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Political exiles emerge from shadows in S.Africa

By on October 15, 2010

In South Africa, Henry Okah was a businessman with a nice home and children in private school. He was also one of many people with a past looking for a new life below the radar in the continent’s largest economy.

Okah, a Nigerian militant leader, was in a Johannesburg court this week as his past caught up with his present. He was arrested this month, charged with conspiracy and terrorism for a deadly bombing in his former homeland.

In recent months, foreigners who were trying to live in obscurity, including Okah, have emerged from the shadows and raised awareness in South Africa about it being a destination of choice for chancers, castaways and political orphans.

The exiles offer South Africa access to the secrets and capital they bring from abroad, as well as diplomatic leverage. They can, however, also cause political headaches.

In June, South Africans learned the country was home to an ostracised Rwandan general when he was shot and wounded in Johannesburg, sparking a diplomatic tiff between the states.

Then in July, Peter Walls, a white leader of the forces that battled the armies fighting on behalf of black leader Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, grabbed attention for the first time in years when he died in exile in South Africa.

Loose immigration laws and a bit of corruption make it possible for exiles to come to South Africa where they can live in comfort, tap into international finance and keep tabs on developments at home thanks to the country’s advanced communications.

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide moved to South Africa years ago as did many prominent Zimbabweans who tried to end Mugabe’s reign, roundly criticised as autocratic.


Okah’s arrest at his home in Johannesburg this month was made even before Nigeria had taken suspects into custody at home, indicating South Africa keeps close tabs on its political exiles and likely trades the intelligence it gleans from them.

In a police affidavit submitted at Okah’s bail hearing this week, investigators said they were in touch with intelligence officials in Nigeria and received a tip nearly two days ahead of the bombing that led them to search Okah’s home.

“It would not surprise me if some of this intelligence finds its way to our business leaders who are investing in Africa or indeed might be part of cooperative relationships with American, French, German and other agencies,” said Robert Schrire, head of the political science department at the University of Cape Town.

Okah has said he had no involvement in the bombing in the Nigerian capital during independence day celebrations on October 1 that killed at least 10.

South African foreign ministry officials were not available to comment on the country harbouring notable exiles.

In the post-apartheid government, decisions on whom to send abroad as ambassadors and diplomats have been more tinged with politics than in other countries, causing South Africa to have what analysts see as a mediocre presence at its embassies.

The intelligence coming from the exiles it harbours within its borders could be a commodity for South Africa to use to bolster its diplomatic standing globally, analysts said.

Security experts believe Okah — who accepted a Nigerian government amnesty last year after gun-running and treason charges against him were dropped — was at one time the brains behind the murky militant group called MEND, active in Nigeria’s main oil-producing area, the Niger Delta.

Okah was able to move to South Africa by saying he would start a company that would employ five South Africans and had ample capital to fund the venture, according to documents presented at his bail hearing in Johannesburg this week.

One in South Africa, he had moved into a 3.5 million rand home and bought other properties while his wife started a small business.

“The Republic of South Africa is the safest place where I can find myself,” Okah said in an affidavit read by his attorney at the bail hearing. “I have no intention to live the life of a fugitive.”


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