BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 18:17 GMT
Profile: Olusegun Obasanjo
President Olusegun Obasanjo
Over 10,000 have died under Obasanjo's civilian regime
Dan Isaacs

Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo swept to power in 1999, promising far-reaching democratic reforms in a country devastated by decades of military rule.

His answer to the massive communal and religious unrest across the country has been to use the army to control localised disturbances

As a former military ruler himself in the late 1970s, he had already handed power back to an elected civilian government, a rare move in Nigerian politics.

Critical of subsequent military regimes, he was also imprisoned for three years in the mid-1990s and was eventually persuaded to run as a civilian presidential candidate.

His People's Democratic Party created a successful coalition of interests, taking office amid widespread optimism that a new era had dawned in Nigeria.

But almost three years later, more than 10,000 people have died in communal or religious conflicts, the economy is in tatters, and former military leaders are once again eyeing the presidency.

Ethnic rivalry

Born in 1937 in the mainly Christian and animist south-west of the country, President Obasanjo is an ethnic Yoruba.

A Hausa slashed with machete
Ethnic tensions are on the increase

But he won power with the backing of many Hausa-speakers from the mainly Muslim north.

Ironically, much of the Yoruba southwest did not vote for Mr Obasanjo, seeing him as a traitor to Yoruba ideals by siding with other ethnic groups.

In a country of 120 million people, made up of more than 250 different ethnic groups, these factional tensions are inevitable.

The three largest - the Yoruba, Hausa and to a lesser extent the Ibo in the east - dominate national politics, to the exclusion of all other minorities.

This has led to a feeling of marginalisation and neglect in many parts of the country, particularly in the southern Delta area where Nigeria's vast oil reserves are located.


President Obasanjo, like his military predecessors before him, has largely failed to address these tensions.

Obasanjo biography
1937: Born in Abeokuta, southwestern Nigeria
1970: Accepted the surrender of Biafran forces
1976: Became military ruler
1979: Voluntarily handed power to civilians
Retired from politics
1995: Jailed by General Sani Abacha
1998: Released by General Abdulsalami Abubakar
1999: Elected civilian president

His answer to the massive communal and religious unrest across the country has been to use the army to control localised disturbances.

It is only very recently that he has seriously considered other forms of conflict resolution, such as the bringing together of local leaders to resolve differences before violence erupts.

He first came to prominence as the soldier who accepted the surrender of Biafran forces in the 1967-70 civil war.

He became head of state in 1976 following the assassination of Brigadier Murtala Mohamed.

In 1979, he became the first African military leader to hand over power to a civilian government following national elections.

Mr Obasanjo then said he had retired from politics and returned to his home state and set up a poultry and pig farm.

But he also continued to sit on a number of international committees dealing with African problems, and set up his own African Leadership Forum.


He became increasingly critical of subsequent Nigerian military regimes.

Residents fleeing Lagos
Factional tensions are rising

In 1995 he was jailed by the late military dictator, General Sani Abacha on charges of plotting a coup along with 43 other soldiers and civilians.

When General Abdulsalami Abubakar took over as head of state following the unexpected death of Abacha, he released nine key political prisoners, including Mr Obasanjo in June 1998.

Despite his earlier protestations that he would not run for the presidency, Mr Obasanjo changed his mind, saying that he had been persuaded by his friends and supporters.

At the time, many considered him to be an ideal choice to hold this complex nation together, particularly given his close relationship and understanding of the military.


But as Nigeria approaches fresh elections next year, there are growing fears for the country's stability.

Far more people have died in communal clashes during the last few years of civilian rule than under any previous military regime.

And it is also the case that no civilian government in Nigeria has ever held successful elections.

The military, however, can lay claim to that honour.

If Mr Obasanjo does choose to run for office again in 2003, he will face a stiffer challenge than he might have expected.

Economic hardship and political unrest have taken their toll on his popularity, and powerful politicians, some of them former military leaders, are actively manoeuvring for a challenge to the presidency.

See also:

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories