By: Mark McNamee
This article is the Featured piece for the April 2012 Issue of Militant Leadership Monitor. To view the entire issue please visit mlm.jamestown.org.
Henry Emomotimi Okah was born in 1965 and raised in Ikorodu, Lagos State, although his family’s ancestral home was in Baylesa State. The fourth child of a Navy officer, his upbringing was described by a sibling as very “British”; he attended private schools and led a relatively privileged life. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering from the Maritime Institute and, upon graduation, took a position with the Nigerian Merchant Navy. Prior to his career as an alleged rebel leader, he was a door-to-door handgun salesman in Lagos in the 1990s. Okah is believed to have begun his militancy in the late 1990s and early 2000s; in 2003 he left for South Africa where, aside from his stint in prison in Nigeria, he has remained. Although he has denied being a rebel fighting with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Okah has admitted that he is sympathetic to the MEND cause (Mail and Guardian [Cape Town], November, 19, 2010).
According to his brother Charles Okah, Henry’s return to his family’s ancestral home in Bayelsa at the age of 19 was the formative experience in his turn towards militancy. Having witnessed firsthand the marked difference between his upbringing in Lagos State and the endemic poverty in the Niger Delta, he retained these images while a student and in his work after graduation (Vanguard, [Yenagoa], October 25, 2010). Building on his experience and contacts in the Navy, as well as his days as a weapons salesman, he eventually began to direct this background toward ostensibly social and economic ends in the Niger Delta. Okah bunkered oil and sold it on the black market, using the funds derived therefrom to suffuse the region with weapons; this process eventually gave rise to a loosely organized network of armed rebels. Over time, these previously disjointed rebels, often hired by Okah and other higher-level militants, as well as politicians, coalesced under the brand name of MEND. This moniker, in actuality, functioned as a catch-all term encompassing various militant groups within the Delta. One MEND leader, Alhaji Dokubo-Asari, noted in 2009 that MEND was created “not as an organization but as a name for the purpose of issuing unified statements” (Sahara Reporters [Lagos], January 1, 2009).
Having helped execute, supply and fund operations in the Delta region from abroad in South Africa, Okah was eventually arrested in Angola while attempting to purchase equipment and arms in September 2007. He was deported back to Nigeria in February 2008 and charged with more than 60 crimes, including treason and terrorism, both of which carry the death penalty. From early 2008, he was held in solitary confinement until his July 2009 release in accordance with an amnesty order handed down by then-President Yar’Adua. Although initially viewed as an outsider, Okah had gained the respect of Delta militants in the 2000s, and his arrest in 2007 greatly enhanced his prestige with the fighters, bringing him an almost celebrity status within the group .
Following the 2009 amnesty, the Nigerian people and administration were again reminded of Okah’s militant influence with the Independence Day bombings in Abuja on October 1, 2010, an attack for which MEND claimed responsibility. From his residence in South Africa, Henry Okah was accused of having masterminded the two car bombings, which killed 12 and injured another 36, on the day that marked 50 years of Nigeria’s independence from British rule (This Day [Lagos], October 3, 2010). He was arrested on October 2, 2010 in Johannesburg and has been charged with engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy to engage in terrorist activity, and delivering, placing, and detonating an explosive device. Okah’s younger brother, Charles, as well as Charles’ son and five others, were also arrested for their alleged involvement in the blasts. Henry Okah’s trial is scheduled to begin on October 1, 2012, two years to the day after the bombings. Okah has continually denied links to the bombings, noting that it was not his group of militants which perpetrated the attack (News24 Cape Town, January 30, 2012; Associated Press [Lagos], March 4, 2012).
However, South African prosecutors have presented a list of 103 witnesses who would be called to confirm Okah’s involvement in the attacks, and have produced excerpts of Okah’s diaries and computer correspondence that appear to substantiate his role in the bombings (Associated Press [Lagos], March 4, 2012). Damning evidence from these sources convinced the court of Okah’s affiliation with MEND and specifically with the Independence Day attacks; the court subsequently decided to deny his request for bail. Among the most compelling pieces of evidence presented was a letter from Okah’s wife in which she referred to Okah as a MEND leader, and a text message sent to Okah by one of the men sought in connection with the attack. The alleged co-conspirator wrote on the day of the bombing “Done. Tell them to leave now.” (News24 [Cape Town], January 30, 2012; Vanguard [Lagos], November 5, 2010). The South African state prosecutor also presented an affidavit claiming that Okah had instructed his co-conspirators to buy the two cars that were to be used in the car bombs (Vanguard [Lagos], November 5, 2010). Moreover, the Nigerian government accused Okah of making terror threats while he was imprisoned in South Africa, and urged South African authorities to raid his cell. In a raid of Okah’s cell conducted in February 2011, the authorities seized eight cell phones, a map of the courtroom in which he was being tried, and papers containing telephone numbers, thus lending credence to the notion that Okah was continuing to exert an influence on events transpiring outside his cell (News24 [Cape Town], February 24, 2011).
Nonetheless, Okah himself has repeatedly denied his leadership role in MEND, much less his involvement in the Abuja bombings (Vanguard [Lagos], November 20, 2010). Upon his release from prison in 2009, Okah insisted that he was not a militant, but “a gentleman” (Vanguard [Lagos], October, 25, 2010). However, much evidence exists to the contrary. Senior MEND leader General Boyloaf, the first MEND leader to publicly accept the 2009 amnesty offer, asserted that President Yar’Adua’s assurances that Okah would be released had been “the number one reason” he accepted the deal. Boyloaf further claimed that he had “fought many battles for his (Okah’s) release” (Vanguard [Lagos], July 25, 2009). Likewise, Okah’s arrest in Angola in 2007 has been cited as the spark that ignited an explosion of militant activity in the Delta, which culminated in a virtual “crippling” of Nigeria’s oil exports and local gas distribution. Okah, despite his public pronouncements to the contrary, appears to be very aware of his importance to the militant community. Even after issuing his infamous “gentleman” self-proclamation, Okah told the media that he would have to “go and talk to the rest of the people” in the Niger Delta to ensure that the amnesty would in fact bring peace to the region (This Day [Lagos], July 14, 2009). The fact that Okah’s 2009 prison release was the sine qua non to the amnesty deal, not to mention the dramatic uptick in MEND activity following his 2007 arrest, clearly indicates that Okah has played a significant, if not primary, leadership role within the group in the past and continues to possess the potential to influence events in the Delta to this day.
Mark McNamee is an Intelligence Analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at an international risk consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. region as well as a contract employee for the U.S. Army Combating Terrorism Center. He has an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).
1. Henry Okah, Africa Confidential, http://www.africa-confidential.com/whos-who-profile/id/3054.