The leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, Charles Okah, has been held at the Kuje Prison for the past five years for allegedly masterminding the October 1, 2010 bombings which resulted in the death of many.
In this interview, Mr. Okah’s Canada-based daughter, Tarila, told a team of PREMIUM TIMES journalists, including the General Editor, FESTUS OWETE, Regional Editor, IBANGA ISINE and Associate Editor, INI EKOT, that her father is innocent.
PT: Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Tarila: My name is Tarila Okah and I am from Bayelsa State
PT: What is your relationship with Charles and Henry Okah?
Tarila: Charles Okah is my father and Henry Okah is my uncle. He is my dad’s younger brother contrary to what we hear in the media.
PT: So your father; Charles is older than Henry?
Tarila: It’s only in the media that you hear that Charles Okah is the younger brother of Henry Okah. My father is older than Henry and there’s someone before Henry. But I have been wondering why they don’t ever get it right. I know my uncle exudes the kind of personality that makes him look like an older brother and without knowing, people conclude that he is older than my father. My dad is more in the background and more reserved than Henry. But I want to clear the air now. My dad is older than Henry.
PT: Your father has been away since 2010. How are you and your siblings coping without him?
Tarila: It has been very hard. If someone had told me we could be in this situation, I would have said it is impossible. My dad was the breadwinner and the force for discipline and action in our home. To have that kind of person taken away from you in a flash was very hard for us. Apart from taking him away, they froze his accounts and impounded his goods. He was arrested at a time he just got a contract with the British High Commission to supply a floating dock. Long after they concluded searching the containers, they have refused to release the goods.
Back to your question, I have been out of the country for about 11 years and had already started finding my ground. My younger siblings are the hardest hit because they were still relying on dad for their financial and emotional needs. My younger brother was two when dad was arrested and he doesn’t have any concrete memory of the father anymore. My younger ones are living without a father figure and I feel sorry for them.
To survive, my stepmother had to sell a lot of things and even moved out of the house. But it’s been easier for them in school because in the US, they are not paying school fees unlike here. The Nigerian system is not structured in such a way that one can send his child to a public school and get quality education. It was really hard for them given the constant harassments. Even my cousins who are not directly connected to my dad were molested.
It has been very hard for us financially, emotionally and physically because we no longer have him there. I just brought my fiancé to my country for the first time and it was difficult for us to imagine that he will have to met my father and obtain his blessing for our marriage from the prison. That’s not the way you would want to introduce your partner to his future father in-law. That was very hard for me but my fiancé has been very supportive and we are really hoping that this is the beginning of the end.
PT: Before we go further, where you aware of the October 1, 2010 bombing in Abuja in which many lives were lost? Your father is alleged to have carried out the bombing?
Tarila: Good question. I know that my dad shares the sentiments of the Niger Delta area and I think every reasonable Nigerian should feel a sense of sadness and guilt knowing the region that produces the resources that brings us money as a country is in a very precarious state. It is an eyesore and especially so when you come from that area and are closer to the people. In that sense, my father shares in their pains and frustration because he is a very compassionate person. I mean this is someone who did emergency rescue in the country for many years. His mother died of kidney failure and he started building a dialysis machine. He was the one who started creating reflective road signs which helped reduced the rate of accidents in Lagos state. He started building the road signs and then sold the idea to the state government which immediately bought it. How can this person, who took it upon himself to create the reflective road signs, who went above and beyond to save lives be said to have engaged in something as atrocious as taking the lives of innocent people?
I want to hear the evidence that they (government) have against him. What is bad is bad. I also believe that the families of the people who died during the blasts need justice and it is only fair that they have justice. But to say that my dad was involved in the bombing is what I find hard to believe. You are trying to save lives on the one hand. How can you on the other knowingly take lives? That he shares the sadness of his people and feels for them is different from engaging in actions that lead to loss of lives. I don’t think he was involved in that blasts. My dad has always been a very compassionate person and safety has always been his concern. So many times when we were driving, he would stop and help people he doesn’t know. I have seen him stop families and caution them against putting their children on the front seats of cars. He has always cared so much about life. Without being biased, he has done so much for this country than a lot of politicians who hold the responsibility to serve the people. It’s unfortunate that he is being held with trumped up charges. For me, a very valuable resource is being wasted by the Nigerian Government. If he were out of the prisons, I know he would have contributed a lot more.
PT: When you learnt of the allegations made against your dad, did you feel like telling the government he could not have done those things?
Tarila: I remember when I got a call from my dad’s younger sister about his arrest. I was in a daze. It didn’t make sense to me whatsoever. That is not the man I know. That is not the man that raised me. It was very foreign to say my dad was involved in a bombing. I couldn’t even connect it. I have always been saying, what is the evidence; show me something to prove he did it. Now that the trial has started after five years in detention, I am happy. If they are holding him for the bombing, they should show how he did it. I am waiting just like the rest of the world to see how they prove he did it.
PT: Have you been stigmatized by people out there. Like people saying your father is a terrorist or he bombed people in Nigeria?
Tarila: Nobody has ever told me that. They may think about it and you can’t control what people think. But coming from a country where a mere accusation carries a strong presumption of guilt. Nigerians don’t wait to have the facts but just because the authorities said somebody has done something, they go ahead to attack the person. Most Nigerians don’t care about evidence; they don’t care about getting valid convictions. They want someone to stone. They want someone to point accusing fingers at. When the government said my dad did it, everyone jumped on board and said this is the culprit, he is guilty. I have read many crazy things online but I don’t let that bother me because people would always say what they want to say and you cannot control what people do.
PT: Recently, your father attempted to commit suicide in the court. What was your reaction when you heard about it?
Tarila: Someone sent me a message, ‘your dad is trending and it’s not for a good reason.’ The message was sent from Nigeria and I immediately googled my dad’s name and saw that he tried to commit suicide. I began to panic because in our freedom, we draw strength from my dad. He is the one in prison but a lot of times, he’s still the rock. He would always say “The rock is only mental. Think victory and you will always be victorious.” When we are sad and crying, he would tell us not to worry and that he will not be in prison forever. We draw strength from him but to hear that he was on the edge really frightened me and ….
PT: Did you try to reach out to him and find out what really happened?
Tarila: I immediately tried to reach him. I wanted to find out why he suddenly decided to take his life. We were supposed to draw strength from him. But no matter how strong you are, people always get to their breaking points, and from the speech I learnt he gave, which reflected everything he has passed through, you know he has been castigated, humiliated and denied his freedom. Just giving that speech made him reflect on the time he has lost and the pains he has endured, especially when you don’t do what you are accused of dong, especially when one has been a law-abiding citizen, you have done so much for your country, you’ve saved lives and now they are telling you, you took lives. At that moment, he was just fed up…. (Cried a little)… He is okay now.
PT: How often do the authorities allow the family to see him?
Tarila: A lot has changed over the years. When it first happened, it was a nightmare. I wasn’t in the country but I knew that when my family wanted to see him, including my step mother, it was tough. So many times, she went back crying and lost weight because they were humiliating her. At times, she waited for hours and won’t be allowed to see him. But over the years, it has gotten better, although it is still a problem. For instance, we went to see him yesterday and we waited for three hours. I don’t know the process but I think it is an intentional punishment because there is no reason why it should take us three hours to see him and that for only 10 minutes.
PT: What happened at the very moment you walked into the room with your fiancé and met him?
Tarila: Well, my fiancé had been looking forward to meeting my dad and my dad too was looking forward to meeting him. So I was excited, I was anxious. It was just a bunch of feelings. But when I finally saw him, I began to cry because you are seeing your dad in a very different place. I should have seen my dad at home and not through bars. It didn’t just make sense to me but it was a relief when they finally met each other. I was happy and I have kept saying that before my wedding he will be out. Nobody will walk me down the aisle. He will have to do his fatherly duty. Now that the trial has finally started I am hopeful he will get out soon.
PT: He was complaining that the government has not been paying for his medical treatment and that he is suffering from acute pile. Did he tell you about it?
Tarila: I actually brought him some medications for that when I was coming. The courts here are not doing their jobs. The whole system is so flawed and so messy, I don’t even know the repair process will begin because there is a lot to be done. Look at the man who was standing trial with my dad who died; I feel sorry for him because whether he was guilty or not, he never got a chance to defend himself. It is a very painful thing to think you have a system where someone just died like that and nobody is held accountable. It is frightening. Someone should have been held accountable for his death because he died in someone’s custody. But he was gone and that chapter was closed. To know that is your country, you begin to think it could have been my dad. It could have been anybody. It is so scary to know that is the condition my dad in living through on a daily basis. We keep on living with the anxiety that the next day will be his last day inside the prison.
PT: How did he look when you saw him?
Tarila: When we saw him, he looked good physically. He was happy to see us. But for that incident where he lost it in a moment, he is trying to be very strong. I mean regardless of the five year ordeal, he would naturally have up days and the down days. There are days he would be optimistic and others he would be down. When you know the kind of country you live in and when you question the system and can’t trust it. Thinking about those things brings a sense of fear and worry. But for the most part, he is happy that the trial has finally started and he is in good spirit too.
PT: You have complained about the justice system in the country. What gives you the confidence he will be out for your wedding or are you going to wait until he’s out before you wed?
Tarila: We have already set a date before we came for his blessing. We have set a date and the goal is for him to be out before that date so there’s enough time to clear the air since the wedding is not going to be in Nigeria and if they want to bounce him, we can appeal. I believe he did not do it. I have that conviction and I believe in God and we pray to him nonstop. Eventually, God’s will, will be done and everything will come to light. Like the rest of the world, we want to see the evidence that they have. We are watching.
PT: You believe strongly that your father didn’t cause the bomb blasts. But what do you think could have made the government arrest him for the crime?
Tarila: Politics in Nigeria is very dirty and more than meets the eyes. Obviously, they had my uncle before they came for my dad. And I know that the government had issues with my uncle. I feel that in many ways my dad was used as a bargaining chip because he is very close to my uncle. My uncle lives in South Africa and my dad lives here in Nigeria. There was a time they tried to strike a deal with my dad to implicate my uncle and some others and he said he wouldn’t do that. For instance, at the time of the initial arrests, they also arrested my brother and my brother’s friend. They cleared all the men that were in the house. My dad didn’t know what was going on with my brother. The authorities had what they wanted my dad to say and they insisted if he wouldn’t say like X Y Z about my uncle, he was never going to see his son again. So in that moment, my dad made a decision not to say something that he would regret for the rest of his life because he wanted to see his son. He knew they had taken his son but did not know where they took him and what they were dong to him. My dad said he was going to stand for what is right and was not going to say what he didn’t know. He refused to follow the script they gave him because he knew that tomorrow they would hold him for what he said. I feel that they really wanted to use him as a bargaining chip and once he would have dug himself into a hole, there would be no way of coming out. At first they said he was the spokesperson of MEND and later they said he was the terrorist and later they said he tried to assassinate Goodluck Jonathan. So many times the charges have been changed and the story has also kept on changing. Nigeria is not the kind of place people would come out looking stupid. They just had stick to their story instead of releasing my dad and saying that they don’t have any evidence linking him with the crime. The whole world is watching. We have to follow this to the end.
PT: You said the government had issues with your uncle. Do you think he could have done what they claimed?
Tarila: I can’t say that because I don’t know the story. I know my dad and my uncle and I know what they can do and cannot do. Whatever issues prompted all this I don’t know. We have talked about the government. I don’t know what happened between closed doors. I don’t know whatever their personal hostility was. It is a story only my uncle could tell and I feel it is something that will be eye-opening for everybody.
PT: You have lived in Canada for years. Now can you compare life out there and here?
Tarila: There’s absolutely no basis for comparison. When my fiancé and I came and this is his first time in Africa and indeed Nigeria, he couldn’t fit in. The very bad roads and the bus conductors handing on the doors of buses are some of the things you cannot see out there. It’s like black and white and you cannot compare the two worlds. Every country has its own issues. In Canada they say the government is corrupt but yet there are results on the ground. People pay tax and they demand result. Out there, my fiancé’s friend was driving and there was a pothole on the road which ruined the tyre of his car. The government paid for the tyre because it is their duty to make sure the roads work. That does not happen here. What are you going to do if LASTMA collects your car for breaking down on the bad Lagos road? They punish you for having your car damaged by the road government is supposed to maintain and you pay for them to release your car. You cannot even begin to compare. Everything is so different and I think Nigeria has a lot to learn. You realise that a lot of these politicians travel out of the country and they see the difference. It’s not like Nigeria is the only place they know. They should come back home and replicate some of the things they see and enjoy when they travel to other countries. Unfortunately, they are not interested in development and good governance. They are interested in how much they can steal. Nigerian politicians don’t learn anything.
PT: What is your impression about former President Goodluck Jonathan and his administration?
Tarila: Well, this is personal to me because my dad is involved. It was just like any other government that we saw in the past. I don’t know much about this present government. The Jonathan administration was so messy. There was nothing different between him and his predecessors. But because my dad is involved and it is personal to me, I have some form of anger against him but I forgive easily. Once my dad is out, I honestly won’t think about Jonathan. He will become a closed chapter.
PT: Have you reached out and appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari about the plight of your father?
Tarila: I haven’t had the medium to reach out to him but now that I am here, I want to say if there is anything the new government can do, they should please do it to accelerate the trial and let my dad get justice. I plead with the government that my dad be given his freedom because he has lost a lot of things. He has lost his family, his reputation and his business. He has lost so many things by being locked up in for a crime he didn’t commit. Nobody should be treated the way my dad has been treated. We are wasting a very valuable resource. We are holding a man that has so much to offer – a man who prior to his arrest had done so much for the country; a man that had saved so many lives in different ways he could, whether it was through the emergency rescue that he was doing or the reflective road signs to reduce accidents or educating drivers and families on the importance of road safety. That’s something individuals rarely do in Nigeria. The lives of Nigerians have always been a priority to him and despite what he has suffered, my dad is not contemplating running away from the country.
My dad is interested in getting his freedom and seeing how much he can contribute to the country and impact on the lives of the people.