BIRIYA-AMA, Nigeria – This village of palm-frond huts in Nigeria's southern Niger Delta sits atop one of Africa's richest energy deposits but has electricity only when one of its young men paddles a canoe to the nearest city to buy fuel for a generator.
School is held in a cement-block church, the black footboard of a bed used as a chalkboard. There is no health clinic, and the ladies' latrine is a copse of bushes on the outskirts of town.
Most of the crude in Africa's largest oil-producing country is pumped from beneath this deeply impoverished region. A new militant group behind a spate of attacks and kidnappings that have driven prices up worldwide say anger and more violence are inevitable, and even those who have not resorted to taking up arms agree.
"The people are angry. The oil belongs to the Niger Delta, but we get nothing. That oil belongs to us," said Innocent Johnson, a 21-year-old Biriya-Ama fisherman. "We will fight, if possible. I want to fight the government."
Petroleum companies discovered oil underneath southern Nigeria before the west African nation gained independence from Britain in 1960. But Biriya-Ama, and countless villages like it in the vast region of creeks and mangrove swamps, see little benefit. And with oil spills and pollution befouling the waters and killing the fish, their economic mainstay, the region's people say they are growing poorer.
The militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta, sprang up in recent months and pulled off some of the more spectacular attacks in years of violence.
In a matter of weeks, they kidnapped more than a dozen foreign oil workers and blew up oil installations to shut down about 20 percent of Nigeria's daily production — about 455,000 barrels. Prices, already near record highs, soared on international markets.
The MEND militants, who released four hostages and then took nine more, met with reporters for the first time on Friday. They invited journalists to a mid-creek meeting where they reiterated their demands: the release of two of the region's leaders from prison, a greater cut of the oil revenues and $1.5 billion from Royal Dutch Shell, the largest foreign oil firm operating here.
"Before independence, Nigeria fought for its freedom. Now we're fighting for our own freedom," one militant shouted, pointing a rocket-propelled grenade at reporters.
"If the federal government can't take care of us, we need independence. We want to control our own oil," he said from behind his black mask.
The oil question only adds to the volatility of a nation of over 250 ethnic groups. Religion also at times appears to be pulling Nigeria apart, with the latest clashes between Muslims who predominate in the north and Christians in the south breaking out last week. The last major secessionist push ended in 1970, when the three-year Biafran war subsided after more than 1 million died.
Hostage takings and attacks on oil installations have been common for decades in the delta, but MEND has shown unusual sophistication and determination. They showed off one hostage, 68-year-old Texas oil worker Macon Hawkins, to reporters last week.
The government, which has launched a military campaign dubbed Operation Just Cause to quell the violence, says the militants are little more than criminals who steal oil and sell it on the black market. The militants say the same of the military.
The oil companies say they are meeting their contractual obligations with the federal government while performing many community outreach programs in the delta, such as building schools and health clinics.
Across the delta, the people and militants blame their poverty on the oil companies, the former kleptocratic military rulers often from Nigeria's north and now President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has won two elections since the country's return to democracy.
The militants say Obasanjo, who is not from the delta region, cannot be trusted as an honest broker. They are threatening more attacks in a campaign they say will be coordinated and devastating.
It is unclear how many fighters MEND has — only 35 in four boats were seen on a recent day — or whether they have much popular support.
At Biriya-Ama, some said they weren't interested in fighting and questioned how blowing up oil facilities and shutting down production would help them in their quest to gain a greater share of the oil revenues.
"This crisis is all about the government not helping us, not giving us our share," said Soki Brown, 22, one in a crowd of young men with little to do in their village. "But I don't want to fight. I'm a Christian."
Occasionally, when money is raised, one of the men will paddle a canoe for hours to the oil center of Port Harcourt to pick up fuel for the town's sole generator.
Then for a few hours they listen to music, charge mobile phones that rarely get signals and watch Nigerian-produced television on a set with grainy reception.
With unemployment rampant, they dream of jobs with the oil companies, whose grounds are bustling and bright with floodlights. Even Johnson, who says he would fight the government, would join up with the oil companies if he could.
"Those oil installations, they look like paradise," he says. "There's light and life there."