Nigeria's likely leader in 'reversal of fortune'

Prisoner to president in eight months seen as Obasanjo's path afterSaturday's vote.

If reversals of fortune are the stuff of literature, Olusegun Obasanjo could write a blockbuster.

Eight months ago the retired Nigerian Army general was in jail, condemned for treason.

Now, as Saturday's election results are counted - and contested - in Africa's most populous country, he seems set to head oil-rich Nigeria's first civilian administration after 16 years of military rule - courted by crowds, stalked by journalists, and greeted at airports by dancers and drums.

Nigerians wonder what sort of man will lead them forward - one shackled to his military past or one sufficiently devoted to the ideal of a united, prosperous Nigeria to challenge the interests that brought him to power. For his country's 120 million people General Obasanjo may make the difference between stasis and progress, between phony and authentic constitutional reform. In his journey from imprisonment to presidency, Obasanjo has said little about how he will rule this West African giant.

He has reacted good-naturedly to those who called him a stooge of the Nigerian military. He has rarely pointed out that he had been thrown in jail for speaking too loudly and too often against the excesses of the military's supreme commander, Gen. Sani Abacha, whose death in June last year set the mechanism of democracy in motion.

In trying to read Nigeria's future, analysts are turning to the past, sifting through Obasanjo's three decades of personal triumphs and failures, to find not just a life but a mirror of the whole vast struggle of a people striving to fashion themselves into a nation.

Obasanjo was born in 1937 in Abeokuta, a historic city of the Yoruba, one of Nigeria's three dominant ethnic groups, including the Hausa-Fulani and Ibo. He joined the Army as a young man and went to England for officer training, attending the Royal Engineers Young Officers Course at Shrivenham.

First lesson in leadership

In April 1969 Obasanjo was put in charge of an Army division and sent into the region that proclaimed itself Biafra to fight the secessionist war waged by the Ibo, the largest tribe in Nigeria's southeast. The war killed a million people in three years, and it was to Obasanjo that the Biafran forces surrendered in 1970.

At this point, analysts say, Obasanjo got his first lesson in good leadership, learning the difference it makes in ordinary people's lives.

Instead of punishing the Ibo for the war, Nigeria's then-ruler, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, declared an immediate amnesty, reinstated scores of rebel commanders into the Army, and called on all "Biafrans" in hiding to come out and take part in the affairs of the new Nigerian state.

It was then, newspaper editors and commentators have recently argued, that Obasanjo decided that Nigeria could, and should, stick together as a nation and that the nation, the idea of it, was to be placed above everything else.

"To Obasanjo, Nigeria has always come first." says Karl Maier, a specialist in African affairs who is writing a book on Nigeria. "He will make deals, he'll do what he has to do to keep the boat on a steady keel but ultimately what matters to him is Nigeria as a united entity."

After the war, Obasanjo went back for further training at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London. In 1975 he was called back by General Gowon and appointed federal commissioner for works and housing. Six months later Gowon was overthrown in a coup led by Gen. Murtala Muhammed. Obasanjo was named chief of staff.

Here again Obasanjo was given the opportunity to work with a man long revered as a Nigerian statesman. General Muhammed's investigation into corrupt dealings by former governors led to his assassination in an ambush in Lagos on Feb. 13, 1976.

Obasanjo was made commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the supreme military council, and head of the federal military government.

Those who had taken Obasanjo's readiness to step in after the assassination as a sign of a hunger for power were proved wrong. Over a period of four years and four months, Obasanjo resisted significant pressure to derail the transition to democracy set on track by Muhammed. On the day he was meant to, Oct. 1, 1979, Obasanjo handed Nigeria over to civilian rule and retired from the Army.

He spent most of the following decade traveling. He promoted Nigeria in the major capitals of the world, remaining, as Mr. Maier, the African specialist puts it, "always, always involved in matters of the state."

In 1991 there was brief talk of Obasanjo's serving as secretary-general of the United Nations. Brief as it was, it recognized Obasanjo as a leading African statesman.

Opposing military rule

The traveling, and the promoting, came to a quick halt after the historic annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, won by a civilian billionaire, Chief Moshood Abiola. By the time General Abacha took power in November of that year, Obasanjo had become a vocal member of the majority opposed to any form of military rule.

In March 1995 he was put under house arrest, then tried in secret by a military tribunal. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 25 years, later reduced to 15. It took Abacha's death more than three years later to reverse Obasanjo's fortune: He was freed by Nigeria's current military ruler, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, shortly after he took power.

Back on his chicken farm near Abeokuta, Obasanjo declared he had no interest in running for office. He soon changed his mind.

Nigerians have been asking themselves why. To protect the interests of the military, some argue. To lend an honest hand, others counter.

Secessionist tensions accumulated under Abacha's regime need to be defused. The Niger Delta, where Nigeria's vast oil reserves are buried, is simmering with discontent. There may be the temptation among young colonels in the Army to stage an anachronistic coup.

Nigeria is at an important juncture - calling on all the strength and statesmanship Obasanjo has displayed in the past.

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