The commander of Nigeria's military operation in the oil-rich Niger delta has warned of more unrest there as Africa's biggest oil producer and most populous nation heads towards national elections next year.
Brigadier General Elias Zamani is acutely aware of how electoral politics can disrupt Nigerian oil output. Indeed, the 54-year-old was appointed to command thousands of troops after an ethnic uprising in the delta in the run-up to 2003 elections forced a 40 per cent cut in the production of the world's eighth largest oil exporter.
The kidnapping of four foreign oil workers and co-ordinated attacks against oil facilities in recent weeks have cut production and left several soldiers dead, once again demonstrating the industry's vulnerability.
Heightened ethnic and political tensions ahead of next month's national census and the 2007 elections are a worry for both multinational oil companies and Nigeria, which produces about 2.5m barrels of oil a day.
Nigeria on Wednesday is expected to conclude bidding for new offshore oil contracts, many of them outside the delta region.
"We have to prepare for the worst when a major event is coming up like the census," General Zamani told the FT at his military base in the delta town of Warri.
Echoing the fears of the multinationals, John Negroponte, US national intelligence chief, said last week that the 2007 elections "could lead to major disruption in a nation suffering frequent ethno-religious violence, criminal activity and rampant corruption".
At the root of the delta's insecurity is local animosity towards the government and the multi-billion-dollar oil industry.
The Ijaw tribe, who make up most of the delta's 20m people, say they have been cheated out of their oil wealth. Ijaw militants involved in the 2003 crisis still complain that their people are under-represented politically because of skewed census figures and rigged ballots.
Despite the end of 15 years of military rule in 1999, electoral violence and rigging have marred Nigeria's last two elections and corruption and political thuggery remain a part of daily life.
The delta's complex maze of creeks is home to armed groups, many of which have been armed by political figures to garner influence ahead of previous elections.
They have used the proceeds of stolen crude oil to build up sizeable arsenals, including rocket launchers, which were used in a recent attack against a facility operated by Shell, Nigeria's largest oil producer, said Gen Zamani.
But Nigeria is not planning to increase its troop presence in the delta, according to Gen Zamani. Analysts claim this is partly due to a lack of military capacity. Experts believe 200 patrol boats would be needed to secure the 112,000 sq km of the delta, but Nigeria has only a fraction of that capacity. The navy has itself come under scrutiny after two admirals were sacked over the disappearance of a tanker impounded for oil theft.
Meanwhile, President Olu-segun Obasanjo has dismissed notions that unrest could affect oil investment. By contrast, a recent report commissioned by Shell said the company could by 2008 be forced to leave the delta, where an estimated 1,000 people are killed every year.
Mr Obasanjo's confidence reflects his belief that he can resolve such crises.
The release of four expatriate hostages last week was secured at high level behind closed doors, according to sources close to the negotiations.
Analysts say this shows that the delta's grassroots grievances are being exploited by political players at the national level. The danger is that delta tensions could be manipulated by Mr Obasanjo's enemies to force political concessions in the run-up to elections.
Loyalties are mixed. The same armed groups who espouse Ijaw rhetoric are in some cases empowered as double agents on behalf of the government or used by other political figures. Despite the apparent co- ordination of the latest attacks, industry officials also fear a security dilemma posed by different armed groups without a central command structure.
Meanwhile, many soldiers are on edge. They have previously cracked down hard in response to attacks on them in the delta. In 1999, scores were massacred in the town of Odi after soldiers were killed. Last year, a major reprisal took place on another delta community.
- 190 Natural Resources