Nigeria: Bombing arrests lead to more questions

AP News
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Posted: Oct 23, 2010 3:41 PM
Nigeria: Bombing arrests lead to more questions

When authorities arrested suspected arms dealer Henry Okah in 2006, militants in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta launched attacks that drastically cut crude production and sent world markets wobbling.

Now, with Okah facing terrorism charges in South Africa, a similar danger again lurks in the Niger Delta's winding creeks, which remain as twisted as the labyrinth of loyalties running between militants and politicians in a region the size of South Carolina. A government amnesty deal brought many fighters out of the shadows, though many remain without jobs despite pledges of retraining.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the dominant militant group in the region, has promised more attacks through e-mailed communiques with foreign journalists. Whether the group long associated with Okah can bring the same coordinated destruction remains in question.

"The easiest way of conceptualizing (the group) is like it's a big banner with 'MEND' written on it, but a number of different groups can operate under it at different times for different reasons," said Peter Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria country manager for security firm Drum Cussac.

For now, who carries the banner appears to be in question after the group claimed responsibility for a dual car bombings that killed at least 12 people during Nigeria's 50th independence anniversary celebrations in Abuja on Oct. 1. One bomb detonated, with another exploding about five minutes later, targeting police, firefighters and curious onlookers gathered there.

A court document filed in South Africa shows Nigerian officials recovered two mobile phones at the blast site, apparently used as triggers in the dynamite-laden bombs. The discovery suggests the bombers had control of the explosives and wanted to inflict maximum causalities.

President Goodluck Jonathan, himself from the delta, first tried to blame the attack on "terrorists." He later brought former commanders bought off by the amnesty to the presidential villa as authorities in South Africa arrested Okah and accused him of masterminding the attack.

But it was a message from MEND's e-mail account, signed by a spokesman with the nom de guerre of Jomo Gbomo, that first warned of the Abuja bombings and promised more violence in the aftermath. Similar messages have heralded attacks since 2006, when a wave of violence cut crude oil production by about quarter in the OPEC-member nation.

Security analysts believe messages from Gbomo, a caricature militant fond of quoting Ecclesiastes, likely came from several different people over the last four years. However, many believe Gbomo's words came from those under the control of Okah, a Nigerian who wrote his philosophical thoughts in moleskin-like journals now being used against him in South Africa.

"We need heavier equipment and money. ... Have to leave my family soon for God knows how long ... my heart is here with them but my spirit is far away in the creeks of the Delta," Okah wrote in one entry quoted by prosecutors. "I arranged 100 outfits, belts and coats to be delivered. We'll go with these and God is on our side."

At his long-running bail hearing in Johannesburg, Okah has denied conjuring Gbomo and writing under the pseudonym and even denied being a member of MEND. He remains cool under cross examination. At one point, Okah laughed out loud when a prosecutor read a claim by Nigerian authorities accusing him of having links to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

But while family members believe Okah works primarily in maritime shipping, authorities have accused him of running a massive arms network throughout Africa. He faced charges of gun running and treason in Nigeria after allegedly organizing a ring funneling millions of dollars worth of military weapons from the nation's armed forces to fighters in the delta.

Authorities dropped the charges against him in July 2009, releasing him after three years of incarceration in Angola and Nigeria. The case disappeared as the Nigerian government grew increasingly desperate to halt attacks in the delta.

"There is absolutely nothing I can say now, I have to see people, speak with people, go into the real world before I can talk," Okah told journalists after his release. "I am just one man; there are millions in the Niger Delta."

Okah, who apparently suffers from a kidney ailment, resettled in Johannesburg. There, police say they discovered a document that compiled of all the Jomo Gbomo e-mails during an Oct. 2 raid on Okah's home, as well as a letter entitled "A close look at Jomo Gbomo (JG)" and "A study of Jomo's personality."

Meanwhile, authorities in Nigeria arrested Okah's brother Charles and others during a raid on his Lagos home on Oct. 17. Authorities held a court hearing Thursday for seven men including Charles Okah arrested over the bombings, but security forces forcefully blocked the men's lawyers and reporters from entering.

"Ideally, I ought to have had the right to have access to him by now," Angela Okah, Charles Okah's wife, told The Associated Press on Friday. "This is the sixth day (since the arrest), but they haven't granted access to him. This I think is totally wrong."

And in the time since the arrests, the voice of Jomo Gbomo apparently has gone quiet.

"Out of security concerns, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, until further notice will no longer entertain any enquires (sic)," a statement released to journalists Tuesday read. "Henceforth, we will release to the media only warnings and statements of claim."

The message ended with the following: "The arrest and detention of our respected brothers of the land and the assassination (sic) of their character has become a great concern that cannot be ignored. Jomo Gbomo."

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Jenny Gross reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.