is rife.
Contrary to reports in the Nigerian media, I never applied for political asylum in South Africa. My lawyer only mentioned to the magistrate at my previous bail hearing that I had that option if my residency status was in dispute. Like all allegations leveled against me, the South African government is unable to support its laughable allegations that I fraudulently obtained residency papers. I am from a potentially prosperous country and will return to my country at the right moment.
If my presence in South Africa was disconcerting to the South African government, those sentiments should have been quietly and politely conveyed to me and would have gladly left this country.
Since my arrest in 2010, the South African government has severally tried to bully and intimidate me using the correctional services, immigration police and tax man. So far, I have found all these attempts, hilarious.
I learnt from reliable sources in the Nigerian government that the real reason for Vice President Sambo’s visit to South Africa was to apologize for the embarrassment caused the South African President and government by the forged “evidence” provided by the state security services of Nigeria and plead for the South African government’s continued interference.
The South African government is still dodging from appearing in court to substantiate all the forgeries they have presented in court so far. They will have to do that sooner or later. I hope to be in court for bail not later than July 30, 2012 and will release all documents, transcripts, and affidavits to the media for the consumption of all Nigerians.
In the rape trial of former IMF chief, Dominic Strauss Kahn, prosecutors immediately dropped charges when it was discovered that the alleged victim had told a number of lies. Here in South Africa it is different. State witnesses under cross examination sometimes confess to being bribed by the state to lie.
Many Nigerians wish to know why you waited this long to make such serious allegations against President Jonathan and the governments of South Africa and Nigeria.
Patience is one of my virtues. I had to wait until I was provided all evidence the South African government intended to rely upon in the upcoming trial before responding to the Nigerian government’s fatuous allegations against me. Knowing that all the evidence provided by the South African prosecutors at my previous bail hearing was false, I had assembled a team of seasoned computer forensic investigators in anticipation of the South African government’s fabrication of evidence to support their ludicrous claims. Fortunately for the South African government, these forgeries have not yet been produced.
I assume that the prosecutor in my case may attempt to water down the negative effects of all the forged “evidence” he has produced thus far by furnishing the court at my next bail application, with fresh forgeries generated nearly 2years after my arrest.
At my previous bail application, the prosecutor claimed to find evidence in my wife’s and children’s phones and a brand new and unused laptop purchased a day before it was confiscated. The Nigerian and South African governments will be exposed and shamed at my next bail application. The reason proffered by the spokesman to President Jonathan for the Nigerian government’s silence in the face of my very serious allegations, is preposterous. The national prosecuting authority in South Africa has a loud mouthed spokesperson who never shies away from speaking about any case before the South African courts. Upon realizing that all their evidence is forged, this gentleman has suddenly lost his voice on issues concerning me. I will produce documents and text messages substantiating my claims in court at my bail hearing and later to the Nigerian media.
The offhand dismissal of my claims shortly after the bombings of October 1 2010 by the erstwhile spokesperson for President Jonathan was on the assumption that the South African government was in possession of the phone to which all the text messages I intend to produce in court were sent. The Nigerian government has since learnt that the South African government is not in possession of this phone.
In its typically short sighted approach to serious issues, the government of President Jonathan believes it sufficient for the South African government to hold me until Mr. Jonathan completes his tenure in office. The Nigerian president is “making plans with money held in someone else’s bank account.” Goodluck Jonathan has personalized the assault on me by attacking members of my family as well.
I hope President Jonathan and his cronies will realize that they will not hold their offices forever and will soon walk around like every ordinary Nigerian. When that time comes, they will not have the resources of the state to fight their battles.
It is now obvious to me that here in South Africa I am dealing with some people whose consciences and senses of shame have been eroded by whatever benefits they are deriving from Goodluck Jonathan. Regardless of whatever promises the South African government has made to President Goodluck Jonathan, I will not be denied bail for much longer. If for any strange reason I am again denied bail, I will remain unfazed. The struggle continues!
Not long after the conversation ended, I received word that the University of Witwatersrand’s Justice Project and other Human Rights groups in South Africa will be sending observers to monitor Mr. Okah’s upcoming bail hearing and trial. In addition his lawyers are considering using text message correspondence extracted from his phones between himself and past/present governors of the Niger Delta as well as serving ministers in the current administration.
- Sabidde Abidde is on Facebook. He can also be reached at: Sabidde@yahoo.com