A South African court last Friday sentenced Henry Okah, a leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) to life imprisonment.
The court had found him guilty of the terrorism charges levelled against him by the Federal Government of Nigeria, which accused him of masterminding two car bombings in Abuja during Nigeria's 50th Independence Day anniversary on October 1, 2010. At least 12 people were killed in that attack and some 36 others sustained injuries. Although MEND at the time claimed responsibility for the attack, President Goodluck Jonathan was quick to exonerate the group. He said he knew those responsible, but has yet to publicly name them. He also asserted that MEND did not deserve the terrorist label. Not long afterwards however, the government laid charges against Henry Okah, who had been staying in South Africa, where he was arrested; he has continued to maintain his innocence, arguing that he was being framed by the federal government because he refused to rope in some Northern leaders as being behind the the attack as some government officials had wanted him to do.
Henry Okah's conviction and sentencing in a foreign court have understandably evoked mixed feelings back home.
There is no doubt that Henry Okah's expeditious trial and conviction in South Africa reinforce the image problem that the Nigerian judiciary has. It is in fact tempting to speculate on what could have happened if Okah had stood trial in Nigeria. More likely the case would still be ongoing, with prosecuting and defence lawyers in connivance with corrupt judges finding all manner of legalese to delay or deny justice. In the end, chances are that there would be plea-bargaining, which would have allowed Okah to walk, with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Only recently, it took a court in the United Kingdom to convict former Delta State governor, James Ibori, after an Asaba High Court had acquitted him of the numerous charges of corruption and embezzlement of state resources levelled against him.
Coincidentally, four days after Okah was convicted, an associate of the former MEND leader, Edmund Ebiware, was also sentenced to life imprisonment by a Federal High Court in Abuja. Ebiware was arrested by operatives of the State Security Service on October 2, 2010 in Abuja, on charges of withholding information on the planned attack.
Okah's conviction is however a reminder that in these days of globalization and information super highway, a crime committed in one corner of the earth could have ramifications in others, giving several countries the locus standi to try its perpetrators. This means essentially that criminals may find out that they increasingly have fewer places to hide: if the corrupt segments of Nigerian judiciary cannot catch felons, terrorists and corrupt politicians, then the blind and efficient justice system in other countries, where their crimes could have some ramifications, would do the job. It is also another reminder that the judiciary in this country needs to be cleaned up, which is not just a question of tackling corrupt lawyers and judges but also of beefing up the prosecutorial capacity of government lawyers.
Another important lesson from Okah's conviction is the need for political leaders to exercise restraint in their utterances and finger-pointing when acts of mindless horror are carried out against Nigerians. Henry Okah's conviction should therefore be a cautionary note to government official is who are often too quick at pointing accusing fingers to some people or a section of the country whenever a regrettable calamity happens.
MEND's bluster, threatening disastrous consequences for the federal government and all of its officials since 1999 because of Henry Okah's conviction should be taken for what it is, bluster. Otherwise, what would have been the gains of the elaborate and costly amnesty programme aimed at weaning militants from violence and general lawlessness?
This and other threats to carry out a massive and aggressive campaign against all companies owned, operated by affiliated to the South African government both in Nigeria, Western and Southern Africa can be effectively checked if the government shows that it has capacity to deal decisively with them, as South Africa has just demonstrated.