By CARMEN GENTILE
UPI Energy Correspondent
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- One the streets of Potts Johnson, a Port Harcourt neighborhood where gang violence and gunfire are considered the normal fare, a guarded sense of hope has emerged among some for the future of the impoverished, albeit oil-rich, Niger Delta.
"We used to sleep with one eye open, but now we are able to close both at night," said Tex Laban Jamabo, a former delta lawmaker and author of a book on the history of Nigeria, who noted that the nightly gunfire that once pervaded the neighborhood has subsided in recent months.
Despite a recent drop-off in violence here, Potts Johnson remains a stronghold for gangs and militant groups with strong opposition toward foreign oil companies and the Nigerian government.
Just a few months ago, gunmen brought their grievance with big oil and lawmakers to the streets of Port Harcourt, where the mother of a newly elected governor of a delta state was abducted, along with a handful of children of government officials.
Since then, the city, with its open sewers and shanty towns that abut multimillion-dollar homes, has been subject to a 9 p.m. curfew.
So far, it seems to have worked, though the relative calm is still occasionally fractured by kidnappings and gang warfare, and concerns about the future of the region remain foremost on the minds of its residents.
"They have pushed us to the edge here," said Tams Dede, a radio journalist in Port Harcourt, pointing to the dilapidated buildings and filth-ridden streets of the neighborhood. "You see, these young boys are getting annoyed."
And in the rural hinterland of the delta, foreign oil operations continue to be targeted by militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which takes both Nigerian and foreign oil workers hostage and attack pipelines.
Leaders of MEND, who some contend is part of the delta's pervasive gang culture, have called for a more equitable distribution of the country's oil wealth. MEND, along with other lesser-known militant groups, have launched numerous attacks on both onshore and offshore oil installations in the delta and kidnapped more than 150 people in the last year.
Since the 1970s, Nigeria, Africa's No. 1 oil producer, has pumped more than $300 billion worth of crude from the southern delta states, according to estimates. But high unemployment in the delta, environmental degradation due to oil and gas extraction, and a lack of basic resources such as fresh water and electricity have angered some of the region's youth and incited them to take up arms.
One former leader of the delta's armed resistance, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, contends MEND is not part of his own struggle, which until his release in July kept him in prison for 20 months.
"There is no MEND, or militants," Asari told United Press International in a recent interview. "They are merely armed gangs bent on violence and thievery, nothing more."
During his budget proposal this week, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua allotted one-third of the country's $20 billion budget for next year to security in the Niger Delta, a move that elicited praise from both supporters and opponents in the country's deeply divided National Assembly.
The decision to spend a considerable amount of the 2008 budget on the delta could prove vital to Yar'Adua's ability to maintain control of his government amid growing calls for a presidential referendum following April elections, considered by many to be rigged by Yar'Adua supporters with the help of the same gangs that the president has pledged to crack down on.
However, some speculate that a referendum would ultimately result in another win for Yar'Adua, who since assuming office in May has positioned himself as a leader with genuine concern for the grim realities facing delta residents and a desire to "stem the tide of corruption in the country," Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an Africa analyst for the New York-based Eurasia Group, wrote earlier this week.
"A re-run of the April election will essential yield the same outcome as the first -- a Yar'Adua and ruling party victory," said Spio-Garbrah.