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Saturday, March 6, 1999 Published at 15:57 GMT

Nigeria rallies to Obasanjo

Olusegun Obasanjo: a popular presidential candidate

By Mark Doyle

The airport at the city of Kaduna, the political capital of northern Nigeria, was packed with supporters of the favoured presidential candidate, Olusegun Obasanjo, waiting for their man to fly in.

Click here to listen to Mark Doyle's report
When I say the airport was "packed", it wasn't that some waiting room was packed, or that a public viewing area was full of the candidate's supporters. No, this is Nigeria, a country which may suffer economic shortages, but where there's no shortage of people. So when a political crowd is required, a REAL crowd it is.

The entire airport building, the car park, and most of the runway, not to mention the long route into Kaduna city itself, was a heaving mass of thousands of colourfully-dressed people. All over the place, men and women were dancing furiously, trumpets were sounding, drums were drumming.

Happy but sceptical

There's genuine happiness here that the military have promised to leave power. Nigerians are far from naive. They're sceptical about the honesty of the incoming political class.

They also have their doubts about Obasanjo, who is a former military man himself. But he will head a civilian government, and for many people that's what matters.

Nigerians argue that both the military and the civilians may take more public money than they deserve, but that the soldiers have a tendency to take away the people's freedom and human rights as well. Hence the happiness that the military is returning to barracks.

Larger than life

The dancing at the airport went on for several hours and then the plane arrived. The crowd surged forward, and I was swept along too. Somehow I managed to scramble on board and as the door shut behind me, there was the candidate, sitting calmly on the plane, ready to answer a few questions.

The crowd had a moment of disappointment before they got their man. After my interview the door opened again, and the crowd cheered. But instead of Obasanjo, the bemused people saw me coming down the steps.

But, eventually, there WAS the candidate. A huge roar went up. Obasanjo received a bouquet of flowers from a pretty little girl, scooped her up in his arms, and conquered the city of Kaduna. Well, that was part of the story of how he won the election.

Like everywhere in the world, politics in Nigeria is a combination of carefully cultivated crowd enthusiasm and backroom deals. But because Nigeria is such a lively place, because the people are so confident, everything from the crowds to the backroom dealing is larger than life.

A victory rally

After the election, after Obasanjo had won, I was in a 1,000-roomed hotel that towers over the gleaming new capital city, Abuja. I was attending what was alleged to be a news conference, but was, in fact, a victory rally.

One by one the men and women at the 'High Table' were introduced by an entertaining impresario. Centre stage, there was the one and only Obasanjo and his wife, Stella. And then there were the men the impresario called the 'power engines' behind the throne. These were the political brokers on parade, the people who had delivered the crowds at the runway and at 100 other rallies around the land.

Up there on the dais a political grandee from the south had his trademark bowler hat on. A young woman just elected as a Senator for Obasanjo's party wore an elegant dress, and several men were carrying their traditional staffs of office, which varied from huge horsehair fly whisks to richly carved walking sticks.

Vying for attention

After the rally-cum-press conference I tried to get another interview, and I made my way to the successful presidential candidate's suite on the seventh floor of the hotel.

At first, a huge man the size of a door, who I took to be a bodyguard, stopped me. But after a while I inveigled my way through to the inner sanctum.

Unfortunately, this time I was to be unlucky. There was to be no BBC interview, the president-elect was tired. I could see it was true - Obasanjo was relaxing on a sofa making a phone call with dozens of courtiers vying for his attention.

I was disappointed about the interview, of course, but in that hotel suite I nevertheless saw another side to politics being played out before my eyes.

A nervous-looking German diplomat was presenting a letter of congratulations from HIS president and tentatively asking when President Obasanjo would be coming to Germany.

"We're not sure of the schedule', he whispered to me, only half-joking, "and we don't want him just turning up unannounced".

All around the room, crowding into Obasanjo's private quarters, were people seeking favours. The crush in the hotel suite of the president-elect was not unlike the crowd which surged towards the aspiring candidate's plane. But, by this time, the man had won.

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