Nigeria's soft-spoken top candidate

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua is the ruling party's candidate in Sunday's presidential election.

Habiba Yar'Adua, the sister of the man likely to become Nigeria's next president, points to a faded portrait of her brother as a boy smiling shyly in his matching hat and tunic.

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's face now gazes from election posters nationwide as Africa's most populous country gets set to do what it has never done before: pass rule from one civilian to another.

Until Mr. Yar'Adua emerged as the ruling party presidential candidate, few had noticed the soft-spoken Muslim governor of Katsina, one of Nigeria's most remote states. Many say he's a pawn of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

But Habiba says he shouldn't be underestimated, arguing that, "He can do what people don't expect."

If Sunday's vote goes smoothly, the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States will soon have a new president.

But that's a big if. Hundreds of people have died in preelection violence and more than 21 people were killed in state and local government elections this Saturday.

With just days to go before the presidential vote, it is still not clear if Vice President Atiku Abubakar will be able to run or not. The electoral commission decided recently to ban him from the race based on corruption charges that he denies. The Supreme Court is set to decide Monday whether he may run on behalf of the opposition Action Congress Party. Some worry the decision could trigger more violence.

On the campaign trail

During his last weeks in office, Mr. Obasanjo has been touring the country, raising Yar'Adua's arm at party rallies and introducing his champ. The difference between the two men could not be more stark. Obasanjo, round and robust, marches about the podium, shouting across the rally ground in pidgin English, overshadowing Yar'Adua's slight frame and soft voice.

Obasanjo's political style is similarly bold; he's known for getting results through sheer force of will. In a recent interview in the capital, Abuja, Yar'Adua appeared deferential and unassuming as he stressed the importance of discussion and of seeking correct information and able assistants to solve Nigeria's problems.

"I would like to see that I have a government that is trusted and credible," says Yar'Adua as he spoke in slow and measured terms about his presidential aspirations. "And that can be so, if we have proper respect for law and order."

A devout Muslim, Yar'Adua is one of 12 northern governors to have implemented Islamic law in his state. He met with Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola last month to give assurances that, if he became president, he would protect religious freedom for all of Nigeria's 140 million people, who are split evenly between the Muslim and Christian faiths.

Apart from the potential candidacy of Abubakar, Yar'Adua's main challenger is Muhammadu Buhari, also from Katsina, who tasted power as a military ruler in the mid-1980s when he earned a reputation for being tough on corruption.

Yar'Adua's critics say he is a marionette, plucked from obscurity for a starring role in a new government, with outgoing Obasanjo still pulling the strings.

Party insiders say that Yar'Adua won the PDP candidacy against other strong candidates, after Obasanjo intervened. Charles Dokubo, political analyst with the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, says Obasanjo's meddling is jeopardizing the credibility of the presidential polls before a ballot has been cast.

"It seems Obasanjo is trying to dictate who will rule Nigeria," says Mr. Dokubo. "It makes a sham of the elections."

Yar'Adua, speaking from his base in the capital, Abuja, told reporters that he would be his own man and dismissed the possibility that Obasanjo could continue to have influence during his tenure.

"I am amazed and amused any time people say these sort of things," said Yar'Adua at his considered pace. "There is no way you can govern a state or a federation or any nation by proxy – it just doesn't work."

A shrewd political operator

Yar'Adua's backers say he is a shrewd operator unlikely to be pushed around by Obasanjo after polling day. They point to his track record in Katsina as an example of how he will tackle corruption, which is stultifying national economic growth.

Yar'Adua is among the few of Nigeria's 36 governors who declared his assets before taking office in 1999 and again when he was reelected in 2003. And, in 2002, he won an award from Nigerian Union of Journalists as Nigeria's most transparent governor. The award was presented by none other than Mr. Buhari, his presidential rival.

Back in the simple Yar'Adua family home, the framed pictures that crowd the walls display the family's political pedigree.

Yar'Adua's father was a minister in Nigeria's first postindependence government. He and Habiba are two of 13 children their father had with Fatima, his third of four wives.

For much of his life, Yar'Adua was overshadowed by his older brother, Shehu, who played a leading role in the coup that installed Obasanjo as a military leader during the 1970s. He later died in jail after criticizing other military juntas.

Though a blue-blood politico, Yar'Adua is not above menial labor, Habiba says.

"He worked as the manager of the [family] farm but still he used to work with the laborers as if he was not the general manager," Habiba says.

In the sleepy streets of Katsina, residents seem generally satisfied with Yar'Adua's work during his eight years as their state governor.

They point to the large new compound of the State Secretariat, which rises out of the dust surrounded by smooth new roads complete with working street lights.

At the local polytechnic, where Yar'Adua taught chemistry for many years, lecturers say that things have improved since Yar'Adua become governor in 1999 – they have more buildings, more teachers, more books, and they are even paid on time.

But others say it has not been enough.

At the opposition Action Congress Party regional headquarters, party secretary Abdu Babangida, acknowledges that there have been gains under Yar'Adua, though somewhat limited.

"Yes, we have a road," he says. "But people still don't have fuel to put in their motorbikes. There are new school buildings, but without equipment or good teachers."

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Nigeria votes

Early results in Saturday's state elections showed a big victory for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP).

At least 21 people were killed over the weekend, police said. Opposition supporters burned buildings and barricaded election offices. Reports emerged of widespread intimidation, kidnapped election officers, stolen and stuffed ballot boxes, and fake results sheets.

Top contenders in Sunday's presidential vote are Umaru Yar'Adua, of the PDP, and ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria People's Party.

The Supreme Court decides Monday whether to allow Vice President Atiku Abubakar to run in Sunday's vote. The election commission recently banned him from running, based on corruption charges that he denies.

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