Nigeria's troubled Niger Delta region has seen a sharp rise in cult-related violence since the flawed elections of 2007. A violent insurgency has provided cover for militia gangs that now dominate the delta's neglected communities, where many feel cheated out of the wealth being pumped out of their land.
Residents of the Niger Delta say criminal gangs, which call themselves cults, have taken advantage of the security vacuum created by the Niger Delta conflict. They say the gangs have established a strong presence in local villages and are terrorizing residents and members of the oil industry.
The overwhelmed security forces have been pre-occupied with protecting oil installations and personnel, allowing armed gangs to run rampant in the massive swampy region, stealing crude oil, killing and extorting money from residents.
Niger Delta analysts blame these cults for most of the violence in the region. A Niger Delta peace activist, Mayor Onyebueke, warns that the cult culture in the delta is growing and at a huge cost to the society.
"You discover that even our young kids, even at the level of primary school; you see them engaging in most of these clandestine organizations and activities," said Onyebueke. "And it is causing a lot of disruptions. Most of them go into drugs, most of them take to violent crimes and you discover most of them going mental at very young ages. Some of them become dropouts and touts and that affects their productivity. And that also affects our economy."
Violence in the delta, a wetlands region, is rooted in poverty, corruption and lawlessness. The region has the highest unemployment rate in Nigeria and is the most impoverished. Most inhabitants have seen few benefits from five decades of oil extraction that has damaged their environment.
Onyebueke says the criminal gangs have come to symbolize a rebellion against what most Niger Delta residents see as an exploitative federal government in Abuja.
"You look at them like very violent groups; their communities do not look at them like violent groups," he continued. "They look at them like vanguard organizations through which they express their displeasure; they express their anger on the exploitation of their land to the government. So most of the time we do not brand them violent or secret cults because their communities do not tag them that."
Oil and gas account for 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings.
Violence has taken a toll on oil output. Production currently ranges between 1.8 million and two million barrels per day, a sharp decline from the more than two and a half million three years ago.
President Umaru Yar'Adua says the government was considering an amnesty to gunmen in the Niger Delta if they agreed to lay down their weapons. The main militant group has rejected the amnesty offer.