Henry Okah is likely someone you have never heard about. Despite that, he is one of the most important people alive today, a brilliant innovator in warfare. A true global guerrilla.
Henry is a burly man who speaks with a cultured British accent, a consequence of his upper class upbringing and his education in Nigeria's private school system. His mind is another interesting combination: the discipline of engineering, gained through his experience as an engineer in Nigeria's merchant marine, and the believability of a successful salesman that used to sell handguns for personal protection door to door. In short, it is a combination of attributes that made him the perfect guerrilla entrepreneur. Since he moved with his family to the relative safety of South Africa in 2003, Henry was able to accomplish the following. He:
- amassed a personal fortune through arms sales and oil bunkering in the Niger delta.
- was able to orchestrate the shutdown of over a half a million barrels a day of Nigerian/Shell oil production for over two years, with a total market value of $29 billion -- a major reason why the global price of oil is currently over $100 a barrel today.
- pioneered aspects of a system of warfare that will plague nation-states and their corporate allies for decades.
A Bazaar of ViolenceNigeria is a mess, due to the combination of legions of legendarily corrupt politicians, buckets of oil money, and vast pools of neglected citizens. The Niger Delta, the wellspring of Nigeria's oil wealth, is particularly messy. It's where people, abandoned by their government, are living at a minimal subsistence level just outside the fences of the major oil company compounds, which sport European levels of convenience and lifestyle for their expatriate employees. As a result, it's little wonder that the Delta's political environment is a swirling maelstrom of local actors -- from tribal chiefs to gangs (aka "cults" in the local parlance of the Delta) to politicians -- all competing for a tiny slice of the Delta's abundant oil wealth, most of which flows into the hands of corrupt politicians/military leaders in Lagos and the coffers of global oil companies. Henry, energized by the grinding poverty he saw when he visited his family's ancestral village in the Delta, sought to reverse this flow: away from the capital and the oil companies and into the hands of the people of the Delta. However, in order to do this, Henry had to innovate with warfare. Here's how he did it:
- Mercenary talent. The evolution of local Delta politics took a turn for the worse at the turn of the century. In order to stay in office, politicians began to employ young cult (gang) members as mercenary thugs to intimidate voters and opposition politicians. However, when the politicians regained office, they threw the gang members back onto the street, forming a large pool of young mercenaries hungry for more easy income from violence. The market that developed was fluid -- young violent men routinely hired themselves out to a cult on Saturday, to another gang on Monday and to a politician or wealthy individual on Thursday. It was a mess, but Henry saw this pool of mercenary talent as an opportunity. He hired them too, on an individual or group basis often through cell phone calls (there is a weak cell phone signal across the entire Delta swamp), to assemble ad hoc guerrilla forces that could do his work in the Delta. Since these gang members were only hired on an ad hoc basis, there wasn't any organization for the government's military and police forces to target.
- An Economic Engine. To fund his guerrilla forces, Henry connected the Delta to a global marketplace. To accomplish this, he set up a ecosystem of private entrepreneurs, many of whom were local politicians, to steal oil (aka "bunker") from the pipelines of the major oil companies operating in the Delta. Groups would siphon off barge loads of oil and ferry them out to Henry's leased freighters waiting offshore (which leveraged his experience with Nigeria's merchant marine). In return, the groups were given cash, top of the line western consumer products, and a huge number of weapons (which leveraged Henry's experience as an arms salesman) from the best global manufacturers. Billions of dollars in merchandise were exchanged through this simple system over the last few years. The Delta is now awash in high end weaponry.
- A Popular Front. With both the manpower and the economics in place, Henry was now able to fight a war. However, to accomplish this he needed a front, an organizational facade for his virtual organization. The result was the establishment of the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). Henry was able to establish this organizational front through e-mails, from the safety of his home in South Africa and under the pseudonym of Jomo Gbomo, to global news organizations that set claims against the government and its corporate allies (global oil companies, particularly Shell, which had been accused of massive pollution) and actions (through the public announcement of attacks minutes after they occurred). QUICK NOTE: it's likely that he saved the life of the journalist Sebastian Junger through timely cell phone call to the violent group that was holding him, during Sebastian's ill advised field trip to the Delta. His main method of attack was pure systems disruption. Oil pipelines were sabotaged on a routine basis, through attacks on pumping stations and oil platforms. Western expat oil workers were taken hostage to drive the global oil companies permanently out of contested areas. The result was an average of 400,000 to 600,000 barrels a day of lost production for the Nigerian government (primarily Shell) -- nearly a quarter of all Nigerian production. The intent of this activity was to hollow out the Nigerian state by depriving it of income, driving away its corporate allies, and creating a temporary autonomous zone (aka chaos) in the Delta (due to a proliferation of violence and copycat attacks by other groups).
What this MeansHenry was arrested in February 2008 while in Angola to purchase arms and equipment. He has since been extradited to Nigeria where he is being held by authorities under the charge that he is Jomo Gbomo. However, despite his capture, the innovations he pioneered will live on in the following ways:
- Superempowerment. Henry is a global demonstration of what a superempowered individual can do in warfare: from creating a global criminal economic ecosystem to coordinating guerrilla attacks via cell phone to building a global brand (MEND) via e-mail.
- Emergence. Henry established a funded open source war, populated by a host of violent groups and independent contractors, against the Nigerian government and the global oil companies operating in the region. Given the fluidity of this networked organizational form, it is likely a replacement (or replacements) for Henry will emerge soon.
- Systems Disruption It proves that the disruption of systems, rather than mass casualty attacks, can create a global brand for a militant organization. Also, given the demonstration of the leverage involved (attacks costing hundreds of thousands generated nearly $30 billion in disruption) that a low cost expansion of the technique could destroy the economic foundation of an entire state.