Nigeria's Okah fears for his life

2010-10-05 14:50

Johannesburg - A Nigerian militant suspect being held on terror charges in South Africa fears for his life because Nigerian government officials have made threatening statements, the man's lawyer said on Tuesday.

Henry Okah was arrested in Johannesburg over the weekend and accused in the bombings that killed at least 12 people in Nigeria's capital Abuja on Friday. At a court hearing on Tuesday, a judge trying to allay Okah's security concerns ordered him held pending trial alone in a cell and given a special escort to and from court.

Defence lawyer Rudi Krause told reporters after the hearing that Okah "has received information that senior Nigerian government officials have expressed the view that they should have killed him when they had him incarcerated during the course of 2008-2009".

Nigeria's minister of information, Dora Akunyili and presidential spokesperson Ima Niboro did not respond to messages seeking comment on the accusation. National police spokesperson Emmanuel Ojukwu said he would respond later.

Okah is widely known as the former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, though his lawyer denied that on Tuesday. The group, also known as Mend, claimed responsibility for Friday's bombing.

Mend has destroyed oil pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company workers and fought government troops since 2006. It accuses Nigeria's government of doing nothing to end poverty in the delta even as the nation receives billions of dollars from oil found in the delta region.

Audacious attacks

In 2008, Okah was arrested in Angola and extradited to Nigeria, where he was accused of treason and terrorism and linked to a gunrunning scandal involving high-ranking military officials. His arrest and trial, during which word emerged that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, sparked some of Mens’s most audacious attacks.

Charges against Okah were dropped and he was granted amnesty and freed in July 2009 as part of an initiative the government had hoped would end unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta. In October 2009, Nigeria's late President Umaru Yar'Adua met with Okah. At the time, Mens called the meeting "a positive step towards constructive dialogue and change." But a cease-fire quickly unraveled.

Okah has not recently been seen as a key figure in Mend, though South African prosecutors on Monday called him a "senior Mend member" and accused him of helping carry out or plot the Abuja bombings.

ON Tuesday, his lawyer said Okah had never been a Mend member, let alone a senior one.

"Mr Okah simply strives for a peaceful solution to the problems in the Niger Delta," Krause said.