It's hard to believe all the stories you hear about Henry Okah: That he smuggled 250,000 weapons into Nigeria, was kept incommunicado for five months in an Angolan jail cell, was murdered by secret service guards while en route back to Nigeria, and that (once again alive in his own country) he killed two poisonous snakes released into his cell by his captors. One thing you can believe about the social activist-insurgent, however, is that wherever you are in the world, Henry Okah is part of the reason you're paying more at the gas pump every time your fill up your tank.
Okah may be in prison, but the organization he leads, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) continues to wreak havoc on international oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, sabotaging facilities and kidnapping personnel. And that limits Nigeria's output, and keeps global oil prices climbing. Early Monday, the group attacked a Royal Dutch Shell pipeline in the Delta region, and claimed to have killed 11 Nigerian soldiers. While the deaths were denied by the government, the attack itself was confirmed, and within hours the price of crude oil had risen a dollar on world markets despite the Memorial Day holiday.
More attacks are expected in response to Okah's trial, behind closed doors, on charges of treason, terrorism and gun-running. Holding the trial in open court, say the authorities, would "jeopardize national security," although it's widely believed that the real fear is that Okah might reveal that senior politicians and military figures had colluded in his activities.
MEND announced itself in early 2006 in a series of attacks on oil multinationals operating in the area, combined with a sophisticated media campaign that involved e-mailing press releases to coincide with attacks. The movement also mastered the art of garnering headlines through celebrity name-dropping, declaring that it would participate in peace talks if they were mediated by President Jimmy Carter or actor George Clooney. MEND also has demonstrated a grasp of the modern media hoax: it recently announced it was considering a cease-fire after ostensibly receiving an "appeal" by Senator Barack Obama an appeal the Democratic presidential front-runner denies ever having made.
Okah was covertly extradited from Angola in February and charged. But in a global oil market as tight as it's ever been, MEND's attacks on pipelines and even the threat of such attacks keeps prices rising and amplifies the movement's influence far beyond its negligible military threat to the Nigerian state. Insurgent attacks have cut Nigeria's oil output by an estimated 25% over the past two years, and the Nigerian security forces have been woefully inadequate in stamping out the threat.
"While an attack in Nigeria may not shut in that much [oil output], the headlines are enough to push jittery markets up," says Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst with the Eurasia Group in New York. Threats to Nigeria's output are not new, but they've never before coincided with such high prices.
Okah and his group claim to be championing the disenfranchised residents of the Delta region, who see little benefit from the oil being pumped out from under them. Nigeria, with a daily production of around 2 million barrels, derives nearly all of its foreign exchange earnings from the energy sector concentrated in the Delta region, where millions of residents have little access to education, clean water or electricity. Okah's lawyer claims Nigerian authorities offered to buy off the MEND leader by offering him ownership of several key oil blocks, but that he refused the offer. The Nigerian authorities deny the allegation.
But few outside of the organization take seriously Okah's claims to be a modern-day Robin Hood. "The cheapest way to get more money and then more guns is to say they are fighting for the people of the Niger Delta, but I think Okah and MEND are in it for their personal profit," said Anyakwee Nsirimovi, executive director of Nigeria's Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. "Oil is in short supply, foreign workers are flying away, and more and more people are out of jobs, so I don't see how this is furthering the cause of the people of the Niger Delta."
Okah's lawyer, Femi Falana, is not optimistic about his client's prospects before a Nigerian court; he expects Okah to be convicted and sentenced to death. But if threatening statements by MEND are to be taken seriously, Okah's execution could be a disaster for the Nigerian oil industry one whose consequences will be felt as much in Lagos as in Los Angeles.
"Our attacks ... are a retaliation to his unnecessary arrest," warned a recent MEND e-mail. "When our patience finally runs out the real picture of a cyclone on the Nigerian oil industry will be revealed." And as long as global oil markets remain tight and jittery, such tough talk will be heeded by many customers placing bets on global oil prices which are, after all, set by a futures market. Regardless of whether or not Okah is convicted, as long as his organization retains the capacity to blow up pipeline or two, or kidnap a few engineers, and as long as global demand for oil continues to surge, MEND or its imitators can be sure of being taken even more seriously in the trading halls of London and New York than it is among the long-suffering residents of the Niger Delta.