The Nigerian government has condemned a new threat from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta
(MEND) - a militant group that has been claiming responsibility for attacks on oil companies, bombings and kidnappings since 2006.
In a threat made public over the weekend, MEND said it plans to attack Nigerian officials, South African companies, and oil reserves and refineries in Nigeria and beyond in response to the conviction of their former leader, Henry Okah, in South Africa.
Okah was convicted last week on 13 charges related to a 2010 car bombing that killed 12 people here in the Nigerian capital.
“What we expect at this time is that all Nigerians should show a higher level of patriotism and commitment to our country," Nigerian Minister of Information Labaran Maku said Sunday, condemning the threat, as unpatriotic. "We cannot live in a nation where we abandon the law.”
Okah is accused of being a MEND leader, a charge he denies. In 2010, he called himself a “sympathizer” while speaking on the phone to Al-Jazeera television from a Johannesburg jail shortly after being arrested at Nigeria’s request.
Information minister Maku says the fact that Okah was tried in South Africa should diffuse anger directed towards Nigeria by militant groups.
“Henry Okah was tried in South Africa under the due process of the laws of the Republic of South Africa and was found guilty of committing acts of terrorism," Maku noted. "The South Africans convicted him. It would be very shocking if any Nigerian or any group of Nigerians would take this against their own country.”
Between 2003 and 2009 the oil-rich Niger Delta was a virtual war zone, as MEND and several other armed groups fought foreign and government oil companies with the tacit support of the general population. Most of the 31 million people in the region live on less than $1 day amid environmental disasters caused by oil spills and many locals still see as 'freedom fighters' those whom the government calls 'militants.'
Nigeria is Africa's largest oil exporter and the fifth-largest crude oil supplier to the United States. People in the Niger Delta generally believe they have a right to profit from the oil produced in their region.
The insurgency in the Niger Delta quieted after the government began offering amnesty to militants in 2009. But analysts say militancy is again on the rise because the rebels' grievances have never been addressed.