By Emma Amaize,  South-South Regional Editor
BELIEVE it or not, Henry Okah has become a force to be reckoned with in the Niger-Delta struggle. The Federal Government had calculated his being kept in the coolers would kill the spirit of the struggle, but, for the nearly two years he was in detention, militants in the Niger-Delta region continued their devastation of oil facilities with more deadly brutality.

If there was still disbelief, the inability of the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger-Delta to effectively clip the wings of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND) with its orchestrated Cordon and Search operation, the specialized ease which the militants bombed more oil installations across Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers states, and even extended their attacks to Lagos, last Sunday, made the doubting Thomases to have a rethink.

Henry OKah in court
Henry OKah in court

Before now, intelligence information available to government was the only person that could get the militants to stop the bombardment is Henry Okah, who it was holding in detention. It was a complicated decision, but, the Federal Government was forced to bow to his release, believing that it would bring respite to it in the volatile region.  How far will Okah’s release go in bringing peace to the region? So far, MEND had declared a temporal ceasefire on account of his freedom. In this report, Vanguard examines the variables.

On Wednesday, July 8, MEND in a response to a July 7 electronic mail inquiry by Vanguard declared emphatically that it was not considering a ceasefire to its shattering war, codenamed “Hurricane Moses”, which kept the government, security agencies and oil companies on edge, but, a week later, Tuesday, July 14, to be specific; the chief militant group in the region announced a 60-day temporal ceasefire.

In the 24-word reply, MEND’s spokesman, Jomo Gbomo stated, “We are not considering ceasefire without the government wanting to address the root issues for discussion. In fact we are considering intensifying our attacks”.

However, the group, which in point of fact intensified fire on Sunday, July 12, by bombarding the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos, the nation’s former capital in the Southwest region, using its preferred parlance,  downgraded to a “Tropical Storm” in the night of Tuesday, three days ago. It announced armistice.

Again in the words of Jomo Gbomo, “Effective, 00.00 Hrs, Wednesday, July 15, 2009 , the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) will be observing a temporary ceasefire for a 60 day period”.

“During this period, the Aaron team of wise men and women will be put together after consultations with relevant stakeholders. They will speak on our behalf and convey our demands to government.

“A compulsory prelude to talks is the withdrawal of the military Joint Task Forces from the Gbaramatu communities and the return of all the displaced persons back to their various homes.

“Hopefully, the ceasefire period will create an enabling environment for progressive dialogue”, he stated.

Anybody who has been following the activities of MEND in recent times will know that the only thing that  could have led to such monumental decision on the part of the militant group would be  the release of its  leader, Henry Okah.

Hear Jomo Gbomo on the primary reason for a change of heart: “Several factors necessitated our decision; chiefly was the release of Okah from government custody”.

In a response to an inquisition by Vanguard some days earlier on the possible release of Okah and cessation of hostilities,  he had responded, “The release of Okah has nothing to do with MEND because he is an individual adult who can choose to accept or reject the terms of his pardon. Mandela was offered freedom many times but chose to remain in prison until the terms were favourable to the cause he was fighting. If Okah comes out alive and goes for his treatment and asks us to ceasefire, we will obey. Okah’s release was never tied to MEND’s acceptance. If the government decides to free Okah then that is good for the country because he is the only one that can ask us to cease hostilities”.

Okah himself was released on Monday, July 13, after spending 23 months in detention and in a record 24 hours, the militant group, which has rebuffed the appeal of Niger-Delta elders and other stakeholders to pipe down, announced a ceasefire. Though, what it publicly announced was a 60-day period of armistice, it is palpable that a well armed insurgent group in the calibre of MEND would not have declared a total truce even if that was its shrouded game plan. It still has to be negotiated.

Whatever is the case, whether for a month or two months, the important thing is that there is a temporal respite in the region, particularly in the oil sector and many believe the ball is now in the hands of the government to negotiate a lasting peace.

Will Okah’s release bring peace?

The question that some top government officials from the region have been asked by the Presidency over and over since the rapprochement for the release of Okah reached a critical point was if his release would guarantee peace in the region. Nobody could answer the question with exactitude but it was clear that Okah had to be released one way or the other to appease the militants, who have proved they have the capacity to cripple the nation’s economy if government continued to employ the hard tactics of using the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the region to intimidate and cow them to submission.

Yet again, anybody who understands the Niger-Delta struggle would know freedom for Okah will not stop the struggle.. It is beyond Henry Okah as a person. His death cannot even kill the spirit of the struggle, if it were so; the death of the late Major Isaac Jasper Adaka-Boro would have eclipsed the fight back.

The fact that the “war” continued even more ferociously while Okah was in detention for 23 months even shows that there are many Adaka Boros and Henry Okahs in the creeks of the region. Before Okah happened on the scene with his arrest in Angola in 2007, the leader of the Niger-Delta People Volunteer Front (NDPVF) and People Salvation Front (PSF), Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari was and still remains a leading freedom fighter in the region. The misunderstanding between him and Okah apart, he joined others to call for his eventual release and insisted up till date that there was nothing wrong in anybody carrying gun in the Niger-Delta to ask for the rights of his people.

With Okah now a free man, it is believed that Ijaw leaders and other stakeholders would ensure that the bone of contention between them is settled soon, probably after Okah would have travelled abroad and returned from treatment of his health problem. If nobody else undertakes to do that, trust the leader of the Ijaw ethnic nationality and former Federal Commissioner for Information, Chief Edwin Clark, he will assume the responsibility except his ‘boarding pass’ at the departure lounge expired before that time.

Gospel truth

If truth be told, however, Okah’s release from detention will not guarantee peace in the region. But it will facilitate the return of peace if properly handled.

Okah in an exclusive interview with Vanguard on Wednesday confirmed this position. He said his release from detention would not change the situation in Niger Delta unless the Federal Government addressed the root cause of the crisis in the region.

His words, “One thing I know is that those fighting in the Niger Delta are not fighting for nothing and I don’t think they were fighting for my release. That is not the main issue. As long as the main issues are not resolved, I don’t see how the problems in the Niger-Delta will just go”.

“Like I told you, my detention was not the problem. So, not much will change, except the Federal Government does something about the problem in the area”, he added.

Okah’s suspicion

If the Federal Government had sustained the peace process after the Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan visited Henry Okah in South Africa, the Niger-Delta problem would have be a thing of the past by now, two years after it started the process, but the subsequent arrest of Okah in Angola some months after the visit, his deportation to Nigeria, secret trial and detention for 23 months has led to a lot of suspicion.

Despite his release, he would read meaning in any move by the government towards peace in the region and already, he had been quoted in one of the national newspapers as saying that he would not accept appointment from government.

Going by his experience in the past two years, he has every reason to doubt the government, but, that is the way government operates. There are lots of intrigues and when something as prized as oil is involved, and military force did not stop the destruction of oil installations, the best thing is to tread the old path, which is the road the government and militants are today.

And strategically, President Umaru Yar’Adua, few days, before Okah regained freedom, appointed the former managing director of the Niger_Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Mr. Timi Alaibe as his Special Adviser on Niger_Delta. Those in the real struggle for the liberation of the region, not the impostors, know that Alaibe is a “home boy”.

He is a good negotiator and is schooled in the rudiments of the struggle. He knows what the freedom fighters are agitating for and can bring them to talk with government on the way out. The only problem is whether the government has the political will to execute the demands, which are not exactly new and border mainly on the practice of true federalism.

National president of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Dr. Chris Ekiyor thinks the Federal Government struck the bull’s eye with the appointment of Alaibe into the said position and on its part, MEND believes it was a wise decision also and had indicated its willingness to raise an Aaron team to present its demands to the Federal Government through Timi Alaibe.

Okah will assist in the N/Delta peace process – MEND

Investigation by Vanguard, nevertheless, points to the fact that Okah would help in the Niger_Delta peace process. His 23 months of detention has shown him that government is a very powerful organ and that even when you believe you are fighting for your rights, you can be quarantined, maimed for life and even killed for government to have its way.

In a letter to the President of the United States of America , February 17, 2008 by MEND, the group in an 11_point peace proposal pledged that Henry Okah would assist the new peace process in the Niger_Delta if he was unconditionally released.

Its words, “The so_called peace process to resolve the Niger Delta unrest has been fraught with fraud and insincerity. A major player, Mr Henry Okah, a principled and disciplined leader we respect was framed and detained while the government had hoped to divide and deal with some people without principles. From the inception of President Yar ‘Adua’s regime, what we are witnessing is a thread mill peace process that is leading to no where. The Nigerian government does not seem to realise that peace can not be bought with money”.

“Mr. President, considering your commitment on democracy, peace and stability and considering that MEND is devoted to the war against terrorism, we humbly ask for the mediation of you and of your great country to settle the dispute in the Niger Delta.

“The way forward to achieving peace in the oil rich region is the unconditional release of Henry Okah to partake in a new and genuinely transparent  reconciliation  peace process. We use this opportunity to lay out a clear and simple 11_ point peace proposal that should bring an enduring peace and prosperity, mutually beneficial to both countries; ending five decades of bondage on the Niger Delta region and its people”, its spokesman, Jomo Gbomo said.

Prophecy fulfilled!

The MEND spokesman likened Okah to the rejected stone in the Bible, who would be sought after by the government to drive the peace process and the prophecy has come to be true with Okah’s release.

Said he, “The stone that was rejected by the builders is actually the cornerstone needed to restore credibility back to the peace initiative and jump start a genuine process to bring peace, justice, reconciliation  and prosperity to the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole. The continued illegal incarceration of this worthy son of the Niger Delta will only worsen the already volatile situation”. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) remains solidly behind Comrade Henry Okah”, he added.

Grounds for peace

“The proposal is something along the following lines: (1) Henry Okah is to be held in good condition with unfettered access to his legal representatives, family, pastor and independent international observers including the international Red Cross;

(2) In return Henry will assist the new peace process in the Niger Delta;

(3) MEND will declare a period of Grace in which it will halt all militia action in the Niger Delta;

(4) In return military forces will halt all actions and no further troops will be deployed in the Niger Delta;
(5)During the Grace period a demobilization plan will be agreed between militia, the Federal Government of Nigeria and international observers with an emphasis on education, rehabilitation, counselling, training, apprenticeship, employment and small/medium scale business opportunities that will constructively engage the militia;

(6) The Federal Government of Nigeria will begin a staged military withdrawal from the Niger Delta;

(7) In return MEND will commit itself to a staged disarmament commensurate with the military withdrawal from the Niger Delta;

(8) In the interest of public safety, the Federal Government of Nigeria will match military withdrawal with an increase in police wages, training, orientation, equipment and improvements in police living conditions. This will assist in moving Nigeria from a military regime to a true democracy with a civilian government;

(9) The Federal Government in conjunction with the State Governments of the Niger Delta region will announce details of a plan to deliver greater transparency in revenues from Federal Government, to State Governments and on to Local Governments, and application of those funds to relieve the suffering of villagers (through improvement in health services, provision of potable water, etc.) and give hope (through stimulating local economies, providing teachers wages, etc).

A monitoring group composed of officials nominated by the Government and the civil society, and supervised by the World Bank, as the model experienced in Chad, will be vouched for transparency;

(10)The Federal Government will announce increased funds to specific programmes in communities aimed at relieving the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged citizens; and

(11)Last but not the least; the Federal Government must propose a time table for the practice of true federalism in the control of resources by every state in the federation”, it stated.

More than a year after MEND released the conditions for peace, the government responded only on July 13 by releasing Okah and the militant group fulfilled its promise by declaring cessation of hostilities for two months.

The next stage is for the Federal Government to halt the deployment of troops to the region and eventually begin the withdrawal of JTF troops following which the militant group would start disarmament on its own correspondingly.

Putting the cart before the horse

Government apparently put the cart before the horse, as it put forward a programme of amnesty and disbarment without reading the script. A prominent royal father in the region who refused to be quoted when Vanguard contacted him, Tuesday, on the release of Okah sounded the same alarm. He said, “I don’t think I want to say anything for now because I honestly believe that the government put the cart before the horse as far as its peace programme is concerned”.

Clearly, going by the way the militants made nonsense of the Cordon and Search operation declared by the JTF in May by bombing more oil installations, crippling the oil companies and even extending the “war” to Lagos , the release of Okah is the first step to calm the adrenaline of the insurgents.

The Federal Government had proclaimed amnesty for militants, but, MEND maintained that it never asked for amnesty (pardon), as it had not done anything wrong to warrant amnesty.

Government has also given October 4 deadline for repentant militants to disarm, but, going by MEND’s programme for disarmament, it is tied to the willingness of the government to withdraw the JTF from the region.

The militant group promised to disarm voluntarily if after  meeting the aforementioned conditions, the government at  the federal, state and local levels were ready to show accountability for the money coming into the national treasury and finally, propose a time table for the practice of true federalism.

Okah’s authority in the struggle

Government officials  who underrated Okah’s power in the Niger_Delta struggle would have realized by now that they were mistaken, as the past two years, was not easy for them in the management of the avoidable crisis that attended his detention and secret trial.

He is the only living freedom fighter that has the authority to call for ceasefire in the “war” by MEND and that is why he was able to call cease fire and they obeyed 24 hours after his release.

Before his arrest in Angola , he gave tacit support to Yar’Adua’s peace deal but maintained it would be a submission to slavery for him to accept peace without justice

“We would rather die as free men than live as peaceful slaves. Yar’Adua must do what is right and give us not just what we demand, but what is just. He must return our lands and dignity after which words like amnesty will make meaning to us”, he once declared in an online response to Vanguard.

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