LAGOS (Reuters) - From lobbying for intervention in crisis-torn Ivory Coast to strong backing for Western-led air strikes in Libya, Nigeria has been busy burnishing its credentials on the diplomatic stage in recent months.
The African giant, home to more people than Russia, won an unprecedented third term as chairman of West African regional bloc ECOWAS last week and sees itself as a prime contender for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
But its credibility as a regional leader at a critical time, with Ivory Coast plunging back into war and the international community striving for a common voice on North Africa, hinges on the success of elections which begin Saturday.
Polls as flawed as the last ones in 2007 -- marred by ballot stuffing and intimidation -- could easily erode the goodwill President Goodluck Jonathan has built up since inheriting power last year when his predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua died in office.
"Nigerian leadership in ECOWAS, at the African Union, and at the United Nations has been impressive and commendable, particularly with regard to the crises in Cote d'Ivoire and in Libya," U.S. ambassador Terence McCulley told Reuters.
"The quality of these elections will certainly be important as to how the U.S. and other nations view Nigeria, and how effectively Nigeria can exercise leadership internationally."
Nigeria enjoyed strong relations with the West under ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo, who oversaw an $18 billion debt relief deal in 2005 and was the first major African leader to visit the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But Obasanjo's attempt to secure a third term and his subsequent role in organising the chaotic 2007 elections which brought Yar'Adua to power soured his reputation.
His successor, a softly spoken northern Muslim with a chronic kidney ailment, did little to rebuild bridges. Nigeria voted against a 2009 U.N. resolution against Iran for rights abuses during post election unrest, unthinkable under Obasanjo.
"During the Obasanjo years, even when Nigeria followed the traditional African position of abstaining, we could count on it to lobby hard for pro-Western positions behind the scenes," said one Western diplomat, who declined to be named.
"During the Yar'Adua years, Nigeria was unfocused, unreliable and rudderless," he said.
Nigeria was one of three African nations to vote for a U.N. resolution authorising a no-fly zone over Libya this month and led calls for U.N. sanctions in Ivory Coast, where elections last November reignited a civil war they were meant to end.
Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia accused the international community last week of double standards by protecting civilians in Libya but doing little to end abuses in Ivory Coast, where more than 500 people have been killed since the stand-off began.
The 15-nation U.N. Security Council, of which Nigeria is a non-permanent member, voted unanimously late Wednesday for a resolution drafted by France and Nigeria to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Gbagbo.
"Nigeria has demonstrated increased willingness to assert itself in a constructive manner in the sub-region, on the African continent and beyond," McCulley said.
Critics say Nigeria and other African powers have been too slow to take decisive action beyond issuing statements in the three months since the crisis began in Ivory Coast.
Defying diplomatic pressure, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo has stood firm since claiming an election victory despite U.N.-certified results showing he lost. Rival Alassane Ouattara and his government remain holed up in a lagoon-side hotel, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers.
But diplomats say there has been a historic shift.
"Everyone knows Gbagbo is finished, it is just a question of time. That outcome is not the result of boots on the ground but of international condemnation and concerted diplomatic action under the strong leadership of Nigeria and ECOWAS," one Western diplomat said.
"Contrast that with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) and most African states refused to condemn the slaughter of hundreds of thousands because it would go against the principle of non-interference."
Like so many conflicts in West Africa, Ivory Coast's unrest was triggered by disputed elections. Nigeria would be in a weak position to police the region if it too holds polls next month that are anything less than credible.
"The disastrous 2007 elections stripped Nigeria of its moral authority to lead in the West African sub region. This is why having more credible elections in Nigeria is so important to Western interests," the diplomat said.
"Had the 2007 polls been better, we would not have seen so many democratic setbacks in West Africa over the past few years."
The ruling party candidate has won every Nigerian election since the end of military rule 12 years ago and Jonathan is the front-runner in the April 9 vote, although he faces a concerted challenge from former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
Should the polls pass smoothly, Nigeria might have a stronger case lobbying for a permanent Security Council seat.
"The world is no longer the way it was when the apparatus was set up," Ajumogobia told Reuters last month, arguing most of the conflicts the U.N. engaged itself with were in Africa.
"Nigeria has played an extravagant role in peacekeeping in the world. We're the fourth largest contributor of troops ... I think it is reasonable and fair that we should have a stronger voice in determining the outcomes of Security Council debates."
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(Editing by Giles Elgood)