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Nigeria's savior, or not

The leader of Africa's most populous nation is endangering not only his own legacy but his nation.

November 11, 2006

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO has done more for Nigeria than any leader in its modern history. Now that legacy is endangered -- by none other than Obasanjo himself. Nigerians and the international community should keep the pressure on Obasanjo to step aside.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and the United States' fifth-biggest source of imported oil, was a basket case until Obasanjo was elected in 1999. Since then, he has reformed the nation's chaotic banking sector, battled its endemic corruption and built a foundation for democracy in a nation that has never seen a peaceful transition from one elected leader to another.

But he also is nearing the end of his second and final term as president, and he has shown a worrying reluctance to step down as planned in April 2007. Five months ago, he tried to rewrite Nigeria's constitution to allow for a third term but was rebuffed by parliament. Other recent actions look suspiciously like the machinations of a budding dictator, and they may not only undo most of the good Obasanjo has accomplished but perhaps plunge his country into civil war.

At the core of the troubles is Nigeria's crusading Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a 3-year-old agency that already has sent about 2,000 people to prison on corruption charges. (According to the commission's chief, Nuhu Ribadu, an estimated $380 billion has been stolen or wasted in Nigeria since independence in 1960.) Yet as the commission has started taking on the country's 36 state governors, many fear that Obasanjo is using it to target his political opponents and disrupt the April elections.

Even if the financial crimes commission isn't on a political witch hunt, there is no way to avoid the appearance of one so close to an election. Obasanjo should suspend the panel until after April. He also should beef up the elections agency. If he doesn't, and voids the elections to maintain power, a bloody civil war is almost certain to follow.

Which course the Nigerian president takes will affect more than his legacy and his nation. An armed insurgency in the country's south cut oil production by 25% this year, playing a key role in the run-up of crude prices that only recently began to ease. Obasanjo has a chance to become a respected elder statesman who could influence continental politics long after leaving office and bring much-needed international attention and aid to Africa. Or he could be another in a long line of Nigerian despots, cursed by his people and forgotten by history.

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