This Day (Lagos)

4 October 2012

Nigeria: Jonathan Offers to Negotiate With Okah

Photo: Vanguard

President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed the readiness of his administration to hold talks with a leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), Mr. Henry Okah, who is now on trial in a South African court for terrorism.

According to a report in The Guardian of London Wednesday, Niger Delta Minister, Chief Godsday Orubebe, told the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Tuesday that despite the grievous harm that the October 1, 2010, twin bombings caused to families of the victims, dialogue with members of the warring factions has proved the best strategy in restoring peace to the oil-rich Niger Delta region.

In another trial in Nigeria, a suspect in the twin bombings that rocked the 2010 independence anniversary celebration, Edmund Ewibare, told Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court, Abuja that Okah threatened to kill him.

Continuing his testimony as a prosecution witness in Okah's trial in South Africa, Orubebe told the court that the president was ready to hold dialogue with Okah in order to sustain the peace in the oil-rich region.

He said: "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."

Okah, who is facing terrorism charges, is accused of masterminding the October 2010 bombings that led to the death of 12 people and injured 36 more in Abuja.

He has been in custody since his arrest on October 2, 2010, with courts turning down all his bail applications.

Defence lawyers denied Okah's involvement in the fatal bombings, and accused the Federal Government of fabricating charges against the MEND leader and conniving with the South African government to deny him bail on allegations that he would continue to destabilise the Niger Delta on his release.

Orubebe 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 Okah, former militants under Tompolo had taken up the government's offer of amnesty and abandoned the armed rebellion while those under Okah continues to fight on.

"When the Nigerian government initiated amnesty in June 2009, militants under Tompolo saw the benefits of the government's gesture and handed over their ammunition.

"These have been trained in practical skills to enable them to initiate gainful employment activities in the area. But those linked to Okah declined to hand over their weapons until the elapse of the amnesty," Orubebe said.

Orubebe is the first witness to testify against Okah in the terrorism trial.

Proceedings were adjourned on Tuesday when Justice Neels Claassen failed to grasp the accent of the second prosecution witness, Victor Ben Selekaye.

Selekaye, a former MEND spokesperson-cum-businessman, was scheduled to testify about his involvement in the activities of the militant group and Okah's role.

Selekaye spoke English with such a thick Ijaw language accent that Claasen was prompted to ask prosecutor Shaun Abrahams to fly in a Nigerian interpreter.

Despite Abrahams's attempts to translate Selekaye's testimony, Claassen insisted he needed to understand evidence from the witness first-hand to make a just judgment on the matter.

"I'm sorry but I need to hear and understand the evidence. If I don't hear his statements, then I would be doing an injustice to the accused because I'm supposed to make credible findings at the end of the day. I suggest that we adjourn this trial to seek means of redress," Classen stated in the trial, which continued Wednesday.

In Abuja, Ewibare, giving evidence in his own case, told Justice Kolawole Wednesday that Okah had threatened to kill him.

Accused along with him in the bombings are Okah's brother, Charles, Obi Nwabueze and Tiemkemfa Osuvwo who was said to have died in detention.

Charles Okah and Nwabueze are still challenging the charges against them, while Ebiware applied for a separate trial, saying he wanted his case heard and determined.

Also, a former Special Adviser to Jonathan on the Niger Delta, Mr. Timi Alaibe, denied before the court that he had prior knowledge of the blasts.

Alaibe testified that Ewibare was associated with a specific militant group in Delta State and was an advocate of zoning of the presidency to the North.

"Ewibare and others normally came to my office and I had cautioned him about his political position. I once saw him on the television discussing zoning and I warned him that it was a bitter politics, and the politics is bigger than him," Alaibe said.

However, Ewibare, who was specifically accused of withholding information on the planned attack, told the court that he had never seen or met with Okah, but admitted holding several phone conversations with him.

He also admitted that he campaigned for former military President Ibrahim Babangida for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primaries.

But he said that the N4 million he received was to get an office for the group as a property consultant.

He stated that his campaign for Babangida was prior to September 18, 2010, the day Jonathan declared his intention to run for presidency on the platform of the PDP.

While undergoing cross-examination by the prosecution counsel, Alex Iziyon (SAN), Ewibare denied ever having prior knowledge of the blasts.

Ewibare said his telephone conversations with Okah included an attempt to combat pipeline vandalism in the Niger Delta region, as demanded by the Minister of Petroleum, Diezani Alison-Madueke.

He claimed that Okah had expressed dissatisfaction with the Federal Government's amnesty programme, and accused him (Ewibare) of being an informant for the government.

According to him, having reported the threat to his life to the State Security Service (SSS) and having informed the SSS of Okah's dissatisfaction with the amnesty programme, Okah accused him of being an informant for the government.

He added that he had met Alaibe during his effort to disarm a militant group located in Obotebe community in Delta State.

Both the prosecution and defence counsel closed their cases as Justice Kolawole adjourned the matter till November 12 for adoption of addresses.

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