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Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Thursday, 16 July 2009 15:44 UK

Nigeria's peace hopes rest on Okah

Workers examine wrecked oil pipelines at the Atlas Cove Jetty Depot.
Mend's attack on the Atlas Cove Jetty Depot upped the stakes

It is not always easy to separate myth from reality when it comes to Henry Okah, a senior member of the main militant group in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta. The BBC's Caroline Duffield examines whether his freedom might bring peace to the region.

Despite an alleged murder plot involving snakes, two years in jail and the prospect of the death penalty, Henry Okah can still smile.

"Actually, there was only one snake. And I didn't kill it with my bare hands," he laughs.

"I yelled for the prison guards. They came rushing in, and they killed it with a brush."

It's not the story some people have enjoyed telling and re-telling.

According to the story, the Nigerian government tried to kill Henry Okah - by releasing poisonous snakes into his prison cell.

But with the wave of an imaginary brush, and laughter, he dismissed the idea.

Henry Okah
That attack was supposed to welcome me to freedom. So... I've been welcomed
Henry Okah

Most experts say Mr Okah is a senior militant in the armed group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend).

He denies it.

The government say he is an arms dealer, the reason why the Niger Delta is overflowing with guns.

They say he has used guns to control the militants and criminals of the Delta.

To people in the Delta, he is the militant that politicians could not buy off, the man who turned down lucrative offers to fight the so-called "oil war" instead.

Now, he is free.

After 23 months in jail, he has accepted a government amnesty.

What he says now will influence whether other militants lay down their arms and accept the amnesty.

These armed gangs say they are fighting the oil industry and the Nigerian military for a fair share of oil wealth for local people.

But they also carry out illegal oil theft and violent kidnappings to enrich themselves.

His release is one link in a chain of dramatic events in Nigeria in recent weeks.

Oil spike

After a major government offensive in May, the militants responded with a series of violent attacks in June, with oil facilities belonging to Shell, Chevron and Agip being hit.

The oil giants were forced to shut down around 300,000 barrels per day of oil production - more than 10% of Nigeria's Opec quota.

Child in the Niger Delta
Most Niger Delta residents remain in poverty despite their region's oil wealth

Global oil prices were forced up and national oil revenues - Nigeria's main source of income - were hit.

Nigeria's government reached out in late June, offering an amnesty for gunmen who would lay down their arms.

It was met with suspicion.

Other amnesties in the past have been tricks. Militants have laid down weapons - only to find themselves arrested.

There was wrangling within the militant groups over it.

Then speculation began to mount that the imprisoned militant, Henry Okah, might be freed.

His group, Mend, had been demanding his release for nearly two years and had said they would not even consider talks unless he was freed.

Then, on the night of Sunday, 12 July, Mend sprang a surprise.

'Operation Moses'

It mounted a spectacular attack - the first of its kind outside the Delta.

Gunmen riding in speedboats blew up and set fire to the main oil facility serving Lagos - the Atlas Cove Jetty Depot.

It was a shock to the commercial heartbeat of Nigeria.

map

The facility is the primary route supplying oil to Lagos, a city of 17 million people.

It was a threat to cripple the city's fuel supply chain.

Normally cool-headed economists were struck by horror at the very idea.

Mend had shown it could strike outside the Delta, and knew where to hit.

The group seized the moment, declaring a new strategy. They called it "Operation Moses".

"The two-pronged approach of combining dialogue and intensifying attacks throughout the course of negotiations, will be the unique characteristics of Moses," ran the Mend statement.

The depot attack - and the new dual strategy - were seen as a way of preparing the ground for possible future talks.

The next day, Mend got their dearest wish. Mr Okah walked free.

For him, it was the end of charges carrying the death penalty.

When we met him, his eyes were shining, and he was euphoric.

We asked him why Mend mounted the attack at the same moment he was being freed.

No-one is fighting for an amnesty
Henry Okah

"That attack was supposed to welcome me to freedom. So... I've been welcomed."

The "welcome" attack killed a number of workers at the plant, their bodies burned beyond recognition.

Within hours of the attack - and Mr Okah's release - came another surprise.

Mend announced a 60-day ceasefire.

The release of Mr Okah, they said, influenced their decision.

They hoped a brief ceasefire would create an opportunity for talks, but they had conditions.

They want the Nigerian army, the Joint Task Force, to get out of certain areas - known as the Gbaramatu Kingdom - of the Delta.

Nigeria's Defence Minister Godwin Abbey welcomed the ceasefire, but dismissed the demand.

"They cannot give conditions to government.

"Government would make decisions on the effective deployment of troops when the conditions become ripe enough. And when law and order is comfortably established."

So, what happens next?

There is a sort of timetable.

Amnesty push

Henry Okah returns to the Delta. He insists he has done no deal for his freedom.

But the Nigerian government clearly hopes he will recommend their amnesty to the militants.

Members of Mend fire their weapons
Mend announced a ceasefire within hours of Okah's release

Whether Mr Okah will retain his authority with the gunmen, though, is an issue.

Leaders released from jail in the past have been accused of selling out.

But, he is thought to control the supply of guns - and so is likely to hold considerable influence.

The man himself is refusing to comment at all on what he will say to the militants.

But can he even imagine a time when militants are laying down arms?

"It depends… on what conditions the government is offering. Certainly not the amnesty, no-one is fighting for an amnesty."

But would he favour a slow process of decommissioning - a step-by-step approach?

"Yes, yes, I would. But at the same time, the government must start attending to our problems.

"If the government is willing to address the real issues, they will get the weapons. If they don't get the weapons, they will be decommissioned somehow."

Cycle of violence

It sounds like both sides are feeling their way towards talks, but there are many steps along the road.

The government amnesty runs from 4 August to 4 October; the militants say their ceasefire lasts until 15 September.

And no-one dares mention what happens when these periods expire.

Whether Henry Okah is even really in the driving seat at all is simply unknown.

Observers taking an historical view say that violence in the Delta runs to a cycle.

This is the third time in recent years violence has intensified - and then been followed by concessions and ceasefires.

Each time previously, violence has returned to the region.



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