World greets new Nigeria president

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The Independent Online
THE PRINCE of Wales and President Nelson Mandela are among a host of international dignitaries in Nigeria today for the swearing-in of the country's first elected leader in 20 years.

General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator who was elected in a February poll, becomes president in an atmosphere of international goodwill, including formal re-admission to the Commonwealth today.

However, the two-horse race that saw him elected at the end of February was widely viewed as flawed and his rival, Olu Falae, unsuccessfully challenged the results in court. International observers endorsed the result, fearing instability if they ruled the election unjust.

General Obasanjo, who last ruled Africa's most populous country between 1976 and 1979, will take over power from General Abdulsalami Abubakar at a difficult time.

There have been allegations that General Abubakar's regime has plundered foreign reserve coffers in its last month in power. Whether or not these claims are true, the country is in bad shape.

The infrastructure has crumbled to a standstill and there is ethnic fighting in the southern oil-producing areas. At the same time the world oil price, on which Nigeria depends for virtually all its foreign exchange, is low.

Britain, the colonial ruler of Nigeria until 1960, is in the forefront of efforts to aid the country's passage to civilian rule. It wants a moratorium on the $2.5bn Nigeria must pay every year to service its debt.

The Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd, who is due to attend the presidential inauguration in the capital, Abuja, said yesterday that Britain looked forward to a new era in its relationship with Nigeria. "I am also delighted that the international community has recognised Nigeria's progress towards the restoration of democracy," he said.

This is Nigeria's third experiment in civilian rule since independence. So far, each has ended with a coup.

However, General Obasanjo, if not seen as a democrat to the core, has the advantage of knowing and being known by the military, especially the former military dictator and still highly influential General Ibrahim Babangida.

He will probably be better liked by the military than General Abubakar's predecessor, the tyrannical Sani Abacha, who was known for his greed and human rights abuses before his death in June last year.

It was General Abacha who, in 1995, ordered the hanging of nine activists campaigning in the oil-rich region of the Ogoni people, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. That led to Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth.