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Nigeria leader ends honeymoon period

By Alex Last
BBC News, Lagos

Umaru Yar'Adua (File photo)
Umaru Yar'Adua's leadership style has surprised some
Six months ago, on a sweltering parade ground in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, Umaru Yar'Adua was sworn in as the president of Africa's most populous nation - the first time one civilian leader had taken over from another.

A quiet Muslim governor from a wealthy northern Nigerian political dynasty, Mr Yar'Adua was a relative unknown until he was picked by boisterous, autocratic President Olusegun Obasanjo to be his chosen successor.

But as he was being unveiled to the public in the run-up to the election, he clearly wanted to be seen as a different kind of Nigerian leader.

"For the ruling elite in Nigeria, I am sorry to say, the conception seems to be that those in positions of authority and leadership tend to be privileged and even consider themselves above the law," he told me on the election campaign trail.

"I want a situation where if I become president, everybody knows I am in the office as a worker, to do the job."

'Interfering leaders'

He came to power in controversial circumstances: the elections won by his governing party were so marred by vote-rigging and fraud that observers, including the European Union, said they were simply not credible.

So his legitimacy was weakened from the start - and his position is still technically under threat.

His election victory is currently being challenged at a special election tribunal.

Yet the public mantra of this presidency has been the rule of law, the constitutional separation of powers, and non-interference.

Nigeria in a country used to interfering leaders.

Yet Mr Yar'Adua has let the election tribunal overturn other key results and has rescinded controversial privatisations made in the dying days of Mr Obasanjo's administration.

President Olusegun Obasanjo
Olusegun Obasanjo's style was markedly different

Perhaps one of the most dramatic illustrations of this new policy came during a multi-million dollar corruption scandal which surrounded the former speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives, Patricia Etteh.

On the floor of Nigeria's house, lawmakers for and against the speaker shouted abuse at each other. There were several fist fights and even one fatal heart attack.

The house was deadlocked: it dragged on and on, not a single piece of legislation was debated for four months.

Despite appeals, the new president repeatedly refused to get involved to settle the matter - saying it was not his constitutional role.

"I think Nigerians expected Yar'Adua to intervene because they're used to President Obasanjo interfering in the legislature," says Farouk Lawan, was one of the leaders of the campaign to oust the speaker.

"But Yar'Adua gave the legislature the opportunity to sort out its own problems. It was good for the development of our democracy."

'Weak institutions'

Critics say the problem with this policy of non-interference - this hands-off approach to government and ultimate faith in the rule of law - is that it only works if institutions are capable of running affairs for themselves.

The concern is that in Nigeria, after decades of autocratic leaders, abuse and corruption, the institutions are just too weak.

So instead there is crippling indecisiveness and government slows to a snail's pace.

After decades of autocratic politics, dominated by big men, notorious for self-enrichment, it seems the idea of a servant president makes a nice change

But Jibrin Ibrahim of Nigeria's Centre for Democracy and Development believes there is no other choice.

"Nigeria was not functioning under President Obasanjo because what you had was an imperial president," he says.

"He had defined his role as president to control parliament, to control the judiciary, to control all institutions and the state governments.

"So now, I'm not saying we have started institutionalisation, but we have an opportunity to put it on the table."

Mr Yar'Adua has promised zero tolerance of corruption.

He prides himself on the image of leading a humble, simple life and is the first president to voluntarily declare his assets at the start of his time in office.

But some question why certain notorious and powerful figures in Nigeria have not been prosecuted for corruption.

They wonder whether he has the political courage or strength to get stuck in when it matters - as doing nothing sends its own kind of message.

The long-serving anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu says it is simply that the government is in a period of transition.

"We are coming from a totally different experience. And we have someone, who maybe somehow the world will require at a bit of time to understand," he told the BBC.

"So far, I am quite impressed: Yar'Adua is quiet and humble. He's a bit different, but people tend to misunderstand that a lot.

"But the most important thing is if the person is clean. And I am convinced he is."

Unresolved problems

Despite the good image, many of Nigeria's huge basic problems are still unresolved.

For much of the time, the commercial capital, Lagos, resonates to the hum of generators because there is an acute shortage of electricity, even though Mr Yar'Adua promised to declare a state of emergency on power.

Still, though, when asked how the president was doing, many on the streets of Lagos seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He's just in his own world; he's not in touch with people and the problems that are going on.
Woman in Lagos

"I believe if you give him time, he will do well," one businessman said.

"And if he can improve on our light, he will become the people's president."

Standing by a potholed road outside a shopping centre, a young woman was less pleased.

"He's just in his own world; he's not in touch with people and the problems that are going on.

"We have no electricity; still no running water; the roads are still a pit. I don't understand why it takes three hours, three days, three years or whatever to fix electricity and basic necessities."

The president's honeymoon period has lasted a long time.

After decades of autocratic politics, dominated by big men, notorious for self-enrichment, it seems the idea of a servant president makes a nice change.

But ultimately the real test of this presidency is not about its image, but whether it is capable of delivering the promises of real reform.


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