by Christopher Torchia / the Star Tribune
JOHANNESBURG – A South African court sentenced a Nigerian to 24 years in prison on Tuesday after finding him guilty of masterminding twin car bombings in Nigeria.
Henry Okah was found guilty in January for the October 2010 bombing in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, that killed at least 12 people and wounded three dozen during a celebration to mark the country’s 50 years of independence.
The South African Press Association reported that Judge Neels Claassen of the High Court in Johannesburg announced Okah’s jail sentence, which includes 12 years in prison for each bombing and 13 years for threats made to the South African government after his October 2010 arrest. The 13 years will be served concurrently with the 24 years.
Okah was a leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, which claimed responsibility for the blasts.
The group accused Nigeria’s government of failing to alleviate poverty in the delta, even though it earns billions of dollars from the region’s oil. In 2006, militants from groups like MEND started a wave of attacks targeting foreign oil companies, including bombing their pipelines, kidnapping their workers and fighting with security forces.
When Okah was convicted, Judge Claassen had said the state had proved its case beyond reasonable doubt and the Nigerian’s failure to testify meant the evidence was uncontested. Okah was found guilty on 13 counts of terrorism.
Okah, who had been living in South Africa, said the case against him was politically motivated.
In 2008, he was arrested in Angola and extradited to Nigeria, where he was accused of treason and terrorism and linked to a gunrunning scandal involving high-ranking military officials. His arrest and trial sparked an escalation in MEND attacks.
That violence ebbed in 2009 with a government-sponsored amnesty program promising ex-fighters monthly payments and job training. However, few in the delta have seen the promised benefits and scattered kidnappings and attacks continue. And MEND itself, once a powerful, media-friendly militant group in the region, has seen its influence wane since the amnesty.
Charges against Okah were dropped and he was freed in July 2009 as part of an amnesty program.
MEND had issued statements threatening to attack South African interests in Nigeria because of Okah’s prosecution in South Africa.