A South African court yesterday found Niger Delta militant leader Henry Okah guilty of masterminding twin car bombings during the 50th Independence Day celebration in Abuja in 2010.
The bombing on October 1 killed at least 12 people and wounded three dozen. Judge Neels Claassen said South Africa had proved Okah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He added that Okah’s failure to testify meant evidence against him remained uncontested.
Henry Okah faces a minimum sentence of life in prison, said prosecutor Shaun Abrahams. Sentencing is expected on January 31.
“This is clearly indicative that South Africa cannot be seen as a safe haven for international terrorists,” Abrahams told the Associated Press news agency.
Okah was arrested in Johannesburg one day after the October 1, 2010 bombings. He is a leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which claimed responsibility for the blasts. Okah still faces charges relating to two explosions in March 2010 in Warri, Delta State.
He was found guilty of engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy to engage in terrorist activity, and delivering, placing, and detonating an explosive device.
But Okah had said the charges were politically motivated, and had accused President Goodluck Jonathan’s men of asking him to implicate key Northern leaders in the bombings, accusations the Presidency had denied.
There is another trial going on in Nigeria on the October 1 bombing involving Okah’s brother Charles.
Counsel to Charles Okah, Mr. Festus Keyamo, yesterday dismissed Henry Okah’s conviction as “politically motivated and legally incorrect.”
“The fundamental flaw in the trial is that Henry Okah was not given adequate facilities and the opportunity to defend himself. This is because after the prosecution closed its case in South Africa, the defence attorneys and my chambers here in Abuja tried frantically to summon the witnesses of Henry Okah who are based here in Nigeria to testify on his behalf. These witnesses include some government officials,” he said.
“In this regard, we wrote to the Attorney-General of the Federation who replied and directed that Henry’s counsel in South Africa apply to the court there for an order to secure the legal assistance of the Attorney-General of Nigeria. This was only two weeks ago.”
He said the conviction was a breach of Okah’s “fundamental right to fair hearing and an obvious attempt by the South African authorities to please Nigeria at all cost.”
Keyamo said Henry was only being persecuted because he refused to accept the government’s amnesty offer and insisted on the Niger Delta controlling its resources.
He urged the Federal Government to “use all diplomatic efforts” to get Okah to be pardoned by the South African government.
‘Slow, ineffective, inefficient’
Meanwhile, the Ikeja, Lagos, branch of the Nigerian Bar Association yesterday called for the overhaul of Nigeria’s justice system to speed up the dispensation of justice.
Chairman of the branch Onyekachi Ubani made the call while reacting to the conviction of Henry Okah.
Ubani said the major lesson Nigeria should learn from Okah’s conviction was how to fast track the dispensation of justice in its legal system.
He said the Nigeria justice system was slow, ineffective and inefficient to meet the wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian people.
“Former Delta State governor James Ibori was jailed by a UK court, whereas the crime was committed in Nigeria. Now, Okah has been convicted by a South African court for an offence also committed in Nigeria,” Ubani said, quoted by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
“This shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system and it needs to be overhauled.”
He said had Henry Okah been charged for the offence in Nigeria, the matter would not have gotten to conviction stage as at now.
“His brother (Charles) and some other persons were arrested and arraigned for the same offence in Nigeria but the matter is still proceeding at a very slow pace,” Ubani said.