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Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches - fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.

Nigeria had all the makings of an uplifting tale: poor African nation blessed with enormous sudden wealth. Visions of prosperity rose with the same force as the oil that first gushed from the Niger Delta's marshy ground in 1956. The world market craved delta crude, a "sweet," low-sulfur liquid called Bonny Light, easily refined into gasoline and diesel. By the mid-1970s, Nigeria had joined OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), and the government's budget bulged with petrodollars.

Everything looked possible - but everything went wrong. 

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Fighters with MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) brandish weapons near their camp. Insurgents vow to shut off the oil if calls for local control of resources aren't met.



 Dense, garbage-heaped slums stretch for miles. Choking black smoke from an open-air slaughterhouse rolls over housetops. Streets are cratered with potholes and ruts. Vicious gangs roam school grounds. Peddlers and beggars rush up to vehicles stalled in gas lines. This is Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil hub, capital of Rivers state, smack-dab in the middle of oil reserves bigger than the United States' and Mexico's combined. Port Harcourt should gleam; instead, it rots.

Beyond the city, within the labyrinth of creeks, rivers, and pipeline channels that vein the delta - one of the world's largest wetlands - exists a netherworld. Villages and towns cling to the banks, little more than heaps of mud-walled huts and rusty shacks. Groups of hungry, half-naked children and sullen, idle adults wander dirt paths. There is no electricity, no clean water, no medicine, no schools. Fishing nets hang dry; dugout canoes sit unused on muddy banks. Decades of oil spills, acid rain from gas flares, and the stripping away of mangroves for pipelines have killed off fish.

Nigeria has been subverted by the very thing that gave it promise - oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country's export earnings and 80 percent of its revenue. In 1960, agricultural products such as palm oil and cacao beans made up nearly all Nigeria's exports; today, they barely register as trade items, and Africa's most populous country, with 130 million people, has gone from being self-sufficient in food to importing more than it produces. Because its refineries are constantly breaking down, oil-rich Nigeria must also import the bulk of its fuel. But even then, gas stations are often closed for want of supply. A recent United Nations report shows that in quality of life, Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations, from Libya to Indonesia. Its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts. The World Bank categorizes Nigeria as a "fragile state," beset by risk of armed conflict, epidemic disease, and failed governance.

The sense of relentless crisis has deepened since last year, when a secretive group of armed, hooded rebels operating under the name of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, intensified attacks on oil platforms and pumping stations, most operated by Shell Nigeria. Militants from MEND and other groups have killed soldiers and security guards, kidnapped foreign oil workers, set off car bombs in the delta city of Warri to protest the visit of Chinese oil executives, and, to show off their reach, overrun an oil rig 40 miles (64 kilometers) offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. The attacks have shut down the daily flow of more than 500,000 barrels of oil, leading the country to tap offshore reserves to make up for lost revenue. With each disruption, the daily price of oil on the world market climbed. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, escalating violence in a region teeming with angry, frustrated people is creating a "militant time bomb."

From a potential model nation, Nigeria has become a dangerous country, addicted to oil money, with people increasingly willing to turn to corruption, sabotage, and murder to get a fix of the wealth. The cruelest twist is that half a century of oil extraction in the delta has failed to make the lives of the people better. Instead, they are poorer still, and hopeless.

Every day at Bonny Island, oceangoing tankers line up in Cawthorne Channel like massive parade floats. They're each waiting to fill up with close to a million barrels of the coveted Bonny Light, drawing the oil from a nearby export terminal. Ships have been gathering at this 15-mile-long (24 kilometers) barrier island since the mid-1500s, when slave trading between West Africa and the New World began. Beneath the contemporary cacophony - the yammer of motorcycle taxis, the call of Christian preachers from the market stalls, the throb of drums and guitars from boomboxes inside shacks - strains of anger and sorrow echo the tragedy of exploitation.

"It's not fair," Felix James Harry muttered in a meetinghouse in the village of Finima on the western end of the island, close to the oil and gas complex. "We can hardly catch fish anymore. Surviving is very hard." Harry, a 30-year-old father of two children, should have been in his canoe this afternoon, throwing out nets to snare crayfish and sardines. But he was sitting in an airless concrete-block shelter with half a dozen other fishermen, none of whom had much to do.

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Island Strife
Uprooted to make room for a liquefied natural gas plant, people in the village of Finima on Bonny Island complain that the facility has damaged fishing grounds, with few jobs offered in return.

Their fishing community once stood on the other side of a small inlet, where fuel storage tanks the size of cathedral domes now loom, and where the superstructure of a liquefied natural gas plant juts higher than any tree in the forest. The relocation of Finima in the early 1990s jarred loose the community's economic moorings. "We can't support our families anymore," Harry said.

Houses in the new village are tightly packed, leaving little room for gardens. Windows look out on walls. In this claustrophobic setting, the men talked about nature. "The forest where the gas plant is protected us from the east wind," Solomon David, the community chairman, said. "Now, the rain and wind ruin our thatched roofs every three months. They lasted more than twice as long before." Another fisherman mentioned how construction and increased ship traffic changed local wave patterns, causing shore erosion and forcing fish into deeper water. "We would need a 55-horsepower engine to get to those places." No one in the room could afford such an engine.

The meetinghouse had no electricity, but a battery-powered wall clock, the only decoration, showed that another day was ebbing away. Forced to give up fishing, the young men of the village put their hope in landing a job with the oil industry. But offers are scarce. "People from the outside get all the jobs," Harry said, alluding to members of Nigeria's majority ethnic groups - the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani - who are the country's political and economic elite. "We have diploma holders, but they have nothing to do."

Grievances crowded the dim room. Bernard Cosmos, a strapping young man in a striped polo shirt, spoke out: "I have a degree in petrochemical engineering from Rivers State University in Port Harcourt. I've applied many times with the oil companies for a good job. It's always no. They tell me that I can work in an oil field as an unskilled laborer but not as an engineer. I have no money to get other training."

Isaac Asume Osuoka, director of Social Action, Nigeria, believes that callousness toward the people of the delta stems from their economic irrelevance. "With all the oil money coming in, the state doesn't need taxes from people. Rather than being a resource for the state, the people are impediments. There is no incentive anymore for the government to build schools or hospitals.

"I can say this," Osuoka said firmly. "Nigeria was a much better place without oil."

Such a stark indictment would surely draw reaction from the government and oil companies. But repeated efforts to arrange on-the-record interviews with officialdom - oil company executives, the governor of Rivers state, the commander of the Joint Task Force, which is the military arm responsible for security in the delta - were foiled. Shell and Total, a French company, had offered tours of their facilities, but soon after I arrived in the delta, a spate of kidnappings of foreign oil workers, especially around Port Harcourt, prompted the multinationals to restrict the movements of personnel. Amid the violence, the oil companies have hunkered down in silence.

Nigerian Oil Gallery Photo


A scolding remark chalked on a desk reflects the grim condition of a school in Ogulagha. Teachers often don't show up, and pupils are scarce. Though delta states receive millions of dollars a month in oil revenue, little of it reaches rural communities.


At the Finima meetinghouse, the men grew restless and, one by one, drifted into the dusk. Before he left, Felix Harry declared that faith in God would reward the community. That belief must be deep on Bonny Island, judging from the barrage of signs for revival meetings and church services along island roads. One church promoted PUSH: Pray Until Something Happens. Christianity has found fertile ground in the delta after Protestant missionaries arrived in force in the mid-1800s, and it is now the dominant faith.

Harry recited Psalm 91, praising God with a flourish: "He is my refuge and my fortress." We walked outside. There, stranded on the shore, were the village fishing boats, several dozen of them. Only a miracle would get them into the water.

Across the delta, people are hoping that someone will pay attention to the region's problems and intervene. The U.S. and western Europe, the major consumers of Nigerian oil, are watching closely. With the U.S. consulate in Lagos warning of a possible rebel attack on Bonny Island, diplomats are urging greater military security. Stockholders of the oil companies are asking why the situation has turned so perilous. Who is to blame? The answers are as complicated and murky as the water trails in the delta.

When the oil curse began with that first great gusher in the creekside village of Oloibiri, 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Port Harcourt, Nigeria was still a British colony. At independence in 1960, few observers expected that Nigeria would mature into an oil giant. But in subsequent decades, the oil companies, led by five multinational firms - Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Italy's Agip, and ExxonMobil and Chevron from the U.S. - transformed a remote, nearly inaccessible wetland into industrial wilderness. The imprint: 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away.

No one can deny the sheer technological achievement of building an infrastructure to extract oil from a waterlogged equatorial forest. Intense swampy heat, nearly impenetrable mangrove thickets, swarming insects, and torrential downpours bedevil operations to this day. But mastering the physical environment has proved almost simple compared with dealing with the social and cultural landscape. The oil firms entered a region splintered by ethnic rivalries. More than two dozen ethnic groups inhabit the delta, among them the Ijaw, the largest group, and the Igbo, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Isoko, and Urhobo. These groups have a history of fighting over the spoils of the delta, from slaves to palm oil - and now, crude oil. The companies disturbed a fragile landscape that supported fishing and farming. Engineers and project managers constructing pipelines through a mangrove swamp, or laying roads through marshland, could disrupt spawning grounds or change the course of a stream, threatening a village's livelihood.

Recent reports by the United Nations Development Program and the International Crisis Group identify some of the questionable strategies employed by oil companies: paying off village chiefs for drilling rights; building a road or dredging a canal without an adequate environmental impact study; tying up compensation cases - for resource damages or land purchases - for years in court; dispatching security forces to violently break up protests; patching up oil leaks without cleaning up sites.

"After 50 years, the oil companies are still searching for a way to operate successfully with communities," says Antony Goldman, a London-based risk consultant. The delta is littered with failed projects started by oil companies and government agencies - water tanks without operating pumps, clinics with no medicine, schools with no teachers or books, fishponds with no fish.

"The companies didn't consult with villagers," says Michael Watts, director of the African Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. "They basically handed out cash to chiefs. It wasn't effective at all."

Last summer, skittish oil prices hit $78 a barrel, partly because of an attack on a Shell flow station. The high prices more than offset production losses caused by the growing instability, helping earn Shell and the other multinationals record profits in 2006. Meanwhile, more oil fields continue to open, many of them offshore where the infrastructure, though far more expensive than on land, is much safer from sabotage and theft. The deepwater fields are attracting aggressive new investors as well. China, India, and South Korea, all energy-hungry, have begun buying stakes in Nigeria's offshore blocks. "Most Western companies in Nigeria will find it difficult to compete, especially with China," Goldman says. That's because oil purchases by the Chinese come with their commitment to finance large infrastructure projects, such as rehabilitating a railroad line.

The largest new petroleum endeavor on the delta is taking shape along the Nun River, a tributary of the Niger. Operated by Shell, the Gbaran Integrated Oil and Gas Project, scheduled to begin producing in 2008, will encompass 15 new oil and gas fields, more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) of pipeline, and a sizable gas-gathering plant. New roads are already gashing the forest. Mounds of long black pipes await burial. Near a bank of the Nun, Nigerian soldiers crouch behind a ring of sandbags, a .60-caliber machine gun facing the road as they guard the entrance to the construction site of the gas plant. Cranes and bulldozers crawl over a cleared space large enough to fit two shopping malls. From the air, it must look as if a patch of skin has been removed from the face of the forest.

Activists with human rights groups are pressuring Shell to learn from past mistakes and treat this high-profile project, which affects 90 villages, as a chance to work better with communities. Michael Watts is advising NGOs on how to educate the local people about their rights. "For Shell to conduct business as usual would be a public relations disaster," Watts says. "Folks say, 'Look, these oil companies are making billions by taking out this black stuff from our territory - they should have some ethical and social responsibilities.'"

A cautionary tale unfolds at Oloibiri, where a wellhead, or "Christmas tree," stands in an overgrown plot. Nothing has flowed from it for years. A weathered sign states the facts: "Oloibiri Well No. 1. Drilled June, 1956. Depth: 12,000 feet (3,700 meters)." Nearby, a plaque dating from 2001 commemorates a presidential visit and the laying of a foundation stone for the Oloibiri Oil and Gas Research Institute, a projected government-funded museum and library. The stone is still there, but nothing else. A few local youths guard the site, not so much to protect it as to demand money from anyone who wants to snap a picture.

In the town of Oloibiri, whose population has dropped from 10,000 to fewer than 1,000 in the past 30 years, a dirt road passes between rough-hewn houses, some roofed with thatch, others with sheets of corroding metal. A small shop offers a few bananas and yams. Inside the only freshly painted structure, a lemon yellow, two-story house, Chief Osobere Inengite of the Ijaw tribe apologizes for the appearance of his town: "Oloibiri is supposed to be compared to Texas," he said. "I ask you, in Texas have the people in 50 years seen one second of darkness? But look here, we have no light, no water, no food, no jobs."

The chief looked prosperous. He was wearing an ornate black-and-purple robe, a chunky coral necklace, and a black derby, his outfit for a neighboring chief's coronation downriver in Nembe later that day. Like most chiefs, Inengite has a business - dredging sand from the river for roadbuilding. He always keeps an eye out for visitors to Nigeria's historic Well No. 1. He wants them to leave Oloibiri with a message for Shell, which owns the local oil fields. "Tell them to help us. Tell them to train 50 boys and girls from here for jobs," the chief pleaded. Then he sighed, "If we had never seen oil, we would have been better off."

Where does all the oil money go? That question is asked in every village, town, and city in the Niger Delta. The blame spreads, moving from the oil companies to a bigger, more elusive, target: the Nigerian government. Ever since it nationalized the oil industry in 1971, the government has controlled the energy purse. In a joint venture arrangement, the state, in the name of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, owns 55 to 60 percent of multinational oil operations onshore. The windfall in revenues from this arrangement has grown in real dollars from 250 million a year to more than 60 billion in 2005. During that time, even though the government has evolved from a military dictatorship to a democracy (the latest attempt at civil governance began in 1999), what has not changed is what an International Crisis Group report calls a "cancer of corruption." A Western diplomat quoted in the report was even more direct, referring to "the institutionalized looting of national wealth." The money involved is staggering. The head of Nigeria's anticorruption agency estimated that in 2003, 70 percent of oil revenues, more than 14 billion dollars, was stolen or wasted.

On paper, a mechanism does exist for distributing oil revenues somewhat fairly. The federal government retains roughly half and gives out the rest each month, on a sliding scale, to the 36 state governments. The core oil producers - Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom - receive the most. During the month I was in the delta, those four states divided up more than 650 million dollars.

But there is no discernible trickle down.

Newspaper articles and court cases document spectacular misuses of the money by military men and public office holders - such as the now imprisoned former Bayelsa governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha - who stash hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts to buy mansions in the U.S. and send their children to private schools in London. For the delta's 30 million people - most of whom struggle on less than a dollar a day - seeing this kind of money coming into their states with essentially none of it reaching them has created conditions for insurrection.

Nigeria's oil money won't keep coming, of course - perhaps another 40 years, the experts say. Natural gas is a fallback. Nigeria's reserves are estimated at 184 trillion cubic feet (five trillion cubic meters), good for an estimated 240 years of production at current levels. In the meantime, Antony Goldman says, "The government is following a simple plan for oil extraction: We've got to get what we can now, now."

Isaac Osuoka remembers the first time he saw frozen fish. It was the late 1970s, and he was five. A peddler caused a stir as he entered Osuoka's delta town of Oeliabi (now Akinima) with a carton of what he called ice fish. "We never had fish brought in from outside," said Osuoka, who now lives in Port Harcourt. "We had no idea what frozen fish meant. There were rumors that this fish was kept in a mortuary."

Frozen fish was a harbinger of the changes that would traumatize Osuoka's community. "As a boy, I could stroll to the rivers or back swamps with a rod and a net and come back with enough fish to feed my family," he recalled. "There was usually enough left over to sell, providing income for us to go to school." This bounty would not survive the coming of oil. Leaks from pipelines and wells, and the building of roads and canals, have disrupted the wetlands. "The degree and rate of degradation," the UN report warns, "are pushing the delta towards ecological disaster."

In 1996, Osuoka joined Environmental Rights Action, an advocacy group that helps communities defend their resources and learn their legal rights so they can avoid Oeliabi's fate. "We're seeing that environmental damages often happen silently, with their effects not coming out until years later," Osuoka said. "Today, there is not a single person in my community you could describe as a fisherman. We depend almost totally on frozen fish." At market stalls, a piece of frozen croaker or mackerel, most of it imported, goes for almost a dollar, unaffordable for most villagers.

The best environmental studies of the delta were done at least 30 years ago, according to Jimmy Adegoke, a Nigerian-born research scientist at the University of Missouri. To help fill the void, he and a team of researchers conducted fieldwork and a satellite-based study of the delta. They found that between 1986 and 2003, more than 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of mangroves disappeared from the coast, largely because of land clearing and canal dredging for oil and gas exploration. "That is a significant amount given how valuable the mangrove ecosystem is," Adegoke said, referring to the coastal forest's high productivity for fish populations. "I think the loss of one acre is too much. You're wiping out the means for people to sustain themselves."

Oil companies operated in the delta for years with little environmental oversight. There was no federal environmental protection agency until 1988, and environmental impact assessments weren't mandated until 1992. What pressure the government exerts now is directed mostly at halting gas flares. Delta oil fields contain large amounts of natural gas that companies have traditionally elected to burn off rather than store or reinject into the ground, more costly measures. Hundreds of flares have burned nonstop for decades, releasing greenhouse gases and causing acid rain. Communities complain of corroded roofs, crop failures, and respiratory diseases. After first ordering companies to eliminate flaring by 1984, the government keeps pushing back the deadline. Shell, the main offender, recently announced that despite making considerable progress, it could not meet the latest target date of 2008.

On land, there are oil spills, polluting groundwater and ruining cropland. The government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001 - practically one a day for 25 years - but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher. Old, improperly maintained equipment causes many of the leaks, but oil operators blame sabotage and theft, speculating that disaffected community members deliberately cause oil spills to collect compensation money.

Well 13 in Shell's Yorla field had been leaking for five days when I got there. Members of the nearby Ogoni village of Kpean had assembled around a five-foot-high (1.5 meters) wellhead that stood in the midst of high grass. Puffs of smoke drifted from the iron structure. Oil dripped from its sides into a spreading lake.

"We're expecting Shell, but no one has come yet," a villager said. "Soon the oil will leak into the creek over there and spoil our drinking water."

Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria's first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland - though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.

Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa's popular support, Nigeria's military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa's son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, "things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered."

To this day, safety concerns and lengthy, often hostile negotiations with community leaders over access fees and compensation payments hamper Shell's response to spills. When I heard that the leak at Well 13 had become a fire, I returned to Kpean. Black smoke was flooding the sky above the palm trees. This time I couldn't get close to the well - a group of angry Ogoni youths blocked my vehicle.

"Get out, white man! You work for Shell!" one yelled.

"You want to see it? Give us 100,000 naira," another shouted. He was demanding $800.

A few days later, I asked Patrick Naagbanton, an Ogoni journalist who had marched with Saro-Wiwa, to convince the village chief to let us in. Naagbanton led the way, shoving through the crowd toward the well. A fireball was erupting from the ground. The flames roared. Within the inferno, the iron Christmas tree was melting like an effigy thrown on a funeral pyre. Letam Nwinek, one of the villagers, pulled us away from the heat. "We're afraid that if the fire enters the pipeline, the whole community could go up," he said. "Shell keeps promising to come, but they say they need more foam and special equipment because the fire has grown so large."

Suddenly, the crowd began scattering. A man dressed for the city in a pink shirt and black beret came up to us.

"You'd better leave. Now!"

Our evictor, Marvin Yobana, was president of the Ogoni Youth Council. As he spoke, five men surrounded us in a threatening stance.

"Yobana is what passes as an Ogoni leader today," Naagbanton said as we retreated. "He's a thug. I believe he's negotiating with Shell to gain a lucrative clean-up contract and doesn't want journalists around." Taking a last look at the fire, Naagbanton said with disgust, "He's just part of the predatory, parasitic struggle to get oil money."

Well 13 would burn for two more months before a Shell team arrived to extinguish it.

"Is anyone listening?" Ken Saro-Wiwa had asked in his final newspaper column. "The delta people must be allowed to join in the lucrative sale of crude oil," he wrote. "Only in this way can the cataclysm that is building up in the delta be avoided."

Nigerian Oil Gallery PhotoAmid twisting waterways, narrow pipeline channels cut paths across the Cawthorne Channel area of the southern Niger Delta. Spills in the Scotland-size delta, many caused by sabotage, have created one of the world's most polluted regions and threaten Africa's largest remaining mangrove forest. The swampy terrain makes roadbuilding difficult in the delta. Villagers mostly travel by ferry or dugout canoe; oil workers usually go by powerboat or helicopter. But rebels use the maze of creeks and channels to avoid capture by the military.

The cataclysm is upon the delta. As I write this, 70 militants have just attacked a Shell convoy in the Cawthorne Channel, taking 25 oil workers hostage. Rebels have killed nine Nigerian soldiers in a firefight near Brass Island, the site of a large, vulnerable export terminal. Meanwhile, east of Port Harcourt, gunmen have raided an ExxonMobil residential compound and abducted four Scottish oil workers, demanding ten million dollars each for their release.

The number and severity of attacks in the delta have been building, led by youth groups demanding access to the oil wealth in their territories. This surge in militancy is emblematic of a continent-wide frustration among the young, says Michael Watts, of the University of California. "Across Africa you have a huge number of alienated youths, politically footloose, who thought they could achieve something with their countries' moves to independence and democracy. Those hopes have been almost everywhere violently snuffed out. The youth are pissed off and willing to up the ante."

In the Niger Delta, escalating violence has undermined the country's financial stability and its ability to supply crude to the Western world. Shipments from new offshore rigs are making up for some of the oil lost to sabotage, but rebels identified with MEND have threatened to shut down everything. The day the U.S. consulate warned of the possible attack on Bonny Island, a spokesman for MEND boasted to the press: "We will wipe out the Nigerian oil export industry in one swipe."

Late one night in a darkened neighborhood in central Port Harcourt (the city was experiencing one of its regular blackouts), an angry young man, who asked for anonymity, explained his outrage. "Nigeria made its greatest mistake taking the life of that man Ken Saro-Wiwa. It will not be forgiven. When the Nigerian state overreacted like that, the thinking became, We have to carry weapons unless we want to die. Violence begets violence. When someone loses hope, he is devastated, and he will say, 'Either I fight, or I leave this world.'"

This young Nigerian is a university lecturer, who says the time for talking has passed. "When the situation in the delta threatens to turn into another Middle East, then the world will finally intervene."

Another night in Port Harcourt, a prolonged gun battle erupted outside my compound. Volleys from AK-47s, answered by the booms of pump-action shotguns, sent me running to barricade my door. The gunmen abducted four expatriates from Goodfellas, a nightclub nearby. (It was this incident that led the oil companies to cancel their tours.) A Dutch oil worker on contract to Shell, who makes $80,000 a year as a pipeline construction supervisor, told me he has to travel everywhere with an armed escort. "You must keep it in your mind that people out there may kill you," he said.

With every assault by the insurgents, the Nigerian military seems to answer with devastation. One evening, a gang of kidnappers dressed in army camouflage came by boat to a waterside neighborhood called Aker Base on the outskirts of Port Harcourt, stormed into a bar, and snatched an Italian construction worker employed by Saipem, an oil-servicing company. During the grab, the assailants killed a soldier. Within hours, troops swept into the shantytown and burned down every structure except a bank. Days later, stunned residents wandered through the charred ruins like ghosts; some 3,000 had lost their homes.

Nigerian Oil Gallery Photo

Heat and smoke force back villagers who have come to check on an oil fire erupting from a leaking wellhead in Ogoniland. The wellhead had been spilling oil for a week, coating the ground around it before catching fire. The fire burned for more than two months before an oil company team could make arrangements to quell it. Fifty years of oil spills have turned the delta into one of the most polluted areas in the world.

A woman clutching her melted cell phone moaned, "I have to tell my mother, my brothers and sisters what happened. I don't know where to start and where to end." In front of a collapsed church, the village chief implored a crowd to "Let God fight this case." A lawyer hired by the village provided little comfort when he said that Saipem would meet with the community "maybe in a week" and ask for a list of everything lost.

"I blame the government," said Caroline Mathias, the owner of the bar, staring at a pile of melted bottles and the crumpled metal roof where her business had stood. "The government should help us. I'm begging them. We are not the ones who killed that soldier."

The Italian worker was freed five days after the sack of Aker Base. That month, 18 foreigners were abducted; all were released, reportedly after hefty ransom payments.

No one is sure how many delta people have picked up the gun to fight for their rights. Estimates range from the low hundreds to the low thousands. What is certain is that each time the military reacts with extreme measures, the number rises.

The rebels seem unafraid, as when a hundred or so MEND members and supporters gathered openly at a morgue in the city of Warri for the funeral service of nine militants killed on the water in an ambush by the Nigerian military. Afterward, MEND leaders invited the press to accompany boats taking the caskets to villages for burial. Along the way, men waved guns from jetties, and white flags flew from huts. The men wore conspicuous red-and-white ties knotted around their arms. The ties and flags were symbols of Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war. Warriors wear the knots as protection against death, believing that having taken an oath to Egbesu, nothing metal - neither bullet nor machete - can harm them. Farther on, a rebel camp sat brazenly on a riverbank, the blue roofs of its barracks plainly visible to oil company helicopters.

No solution seems in sight for the Niger Delta. The oil companies are keeping their heads down, desperate to safeguard their employees and the flow of oil. The military, ordered to meet force with force, have stepped up patrols in cities and on waterways. The militants are intensifying a deadly guerrilla offensive, hoping that rising casualties and oil prices will force the government to negotiate. National elections in April could exacerbate the violence, especially if politicians resort to the practice of hiring youth gangs to deliver votes at gunpoint.

Optimism is as scarce as blue sky in the sodden delta. "Everyone was sure they would be blessed with the coming of the black gold and live as well as people in other parts of the world," said Patrick Amaopusanibo, a retired businessman who now farms near the village of Oloama. He had to speak loudly to compete with the "black noise," the hissing and roaring of a gas flare near his cassava field. "But we have nothing. I feel cheated."

In some parts of the Niger Delta, oil still looks like a miracle. In the run-down fishing village of Oweikorogba on the Nun River, where families of ten sleep in a single room under leaky thatch roofs, hope materialized a year ago in the form of Chinese prospectors. They left without finding oil, but the people of Oweikorogba want them back, confident that they'll find a pot of gold. And if a stranger warns these villagers that oil is a curse in Nigeria, they will look at him and say: "We want oil here. It will make everything better."

Also See: Sights & Sounds | Photo Gallery | Field Notes