Sunday, October 24, 2010

Neighbours shocked as Okah stands trial for Nigeria bombing

FAMILY MAN: Nigerian rebel leader Henry Okah and his wife, Azuka, far left, pose with their four children in South Africa on her birthday last mont

Now he stands accused in South Africa of being the mastermind of the terrorist car bombings in Nigeria's capital this month which killed at least 12 and wounded 50 on the 50th anniversary of the country's independence.

He is being tried in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court - which heard of his friendship with "senior officials in the Nigerian government" - while others whom he allegedly directed are being tried in Lagos.

Okah has denied all the charges in an affidavit and, from a public phone in the cells, told the Al Jazeera news agency: "I am arrested here at the (insistence) of Nigeria, which threatened the South African government with diplomatic action if they didn't arrest me. That is the only reason why I am in detention."

The alleged political leader of the militant rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), Okah is the most famous voice of protest against what he claims is Nigeria's refusal to share the oil wealth of the delta region with its people.

The group, which claimed responsibility for the bombings, has been blamed for billions of dollars in losses to oil companies - and a massive rise in global oil prices - through sabotage, threats and kidnappings.

Apart from two years of solitary confinement in a Nigerian prison, which ended last year - after he was charged with treason and gun-running - Okah, 45, has kept a low profile as a family man in Bassonia, in southern Johannesburg, since 2004.

In a key moment of a six-day bail hearing, the court heard a statement from the SAPS investigating officer, Colonel Graeme Zeeman, that Okah had instructed rebels in Nigeria by cellphone to buy the two bomb vehicles and load them with dynamite.

Zeeman alleged that a Nigerian-based suspect had sent text messages to Okah on October 1 - including one just a minute before the first blast - and that Okah's e-mail correspondence with suspects on that day included the statement, "Done, tell them to leave now."

At least 14 people have been arrested in Nigeria in connection with the bombings, including two of Okah's relatives.

He has no political or official title, beyond being a co-director in a tiny import-export company in Glenvista, Johannesburg. He is a former door-to-door gun salesman with a degree in marine engineering.

Time magazine has described him as "the Nigerian rebel who 'taxes' your gasoline".

Nigerian Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan visited him in Johannesburg in 2007 for "peace" talks, and a Nigerian governor allegedly dined at his home last month.

He lives in a four-bedroom house with a pool, which he uses daily, and staffed by a driver, a housekeeper, a nanny and a "gateman".

A neighbour, Delilah Mahomed, said he was a passionate biker who owned a powerful Yamaha V-Max.

"I've known them for six years - and, no, I do not live next door to a terrorist," said Mahomed. "In fact, Henry is the nicest guy. I've seen him stop his bike to help an injured cat on the street, and then wait there until his driver arrived to take it to the vet. We've heard these stupid terrorism accusations about him before, and he just laughs."

However, Mahomed confirmed that Okah was a "war junkie", with a "massive" collection of war books - "Vietnam, World War 2, Gulf War, he's got everything in that bookcase, and he studies it".

In an interview with the Sunday Times this week, his wife, Azuka, 44, said the charges were "ridiculous" and described a gentle family man who had fallen in love with South Africa, who falls asleep during movies and who moved his children to the Christian Harvest School because their previous high-priced school was "too snobbish".

She said Okah - who grew up in a privileged home in Lagos and has a British accent - became an activist after being "horrified" by the poverty in his ancestral village in the delta region.

"I don't want to be a Winnie Mandela. I want to live a simple life, with my husband with me," she said. "And I don't want to go back to Nigeria with my husband being hunted. He's serious about the delta issue, but he's a gentle man."

The couple's home was raided by South African detectives searching for weapons just two days before the bombings. "When the cops broke our door down at 3am, I thought they were assassins. They brought dogs to sniff for bombs, they dug up our flower beds, they destroyed our daughter's piano, looking for stuff they didn't find."

Outside court on Friday, Azuka appeared more concerned with her husband's immigration status than with his terror charges, saying that his six-year permanent residency status was now under threat.

His daughter, Eniye, a shy and intelligent 15-year-old with neatly braided hair, said: "I'm not worried."

She said of her father: "He'll be missing his prawns, the big ones. Prawns and steaks."


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