Tensions rise with start of trial of Delta leader

In a demonstration of support for prominent Niger Delta militant Henry Okah, who the government put in trial in early April, militant leaders have said that they will escalate armed conflict.

"We have pulled out of any peace talks, we have not disarmed so there really is no progress since Henry's arrest," the spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) who goes by the name of Jomo Gbomo wrote in an e-mail to IRIN on 13 April.

MEND is an alliance of militant groups claiming to fight for an increase in the percentage of wealth that the people of the Niger Delta get from the oil that is being exploited in their region.

Gbomo said that militants would target oil installations even if the oil companies repair pipe lines. “It only takes a few minutes to destroy what took years to build."

Prior to Okah's arrest, leaders of the militants had agreed to a temporary ceasefire. In August 2007 the newly-elected government of Umaru Yar'Adua initiated peace talks in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

But in September Okah was arrested in Angola and by December the militants called back the people negotiating on their behalf. The negotiators pledged to return by January but the talks remain on hold.

Okah was extradited to Nigeria in February to face charges of arms dealing, oil bunkering and treason. MEND then issued a statement saying that it would not participate in future negotiations until Okah’s release or take part in a proposed Niger Delta Peace Summit that has been repeatedly delayed.

Unifying the enemy

The militants in the MEND alliance had become fragmented in recent year but Okah's arrest may now be unifying them, a professor of political science in Port Harcourt, Elias Courson, told IRIN. "Okah has enemies and friends in the Niger Delta," Courson said. "But [by arresting him] the government is rallying support for him."

One of the more violent and well-organised militias led by Ateke Tom, whom MEND says is not in the alliance, said he too would boycott further talks. "The government cannot arrest people while continuing to make peace talks,” an anonymous representative of Tom said. “[Ateke believes that Okah] should be released in order not to aggravate tensions in the region."

Secret trial

Militants say they are outraged by a court decision to make the trial secret. Local human rights groups disapprove of the proceedings.

"The people of this country should have the benefit of knowing what happened and if indeed he has committed those crimes including treason, how he did that," Isaac Osuoka, director of Social Action in Port Harcourt, told IRIN.

Okah’s defence team will challenge the decision of a closed hearing on 22 April. The government’s prosecutor argues that a public trial would be a threat to security.

Who’s the man?

Okah is thought to be the original spokesperson for MEND that goes by the name of Jomo Gbomo and who has made hundreds of statements to the press over the years, claiming responsibility for the countless attacks and kidnappings in the Delta.

But the accusations against him focus on arms dealing. In October 2007, a former militia leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who was himself arrested for treason, published an open letter detailing his relationship with Okah, recounting numerous weapons purchases starting in 2003. "We… coined him at the time 'Master of Arms' from where many now call him Master," Dokubo-Asari stated in the letter.

Okah is also accused of having arms dealing connections with the Nigerian military. One of the charges that he faces is that he bought arms from the Nigerian Army Ordinance Depot in Kaduna and took them to the Niger Delta.

Army goes free

MEND says that the real reason the government is keeping the trail secret is to protect its own. "There are many top people in the past and present government that will prefer Okah dead because of their complicity in oil bunkering, political assassinations, and other hard facts that we know about and which Okah will have no qualms in speaking out about in an open court of law," said the current MEND spokesman who also uses the name Jomo Gbomo.

On 27 March, Human Rights Watch issued a statement on the issue. "Although the federal government recently charged prominent militant commander and alleged arms dealer Henry Okah with treason, this is not a meaningful gesture against impunity if the government's political allies are not prosecuted for their role in perpetrating similar crimes," the statement read.