The Federal Goverment has thrown an olive branch at Henry Okah, the man accused of plotting the 2010 Independence Day bombing.
Nigerian authorities have introduced a curious twist to the ongoing trial of Henry Okah, the detained alleged leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, with an offer for dialogue if Mr. Okah agrees to one.
Mr. Okah’s trial opened on Monday after two years in detention; and one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s closest ministers, who is also in charge of the Niger Delta, Godsday Orubebe, has already testified against Mr. Okah.
On the second day of trial on Tuesday, Mr. Orubebe told the South African court trying the case, that despite the deadly blast that killed at least a dozen people, “dialogue with members of warring factions(of MEND) has proved the best strategy in restoring peace to the oil-rich state”, South African newspaper, Mail and Guardian, reported.
“Throughout his tenure, [Jonathan] has always preached about the use of dialogue as a better way of getting to mutual consensus on contentious matters. If the accused is ready for dialogue, we would be very pleased to bring him on board,” Mr. Orubebe was quoted by the paper as telling the court.
Though not clearly stated, the remark implies that the federal government would be considering a withdrawal of its allegations against Mr. Okah, and requesting an out of court settlement.
Under bilateral arrangements with South Africa, it will not be impossible for the South African authorities to accede to such request and set the accused free.
Proceedings were suspended on Tuesday when Justice Neels Claassen failed to grasp the accent of the second prosecution witness, Victor Selekaye, the South African paper said.
Mr. Selekaye, a self confessed former MEND spokesperson, was scheduled to testify about his involvement in the activities of the militant group, and the role of Mr. Okah.
His English, laced with a strong Ijaw accent, prompted the judge to ask the prosecutor, Shaun Abrahams, to fly in a Nigerian interpreter.
The Wednesday proceedings
At the continuation of proceedings on Wednesday, damning evidence emerged on Wednesday about the involvement of Mr. Okah in the 2010 Independence Day twin car bombing in Abuja.
Mr. Selekaye told the court that MEND was formed in 2004, and operated as a military organisation to fight for the independence of the Niger Delta.
He alleged that MEND is responsible for strings of terror attacks in Nigeria since its formation. He said among its first attacks in 2006 was a Shell petrol plant in the Niger Delta region.
Mr. Selekaye said that MEND carried out various attacks on the instructions of Mr. Okah. He told the court that Mr. Okah, known by the group members as ‘master,’ supplied all the weapons and explosive devices used by the group.
He alleged that Mr. Okah had secret compartments in his truck to transport weapons, and explained how Mr. Okah taught him to make and assemble a car bomb in 2006, using a cellphone to detonate it.
He also told the court that it was the accused that detonated bombs at the various venues. The witness also stated that Mr. Okah is responsible for the Independence Day attacks in 2010. He said a friend informed him of the ‘Okah Terror Plan’.
Mr. Okah had earlier denied links with MEND, and pleaded not guilty to the 13 count-charge brought against him.
Through his long stay behind bars, awaiting trial, Mr. Okah maintained that evidences to support the state’s claims against him are “fabricated” and at best “weak”; saying he did not believe he will be convicted.
The former militant leader has been in jail since the deadly blast at less than a kilometre from the Eagles Square in Abuja where President Jonathan was attending Nigeria’s the Independence Day celebration.
The militant group, MEND, which authorities said Mr. Okah headed, claimed responsibility for the attack. Mr. Okah has denied membership of the group and plotting the attacks.
He made a shocking allegation soon after his arrest, and repeated same in May 2012. He accused President Jonathan and his aides of organizing the attacks in a desperate political strategy to “demonize” political opponents, and win popular sympathy ahead of the 2011 elections.
“The purpose of the 14 March 2010 bombing in my opinion was to create an atmosphere of insecurity in the Niger Delta where President Goodluck Jonathan at that time, was fighting to oust the governor Mr. Emmanuel Uduaghan whom President Goodluck Jonathan intended to replace with his Minister for Niger Delta, Mr. Godsday Orubebe,” Mr. Okah said in a 194-page affidavit in May.
Evidences gathered by the prosecution include alleged phone communication between Mr. Okah and those who carried out the attacks, computer records, photographs purporting to show incriminating images and other materials.
Mr. Orubebe reportedly told the court that whereas MEND, formed in 2005, has two factions led by ex-militant, Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, and a minority faction linked to Mr. Okah; former militants under Tompolo had taken up amnesty and abandoned an armed rebellion while those under the accused held to the struggle.
“When the Nigerian government initiated amnesty in June 2009, militants under Tompolo saw the benefits of the government’s gesture and handed over their ammunitions,” he said.
“These have been trained in practical skills to enable them initiate gainful employment activities in the area. But those linked to Okah declined to hand over their weapons until the elapse of the amnesty,” Mr. Orubebe said.