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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.

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."

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