Henry Okah, an alleged Nigerian militant leader who’s facing terrorism charges in South Africa, said the insurgency in the Niger River delta won’t end until the government allows the region to control its oil wealth.
“I’m encouraging the people of the Niger delta to fight for their land,” Okah said yesterday in an interview after he called Bloomberg from prison in Johannesburg. “There are thousands of people who are willing to fight and they’ll continue to fight.”
Okah, 45, was arrested in Johannesburg after two car bombs exploded in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Oct. 1, near a venue where President Goodluck Jonathan was celebrating the West African nation’s 50 years of independence. The blasts were claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the main armed group in the oil-producing region that the government says Okah is leading.
Attacks in the delta by armed groups including MEND cut more than 28 percent of the country’s oil output between 2006 and 2009. MEND wants the region to have exclusive control of its resources, while paying tax to the central government.
While denying he is the leader of MEND, Okah said his influence with fighters in the delta who “call me master” extends to other armed groups.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer and the fifth-largest source of U.S. oil imports. Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. of San Ramon, California, Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. that pump more than 90 percent of the West African nation’s oil.
The Nigerian military has stepped up raids against militant camps in the past month in response to a renewed surge in attacks by the rebels. The increased violence followed a period of relative calm when thousands of fighters disarmed under an amnesty plan initiated in August last year by former President Umaru Yar’Adua. Jonathan succeeded Yar’Adua after he died on May 5.
Troops raided a militant camp south of the oil-industry hub of Port Harcourt last month, freeing foreign hostages, including an American, two French nationals, two Indonesians and a Canadian, seized by MEND fighters. Camps operated by another militant group, the Niger Delta Liberation Force, or NDLF, have come under air and ground attack since last week.
“The military is only carrying out punitive actions against communities,” Okah said. “The Nigerian army should be prepared to fight forever unless the real issues in the delta are addressed.”
Fighters of the NDLF ruptured a pipeline belonging to the state-owned oil company last night, the group said in an e-mailed statement today. MEND, which claimed responsibility for recent attacks, said in an e-mail last week it was planning new assaults on the oil industry.
While both Okah and Jonathan are ethnic Ijaws, the dominant ethnic group in the region, Okah said the Nigerian president lacks the vision to manage the grievances of different parts of Africa’s most populous nation.
“Okah is talking nonsense, all he’s looking for is an avenue to sell his weapons,” presidential spokesman Ima Niboro said today in a telephone interview from Abuja. “Even as vice president, the president was the one driving the amnesty process under Yar’Adua.”
Okah, who is resident in South Africa, was arrested in Angola in 2007 on suspicion of gun-running. He was later deported to Nigeria, where he was put on trial on 62 charges, including capital offenses of treason and terrorism. He was freed in July last year under the amnesty program and returned to South Africa.