Ex-dictator tops poll in Nigeria

NIGERIA MOVED a step closer yesterday to choosing the civilian president who could lead the country to democracy.

In primaries held ahead of presidential elections on 27 February General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler, emerged as a strong front- runner when he was chosen as the candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

At the weekend primary of the PDP in the central city of Jos, Mr Obasanjo, who was unelected last time he ruled Nigeria in the late 1970s, defeated Alex Ekwueme, a former civilian state president from the east of the country.

General Obasanjo won 68 per cent of votes from 2,439 delegates. "My joy knows no bounds. I will devote all my energy and all the powers awarded to me to the service of Nigeria and humanity," said the 61-year-old former political prisoner and, latterly, farmer.

In the 12 days remaining before Africa's most populous country choses a civilian president, he faces challengers from two other parties, the All People's Party (APP) and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). But both are in disarray.

There was fist-fighting at the APP's primary in Kaduna this weekend, and the two bodies are not likely to threaten General Obasanjo. They have plans for a pact but so far this has not been approved by the Independent National Electoral Commission.

Under the pact, the APP's candidate, Ogbonnaya Onu, a former governor of Abia state in south-east Nigeria, must now defeat Olu Falae, a former finance minister who is the AD's candidate. Dr Onu would then represent both parties.

The campaign to date has centred not on crucial issues, such as how Nigeria might be saved from its worst economic slump since independence from Britain in 1960, but on regional differences.

General Obasanjo, from the southern-based Yoruba ethnic group, is famous for having been the only military dictator to have handed power to a civilian leader. In 1979, when his position was threatened by rifts in the military, he saved face by handing power to a government in which Mr Ekwueme served.

He was imprisoned for allegedly plotting the overthrow of General Sani Abacha, the dictator who died last June. His release that month was one of the first gestures of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the new head of state, who produced the programme now under way for a transition to democracy.

Despite his record and the fact that General Obasanjo was a southerner in a northern-dominated military, he continues to be viewed with suspicion by fellow Yorubas whose powerbase is the the country's gigantic economic capital, Lagos. They consider him a traitor and claim many of the military figures who have governed Nigeria for all but 10 years of its independence are financing his campaign in return for imunity from prosecution for pocketing the country's wealth.

But Nigeria, which derives 95 per cent of its export earnings from oil, is also aware that General Obasanjo is the favoured candidate of investors. With the oil price currently at rock bottom and the country still excluded from the Commonwealth and much world trade because of the brutal policies of General Abacha, the country needs confident investors.

Despite an issues-lean campaign, General Obasanjo has impressed democracy campaigners by agreeing to consider passing more power to the regions and reforming Nigeria's federal structure. Many people argue that until government and military are decentralised, the threat of coups will continue to dominate policy-making.

How Lagos votes will be crucial to the outcome of the presidential election as well as that of the parliamentary poll on Saturday. Equally important will be the vote in the east, an area scarred by the Biafran war for independence in the 1960s.

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