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Henry Okah: Rebel Leader Betrayed by Jonathan Goodluck.

March 12, 2008
Saharareporters, New York

Late last year, Umar Yar'adua's Vice, Jonathan Goodluck, and the newly 'elected' governor of Bayelsa State, Timi Sylva, flew to South Africa on a "peace mission" with the Johannesburg-based Henry Okah, leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Both politicians, acting at Yar’adua’s behest, sought to engage Okah on ways of bringing the Niger Delta insurgency under control.

While Jonathan Goodluck stayed back in Pretoria, Timi Sylva headed for Johannesburg to fetch Henry Okah. They both arrived to a meeting with Jonathan Goodluck at his expansive suite at the Sheraton Hotel at the corner of Church and Wessels Streets in Pretoria. The date was August 3rd 2007. The three men had an all-night meeting that touched on a variety of issues pertaining to the Niger Delta crisis. The meetings, which were described as 'fruitful," did not end until the government negotiators persuaded Okah to speak directly with Umar Yar'adua over a secure telephone line from South Africa.

On the phone, Yar'adua sounded very pleasant with Henry Okah. He offered that Okah nominate two people to join the committee set up by the Federal Government to negotiate peace in the Niger Delta region. When the phone pleasantries with Yar'adua were over, Goodluck and Sylva told Okah that the government was willing to allocate him oil blocks and other perks as a "fighter of note" in the Niger Delta region. The government delegation asked him to name his price.

Okah, according to sources knowledgeable about his meetings with Goodluck and Sylva, rejected the perks. Instead, he tasked the government team to draw up a plan for the rapid development of the Niger Delta region to lift the area out of misery. If such a plan was devised and implemented, he promised to cooperate with the government to bring an end to the militancy in the region, especially the kidnapping of oil workers.

Okah also nominated two of his confidants to be on the peace committee headed by Baba Gana Kingibe, the foxy secretary to the Federal Government. Okah’s representatives on the peace panel soon began to give him disturbing reports about the activities of members of the peace panel. Instead of discussing the region’s development, most committee members were busy negotiating how to get oil lifting licenses and oil blocks for themselves. He also received assessments of Yar'adua as dull, drab and unwilling to make real peace with the militants. His representatives particularly pointed to Yar'adua’s reluctance to honor a promise he made to visit to the Niger Delta region. Not even the burial of Jonathan Goodluck's father would take Yar'adua to the Niger Delta.

Goodluck and Sylva too were reportedly involved in a parallel but lucrative “peace” move through another group headed by a Senator David Brigidi. Besides, the fractious relationship between another militant leader, Asari Dokubo, and Henry Okah was fuelling distrust amongst the peace delegates.

Having realized that many of the militant groups fancied traveling to Abuja to stay in five star hotels and receive lavish estacodes, Baba Gana Kingibe exploited their greed to drag the peace negotiations in self-serving directions.

Okah, who resisted the unhealthy developments, was soon marked as the odd one out. The Yar’adua government and a coalition of other Niger Delta indigenes then targeted him as the only stumbling block to peace on account of his comfort and wealth.

Saharareporters could not verify whether the Federal Government had a hand in luring Okah to Angola where he was eventually arrested and detained for gun-running. However, as soon as he was arrested, the Nigerian government sought to implicate him in an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea. When that failed, the government opted to have Okah and one Captain Edward Atatah extradited to Nigeria.

Since their extradition to Nigeria on February 14th 2008, both Okah and Captain Atatah have been detained at a secret military facility in Kano, according to military sources who spoke to Saharareporters.

Last week, the two detainees were driven in security cars with darkened windows to Kaduna where they eventually met their lawyer, Femi Falana. Though Henry Okah was said to be in high spirits, according to reports released by his brother, Charles Okah, his companion, Edward Atatah, is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown in detention. “Atatah has become a nervous wreck and a virtual psychiatric patient,” a source told us.

The two men are detained in a room with 24 hours of lighting, so that they are unable to tell the difference between day and night. They have both been stripped of their wristwatches.

At a court hearing last week to review an earlier order that granted the detainees access to their lawyers and family members, the Nigerian government announced it was slamming treason and kidnapping charges against Okah. In fact, government prosecutors claimed they had filed charges against Okah since December 10 2007. But Falana, a well-known human rights attorney who is representing the detainees, told Saharareporters that Okah and Atatah have yet to be charged for the offences stated in the charge sheet made available in court. Falana insisted that "you can't charge an offender without taking him to court."

The ambiguous nature of the charges that bore a December 2007 date is fuelling speculations that the Federal authorities in Nigeria plan a secret trial of Okah and Atatah somewhere in a military facility in the Northern part of Nigeria.

One factor in the speculations is the feud between Okah and Asari Dokubo who has allegedly struck a deal to cooperate with the Federal Government by serving as a witness against Okah.

One curious twist in the government case is that Asari Dokubo and other persons accused of getting guns from Okah are roaming free and enjoying government patronage. A military source told Saharareporters that a number of militants being lined up to testify against Okah have also declined to do so in a public trial in order to avoid being hunted by their Ijaw kinsmen.

No stranger to law enforcement agents in Nigeria, Okah has had regular contacts with the police since the early 2000s. Okah, who once sported a bearded face, was known to law enforcement to operate his arms dealing business out of his house in Agbara Estate area of Lagos.

Several sources told Saharareporters that law enforcement agents made frequent visits to Okah's house to receive bribes in exchange for leaving him alone. In 2004, law enforcement agents mounted a major raid on his house after he rebuffed their constant requests for bribes and kickbacks. Shortly after that encounter, he relocated his operations to South Africa. He had moved his family there since 2003.

Even so, Okah reportedly traveled between Nigeria and several countries of the world. Interpol sources who sought anonymity told Saharareporters that Okah was in Amsterdam just before heading for Angola where he was arrested. They also confirmed that he was actually negotiating to buy a fishing trawler. Unknown to Okah, his kinsmen in the Yar'adua government who don’t trust him to go along with Yar’adua’s self-serving "peace process," decided to ensnare him in the regime’s trap.

In separate interviews, several members of the “peace committee” told Saharareporters detailed the stories of deceit and manipulation that have attended the peace process since the inception of the Yar'adua regime. They accused Yar'adua of laziness and insincerity in solving the Niger Delta crisis, saying the entire delay in servicing the initial agreements was to buy enough time to militarize the entire Niger Delta region.

Another source within the Sylva camp told Saharareporters that Okah is not as clean and straightforward as the public is made to believe. The source told us that when Okah’s brother, Soni Okah, was arrested and detained by the Federal Government it was Jonathan Goodluck that pressured the government to release him. They also mentioned that his sister, Julie Okah, is a special adviser to the Governor Timi Sylva of Bayelsa State.

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