There has been a string of attacks on several oil companies operating in Nigeria's southern Delta region, including the recent abduction of four foreign employees working as sub-contractors for Royal-Dutch Shell. The recent attacks merely highlight decades of tension between ordinary people, the government and huge multi-national companies that have turned Nigeria into Africa's biggest producer of crude oil.
The vast quantities of oil in the southern Niger Delta have not brought stability and prosperity to the people who live there. Despite the resources that are pumped daily from the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria, Delta locals have seen little of evidence of it.
Antony Goldman, an Africa analyst for Clearwater Research services, who has spent a lot of time in the Delta, says many people are not satisfied.
"In the Delta people have complained that not enough resources from the oil sector are going back to the region, they're saying states should have more of a proportion of oil revenue than is presently the case," said Mr. Goldman. "But what is true certainly is that what money has gone into the delta, there have been serious issues about how that money has been spent."
Oil revenues have not translated into the basics that villages throughout the region desperately need, such as schools, water pumps, paved roads and hospitals.
For years, as barrel after barrel of highly valued crude has been exported from Nigeria, tensions have turned to violence, with armed ethnic groups demanding what they consider to be their fair share. Their tactics include abducting oil workers, seizing control of oil platforms and stealing oil from pipelines -- locally known as "bunkering" -- to sell on the black market.
According to Tunde Martins, a public affairs analyst and former journalist, many of those who turn to violence in the Delta are not acting on behalf of ordinary Nigerians.
"The money cannot get to the poorest of the poor in the sense that these demands are not organized," he said. "It is the spur of the moment as each group decides this is the time: we are cash strapped and they decide to hold the oil workers hostage and make demands for financial ransom. They are not especially militants fighting for the rights of their people. They are a bunch of thugs and they are not using this cash to develop their communities for their people. "
The current crisis involves a group, which calls itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. The militants are holding four foreign oil workers hostage, demanding the release of an ethnic Ijaw separatist leader, who is facing treason charges, and the former governor of Bayelsa state, accused of corruption and money laundering. The group is also demanding one and one-half billion dollars from Shell, accusing the company of polluting the region. A Shell spokesman declined to be interviewed for this report.
When attacks on oil installations or fighting erupt in the Delta, the Nigerian government often deploys security forces to quell the violence. But, Ulrika Sandberg, a researcher in the Africa program for the international human rights watchdog group, Amnesty International, says in many cases they end up abusing human rights in the process.
"And in many of these cases, the security forces are using excessive force," she said. "For example, in February last year, we reported on two cases in which the security forces used excessive force. And in one case, at least 17 people were killed in a raid when they tried to arrest one or two criminals."
She accuses Nigerian security forces of acting with impunity, adding that while federal officials conduct investigations into such incidents, they rarely bring those responsible to justice.
Sandberg, who has met with locals, activists, security forces and others in the Delta, says the crisis in the region remains, despite the end of military rule in 1999. She says oil plays a key role.
"We see a situation where we still have injustice, violence and human rights abuses committed in the area where oil is being extracted and produced," said Ms. Sandberg. "And, of course, oil is part of the equation of why there is such high tensions and a high level of violence in the Delta."
But public affairs analyst Tunde Martins says there has been progress. He says the Nigerian government and oil companies have been trying to compensate villagers.
"They may not have been able to meet all the needs of the demands of the host communities but it is on record that the Nigerian government has been meeting their needs through the Niger Delta Development Corporation, which was set up to provide social amenities and facilities for the people of the Niger Delta," he said. "And it is also on record that the multi-national oil companies have been giving out both cash and other humanitarian things to the community."
Analyst Antony Goldman says current attempts to address the concerns of impoverished communities are still far less than needed. He points out that oil companies themselves have admitted that past projects have fostered even more violence as diverse ethnic groups compete for development money.
In light of this, Mr. Goldman says there is a new awareness among oil companies that they need to find more productive ways to deal with the problem.
"There's nothing altruistic here. I think that what companies have begun to realize is that if they're looking to protect the medium and long-term interests of their shareholders, they need to find a more effective way of operating in the Niger Delta," said Mr. Goldman. "And what that means is, that they need to find a way of engaging with the kind of people or factions or communities that have been making their lives so difficult in terms of targeting installations, stealing their products and threatening their employees."
That point is hitting home. The recent attacks in the Delta region have cut Nigeria's oil output by an estimated eight to 10 percent.