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Deep inside Nigeria's violent oil region

Militants are stepping up attacks in the wake of the country's fraudulent elections.

(Page 2 of 2)

Emmanuel Okah, spokesman for outgoing Gov. Peter Odili of Rivers State, says that the blame for this neglect falls on the shoulders of the military governments that ruled Nigeria for decades until 1999. "Corruption had crept into the body fabric of the nation," he says. "The natural consequence of that is that the interests of the people suffered."

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He then ticks off accomplishments of the civilian government since 1999: free medical care for children and the elderly; construction of three general hospitals; construction of three new power plants, at state expense; and a 34 kilometer "Unity Road" through the swamps to reach Ogoni, Andoni, and Okobo, areas that had been unreachable except by boat.

Militant groups say that they no longer trust in government promises or even in completed projects. "We are not interested in schools and clinics and the like," writes Jomo Gbomo in an e-mail. Mr. Gbomo claims to speak for the militant group MEND and has helped journalists arrange visits with MEND in the past. "We are demanding control over our resources."

This skepticism is shared by residents. At the village of Okujagu Ama, just a short boat ride from Port Harcourt, the impact of state spending is minimal at best. A water tower, built two months ago by the Nigerian government, has received none of the clean water that was promised. This forces residents to rely on the brackish water from their own bore-wells.

Two new schools have been built, with European Union funding, but no new teachers have been provided to teach in them. A healthcare clinic has been built, but there are no doctors or medicines. The only electricity comes from private generators. At night, most residents live in darkness.

Princewill Bipialaka, a traditional elder for the community, sits in the living room under a photo of himself in his uniform of a Nigerian immigration service officer. He worked for the government for 30 years, but never received a pension.

"We are stranded here," he says. "There are no factories where our boys can go work. We used to fish, but our fish are being poisoned by the pollution coming from these refineries." He sighs. "If you box me, what am I going to do? I must fight. That is what is happening. It's not a thing we want to do, it's because of frustration."

Victor Fingesi, a former chairman of the central government's Petroleum Task Force, says that the Niger Delta remains poor for one reason alone: corruption.

Fingesi estimates that more than a third of Nigeria's total oil production is sold illegally. According to Fingesi, Nigeria's production is much higher than the official figures, around 3.8 million barrels a day (not 2.6 million). As a member of the OPEC cartel, Nigeria is only allowed to export 2.2 million barrels a day, leaving 1.6 million barrels for its own internal consumption.

"The problem is that our refineries are not working to capacity, so we can only turn 300,000 barrels per day into diesel or petrol for domestic consumption," says Fingesi, who quit his government job in 2003 because of death threats. "So then Nigeria has this excess crude that it cannot sell, and the only way to sell it is illegally. 1.6 million barrels a day, at $65 per barrel, you're talking $100 million a day, and none of it goes into government coffers."

Getting the excess oil out is a risky – and illegal – business, one that has been taken up by armed local gangs and militant groups. These groups break into oil pipelines and siphon off hundreds of barrels of oil at a time into nearby tanker trucks or small fishing vessels. This "bunkered" oil is then taken out into the high seas and sold to waiting oil tankers, bound for Asia, Europe, Russia, and even the US. Sometimes, instead of paying in cash, shipping captains pay the militants with arms and ammunition. One oil company executive, speaking on condition of privacy, says that the only solution is for the government to rein in corruption.

"One of the key problems in Nigeria is rotten corruption," says this executive. "This country produces oil. It could be a rich country. So when you see corruption on one hand and poverty on the other hand, and then this instability as well, it's a big problem."

In his swampland hideaway, just a half-hour speedboat ride from the outskirts of Port Harcourt, Tom says that he promised Governor Odili not to disrupt this election. "I promised not to do anything this time, since they promised to settle with us," he says. "But if [the government] does not do anything [to help the Delta's people] after the election, I will start to attack them again."