- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

ABEOKUTA, Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo a gruff, combative ex-general is now just one battle away from winning his war for re-election.
The thick-set campaigner will face a fellow retired officer, Muhammadu Buhari, on Saturday in a "battle of the generals" at the apex of Nigerian politics.
After the apparent victory of his People's Democratic Party in last week's parliamentary elections, Mr. Obasanjo's confidence is high.
As election year dawned, the leader of Africa's most populous country still looked vulnerable to the attacks of his growing band of enemies in Nigeria's ruling elite. But behind the public rows and impeachment threats within his party, his coalition of self-interested power politicians was clicking into place.
Now, the former military dictator and veteran of the Biafran war hopes Saturday's vote will confirm his status in history as the man who brought democracy back to Nigeria.
Mr. Obasanjo was born March 5, 1937, in Abeokuta, a market town in southwestern Nigeria, homeland of his people the Yoruba. He went directly from school into military training, including a stint in Britain, and then into a military career.
He was a Christian and a southerner in an army led by the northern Muslim elite, but at many key stages in his career he turned out to be in the right place at the right time. He rose through the ranks almost effortlessly.
Mr. Obasanjo came to national prominence at the end of the 1967-70 civil war when he was the commander on hand to accept the battlefield surrender of the separatist Biafran forces. In 1975, he became chief of army staff to military ruler Murtala Muhammad. Barely a year later, his mentor was killed in a failed coup, and Mr. Obasanjo was standing by to take over.
As Nigeria's ruler between 1976 and 1979, Mr. Obasanjo seemed set in the same brutal mold as other Nigerian dictators, and he stands accused of many human rights abuses.
Most infamously, his troops forced their way into the Lagos home of popular singer Fela Kuti, the pioneer of Afrobeat, and killed his mother by tossing her from a window.
But in 1979, in a first for Africa, Mr. Obasanjo handed over power voluntarily to an elected civilian government.
He retired to run the extensive farms he had acquired in office, taking with him several wives married under various Nigerian rites and a large group of children.
He polished his memoirs and took posts on prestigious international commissions. In 1993, he sallied forth onto the political battlefield with public criticism of cruel dictator Gen. Sani Abacha.
He was accused of plotting a coup, jailed in 1995 and held until 1998, when Gen. Abacha died.
It was Mr. Obasanjo's unique status as a military strongman with a history of supporting democracy that raised such high hopes in 1999, when his election ushered in what Nigerians still call their "democratic experiment."
He began with a flourish, sacking 100 high-ranking military and civilian profiteers, promising an antigraft crusade and setting about restoring Nigeria's battered image around the world.
The world's most traveled head of state in office, he went around the globe to rehabilitate Nigeria, positioning it as a leader on its continent and a friend to the international community.
His reward was to see Nigeria's status rising and to see himself hailed internationally as a leader of homegrown development initiatives, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development.
But at home, the problems of an impoverished and divided nation of 120 million people were proving more intractable.
The return of civilian rule did nothing to stem Nigeria's descent into poverty, and more than two-thirds of the people in Africa's largest oil exporter now live on less than $1 per day.
Mr. Obasanjo's much-heralded anticorruption battle has made no headway. His antigraft panel has won no high-profile convictions, and foreign observers still regard his country as deeply corrupt. Since his election, regional and ethnic strife have exploded, and more than 10,000 people have been killed in mob violence.
But on Saturday, he probably will find himself once again in the right place, at the right time.

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