Deep in the gloom of the Niger Delta swamp, a motorboat carrying eight men in balaclavas, camouflaged flak jackets, and brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, sweeps past. Passing abandoned oil installations in the shadows of the mangroves, they chant: "We dey suffer, suffer, suffer, everyday. We are the Niger Delta security men." They are patrolling an oily creeks in defiance of the Nigerian government that is nowhere to be seen.
After a show of strength, exploding two grenades in the river, the men return to their patrol. Far from the crooked corridors of power the explosions seem lost in the dense, swamp forest.
These are the armed militants who have committed a wave of kidnappings of oil workers and attacks over the past decade, costing 445,000 barrels of oil, a fifth of Nigeria's oil exports, in their fight for a greater share of oil wealth for the impoverished local population. Their pronouncements have shaken the world's oil markets and driven multinationals such as Shell to consider their future in Africa's most populous country.
Militias have blown up pipelines and attacked two of Shell's platforms in recent months. Despite the delta's huge energy reserves, millions of people live in extreme poverty. The militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) are still holding two Americans and a Briton who were among a group of foreigners abducted two weeks ago from a barge where they were laying a pipeline for Royal Dutch Shell. In a surprise move on Wednesday, Mend released six hostages, including and and and American, Macon Hawkins, to our party, a welcome gift to Mr Hawkins on his 69th birthday.
As we pull out of Warri port, another militia boat roars past the bow of a passing cargo ship Sardonic Pride, displaying the ease with which they can act. The Nigerian Navy has proved itself ill-equipped and unable to defend oil facilities and ships such as the Sardonic Pride against attacks in territories well known by the militias.
Villages scattered along the river's edge, are swallowed by the third-largest wetland in the world, covering an area the size of Ireland. In the heat and damp of the delta, where the oil flares burn night and day, casting a choking yellow light over the swamp forest, great wealth and poverty lie cheek by jowl.
There are 27 million people living in this black-gold region, 70 per cent of them in poverty. They survive in mud-huts and eke out a living, travelling in the swamps on dug-out canoes to reach the outside world.
In one village, a woman, her feet black and slick with oil, drank, then washed her five-year-old son in contaminated water from a hole dug four feet in the ground. At the local school, four makeshift desks are the only sign of "government development". Mrs Makosi Orjonko says; "When we drink, it gives us pain. It worries us; it's no good. We just manage. We want better water."
But the government's presence is not forgotten; two bomb craters and bullet holes in roofs of their homes, are testimony to the efforts the state use to keep the oil flowing. One enraged villager, Mr Farele, pointing at bullet holes in one of the village's buildings, shouted:"The military helicopter came and shot. We want hospitals and schools."
The horizon is lit by the unnatural orange glow, the flames from massive chimneys flare off the natural gas brought up as a by-product of the region's oil. Beneath the rivers and mud, Nigeria has 35 billion barrels of oil. One-fifth of US oil imports come from the region and and 10 per cent of the UK's natural gas coming is expected to be sourced there within a few years.
But these exports are under increasing threat by resentment felt by the people of the delta against, what they see as the theft of the natural resources. The people say the oil industry has caused environmental devastation, polluting their land and fishing grounds.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni campaigner, was the first to launch a movement for social and ecological justice in the Niger Delta in the 1980s. He was executed amid international condemnation in 1995. His public killing drew the world's attention to the role of the oil industry in Nigeria, and forced Western oil companies to adapt their practices, making loud noises about sharing some of the profits with local communities and safeguarding the environment.
Today, the cycle of injustice, poverty and violence continues.
As the sun began to sink behind the dark canopy, three boats of heavily armed men gathered in a creek, circling warily before approaching. In one boat was Mr Hawkins, holding a small plastic bag with his medicine and toothbrush.
One of the spokesmen for the group, armed with a machine-gun, said: "Our interest lies in how to bring the attention of everyone to the issue of the Niger Delta. Let the UN come and intervene, let them set up commissions of inquiry and look into the matter of the Niger Delta, and find out a final solution to the issues."
Five other captives, two Egyptians, two Thais and a Filipino, were also freed. Mr Hawkins stuck both thumbs in the air and grinned. "Oh God," he said. "It was an experience I don't want to do again, but I just had to make the best of it; tried to keep my cool."
The men in the boats waved their weapons and broke into a song; another man shouted angrily about the government. Unlike many of the regions other militias, these 50 men had an eerie, trained order to their actions, handling their weaponry expertly.
In a statement issued yesterday, they warned of more attacks on oil workers in another area of the Niger Delta. Their objective is "totally destroying the ability of the Nigerian government to export crude oil it has stolen from the Niger Delta over the past 50 years."
The identities of the militia are unknown; as with many armed groups in Nigeria, "big men" are often at work behind the scenes. Nigeria is holding national elections next year, and in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, the country's vast oil wealth is at stake. With rumours of President Olusegun Obasanjo attempting to run for a third term, tension and attacks are likely to increase as the elections draw nearer.
John Negroponte, the US director of Intelligence has said: "Speculation that President Obasanjo will try to change the constitution so he can seek a third term is raising political tension and if proven true, threatens to unleash major turmoil and conflict. Such chaos in Nigeria could lead to disruption of oil supply, secessionist moves by regional governments, major flows and instability elsewhere in Africa."
Militias such as Mend are often used to further the political influence of others, despite the ostensible demands for a greater share of the oil wealth to improve their lives.
The Ijaw leader, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who is calling for independence for the oil-rich region, has been jailed on treason charges. Mend insists it is a separate organisation from Mr Asari's Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force but is campaigning for his release.
The militia leader who had invited the world's media into the swamps to advocate all oil proceeds being kept by the region also threatened oil facilities and "all-out war" on the Nigerian government. His warnings pushed pushed oil prices above the psychological $50 per barrel level. And Mr Asari's calls for the "dismemberment of Nigeria led to the secret police putting him in jail.
There are also the gangs who commit the lucrative siphoning of oil from pipelines, which is sold on the black market and believed to fund the purchase of weapons.
After the fighters of Mend handed over the hostages, they fired a farewell volley into the air for Mr Hawkins, circled, then, opening up the two huge outboard engines on each boat, quickly disappeared into the swamp.
Mr Hawkins, with a heavy Texas drawl, said they had been treated well, eating a lot of canned foods to avoid dysentry, sardines, corned beef, and noodles. Living in "kind of a village", the hostages had been free to roam around, and spent most of the day playing cards. But Mr Hawkins, with high blood pressure and diabetes, had been worried about his health, which may have played a large part in his release.
The American celebrated his 69th birthday in captivity with a "warm Sprite", hours before his surprise release, and was looking forward to cleaning up with a hot shower and shampoo, deodorant and a razor. He bore his captors no ill ill. "I have no animosity toward them at all," he said. "I've seen their little villages; they're dirt-poor, poor as field-mice."
But Mr Farele, still angry, pointed towards the faraway comfort of Escravos oil facility. "We want our village to be like there," he said.Reuse content