Only Obasanjo can win race to lead nation

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The Independent Online
OLU FALAE, the underdog in the presidential elections, has centred his two-week campaign on the need for a clean break with military rule. But Falae was a finance minister for General Ibrahim Babangida from 1989 to 1991.

He is a Yoruba from the southwest, so likely to do well in and around the economic capital, Lagos. But he is weak nationally, not least because voters are confused about which party he belongs to.

Yoruba nationalists see him as the natural successor to Moshood Abiola, the president-elect who died in General Sani Abacha's custody last year. Abachi died weeks later.

Falae started out with the Alliance for Democracy (AD) but now runs on the ticket of the All People's Party. His campaign team says two weeks has not been long enough to travel the width and breadth of this gigantic country, without the jets and cars provided for General Olusegun Obasanjo, 63. But the parties have only themselves to blame for the short campaign; none wanted to show its hand far ahead of the presidential elections.

Falae, 60 and Yale-educated, is a free-marketeer who believes the best way to combat corruption is to remove official controls. He was the architect of a stringent structural adjustment plan under General Babangida that went much further than anything the International Monetary Fund might have proposed.

He claims the plan was badly implemented by the military and that, when he left the finance ministry, the naira was 7.50 to the US dollar. The rate yesterday was 91 to the dollar.

Falae's manifesto includes free education, decentralisation of power and privatisation of electricity distribution. Obasanjo's is unclear.

The Falae way to get Nigeria back on its feet despite the low price of oil, which accounts for 95 per cent of Nigerian exports, includes expansion of gas production and diversification.

Obasanjo, the former military ruler who handed power to a civilian government in 1979, has since built an international reputation as a politician of vision. He is the favourite to win today's presidential elections.

His opponents say he is funded by the military establishment and, if he wins, he will merely be a military leader in mufti. He certainly has the wealthiest backers. A fund-raising dinner last Monday in Abuja allegedly raised 350 million naira (pounds 20m), with N120m from a single donor.

Obasanjo was jailed in 1995 by Abacha for allegedly staging a coup. He was among the first released by the present leader, Abdulsalami Abubakar, when he took power last June.