Three months after being tried for masterminding the October 1, 2010 twin car bombings in Abuja, the nation's capital, a South African court on Monday, pronounced one of the nation's militant leaders, Henry Okah, guilty as charged.
In a space of three months, the Henry Emomotimi Okah trial following the October 1, 2010, Independence Day bombing, had witnessed a variety of drama. It had entertained recriminations between the accused and the Federal Government over who was truly responsible. Some of the siblings of the accused were equally not spared. And with as much a bumpy start, it seemed like one justice that would be long in coming, typically of the Nigerian situation. But it did not happen in Nigeria. The host country, South Africa, begged to differ.
Thus, on Monday, January 21, 2013, Judge Neels Claassen, of a Johannesburg High Court, pronounced Okah, a militant leader from the Niger Delta part of Nigeria guilty of the Independent Day bombing that left 12 people dead and 36 others fatally injured. And because of its timing too, the incidence, expectedly traumatised the nation and indeed, heralded the birth of more violent phases of terrorism in the country.
"I have come to the conclusion that the state proved beyond reasonable doubt, the guilt of the accused (Okah)," Claassen said as he delivered judgment on the three months old trial. He also stated that the evidence of all the accomplices that worked with Okah was not contradicted, and that Okah was the leader, planner, and funder, supplier of cars and bombs used in the separate explosions that took place in Warri, Delta State in March 2010 and on October 1, 2010 in Abuja. He was, therefore, declared guilty of the 13 charges of terrorist activities preferred against him.
But the landmark judgement came even as the Nigerian government and security agencies labour to disentangle the nation from the consequences of sustained terrorists' attacks prevalent in the Northern part of Nigeria. More instructively, the judgement may have come as solace for families of the victims of the bombings and the Federal Government, which is daily embarrassed by the loss of lives.
The October 2010 Abuja attacks known as 2010 Independence Day bombing were executed with two cars loaded with bombs rammed into the crowd celebrating the nation's 50th independence anniversary in the nation's capital. The first explosion occurred at about 10:30 a.m. and the second came after emergency services had arrived at the scene of the blast.
Prior to the attack, Jomo Gbomo, spokesperson for Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), had issued a warning less than an hour before the first bomb stating the location as near the Eagle Square (venue for the celebration), and the time put at 10:30 a.m.
The bombings and the issues that followed were such that put the nation on a delicate threshold, especially with insinuations on the masterminds and counter-allegations. In fact, the arrest of a media mogul and Director of the Ibrahim Babangida Campaign Organisation, Chief Raymond Dokpesi, further elicited intense controversy. Dokpesi who was first invited for questioning by security agencies was later detained in connection with the bombing.
Security claimed to have established a link between Dokpesi and one of the arrested suspects through series of text messages before and after the blasts. But Dokpesi's detention came just as South African authorities had also picked up Okah for allegedly plotting the attacks that marred the nation's 50th Independence anniversary. The arrest of both personalities later signified political tension between President Goodluck Jonathan and Babangida.
There had been reports that Okah was dissatisfied with the amnesty conditions which was entered into in 2009 by late President Umar Musa Yar' Adua's administration and that all rebel factions operating in the Niger Delta region wanted to send out a strong message to the Nigerian government that militancy still existed and that he should be taken seriously.
Another curious twist was introduced to the debacle when Okah categorically blamed both attacks on Jonathan. He reportedly told the South African court in the course of his trial that the bomb attacks were sponsored by the President, that those working for him had engineered similar attacks earlier in March 2010.
"It is my belief that President Goodluck Jonathan's government working with a faction of MEND planned and executed the bombings of 14 March 2010 and 1 October 2010," Okah was quoted as saying in an affidavit deposed at the South African court.
But the Presidency was quick to denying the allegations, describing it as "false in entirety and without any factual foundation." Presidential spokesperson, Mr. Rueben Abati, added that the case was already before a court and "the Presidency does not intend to say anymore on the matter for now and will not," noting that "in accordance with due process and international law, we will make a full representation on the matter to the court when the trial opens."
Jonathan's declaration immediately the attacks were carried out that MEND was not responsible but blamed them on an unnamed terrorist group, however elicited suspicions, especially as to the source and reliability of his information, put side-by-side the need to apprehend and bring to book, those responsible.
While Okah's trial lasted, witnesses were paraded- 34 in all by the prosecutor, Mr. Shaun Abrahams. One of the first witnesses to appear in the court was the Niger Delta Minister, Mr. Peter Godsday Orubebe, a close friend of the President. Also, Mr. Sele Victor Ben (Boyloaf's brother), Mr. Zion Amada, aka Stanley, Mr. Tamunotonye Kuna, aka general Obez, Abel Bulus Achi, a Deputy Director, State Security Service (SSS) all appeared as witnesses to buttress the prosecutor's claim that Okah was culpable in the terror attack.
But in spite of all the rigmarole, especially that Okah had denied any involvement in the bombings, alleging that the accusations were politically motivated; the sentencing procedures would have started as you read this. The South Africa court is expected to put this into effect under its international obligation since the Nigerian government did not apply for his extradition.
Typically, his conviction had followed mixed reactions. Many were of the opinion that had the trial been conducted in a Nigeria court, Okah would probably have regained freedom, just as in the case of former Delta State governor, Chief James Ibori, who had been freed by a Nigerian court before a London court slammed a 13-year jail term on him.
While instances like this cast aspersions on the nation's justice system with the expectations that the status quo will change over time with similar groundbreaking pronouncements, Nigerians earnestly await what sentencing the South African court will eventually extend to Okah.