LAGOS (Reuters) - The factional leader of a powerful Nigerian rebel group in the oil-producing Niger Delta is being detained in Angola on arms trafficking charges, his wife told Reuters on Saturday.
The arrest on September 3 of Henry Okah, who heads a faction of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), is a blow to peace talks between militants who have crippled Africa’s biggest oil industry and the new government of President Umaru Yar’Adua.
“He was boarding a plane from Angola and two days later I got a call saying he was detained for money-laundering and arms trafficking,” Azuka Okah, his wife, told Reuters from their home in Johannesburg.
She said she suspected the Nigerian government was behind the arrest and thought the government was trying to weaken him. Angolan and Nigerian officials have declined to comment on the matter.
Okah’s MEND staged a string of bombings of oil facilities and kidnapping of foreign workers from late 2005 to early this year, but has mostly observed a ceasefire since Yar’Adua took office in May to allow talks to go ahead.
Dozens of troops, militants and civilians have been killed since last year and oil output from the world’s eighth largest exporter is down by a fifth.
Azuka Okah said her husband was in Angola to inspect a ship he was hoping to buy and was on his way back to South Africa when he was arrested.
She said he was involved with MEND and that senior Nigerian officials including Vice President Goodluck Jonathan had visited him to discuss bringing peace to the Niger Delta.
MEND says it is fighting against decades of neglect and oppression in the Delta, a remote wetlands region that pumps more than 2 million barrels of oil per day to Western markets.
The group split into two factions late last year.
A MEND spokesman using the name Jomo Gbomo sent an e-mail on Saturday night saying Okah had appeared twice before an Angolan court on arms smuggling and money laundering charges, but the judge had thrown the cases out of court.
The e-mail said the Angolan authorities were now intending to charge him with sponsoring a failed coup attempt in neighboring Equatorial Guinea.
“Commanders and fighters of MEND are watching the unfolding conspiracy closely. There will no doubt be very unpleasant and dire consequences if this matter is not handled with fairness,” the e-mail said.
Okah’s forces have mostly observed a ceasefire since the end of May, but he has refused to join the peace talks and continued to make threats and predict all-out civil war in the delta.