The trial of Niger Delta militant leader, Mr. Henry Okah, for terrorism, ended last week as a South African High Court sitting in Johannesburg sentenced him to 24 years imprisonment. Okah, a former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), was jailed for his involvement in the October 1, 2010 Independence Day twin car bombings in Abuja, which killed 12 people, and left about 30 injured.
He also received a 13-year sentence for threatening the government of South Africa after his arrest. The sentences will run concurrently. Okah had earlier been arrested in Angola in 2007 for gunrunning and sent back to Nigeria where he underwent trial for treason and gunrunning until he was released by the Federal Government in 2009 under an amnesty deal for militants. Okah’s sentencing has attracted mixed reactions across the country.
While a number of Nigerians and the Federal Government have hailed the verdict of the South African court, which they described as helpful to Nigeria’s quest to deter terrorism, it has also been canvassed in some quarters that the sentence is legally wrong and politically motivated. For us, terrorism is a serious dysfunctional activity that is deleterious to peaceful co-existence of humanity. It is clearly abhorrent, and should not be condoned anywhere in the world.
In Nigeria, terrorism has wreaked so much havoc and it is important for persons found guilty of the act to be punished to deter similar recurrence. Punishment of terrorists will go a long way in reducing terrorism in the country. However, in the instance of the Okah trial, there are so many untidy angles that could call the judgment to question. First, among these, is the question of whether Okah was given a fair hearing in this case.
The accused, during this trial, was not allowed to use his own lawyer and did not testify in his own defence. There is also the serious matter of geographical jurisdiction. The trial of Okah in South Africa is questionable, because the bombing for which he was tried took place in Nigeria. However, the International Cooperation in Criminal Matters Act 1996 of South Africa, which the trial judge in the case relied on, has a caveat that it can only be used “where allowed by the domestic laws of the requested state.” But, Nigeria has strict laws on geographical jurisdiction of courts, which do not provide for trial of persons outside the states where crimes were committed.
Okah was also tried without the benefit of witnesses from Nigeria, as he was not allowed to procure them. Indeed, Judge Niels Claassen, even while stating that the state had proved its case against Okah beyond reasonable doubt, noted that the acused’s failure to testify meant that the evidence against him was uncontested. Criminal justice administration demands that crimes must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It is clearly difficult to prove any case beyond reasonable doubt in the absence of defence witnesses.
Again, Nigeria must avoid situations in which our citizens who commit crimes here are convicted and jailed abroad. It does not, at all, paint a good picture of our judiciary. It is better to let our judges try these cases and return their verdicts. If we do this, the argument over jurisdiction by overseas courts will not arise. This position has become necessary because we find it quite in order to ask how many nationals of some of the countries where our citizens are being tried and jailed for crimes committed in Nigeria are undergoing trial in Nigeria for crimes committed in their own countries.
There ought to be some reciprocity in legal administration. We expect the Nigerian judiciary to be proactive in these matters. Our judiciary appears to have been unduly silent on the trial process of Okah. The process appears to support the view in some quarters that Okah, from the outset of the trial, was programmed to go to jail in South Africa. It is good that accused persons are given a level playing ground during trial.
This is necessary to avoid a situation in which the government could be accused of complicity in the conviction and jailing of crime suspects, as is happening in the Henry Okah case.