Nigeria has deployed extra troops to the southeastern city of Port Harcourt to clamp down on escalating gang warfare in the country's most important oil centre, military officials said on Friday.
Additional units of army, navy and air force troops were rushed to Port Harcourt following two shooting incidents in the city centre on Tuesday night that left up to 18 people dead, they said.
Those responsible for the violence are suspected to be members of rival armed gangs linked to powerful political interests in the region.
These gangs are also believed to be responsible for tapping large quantities of crude oil from pipelines, loading it into barges and selling it clandestinely to tankers waiting offshore.
Police said four people were killed and eight others were injured when unidentified gunmen opened fire on customers in a restaurant in the Port Harcourt suburb of Diobu on Tuesday night. They later shot a group of bystanders on another street before escaping in two Mercedes cars.
However, eyewitnesses told IRIN that as many as 18 people were killed in the two incidents.
Nigerian army spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yusuf said the federal government was concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Port Harcourt.
The city acts as the operational base for several of the multinational oil companies that together pump 2.5 million barrels of crude per day from platforms in the Niger Delta and nearby offshore waters.
“There will now be a 24-hour patrol by soldiers and police instead of the former nightly patrols,” Yusuf told IRIN.
Over the past two weeks, more than 30 people have been killed in Port Harcourt in clashes between rival gangs armed with automatic weapons.
Local human rights activists say more than 150 people have been killed in such skirmishes since the beginning of this year.
Much of the violence has been blamed on turf wars between groups of thugs who were originally armed by politicians to strengthen their bid for power during 2003 general elections.
Many of these armed men are now linked to criminal gangs that specialise in "bunkering," the theft of crude oil from pipelines for sale to vessels lying offshore.
Nigeria is Africa's largest oil exporter, but government officials acknowledge that bunkering creams off about 10 percent of the country's production.
The Vanguard daily newspaper reported on Friday that one gang leader in the Port Harcourt area had admitted that his fighters had been involved in the recent gun-battles.
Asari Dokubo, who leads the self-styled Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, told the newspaper that his men had clashed repeatedly with fighters loyal to Ateke Tom, the leader of another armed gang in Port Harcourt.
Dokubo claims to be a revolutionary who has declared war on the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo. He has long claimed that Ateke Tom's mob is supported by the government.
Dokubo's declared aim is to seek “a restructuring” of Nigeria that would give his Ijaw ethnic group - the dominant tribe in the oil-producing Niger Delta - self-determination and greater control over local oil resources.
He claims to command a force of 2,000 armed men and admitted to IRIN in an interview earlier this year that he financed his activities by stealing oil from pipelines.
Port Harcourt is now awash with illegally held weapons and there are fears the city may go the way of the oil town of Warri further west of Niger Delta.
Years of fighting between rival Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic militias in Warri have severely restricted oil operations in the surrounding area. At one point last year, fighting between the militias and attacks on oil installations near Warri forced Nigeria to temporarily shut down 40 percent of its entire oil production.
“If Port Harcourt slides into chaos like Warri, it will be a big blow to oil operations in Nigeria,” oil industry analyst, John Akinbo told IRIN.
He noted that Royal Dutch/Shell, which produces about half of Nigeria’s oil, was planning to scale down its activities in Warri and move its Nigerian headquarters to Port Harcourt to escape the violence.
Several other leading oil companies had similar plans, he added.
“Perhaps bearing the importance of Port Harcourt in mind the government is rushing in troops in hopes of halting further deterioration of the security situation,” Akinbo said.
But he expressed doubts that there could be a purely military solution to the problem in either Warri or Port Harcourt.
Akinbo pointed out that armed militants around Warri still confronted government troops and that ChevronTexaco has been compelled to shut down facilities producing 140,000 barrels of oil per day for the past 18 months.
“For the military option to work the government needs to address the grave social problems of the delta, including poverty and massive unemployment, which have created an army of youths ready to serve any militia leader that promises any kind of empowerment,” Akinbo said.