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Can humility save Africa's giant?

Nigeria's new leader brings a quality of character that can fix corrupt voting and delta violence.

June 1, 2007



After one of the most rigged and violent elections in African history, the new president of Nigeria struck the right tone in his inaugural address on Tuesday: "I will be a listener," said Umaru Yar Adua, "and serve with humility."

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He'll need that modesty if he is to repair a corrupted democracy and gain legitimacy in leading the continent's most populous country.

Mr. Yar Adua does not appear to be like a typical "big man" who often rules in sub-Saharan Africa. As a Muslim, he prayed under a tree for years. As a former chemistry professor, he is Nigeria's first university-educated leader. When he was governor of Katsina State in the north, he declared all his assets, drove a plain car, and apparently ran a clean and effective government. He often visited poor villages to empathize with the victims when tragedy struck.

"When people talk about power, I don't see where the power lies," he recently told reporters. "If you are honest with yourself, the power lies with the law."

Whether his humble style means he will simply be a puppet of the ruling People's Democratic Party's elite remains to be seen. He was picked from relative obscurity by the outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to run for president.

Yar Adua will need to display his law-based brand of power soon. Nigeria is Africa's second-wealthiest nation because of its huge oil exports. Yet its 140 million people remain largely impoverished. Nigeria is twice the size of California, and its politics are twisted around the diverse interests of more than 200 ethnic groups and a split between Muslims and Christians.

Even though this election saw the first transfer of power from one elected civilian president to another, Nigerians have slowly lost faith in democracy. The same is true in much of Africa: Multi-party elections have increased but not so the quality of governance.

The previous president was able to improve the economy during eight years in office with such steps as paying off all foreign debt. And somehow Nigeria is no longer considered the world's most corrupt nation on a global index.

Yar Adua must build on this pro­gress by fixing the broken electoral system. Most observers claim the April 21 election was so flawed that it's difficult to say if the new leaders represent the will of the people. Yar Adua acknowledges serious problems during the vote. His instincts are also right in turning to the serious problems of the Niger Delta, the main source of the country's petroleum but an area with few roads, little electricity, and a great deal of lawlessness.

Resentment is high among the delta's poor residents over not gaining a greater share of the region's oil riches. That has fueled local armed groups that kidnap foreigners and bomb pipelines. The violence has diminished investment and led to spikes in global oil prices.

Yar Adua says he will come up with a plan within 100 days to secure the delta. But the politics of divvying up the nation's oil wealth is tricky. He'll need to rely strongly on his personal integrity to bring a sense of national unity while also instilling the rule of law in the delta. "We are all in this together, and we will find a way to achieve peace and justice," he says.

If he succeeds in the delta and restores faith in democracy, Nigeria can assume its natural leadership among African nations.

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