Violent crime has surged in Nigeria's oil-rich Southern Niger Delta since militants, who claim to be fighting for a fairer share of the region's natural resources, launched a campaign of sabotage against the oil industry three years ago. More than 300 oil industry employees have been kidnapped in the Niger Delta since 2006.

Militants and criminals seeking ransom have intensified attacks and kidnappings against foreign workers in the oil-rich Niger Delta, a vast wetlands region which has all Nigeria's oil.

Thousands of foreign oil workers have left in the past year as violence has spiraled. Fidelis Ogbah, a local chief of Asaba, in the western delta, says the violence is giving Nigeria a bad name.

"Nobody has the right to kidnap a fellow being and begin to demand for ransom," said Ogbah. "It should be condemned by all well-meaning Nigerians, and it brings a dent on the image of the country."

Criminal gangs have taken advantage of the breakdown in law and order.  Kidnappings, armed robberies and vehicle hijackings have left the region's residents living in a state of insecurity. Unemployment and poverty are said to be responsible for the deteriorating state of affairs.

"The cause of kidnappings is idleness. We are having a lot of people in the country that are not working today," added Ogbah.  "You don't expect such persons to fold their hands and sleep in their house without doing anything."

Once, expatriates, who were seen as wealthy, were targets of kidnappings. But now more and more victims are middle or working-class. Even the poorest are now being snatched off the streets, for ransom as low as a few hundred dollars. Chief Ogbah says the culture of ransom-paying is encouraging more and more idle youths to kidnap.

"Those who pay ransoms are not helping matters. They should report matters like that to the police," said Ogbah. "By the time they refuse to pay ransom; the kidnappers will finally release the kidnapped person. I don't ascribe to paying kidnappers. We are helping kidnappings if we pay kidnappers."

Chidi says many of the current fighters were said to have been initially armed by politicians, who used them as hired thugs to intimidate their opponents.

"These people that are doing it [kidnapping], they are armed by politicians too," said Chidi. "And the only way we can solve this problem of the country is if there is a lot of job opportunities."

Analysts say poverty and corruption drive militancy and crime in the delta's neglected communities, where many feel cheated out of the oil wealth being pumped out of their land.

The government has done little to develop a poverty-stricken region filled with simmering resentment. Local resident Tony Abano says developing the intellect and skills of Niger Delta residents is crucial for long-term peace in the area.

"I don't support kidnapping. It is very bad. Somebody has to do something to live instead of how to be kidnapping," said Abano. "My fellow mates, what I have to say to them is that they should go and learn work or go to school if they have the money. If they don't have the money, they should go and learn work. It is not much."

The government says the kidnappings create instability and hamper social and economic development in the insurgency-wracked southern region. Nigeria's oil workers are calling for improved security while Rivers state, the leading oil-producing state, recently imposed the death penalty for kidnappers.