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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April 2003, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Profile: Olusegun Obasanjo

By Dan Isaacs
BBC, Lagos

Not even President Olusegun Obasanjo's supporters would describe him as a particularly charismatic leader, and throughout his career he has declared his reluctance to seek power.

President Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo's fight against corruption has under-achieved
But somehow, at every step he has been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and events have more or less propelled him into the presidency.

He has led the country twice - and on both occasions he assumed office after the sudden and unexpected death of a previous head of state.

His first term in office was as military leader from 1976-1979.

In 1999 he was elected at the head of a civilian government.

He has now secured a second and final term after winning disputed and controversial presidential elections on 19 April.

Power of incumbency

Mr Obasanjo stood for re-election under the banner of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP).

In party primaries at the beginning of January, Mr Obasanjo won more than 70% of the vote, easily beating his nearest challenger Alex Ekwueme.

1937: Born in Abeokuta, south-western 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

This is a dramatic turnaround for a man who, only a few months ago, was so unpopular within his own party, that it looked unlikely that he would receive the PDP presidential nomination.

That he not only won his party's support, but won it handsomely, is a testament to Mr Obasanjo's tenacious political skills.

Mr Obasanjo is a Christian from the Yoruba-speaking south-west of the country.

But in 1999, his electoral success was largely due not to southern support, but to the backing of northern Muslim interests.

In particular, it was the influence of one of the country's key power brokers, another former military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, that brought the north behind Mr Obasanjo.

This time around, the equation was very different. Mr Obasanjo now has the support of the south-west, but his position in the north had weakened.

This is because his main rival for the presidency was another former military head, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and a northerner.

The north was a key battleground for the election, and focused on issues such as the controversial introduction of Islamic or Sharia law into the criminal code of the northern states.

Mr Obasanjo, a devout Christian, has voiced his concern over the strict Muslim punishments contained in the laws, such as the stoning of adulterers.

Mr Buhari, a devout Muslim, is seen as a champion of Sharia and the interests of the Islamic north.

But his popularity failed to extend beyond the north.

Reluctant president

Born in Abeokuta in 1937, Olusegun Obasanjo, worked his way up through the ranks of the army.

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

Muhammadu Buhari
Military ruler of Nigeria from 1984 to 1985
Deposed in a coup
Poor human rights record
Seen as honest
Muslim from northern Nigeria
Running mate is Chuba Okadigbo, from south-east

Then in 1976, the then military head of state, Murtala Mohammed was assassinated, and Mr Obasanjo took over the reins of power.

As military ruler of Nigeria from 1976-79, General Obasanjo is well-remembered for having eventually handed over to an elected civilian government.

Mr Obasanjo retired to his farm in Otta, in his home state of Ogun, to rear pigs and chickens.

He subsequently became a strong opponent of military rule during the time of General Sani Abacha in the mid-1990s, and was imprisoned in 1995 on coup-plotting charges.

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

On his release from jail, Mr Obasanjo was seen by the northern military power elite, which still retains a strong influence over Nigerian politics, as an ideal candidate for the presidency in the forthcoming civilian elections.

Being a former military man, he understood how to control the army and provide for their needs; and as a southern Christian, he could allay southern fears of political domination by the north.

After some initial reluctance, Mr Obasanjo was persuaded to contest for the presidency in 1999.

No democracy dividend

There was a great deal of optimism at the start of his presidency, that democracy would bring an end to the economic decline and virulent corruption that were the hallmarks of 16 years of unbroken military rule.

But few in Nigeria would argue that at the end of his current term of office, either of these issues has been successfully addressed.

Burnt out tanker in Kano, October 2001
Ethnic and religious violence have increased under Obasanjo

Despite the broad remit and the occasional show-case investigation by the anti-corruption commission, it has so far led to the conviction of just one minor public official.

As for the economy, despite Nigeria's continued massive oil revenues, it is still in very poor shape.

Unemployment remains desperately high, the agricultural sector has been decimated over the years, and an estimated 70% of its population live below the United Nations-defined poverty line.

Instability and human rights

But perhaps of most concern during Mr Obasanjo's tenure has been the high level of communal and religious conflict across the country.

It is estimated that well over 10,000 people have lost their lives since 1999.

The causes of these sporadic outbreaks of violence have been varied, but almost everywhere have pitted Muslim and Christian communities against one another.

These clashes have been far worse than any communal conflicts witnessed during the military era, and led to concerns that political forces have been at work inciting much of the violence.

Whilst hard to quantify this, there is little doubt that competition for political power at the local level has led to the stirring up of latent ethnic and religious tensions.

Concerns have also been expressed over Mr Obasanjo's human rights record.

During his time in office, the army has been accused by human rights groups of two separate massacres (the first in Odi in 1999, the second in Benue State in 2001), in which hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed by soldiers in reprisal for the abduction and killing by local militia groups of security personnel.

Mr Obasanjo has never fully explained these actions, nor have investigations by the military led to the arrest or even public criticism of the army commanders who led the assaults.

Ultimately, Nigerian elections had little to do with satisfying the demands of the estimated 60 million potential voters, and everything to do with securing the backing of those who wield real political and business power behind the scenes, and who can ultimately secure the popular vote for the candidate of their choice.

Mr Obasanjo seemed to have done enough to maintain this support.

He now faces a huge task ahead, if he is to reunite a country that elections have revealed as more divided than ever.











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