By: Mark McNamee
This article is the Featured piece for the April 2012 Issue of Militant Leadership Monitor. To view the entire issue please visit mlm.jamestown.org.
Henry Emomotimi Okah was born in 1965 and raised in Ikorodu, Lagos State, although his family’s ancestral home was in Baylesa State. The fourth child of a Navy officer, his upbringing was described by a sibling as very “British”; he attended private schools and led a relatively privileged life. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering from the Maritime Institute and, upon graduation, took a position with the Nigerian Merchant Navy. Prior to his career as an alleged rebel leader, he was a door-to-door handgun salesman in Lagos in the 1990s. Okah is believed to have begun his militancy in the late 1990s and early 2000s; in 2003 he left for South Africa where, aside from his stint in prison in Nigeria, he has remained. Although he has denied being a rebel fighting with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Okah has admitted that he is sympathetic to the MEND cause (Mail and Guardian [Cape Town], November, 19, 2010).
According to his brother Charles Okah, Henry’s return to his family’s ancestral home in Bayelsa at the age of 19 was the formative experience in his turn towards militancy. Having witnessed firsthand the marked difference between his upbringing in Lagos State and the endemic poverty in the Niger Delta, he retained these images while a student and in his work after graduation (Vanguard, [Yenagoa], October 25, 2010). Building on his experience and contacts in the Navy, as well as his days as a weapons salesman, he eventually began to direct this background toward ostensibly social and economic ends in the Niger Delta. Okah bunkered oil and sold it on the black market, using the funds derived therefrom to suffuse the region with weapons; this process eventually gave rise to a loosely organized network of armed rebels. Over time, these previously disjointed rebels, often hired by Okah and other higher-level militants, as well as politicians, coalesced under the brand name of MEND. This moniker, in actuality, functioned as a catch-all term encompassing various militant groups within the Delta. One MEND leader, Alhaji Dokubo-Asari, noted in 2009 that MEND was created “not as an organization but as a name for the purpose of issuing unified statements” (Sahara Reporters [Lagos], January 1, 2009).
Having helped execute, supply and fund operations in the Delta region from abroad in South Africa, Okah was eventually arrested in Angola while attempting to purchase equipment and arms in September 2007. He was deported back to Nigeria in February 2008 and charged with more than 60 crimes, including treason and terrorism, both of which carry the death penalty. From early 2008, he was held in solitary confinement until his July 2009 release in accordance with an amnesty order handed down by then-President Yar’Adua. Although initially viewed as an outsider, Okah had gained the respect of Delta militants in the 2000s, and his arrest in 2007 greatly enhanced his prestige with the fighters, bringing him an almost celebrity status within the group .