Deep in the channels of the steamy flood plains that make up the delta, the town of Akassa tells the tale. Perched at the point where the mighty Niger spills into the Atlantic, it was once a thriving colonial port. Now, 100 years later, only an old lighthouse serves as a reminder of the town's past pride, and Akassa has become a wasteland. The town of 30,000 has one school but the roof fell in long ago, and grass grows waist-high in the classrooms. There has been no electricity for five years. As for roads, there are none in Akassa, only muddy footpaths.
"We have hospitals and schools but they don't work and we're giving birth to a new breed of illiterates," said Chris Alagoa, of the Akassa Development Project. "This town is moving backwards in time." The irony for residents of Akassa, mostly members of the Ijaw ethnic group, is that on their doorstep millions of dollars are generated every day in oil revenues. "We have nothing here now," said Wisdom Frankolin, 73, an Akassa fishermen and town elder who yearns for the return of colonial days.
To make matters worse, four oil spills have hit Akassa this year already. Mr Frankolin's nets have been ruined by the oil and he says his catches are poor because the fish have suffocated in the polluted water.
His rice field is barren, too, spotted only with a few stumps and scrawny- looking plants that will never be harvested. The oil has seeped into the mud, leaving thick, sodden land that is all but useless. The main oil company operating in the area, Agip, has promised compensation. So far, the villagers say, none has come.
At night, in a room lit only by a flickering kerosene lamp, Mr Frankolin sat in a meeting with the other elders, discussing the town's prospects. It was a scene that could been taking place centuries ago. The discussion was about the secrets of an ancient local cult called Egbesu, which had been dead for generations. The cult traditionally only comes alive in times of the severest crises, and the delta's Ijaw youth are using it now to declare a war on the Nigerian government and the oil companies. Members of Egbesu are supposed to be pacifists who have special powers to protect themselves from attack, but in today's war they are the aggressors.
"The people of the delta don't want trouble, but they are defending themselves against a long-term environmental war which the foreign oil companies have waged on them," said a minority-rights activist, Oronto Douglas.
When dawn broke in Akassa, drumming could be heard rising above the small houses and huts of the town. The Egbesu men emerged, their faces painted with white markings, chanting as they danced threateningly down the footpath.
Children and adults alike fled in fear of the powerful myth that anyone who crosses the path of the Egbesu will be buried up to their necks in mud and abandoned.
Among their many beliefs, a mixture of animism and Christianity, the Egbesu men believe they are invincible warriors who are immune to bullets. "No one can use a gun against me," said 17-year-old Joke Monday, who joined because he was unemployed and bored.
The new-found confidence of youths such as him, and the easy accessibility of automatic weapons in the area have proved enough to crack the backbone of Nigeria's economy.
Thousands of youths have joined the cult across the delta in recent months and have besieged the oil industry. They have taken control of more than 15 oil flow stations, putting a stop to the production of almost 250,000 barrels a day for much of the last month.
Numerous oil workers have been taken hostage and ransomed. Others have been evacuated by their companies with no immediate prospect of return. The companies that have been attacked, particularly Shell, the largest foreign oil company operating in Nigeria, are holding talks with the locals to try to persuade them to leave the flow stations. But the siege goes on.
The military government has sent soldiers into the delta to try to curb the violence, but some of the soldiers are scared of the Egbesu men's spiritual powers, and find it difficult to counter the guerrilla attacks of the fishermen.
The government, which is promising elections early next year, may be hoping that democracy will reduce tension among the many groups in Nigeria which feel they have been neglected during the past 30 years of military rule. This, others say, is naively optimistic.
"Democracy is not the slogan in the Niger delta; the slogan is self-determination, self-rule and control of our resources," said Mofia Akobo, of the Southern Minorities Group.
The situation in the delta reflects the fragility of the fabric that makes up Nigeria, a country of more than 250 different ethnic groups. Three decades of military rule have left power in the country centralised, and, with or without democracy next year, the wealth will remain concentrated in the pockets of only a few.
The Ijaw uprising in the delta has already had a devastating effect on the economy. But if any of Nigeria's larger ethnic groups were to take matters into their own hands, and insist on getting dividends from the oil wealth through the barrel of a gun, the nation could be plunged into a tragic and bitter civil war.Reuse content