For the first time since 2006 when Niger Delta militants started their attacks on oil installations, they have carried out an operation outside the oil-producing region with the bombing of a facility in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic nerve centre.
But Federal Government kept to its promise of releasing the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), Mr Henry Okah, who had been standing trial for alleged gun-running and treason, as the Federal High Court sitting in Jos yesterday discharged him.
MEND said in a statement signed by “Jomo Gbomo” that they had attacked the Atlas Cove Jetty – the country’s main fuel import reception facility – at 11.30 pm on Sunday.
This latest attack may not lead to a crippling fuel crisis as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which owns the facility, has assured Nigerians that the situation was under control.
The attack hit only the submarine pipeline system and is expected to affect only two ships berthing weekly, although panic buying may result in queues at filling stations in the coming days.
THISDAY learnt that Sunday’s attack was provoked by the trip of the Attorney-General of the Federal and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mike Aondoakaa, to Sao Tome and Principe , “instead of hastening the presidential directive that Henry Okah (the leader of MEND) should be released”, according to a MEND source.
Presidential spokesman Olusegun Adeniyi had said last Thursday that President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was attending the G8 Summit in Italy , had instructed Aondoakaa to “tidy up” the legal processes for Okah’s release.
But Aondoakaa was said to have instead travelled out with his bosom friend, Mr. Jimoh Ibrahim, while many high-level security meetings were held in his absence before he returned to the country on Saturday.
He reportedly apologised to the National Security Adviser, Gen. Sarki Mukhtar, when he eventually showed up at one of the meetings.
His failure to act allegedly infuriated the militants who decided to strike in Lagos to show that it should not be taken for granted by government officials.
The group promised a “two-pronged approach of combining dialogue and intensifying attacks throughout the course of negotiations”.
At the end of the Sunday attack, at least three naval personnel, including the Officer In-Charge (OIC) of the base, were burnt to death, while the armoury was completely destroyed by the militants.
The OIC was identified as Navy Commander Joseph Aweh and had only resumed duty at the Atlas Cove two weeks ago.
He was allegedly shot on his stomach before he was set ablaze along with one rating.
The mutilated body of the OIC was left outside while those of the ratings were seen inside the armoury along with arms and ammunition that were destroyed.
Several other persons whose identities could not be confirmed sustained severe injuries during the attack. A source said the death toll could be as high as five.
Naval sources told THISDAY that the group, who were heavily armed, arrived Atlas Cove on board 15 boats, taking the soldiers unawares.
The source added that the OIC was the first to be hit by the bullet. He had stumbled inside to inform others of the presence of the militants as a result of which 25 others escaped unhurt.
“Those who escaped jumped into the lagoon where they hid themselves until the group left. The militants later blew up the place with dynamite,” the source added.
But MEND said last night that “only two gunboats were used with a total of 18 well armed and experienced commandos. The naval resistance was weaker than anticipated because after the first shots were fired by them, we responded with heavy caliber machine guns which made them to flee. We regret any civilian loss of life that may have occurred from the attack”.
At the Naval Base in Apapa, officers and ratings looked mournful. Vehicles and visitors to the base were screened before they were allowed in.
Meanwhile, some Ijaw groups have alleged that the attack was the handiwork of Government Ekpumopolo aka Tompolo.
The Niger Delta Peoples Salvation Front (NDPSF) condemned “every form of attack on oil facilities”, saying it visits the people they tend to protect with destruction of their environment and lays them open to numerous health hazards.
Also, the Ijaw Youths Council for Peace (IYCP) condemned the attack on Atlas Cove, especially as the Federal Government had moved to grant amnesty to militants.
It said: “We wish to categorically state that yesterday’s attack on Atlas Cove Terminal in Lagos and the previous attacks on oil installations which MEND claimed responsibility is, to say the least, condemnable. We also urge all Ijaws at home and in Diaspora to join in condemning this barbaric act on economy of our nation. This is an act of economic sabotage which will not solve the present crises rather it would bring a set back.
“We wish to alert the general public that Tompolo and few other renegades were responsible for this action. This is rather unfortunate moreso, the long awaited pardon has been granted not only to our freedom fighters, but to our respected brother and son, Henry Okah. We should cooperate with government of the day that has shown concrete steps to actualize our dreams, otherwise we will be left with no option if this action persists, but forward names of those involved to the Federal Government requesting to expunge them from enjoying the amnesty, because, we do not want the innocent people to suffer in the event of further conflicts.”
However, IYCP commended some militant leaders who have shown willingness to be part of the amnesty for peace and development to come to the region and listed Boyloaf and Farah Dagogo among such group that should be emulated.
Instead of destroying facilities in the region, the NDPSF led by Mujahid Dokubo Asari, said they would press for the prosecution of those who led the invasion and destruction of Niger Delta villages at the International Criminal Court.
In Jos, the Federal High Court discharged Okah following an application by Aondoakaa to that effect.
This was as a result of Okah’s acceptance of the amnesty offer from President Yar’Adua, who last week, asked that the militant leader should be freed as part of his initiative to end the Niger Delta crisis.
Okah was arrested in Angola in September 2007, a development that is believed to have worsened militant activities in the oil region, leading to a series of attacks on oil installations and virtually crippling Nigeria ’s oil exports and local gas distribution.
Discharging the accused, the Presiding Justice, Mohammed Liman, said: “The power conferred on the Attorney-General of the Federation is what he has exercised under section 174 and once a nolle prosequi is entered, that is the end of the proceeding. I am bound by this to terminate the case and discharge the accused. He can therefore walk away from this court as a free man.”
The lead counsel to Okah, Mr. Femi Falana, had earlier argued the ground of the discharge, saying he would have preferred that the accused be not only discharged but be acquitted.
He said: “We thank the Attorney-General of the Federation for graciously giving us a copy of the nolle prosequi. We welcome this development on the behalf of the accused person. But we are of the view that the prerogative of mercy granted the accused which is politically called amnesty can be better captured under section 175 sub-section (1) sub-section (a) which should also acquit the accused.”
But Aondoakaa, who had earlier exercised the power vested on him, discharged the accused nolle prosequi, saying: “I am a man of honour, and if I say the case is terminated, I mean it is terminated and that is the end of the matter. The issue of amnesty is something that we can deal with another day. I guarantee you that I would not tamper with this matter except there is a new breach of agreement.”
Liman said: “In respect of Femi Falana’s submission that the amnesty captures section 175 of the constitution, I would like to say that that power of section 175 is not within the Attorney-General to exercise. It is the power that is vested on the President and can only be exercised by him only upon proper consultations.”
Reacting to the amnesty, Okah thanked the Federal Government and the media, saying his case enjoyed proper media coverage.
On whether the much-expect peace would by this gesture return to the Niger Delta, Okah said: “I am just one person. I have to go and talk to the rest people. Look at me? Do I look like a militant? I am a gentleman.”
Falana said: “What is most important is that the accused has been discharged and the case terminated. Though there’s no provision for amnesty in our constitution, what the constitution recognises in pardon or prerogative of mercy which the President can grant, I would have preferred the case to have been dismissed so that the accused is acquitted by virtue of section 175 (1).
“Since the Attorney General has exercised his power of nolle prosequi (ie), they are not willing to prosecute him as the accused any longer. For now, we are okay. Government can no longer turn around to prosecute him because under the law, if you don’t prosecute an accused for treason within two years of the alleged commission of the offence, the case becomes status barred. That is, it can no longer be visited.”
MEND welcomed Okah’s release yesterday, while the newly appointed Honorary Adviser to the President on Niger Delta Matters, Mr. Timi Alaibe, said he was “deeply saddened” by the latest attack and asked the militants to give the President a benefit of the doubt on his renewed efforts to bring peace to the region.
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