AFTER several postponements, Justice Neels Claasen of South Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg, South Africa, pronounced a 24-year sentence on leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, Henry Okah for his alleged roles in the bombings that shook Abuja and Warri in 2010.
Months after the Federal Government extended amnesty to Niger Delta militants which Okah rejected; the bombings took place, with MEND claiming responsibility.
The Abuja bombing was staged close to the Eagle Square, venue of Nigeria’s 50th independence anniversary celebration, with no less than eight people dead and scores injured.
The verdict creates mixed feelings on several counts. It is a relief that a conviction has been achieved to punish those implicated in the bombings which were clearly terrorist attacks. Terrorism cannot be condoned under any guise.
The other side is the court’s recognition that MEND was fighting a course, the fairer treatment of the Niger Delta, though more legitimate means would have been acceptable in the struggle.
Still on the verdict, Okah’s lawyers stated that his witnesses from Nigeria were prevented from testifying in South Africa, where their testimonies could have helped Okah make a better case of his innocence. It is an issue that would make a major plank of a proposed appeal of the verdict.
However, President Umaru Yar’Adua’s amnesty to militants in the Niger Delta was deemed an amicable deal to restore peace in the troubled region and lay the structures for addressing the legitimate grievances of the agitators for justice in the oil-producing zone. Campaigns of terror after the amnesty clearly ran against the spirit of the deal.
The South African justice system seems more potent and effective than Nigeria’s, where a leader of a terrorist group killing thousands of people received a three-year sentence.
Had Okah been tried in Nigeria, the process would have been mirred in politics which, would neither bring justice to those murdered nor create deterrence, which is a primary objective of justice administration.
Once more, a foreign court has brought offenders to justice in a way that their Nigerian counterparts have increasingly ignored.
Okah insists on his innocence. He wants to make that case at the appeal. Whatever the outcome of that step, the journey to addressing bombings in Nigeria has started. The Nigerian courts have examples to follow on speed.
The hundreds that have been arrested over bombings in Nigeria should be made to face the law quickly. A slow justice system assists in building the aura of impunity associated with terrorist attacks.
Much as we insist that terrorists should be dealt with, according to the law, we also state that justice must be done and seen to have been done.