Helicopters whirred overhead, masquerade dancers weaved through the crowd, police sharpshooters took up position, the red carpet unrolled and the band played on. Down the road, a giant hoarding informally launched the election campaign.
A blaze of colour, a dizzying mix of fashion statements and musical genres greeted President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience as they arrived in Okrika for the conferment of their chieftaincy titles.
Dancers were gyrating in sunshine-yellow crinolines as masked figures on stilts stepped around them appealing to the spirits, while trumpets, saxophones and hunting horns rang out to the insistent beat of a score of conga drummers.
Our growth is not inclusive enough
The next day, President Jonathan attended the burial ceremony of Patience's foster mother, Charity Oba, accompanied by all the state governors in the Delta and top officials from Abuja.
Advertising hoardings along the main thoroughfares bore the messages: "Wishing Mr President well in 2015".
President Jonathan has not said he wants his party's nomination in 2015. For his supporters in the Delta, it is a foregone conclusion. Their man will run and he will win.
Dimieari Von Kemedi, Delta businessman and sometime presidential adviser, says it is a straightforward calculation: "If Jonathan can produce a credible record – privatising power and launching the gas industry – then he can stand. Let Nigerians judge."
In a halting speech at his mother-in-law's burial, Jonathan appeared to be going beyond elections to mulling his legacy: "What challenges me is the day that I step out of State House [...] what would future generations of Nigerians remember me for?"
A moment of introspection or unofficial campaign launch?
In the Delta, there is wide-ranging support for Jonathan despite jibes at the pace and extent of change.
He has presided over a redirection of federal funds to the Delta, but there are big questions about who has benefited, outside the region's new elite.
"Jonathan has had a positive effect on the people of the Niger Delta and on their morale," says professor Ebiegberi Alagoa at the University of Port Harcourt, "even though there's not much physical achievement on the ground so far in terms of roads and utilities."
Delta mega-project flags
Harsh realities in the Delta remain.
When finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala gave a presentation of her budget speech on 20 November, she referred to the World Bank's estimate that 68% of Nigerians are living in extreme poverty of less than $1.25 a day.
"Our growth is not inclusive enough,"she conceded. Of those estimated 100 million poor people, more than a fifth are in the Delta, many of them with their farms and fisheries destroyed by oil spills and their stalls and houses knocked down by political violence.
As the base of the oil industry, the Niger Delta should be the magnet for new energy investments.
Instead, a mega-project – a $9.3bn refinery and plastics complex being developed by Aliko Dangote – will be in Ondo State, which is between the Delta and the commercial capital, Lagos.
Work on Dangote's project starts this year and most of the money has been raised.
But the big idea claimed by Jonathan's campaign, a state-backed multibillion-dollar gas city and port based at Ogidigben in Delta State, is running far behind.
Alagoa says that establishing credibility will be an uphill struggle: "We have seen some new institutions in the Delta, but they are not delivering and they're not well run."
A case in point is the heavily politicised Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), which has an annual budget of more than N250bn ($1.6bn).
Why do we have so little to say about empowering the non-militants? What kind of demonstration effect are we looking at? Are we encouraging people to take up guns?
The agency is meant to build roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. It has launched hundreds of projects that a new investigation says would take more than N1.4trn to complete.
Locals criticise the NDDC as a gigantic pork barrel institution run by the presidency and state governors. They expect it to dole out billions more in patronage in next year's national election campaign.
They say that managers, some of whom lack technical qualifications, "sell" middle-ranking NDDC jobs. That means an employee will pay them 30% of their monthly salary.
A drawn-out fight has raged between state governors over the new managing director of the NDDC.
Jonathan appears to have listened to his close ally, Cross River State governor Godswill Akpabio, and appointed Dan-Abia Bassey to the top job, despite claims that he was pushed off the board last year for poor performance.
Although he is a senior official in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) in Rivers State, Martins Kpabari simply asks: "Why should a politician run the NDDC? Management positions there should be reserved for qualified technocrats."
Alagoa says the people of the Niger Delta are not getting good value for the billions allocated there.
Tam Araudoubra Sultan Zimughan, a friend of the president and director of the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation, agrees: "There is money going into the Delta and yes there's something to show for it. The east-west road is being built, even if very behind schedule. There's the University of Bayelsa and the shipbuilding project in Delta State. But there's also this desperate need to create jobs [...] without working out how they would fit in the bigger economy."
For example, locals are asking how many jobs will be created by the new $120m headquarters of the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board at Yenagoa in Bayelsa State.
It is designed to be a 17-storey building with a 1,000-seat auditorium and will be the biggest conference centre in the country.
The building is to be financed by the Nigerian Content Development Fund, which brings in 1% of all contracts awarded in the upstream oil sector.
Militant deal under strain
According to Zimughan, a lot of the money is wasted on the amnesty and retraining of militants scheme, which started in 2009.
"Why do we have so little to say about empowering the non-militants? What kind of demonstration effect are we looking at? Are we encouraging people to take up guns?"
Four years on, some militants are breaking with the accord and threatening violence to extract fresh payments from the state.
Under the 2009 deal, militants were given 60 days to surrender their arms and renounce armed struggle.
After that they would get a stipend, vocational training, a job on a local construction project or a contract to provide security for the same pipelines they used to attack.
Take the leading ex-militant Government Ekpemupolo or 'Tompolo': his Global West Vessel Specialist company was awarded a $100m coastal and pipeline surveillance security contract and he is an informal adviser to Jonathan.
Tompolo's deal is certainly unusual.
A review of the amnesty programme two years ago found 80% of the funds went to political consultants and contractors.
That prompted Kingsley Kuku, the chairman of the presidential amnesty commission, to suggest that the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration was becoming "an alternative government in the Niger Delta region".
The other risk is the proliferation of arms in the region since the militants started their own security companies.
Kennedy West, an ex-militant who now runs the Association for Non-Violence in the Niger Delta, reckons the number of guns in the Delta has doubled in the past three years.
Large caches of arms were secreted away by colleagues of the militant leaders just before they joined the amnesty programme.
Some of the old militant groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have resurfaced. Now its mission looks more monetary than political.
Before the amnesty, MEND would attack oil installations to draw attention to the inequities and environmental wreckage in the Delta.
This year, Nigeria-based hijackers and pirates have overtaken their Somali counterparts and helped to make the Gulf of Guinea the world's least secure shipping route.
Almost all the hijackings attempt to raise ransoms rather than set political demands.
The kidnapping of two United States sailors in late October by a group with a loose affiliation to MEND attracted a wave of interest. They were released a couple of weeks later.
Earlier that month, MEND had threatened to attack Chevron's plant at Escravos.
Then its spokesman Jomo Gbomo claimed responsibility for an explosion at the Warri refinery, saying it was a protest against the "unsustainable and fraudulent Niger Delta amnesty programme".
Oil production still down
Surprisingly, a senior Nigerian security official agreed with him: "I would have preferred that we used the money spent on amnesty to beef up our navy and Delta surveillance capacity, and crack down hard on the militants and saboteurs," the official told The Africa Report.
"People have exploited the amnesty programme ruthlessly."
Oil production losses are now running at 400,000 barrels per day (bpd), just under 20% of national production, due mainly to sabotage and spills.
About 100,000bpd are stolen by well-organised and internationally connected criminal gangs.
The return of widespread criminality to the Delta is costing Jonathan credibility and state revenue.
Sharpening political rivalries ahead of the elections could make the trouble worse.
There is no sign of a truce between Jonathan and Rotimi Amaechi, the dissident governor of Rivers State, who is a prime mover in a new faction that broke away from the ruling PDP in August.
Although Amaechi's term expires in 2015, he wants to choose his successor and has his own plans to get into national politics as a minister or even presidential candidate.
But he is at loggerheads with Jonathan and especially Patience, who wants her candidate Nyesom Wike to take over as governor in Rivers State as soon as possible. Political partners five years ago, Wike and Amaechi are now at daggers drawn.
Their supporters have already clashed on the streets of Port Harcourt.
Amaechi attended the burial of Patience's mother in Okrika, standing next to and commiserating with the first couple.
But the following week he welcomed the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) to Port Harcourt for political talks.
Rumours persist that Amaechi could get on the APC presidential ticket and run against Jonathan, although many Delta politicians advise him not to. "The end will be bad for Amaechi" says the PDP's Kpabari.
"All politics are local and Amaechi's people won't accept him making alliances outside the region."
Set against this record of political and economic troubles in the Delta, Jonathan has promised a national conversation which has quickly morphed into a national conference on Nigeria's political future.
Despite widespread suspicion that it is a diversionary tactic, people in the Delta welcome it. Professor Alagoa is categorical: "The national conference will inevitably result in constitutional change – more devolution, more federalism."
For the Delta, those changes should mean more control of the oil resources. "Every community will have the responsibility for their own fate and not depend on resources from the centre," adds Alagoa.
If that is decided at the national conference and enshrined in a new constitution, then Jonathan would indeed win a hero's status in the Delta.
Otherwise, he risks going down as the first president from the region, who also spent vast sums that went mainly to the political godfathers while the poorer denizens of the Delta were marginalised once again. ●