Leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
Place of Birth: Ikorodu, Lagos State, Nigeria
Education: Educated in the Nigerian private school system; BSc Marine Engineering.
Career: Nigerian Merchant Navy; licenced door-to-door gun salesman; moved to South Africa, 2003; arrested in Angola, September 2007; deported to Nigeria and detained; released after trial on 13 July 2009.
Commentary: The Nigerian government released Okah on 13 July 2009, officially as part of an amnesty announced by President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua and unofficially as a sop to the militants. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) leader should play a crucial role in determining the future of militancy in the Delta.
It was both unlikely and inevitable that the 43-year-old Okah would become involved with a militant group. The fourth of nine children born to a Navy officer, he and his siblings had an upbringing characterised by one brother as very 'British'. They grew up in rarefied Lagos society attending private schools and reading comic books. Okah's first visit to the family home in Bayelsa did not occur until he was nineteen, and even then only after his mother's death. He studied marine engineering and joined the Nigerian Merchant Navy after he graduated. He was also a salesman in Lagos in the 1990s, selling handguns. In 2003, he left for South Africa.
Despite this privileged background, Okah became a leader of the most truculent of the Niger Delta's militant groups. According to his brother Charles, that first trip to the family home in Bayelsa had been 'shocking'. The contrast of living conditions there with those his family enjoyed in Lagos had upset Okah greatly. This made him very useful to MEND and garnered him an important position. This importance only increased with his arrest which has made him a cause célèbre of sorts among Delta militants.
In February 2008, the soft-spoken Okah was deported from Angola, where he had been arrested, and was brought to Nigeria. He was charged with 62 counts including treason, terrorism and gun-running, offences carrying the death penalty. His trial, which began in April 2008, was held behind closed doors on the orders of President Yar'Adua. On 26 May 2008, MEND launched a reprisal attack on a pipeline in which it claimed eleven soldiers were killed.
On 13 July 2009, after 23 months in Angolan and Nigerian prisons, he was released. According to Okah, an attack on a Lagos jetty just before his release was to 'welcome me into freedom'. This was the furthest afield of MEND's bloody attacks. Upon his release, Okah maintained he was not a militant, 'but a gentleman'.