A flamboyant Yoruba chief with at least three wives, 150 traditional titles, an airline, a publishing house and an oil company, Mr Abiola, 55, is a household name in Nigeria. His is a rags-to-riches story: a poor man became a vice-president of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. He has campaigned to force Western nations to pay reparations for the slave trade and colonialism. He is a contributor to Nigerian sports, and pledged that if he was elected, Nigeria would reach the 1994 World Cup finals.
Early returns showed Mr Abiola leading Bashir Tofa by a wide margin. If his victory is confirmed, Mr Abiola will take office on 27 August, the day President Ibrahim Babangida is to hand over to an elected civilian government.
Mr Abiola's victory for the Social Democratic Party represents a fundamental shift in Nigeria's traditional bloc voting patterns. Early returns showed Mr Abiola, a Muslim millionaire from the mainly Christian south, had carried the northern states of Kaduna, political capital of the Islamic Hausa people, and Kano, the home of his National Republican Convention (NRC) rival, Mr Tofa. For the NRC things went wrong from the outset of the polls, when both Mr Tofa and his running mate were unable to vote because of problems with their registration cards.
Mr Abiola tried for the presidency in 1979 when he sought the nomination of the National Party of Nigeria. He lost to Shehu Shagari, whose government was overthrown in 1983 by General Muhammadu Buhari; he was in turn deposed by Gen Babangida. Mr Abiola is an old friend of President Babangida.
The poor state of the economy was central in the campaign, and is one of the main reasons Gen Babangida's military government is so unpopular. Mr Abiola promised to turn the economy around in six months, build housing and provide free schooling. Mr Tofa, a northern banker, promised much the same but with much less flair.
With the economy in tatters, many Nigerians view Mr Abiola as a saviour. But high expectations will be difficult to fulfil. Ethnic and religious tensions have been whipped up by the economic collapse, and Nigeria has been at odds with the International Monetary Fund over the military government's profligacy and lack of accounting.Reuse content