•May get life in prison
A South African court yesterday convicted Henry Okah of 13 terrorism charges, including twin bombings that killed 12 people in the Abuja on Nigeria’s Independence Day in 2010. “I have come to the conclusion that the state proved beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused,” said Judge Neels Claassen, handing down the verdict in the South Gauteng High Court.
Okah was found guilty of masterminding attacks including twin car bombings in the federal capital on October 1, 2010, and two explosions in March 2010 in Warri, Delta State, a major hub of the oil-rich Delta region.
He faces a minimum term of life in prison when the court sentences him by February 1. Okah, who has sympathy for the ideals of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which in 2010 was a well-equipped armed group fighting for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth, claimed responsibility for the attacks that took place as Nigeria celebrated 50th independence anniversary. MEND has a history of staging fierce attacks on oil facilities and kidnapping expatriate workers in the Niger Delta.
Okah denied involvement in the Abuja blasts and said the charges were political. But the judge said evidence “overwhelmingly established that the accused was the planner, funder, supplier, instructor, expert and leader in the execution of the bombings in Warri and Abuja.” Okah has denied leading MEND, but has admitted sympathising with their goals.
The court saw documentary evidence of his role in the group, including handwritten notes by his wife. Okah, 46, is thought to be the first foreign national to be tried for terrorism in South Africa. South Africa said it arrested and tried him as a signatory to international laws on terrorism as well as on the back of a UN resolution urging nations to prevent and suppress terrorism.
Okah holds permanent residence in South Africa, but is known to have travelled back and forth between the two countries. “An international terrorist was successfully prosecuted in South Africa,” said prosecutor Shaun Abrahams. “We feel vindicated that justice has been done. We simultaneously feel this is a test case in the history of our law.” Legal sources said Okah is unlikely to be extradited back home where chances are high he would face a death sentence.
A marine engineer by training, Okah was granted permanent residence in South Africa in 2007 based on his ability to run his own business there. In 2007, he was arrested in Angola for arms and explosives trafficking.
A year later, he was extradited to Nigeria to face treason and gunrunning charges. In 2009, Okah was freed from a Jos prison in Plateau State where he claimed poisonous snakes had been released into his cell. His release followed an amnesty deal offered by the government to thousands of Delta militants. The court said he then left for South Africa, but returned to Nigeria in early 2010, sponsoring the purchase of cars, which were modified to allow the fitting of explosive devices.
Months later, the cars were used to bomb Independence Day festivities that were attended by several foreign heads of state, including South African President Jacob Zuma. Okah was convicted of threatening to disrupt South African businesses in Nigeria, including kidnapping its workers. He was also accused of being a spokesman for MEND.
Nigerian police have described him as “an international gun-runner and a major oil bunkerer (thief) in the Niger Delta.” Around 30 witnesses were flown in from Nigeria to testify in the case, including the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godsday Orubebe.