Nigeria's Obasanjo steps down -- or does he?

ABUJA Thu Apr 19, 2007 12:48pm BST

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo watches the inauguration ceremony of Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade in the capital Dakar April 3, 2007. REUTERS/ Finbarr O'Reilly (SENEGAL)

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo watches the inauguration ceremony of Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade in the capital Dakar April 3, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/ Finbarr O'Reilly (SENEGAL)

ABUJA (Reuters) - No matter how many times Olusegun Obasanjo speaks of his plans to retire to his chicken farm after stepping down as president of Nigeria, millions still wonder whether he really means to relinquish power.

Obasanjo is presiding over elections that mark the first handover of power from one civilian head of state to another in Nigeria since it became independent from Britain in 1960.

But many Nigerians suspect the 70-year-old retired general intends to continue dominating the affairs of Africa's most populous nation and biggest oil exporter.

Obasanjo's allies tried last year to amend the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term.

When that failed, critics say the president adopted another strategy, to install a puppet in the form of Umaru Yar'Adua, the obscure governor of northern Katsina State. Both men deny this.

Obasanjo also did all in his power to block a presidential bid by his estranged deputy, Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

But the Supreme Court this week said Abubakar's disqualification was illegal, allowing him to stand.

In the eyes of many in Nigeria and abroad, these manoeuvres have tarnished the reputation of a man once hailed as a democratic hero.

Obasanjo first gained prominence during the 1967-1970 civil war over the Biafra region. As a young colonel in the federal army, he received the surrender of the secessionist Biafrans.

After a coup in 1975, Obasanjo was number two in the military government of Murtala Mohammed and when Mohammed was assassinated the following year, he became head of state.

He presided over elections in 1979 and handed over power to an elected president -- the first Nigerian army ruler to do so.

TRUMPED-UP CHARGES

After a long period out of the limelight, Obasanjo was convicted of plotting to overthrow dictator Sani Abacha, on what were widely seen as trumped-up charges, and jailed in 1995.

After Abacha's death in 1998, Obasanjo was released and was elected as civilian president in 1999.

His record since then has been mixed.

He has restored Nigeria's status as a major African power after years of isolation under Abacha, sending peacekeepers into several war zones and being feted at international summits.

He brought in a team of economic reformers whose budget discipline enabled Nigeria to build over $40 billion in foreign reserves and persuaded creditors to write off $18 billion debts.

He also launched a war on corruption, but critics say the crackdown was aimed mainly at his opponents.

Despite unprecedented oil earnings, power blackouts and fuel shortages are common and standards in schools and hospitals are among the world's lowest.

Obasanjo has also failed to curb ethnic, religious and regional tensions that have led to the deaths of an estimated 15,000 Nigerians under his watch.

He will leave his successor with an unresolved crisis in the Niger Delta, where oil production has been severely disrupted by kidnappings and violence.