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Nigeria’s ruling party has chosen Umaru Yar’Adua, a reclusive Muslim state governor, as its candidate to succeed President Olusegun Obasanjo in landmark national elections next April.

Thousands of delegates drawn from across Africa’s most populous country voted this weekend in a subdued ballot in the capital Abuja to nominate the man who at this stage is the country’s most likely next president.

The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), with its deep pockets and tight control over the security services, already controls the vast majority of elected posts in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

A non-ideological election winning machine binding Nigeria’s diverse elites, the PDP has ruled Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999, winning two landslide election victories marred by rigging and violence.

Next year’s polls should mark the first transfer of power from one civilian president to another in one of Africa’s most corrupt countries, but many analysts and diplomats already fear the elections could be marred by even worse rigging and electoral violence than before if Mr Yar’Adua, who is relatively anonymous within the party structures, is the PDP’s official candidate.

Despite being the younger brother of the late Shehu Yar’Adua, the deputy of Mr Obasanjo when he was military ruler in the 1970’s, Umaru Yar’Adua, 55, is considered far less powerful than many other state governors. But he benefits from old loyalties.

Since failing earlier this year to force through a constitutional amendment allowing him a third consecutive term as president, Mr Obasanjo, who is set to retain considerable powers within the PDP, has been eager to force through his own preferred successor. Opponents of Mr Obasanjo, who was a consensus candidate when he first came to power but has since isolated many of his former allies, say the president is keen to ensure his immunity is protected.

Mr Yar’Adua, who won the ballot comfortably but received muted applause from delegates, praised Mr Obasanjo for being “the father of democracy and good governance in Nigeria”.

Analysts say Mr Obasanjo has succeeded in forcing through Mr Yar’Adua by intimidating powerful state level politicians with the threat of anti-corruption probes, or by promising them political inducements. Many analysts think party members already upset at party nominations for state level polls could nevertheless engineer a political backlash in many of Nigeria’s 36 states, potentially stopping a Yar’Adua presidency.

Opposition party primaries underway this week could see another “Big Man” of Nigerian politics challenge Mr Yar’Adua, particularly if he can persuade other political heavyweights to line up behind him. Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler and prominent northern Muslim politician who challenged Mr Obasanjo in the 2003 elections, is the opposition frontrunner.

“We are looking at an election that will definitely be even more flawed than before, though Nigerians may come to accept it as it will at least represent a transfer of power,” says Nnamdi Obasi, of the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

Despite the end of military rule almost eight years ago, Nigerian politics is still dominated by back-room dealings, political thuggery and ethno-religious and communal violence. Access to resources rather than policy-based consistency is often the more likely key to political success.

Mr Yar’Adua, a former teacher who has a kidney condition, has presented himself as Nigeria’s best chance of taking forward Mr Obasanjo’s attempts at reforming the country’s corrupt public institutions.

But the tensions amongst Nigeria’s political elite partly brought on by Mr Obasanjo’s tough style and Mr Yar’Adua’s relatively weak standing amongst the PDP rank and file have already forced Mr Yar’Adua to deal with some senior party figures in government who are not renowned for transparent governance but who have money and influence.

Mr Yar’Adua’s supporters are confident that he has the political guile to prioritise reform over his political debts. Meanwhile diplomats are watching keenly to see what kind of running mate Mr Yar’Adua will select.

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