An October 4, 2012 report in ThisDay newspaper quoted The Guardian of London as reporting that President Goodluck Jonathan was willing to negotiate with Mr. Henry Okah over a range of issues. This conclusion was reached because Chief Godsday Orubebe, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs and a close confidant of President Jonathan, told the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg that “despite the grievous harm that the October 1, 2010, twin bombings caused to families of the victims … the President was ready to hold dialogue with Okah in order to sustain the peace.”
Orubebe was further quoted as saying, “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.” Does it mean then that if Henry Okah agrees to a dialogue, the Nigerian government will ask the South African government to release him? If this deduction is correct, then, we think it is a welcome development (even if such a move will invoke suspicions and questions).
On July 4, 2012, The PUNCH reported that, “An official of the State Security Service, Mr. Abdulfaruk Dauda, told a Federal High Court in Abuja that former spokesman for Boko Haram, Kudunga Abdul, named Senator Ali Ndume as a financier of the group.” What did the government do to Ndume? Absolutely nothing! While members of Boko Haram are treated with kid gloves, the Okah brothers, on the other hand, are wallowing in cruel confinement. The President, it seems, is determined to teach the Okah brothers a lesson.
It is my impression that Okah has always been an enigma. Unlike his contemporaries, he was always calm, gentle and soft-spoken. He barely sought the media or called undue attention to himself. And unlike many during that era — an era characterised by low intensity conflict and equivalent retaliation between justice-seeking groups and the Nigerian military and security forces — he was acutely aware of what history and posterity would say about him. Thus, he did his best not to contravene the social and legal etiquettes of the post-9/11 world.
Repeatedly, Okah had made it known that he bore no grudges against anyone, or against the Nigerian government and the multinational oil corporations. His primary concern was the ecological, political, social, and economic injustices that came to characterise the region (and which was fast asphyxiating the people). Not for him the kidnappings that were soiling Nigeria’s reputation at home and abroad. Not for him the criminal activities of street gangs and cults; and not for him, the rumoured alliance between domestic and foreign-based terrorist groups.
But to hear the Nigerian government and some individuals tell it, Henry Okah is the boogieman. Sadly, the Nigerian public, along with the Nigerian media, believe these lies. If the media had taken its time to investigate the persons and personalities that advanced, or pretended to advance the region’s noble causes, they would have known that Henry Okah was not the senseless and bloodletting individual they have unmercifully portrayed him to be. Because he is different, and because he refused to be used by the elite, he is being sacrificed. What’s more, Okah refused to do the bidding of some prospective federal ministers (from the region) many of whom had wanted him to use his influence to help secure political appointments.
In the summer of 2009, MEND established the Aaron Team, which was authorised to negotiate with the government. After the introductory meeting, things slowed down because President Yar’Adua became incapacitated. The entire process came to a halt after Jonathan became the President. According to sources familiar with the process, Jonathan didn’t see the need to negotiate “because he knows how to cut off the beast’s head without conceding anything to MEND.” Why did the President refuse to negotiate with MEND?
In many respect, President Jonathan seems to think that the 2009 Presidential Amnesty Programme was enough. But not so for the purists in the Niger Delta struggle who believed that the amnesty only gave the government time to temporarily halt the violence, and then embark on the next phase: to honourably address the region’s complaints; and formulate and implement practical policies that solve or mitigate decades old inequalities and iniquities. From the beginning, Okah had insisted on doing things the right way. And this meant that the struggle for justice and equality follows an acceptable path.
For the purists, the goals and demands were simple: fiscal and political federalism; a Sovereign National Conference; socially responsible behaviour on the part of the oil companies; maintain and safeguard a healthy ecology; a National Assembly approved amnesty/UN-endorsed post-amnesty programme; the demilitarisation of the Niger Delta; the creation of two or more Ijaw states; revocation of insidious land and oil decrees inherited from the military era; and full participation of all Nigerians in the nation’s economic and political arena.
The purists also began to frown, not just at the level of corruption and waste by the governors in the region, but also by the manipulative tendencies of the political elite. Okah’s position has always been that the problems of the Niger Delta must be resolved now; otherwise, years from now, the region would still be agitating for political and economic goods and services. Okah once said to me: “Why should this generation shift its problems and responsibility to the next generation when we have the means and the capability to solve it now?”
Today, many Niger Deltans, especially the Ijaw, have two interrelated philosophies: (1) support President Jonathan at whatever cost; and (2) ‘chop’ as much as you can…grab as much as you can because the Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba, and other ethnic groups have been ‘chopping’ since 1960…it is now our turn. After 2015 or 2019, we shall return to the creeks to fight. This is a line of thinking Okah abhors! And so, if future violence, amongst other things, is what Henry Okah has been trying to avoid and preach against, why persecute him now?