Nigerian security officials say former militants frustrated by delays in a government amnesty program are once again stealing oil in the Niger Delta.
Nigeria's army says it is on a search and destroy mission to rid the Niger Delta of illegal oil refineries used by former militants who are tired of waiting for the jobs promised as part of a government amnesty program.
Theft and sabotage in the Niger Delta last year cut oil production to record lows with Angola threatening to overtake Nigeria as Africa's largest oil producer. Nigeria's navy this year stopped a Greek tanker loaded with 800 metric tons of stolen oil.
Nigerian oil exports are slowly growing again, in part because of the relative peace that followed early successes in the amnesty program.
But the program lost momentum in the prolonged medical absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua. With its future in doubt, Nigerian security forces are using gun-boats and helicopters to raid illegal refineries across the Niger Delta.
"Over time we have learned a lot of tricks used in the illegal oil theft in the Niger Delta, and most importantly also you cannot operate in the Niger Delta, or for any military operation for that matter, without intelligence, so we have improved our intelligence gathering and capability," said General Sarkin Bello, Nigerian army's spokesman in the Niger Delta.
But law enforcement alone can not stop oil smuggling in an area as vast and porous as the Niger Delta. Local activists say it is economic development that is needed to offer alternatives to jobless young men.
Attorney Mcarthy Mbudagha says oil thieves exploit both local poverty and a series of unkept promises by the government in Abuja to invest in the Delta's infrastructure.
"There is something I call injustice that injustice produced, where you are in a society where every facet of the society is crippled with injustice, those in governments who are in a position to deal with that injustice turn blind eyes to it, then this is the kind of situation result you are going to get," said Mbudagha. "It is unjust cost and like I said, it does not lie in the use of the government to say they are not aware of this."
Raymond Gilpin, an associate vice president for sustainable economies at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says it is not only delays in the amnesty program that are fueling a resurgence in oil theft. It is preparations for next year's nationwide elections.
"Oil theft usually follows a political cycle," said Gilpin. "It is one way for the local militia and local politicians to build their war chests just before the elections.
There is also the environmental impact of delta waterways polluted by spills caused by oil thieves and the burning of mangrove forests in fires used to process stolen crude in illegal refineries.
Nigeria's Acting President Goodluck Jonathan says security in the Niger Delta is one of his top priorities. He is asking both foreign oil companies and local residents to be patient as he says his new Cabinet is determined to reinvigorate the amnesty program to help former militants and better develop the Delta's economy.