PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — Asari Dokubo is the wayward son of a high court judge who dropped out of law school and became a vagabond and a thief, one of innumerous gangsters illegally tapping crude oil from the pipelines operated by the likes of ExxonMobil in this country’s oil-rich Niger Delta.

Until late last month, few outside this delta and Nigeria’s law-enforcement agencies paid much attention to him, even during the past year, as his militia engaged in deadly gun battles with a rival gang leader for control of lucrative smuggling routes.

But then, Nigerian media say, scores of people were killed in a three-week period into mid-September in fighting between the rival militias and also between the Nigerian military and the militias. The Nigerian police dispute that number, saying only 13 people died.

Last month, Shell, whose Nigerian subsidiary accounts for half the daily production of 2.5 million barrels, said it was reducing production and withdrawing hundreds of threatened workers because the area is unsafe.

In late September, a thick-set man surrounded by armed militiamen went before international TV news networks and identified himself as Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo. He proclaimed himself a Muslim holy warrior and admirer of Osama bin Laden, and threatened to start bombing oil facilities and killing foreign oil workers by Oct. 1. To forestall “Operation Locust Feast,” as he so ominously dubbed his campaign, he demanded that the country’s leaders agree to self-determination for the aggrieved people of the Niger Delta, who feel abandoned to desperate poverty while the wealth extracted from their land financed the profligate lifestyles of politicians and generals who run one of the world’s most corrupt nations.

The suggestion that instability was spreading to the world’s seventh-largest oil producer — and the source of 10 percent of U.S. imports — rattled world markets, which already were under pressure as demand for oil threatened to outstrip supply. The price of crude quoted in New York quickly rose beyond $50 a barrel.

Phones began ringing at Aso Rock, Nigeria’s presidential villa, as nervous foreign governments and oil industry executives pleaded for immediate action, according to officials. Just two days before Dokubo’s deadline, President Olusegun Obasanjo took the unprecedented step of dispatching one of his official planes to bring Dokubo and Ateke Tom, his main militia rival, to Abuja, the capital, for direct negotiations. A temporary ceasefire is now in effect while they continue talking.

“Asari Dokubo spoke and oil prices went up,” the triumphant militia leader, speaking in his favorite third person, declared at a recent rally here to celebrate his new celebrity — the local gangster who roared loudly enough that the nation’s president felt compelled to invite him into the presidential villa.

Later, he told Newsday that he now wants nothing less than the outright separation of the delta from Nigeria, a country he called a colonial invention that exists only in name.

“I have not met anybody who says he is a Nigerian in this country,” he said. “There is no local word for Nigerian, because it does not exist in the minds of the people. It is only when they want to steal our resources that they say they are Nigerians, at the time of stealing.”

By gaining the attention of federal authorities, Dokubo and Tom — his principal rival, known as “The Godfather” — have portrayed themselves not as mere gangsters but as the defiant voices of a quixotic challenge to the Nigerian government and the oil multinationals, whose indifference to local suffering has inflamed quasi-separatist movements throughout the region.

The increasingly loud demand for self-determination from the delta is but one of many challenges to the legitimacy of the Nigerian state, from militants seeking an Islamic theocracy in the north to various ethnic movements pressing for autonomy in the south. Lately, Igbo nationalists in the southeast have resuscitated the idea of an independent Biafra, whose attempted secession led to the 1967-70 civil war that cost more than one million lives.

Leading voices for reform and clean government say many of the country’s 250 ethnic nationalities are demanding self-determination only because of institutionalized graft and misrule, a fact underscored by the latest survey released Oct. 20 by the Berlin advocacy group Transparency International, which ranks Nigeria among the world’s three most corrupt nations. (Haiti and Bangladesh complete the trio.)

“The system has broken down and it no longer works for anyone,” said Beko Ransome-Kuti, a prominent civil rights campaigner and one of the loudest voices demanding a national conference, independent of existing organs of government, to chart a new course for the country. “Clearly, we can’t continue like this any longer.”

But Obasanjo and leaders of the ruling People’s Democratic Party resist such a “sovereign” conference, fearing it would undermine their legitimacy. They insist advocates of reform should work only through the national and state legislatures. “When you say sovereign, it presupposes the nonexistence of sovereignty, which is not the case here,” said Peter Odili, governor of Rivers State and a close ally of the president. “The constitutional mechanisms already exist.”

By de-emphasizing their origins as gangster lords of the creeks and learning to speak the language of ethnic nationalism, the militia leaders of the Niger Delta have tapped a deep vein of resentment throughout the region. After almost five decades of sending oil to refineries on America’s East Coast, as well as points in Europe and Asia, the vast majority of local people have almost nothing to show for it. By all measures of human development, as defined by the United Nations, they and other Nigerians are worse off by far, falling behind in almost all categories, including per capita income and child mortality.

Few places better illustrate the desperation of the locals than Oloibiri, where Nigeria first struck oil in 1956. The country’s first oil boomtown has seen its population drop to perhaps 500 from an estimated peak of about 10,000 in the 1970s.

Deep in the Niger Delta, today it looks like a ghost town. Its mud streets are empty and almost no one is employed, save those harvesting the skimpy offerings from polluted creeks, from which residents also draw water for cooking, drinking and their daily ablutions. The single health center has long since closed. Electricity does not exist, and anyone who could has already moved away.

Among those left behind is 70-year-old Sunday Foster Iningite, the senior chief. Seated stiffly on a plastic chair in front of his dilapidated mud hut one recent afternoon, the old man mustered as much dignity as the circumstances permitted, mourning the hollowing out of his hometown.

“Not one of my children is here; there is nothing for them,” said the chief. “They sucked the oil until it was dry in the 1970s, then they abandoned us. Now, like cocks, we scratch the ground for a living.”

But while Oloibiri has fallen harder and faster than most communities — many of which never rose to begin with — it is hardly exceptional.

“Oloibiri is the total representation of what we face in this region,” said Adeka Inemo, a local environmental activist who runs the Niger Delta Resource Center. “Once you’ve seen Oloibiri, you’ve seen us.”

Since oil was first tapped in commercial quantities here, Nigeria has generated more than $300 billion in revenue from crude oil exports, according to industry estimates.

But the country has been ruled for much of its post-colonial existence by one of the world’s most flagrantly corrupt political elites. In fact, a recent UN study estimates that individual Nigerians, in a country with annual per capita income of about $300, have salted away more than $100 billion in foreign personal bank accounts.

The contrast between the ostentation of politicians and the widespread poverty of the region that produces much of the national wealth has sparked periodic bouts of unrest in riverbank communities scattered about the delta, where the Niger River fragments into dozens of tributaries before emptying out, spent, into the Atlantic.

The celebrated local rebel Isaac Adaka Boro led a doomed campaign for regional autonomy in the 1960s, but was captured and sentenced to death by hanging. In 1995, the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the impervious Gen. Sani Abacha, then Nigeria’s military dictator, for leading the local Ogoni people in a drive for self determination.

The latest challenge to the Nigerian state has come from armed militias and local gangs that rose in the past few years among the creeks and mangrove swamps of the delta, competing for the lucrative routes used by oil-smuggling cartels that often operate with official collusion. Gang leaders say they command as much as $30,000 for each barge smuggling oil out of the area. With such a windfall readily available, violent clashes have erupted with more regularity in recent years.

Tom, whose home base of Okrika is near Port Harcourt, leads the Niger Delta Vigilante, a militia of several hundred armed youths who rose out of the lawlessness of the area to impose their own brand of order. The oil companies also saw the value of paying the militia protection fees, and often retained them to guarantee that pipelines and flow stations were not vandalized by rival gangs.

Unlike Dokubo, Tom is a man of few words, abundant street smarts but little education. Like Dokubo, however, Tom has learned to portray himself as a kind of Robin Hood of the mangroves, a man who, if anything, is simply a protector of his people.

“We, the Ijaw people, we’re suffering too much,” Tom, 41, declared in broken English one recent afternoon in his large compound, referring to the ethnic group dominant in the delta. “We told the president that he should try to find work for our boys. If they cannot find jobs, this peace will not last.”

Dokubo, 40, is the more flamboyant of the two, a voluble, well-traveled man who renounced his middle-class upbringing for gangster chic. He said he dabbled in radical campus politics before he discovered Islam in 1988 as the true “revolutionary religion.” He changed his given name, Melford Goodhead Jr., and reportedly sought training as a jihadi, or religious fighter, in Libya and in Afghanistan, though on this point he remained coy.

“He came back home but never really agreed with the Muslims,” said his friend and fellow Ijaw youth activist, Miabiye Kuromiema, who suggested that the Islamic militant appellation was designed more to command attention in an overwhelmingly Christian and animist region. “He is an Ijaw man more than he is a Muslim.”

The environment in which he thrives would seem to suggest as much. Dokubo is surrounded by gunmen who wear amulets and openly express more confidence in Egbesu, the Ijaw god, than in the prophet Muhammad. Dokubo himself does not appear to faithfully follow the injunction to pray five times daily, what with all the rallies and news conferences of recent days. He readily declares, unlike a true jihadi, that religion is personal. And he had no prayer beads or any symbols of the truly devout in evidence.

His favorite subject is the impracticality of the Nigerian state. “Nigeria is not a genuine entity; Nigeria only exists in the imagination of the bandits in Abuja,” he said, speaking directly into a TV camera as his lieutenants nodded agreement. “They steal behind the scenes. They steal legally in accordance with their laws. But when we the oil, we are only taking what belongs to us. We will not be apologetic about it.”

While he claims more than 100,000 armed followers, even his closest associates say Dokubo’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force numbers no more than several hundred. Kuromiema, secretary general of the umbrella Ijaw Youth Congress, said he had been to one of Dokubo’s camps, which held some 80 fighters. “He has several camps,” Kuromiema said.

The militias, at any rate, were funded and armed by Nigerian politicians ahead of the 1999 and 2003 elections — attempts to help guarantee victory by whatever means. Dokubo, in particular, was reported widely in the Nigerian press to have enjoyed a close relationship with Odili, the governor, until they had a falling out and Odili began supporting Tom. Such accounts, said the governor, were “absolutely unfounded.”

Even the unrest in his region, he said one recent evening, was nothing more than a slight fever — “our hitherto peace haven was running a temperature.”

“We had so many years of nondemocratic rule, with suppression. Now everybody feels they have a right to express sentiments that had long been suppressed — some constructive, and some not so much,” he said.

In any case, a recent security consultant report commissioned by Royal Dutch/Shell said communal and political unrest in the delta typically results in about 1,000 deaths annually.

Unions declared the company “an enemy of the Nigerian people” yesterday and called a Nov. 16 nationwide strike that could send new shocks through the global oil price market.

Oil industry executives, including those at Shell, declined to be interviewed, citing current sensitivities. But one senior executive who asked that he not be identified further, said that although the industry is guilty of taking advantage of weak and unenforced regulations over the years, including casual environmental degradation, and the lifting of more oil from time to time than is officially disclosed, the oil companies are really in an impossible bind.

“In Nigeria, government is incredibly corrupt and is not designed to actually serve the public,” Odili said. “Just look around the country. You find criminal neglect everywhere. I mean, the politicians here are brazen! The problem is that local communities take it out on us, expecting us to play the role of government. But we can’t.”

For the villagers of Gbaratoru, outside the town of Yenagoa, this is scant comfort. In the late 1980s, Shell hired an oil services company to dredge the River Nun, the waterway made famous by the prominent poet Gabriel Okara in “The Call of the River Nun.” This was in preparation for exploiting the largest natural gas field yet struck in Nigeria.

But Gbaratoru was soon overwhelmed by the influx of more than 2,000 temporary workers, double its population — cash-flushed and testosterone-filled young men preying on village women and attracting young males away from school and fish-farming. Its social balance upended, the village fell into factional disputes. Young people drifted away from school and several girls became pregnant. The dredging unleashed large-scale erosion. An access road cut through a wetland and, with water flows disrupted, trees began dying.

Within two years, the dredging company had completed its work and departed. All that remained were lingering divisions in the village and the uncommon sight of rural youths smoking marijuana and laying about on a recent morning, while the women put their dugouts on the river, trolling for elusive fish.

“Now we have gangs and shootings and community dissension,” said Bubaraye Dakolo, the village secretary. “This place is so rich in gas that they will not leave us alone. But this” — he takes in the village with a sweep of his arm — “is the result.”

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.