Nigeria's Yoruba chief who would be president

LAGOS - Praise songs in the high- pitched voices of a Muslim women's group lit up the face of Chief Moshood Abiola as he swept into the room in flowing blue robes to begin another day in his battle to wrest control of Nigeria's presidency from his old friend, General Ibrahim Babangida, writes Karl Maier.

After a round of songs and speeches delivered by supporters, Chief Abiola, 55, a Muslim millionaire philanthropist, stretched out his arms and announced, 'I have never been happier in my life.'

The scores of pictures and paintings of himself adorning his mansion, situated on Chief Moshood Abiola Crescent, indicate an obsessive affection for attention. His victory in Nigeria's first presidential elections in a decade, on 12 June, capped a rags-to- riches story of a poor youngster who studied at the University of Glasgow on a scholarship and rose to become a vice-president of International Telephone and Telegraph, owner of a national airline, a publishing house and an oil company.

Chief Abiola had become the first southerner to win Nigeria's highest office, a Yoruba from the south-west of the country who attracted significant votes across the country's regional, ethnic and religious barriers.

Standing in the way of attaining the ultimate goal, the presidency, is the man whose face is featured in many of Chief Abiola's pictures, Gen Babangida, the soldier who justified his reputation as Nigeria's wiliest politician by annulling the elections before the count was finished. The general, who took power in a 1985 palace coup, appeared bent on keeping it by staging another one before an elected president could take office.

Chief Abiola challenged the government's action in court, but a timely military decree said the judiciary had no jurisdiction in the matter. Last month the regime closed Chief Abiola's Concord newspaper and magazine, along with four other dailies, because of their incessant criticism.

In his own speech and an interview afterwards, Chief Abiola focused on the deal Gen Babangida has negotiated with the two army-backed political parties, including a faction of his own Social Democrats, to exclude him from a hand-picked interim government that would serve under overall military command. Gen Babangida is too frightened of possible probes into widespread allegations of corruption and human rights abuses to leave office. 'We are dealing with a very desperate man who knows he is not wanted,' Chief Abiola said. 'It is now clear that all he wanted was to get the politicians to beg him to stay. But what household would beg a plague to stay?'

He is cool to calls by pro-democracy activists for protests to force Gen Babangida from office, fearing a repeat of the violence in June that claimed up to 100 lives. Chief Abiola believes the armed forces could turn to him: 'The army will not support a conspiracy against the Nigerian people. The people and armed forces will ensure I am sworn in on 27 August.'