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Deep inside Nigeria's violent oil region

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For good or for ill, the future stability of Nigeria may rest in the hands of men like Tom. A growing number of militant groups – including Tom's Niger Delta Vigilantes and a rival group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – are kidnapping oil company employees, and attacking oil drilling and pumping installations to force the Nigerian central government to plow oil revenues back into the Niger Delta region. The recent elections were intended to bring relief, but observers say the elections may only deepen the sense of alienation and hopelessness that many Niger Delta residents feel toward their government.

"People have realized their votes don't count," says Anyakwee Nsirimovu, director of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt. "For the past nine months, people have been distancing themselves from the militants, but what does [Nigerian President Olusegun] Obasanjo do? He gives poverty instead of development. He gives bullets instead of bread. People realize these guys with guns are more effective, and sympathy is being built. And what do you get? Chaos."

While the kidnapping of the oil workers may be a signal of business as usual for the militants, this week's apparent kidnapping of the mother of Governor-elect Celestine Omehia may signal a new tactic of targeting elected officials.

"People are so upset, and if the elected officials take office, then there will be more and more people, especially the youth, that will start going after officials," he says. "People can't accept the ballot, and [they] will start to use self-help – the AK-47 – against the politicians who do not care about them except at election time."

First vice president from the Delta

While most Delta residents see the past elections as hopelessly flawed by the ruling People's Democratic Party, some observers say that the inclusion of Niger Delta politician Goodluck Jonathan as the vice president-elect is a sign that Nigeria's political class may finally give serious attention to a problem of regional alienation that has brewed for decades. Niger Delta politicians say they are awaiting a fuller discussion of the new government's announced "plan" to resolve the Niger Delta issue, from development to the control of resources.

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