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On a day when parts of Nigeria were erupting in violent protest and a Supreme Court ruling had introduced extra uncertainty into chaotic elections, President Olusegun Obasanjo appeared remarkably unfazed.

Holding court at his official Aso Rock residence in the tranquil lee of the monolith that overshadows the presidency in Abuja, Mr Obasanjo is apparently as at ease with his legacy as with Nigeria’s prospects once he goes, having served his constitutionally mandated limit of terms. “I won’t say I am absolutely unconcerned, but I’m not concerned to the point that I would say that we haven’t had a reasonable and fairly good election,” he says in an interview with the FT.

It is difficult to ascertain whether this confidence is the mark of a man who, like previous occupants of Aso Rock, has become divorced from the messy and painful realities of Africa’s most populous and sometimes least governable nation; or whether his self-assurance reflects the experience of a politician who has survived so many of Nigeria’s most turbulent moments.

For Mr Obasanjo, if there is any cloud hanging over him as he prepares to leave office, it is the legacy of his tough reforms rather than any controversy over the way he has ruled. “Jesus Christ was even crucified. Prophet Mohammed was driven out of his home-town. Churchill was called a warmonger but he won the war. Look, this job is not a popularity contest, my dear,” he says.

Now 70, he is set to relinquish office in what should be the first transfer of power in Nigeria’s history from one elected civilian head of state to another. But the circumstances surrounding elections for his successor, due on Saturday, have raised fresh uncertainty over Nigeria’s ability to consolidate civilian rule and play a leading role in the economic development of the continent.

Last week’s election of state governors was shambolic, with widespread violence and ballot stuffing. In some areas where virtually no voting took place the results were barely credible, leading the official electoral commission to re-schedule polls in two states and some foreign election observers to recommend a re-run in several more.

Results giving the ruling party control of at least 26 of Nigeria’s 36 states suggest Mr Obasanjo will have his way in pushing through a chosen successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, a low-profile state governor from the predominately Muslim north. But they have been disputed as fraudulent by opposition parties.

One of the more damaging episodes of Mr Obasanjo’s presidency – his longstanding and public feud with Atiku Abubakar, the vice-president, has now come back to haunt the election process in the form of a supreme court ruling. This overruled an earlier decision to disqualify Mr Abubakar as a candidate on the grounds of a controversial corruption indictment and now threatens to provoke a rash of legal challenges to the state results. As a result, Mr Abubakar has re-emerged at the last minute as a potential presidential candidate.

Mr Obasanjo insists that there have been improvements in the conduct of elections. Voter registration had been done electronically, he says. Ballot stuffing and the stealing of ballot boxes were new problems that would be sorted out with time. He insists also that he would hand over on time on May 29 to whoever won, even if this was his estranged vice-president. “It’s not by any means a perfect election but there is no human arrangement you can describe as perfect until when we get to God and eternity. Whatever we do is relative and I believe it is relatively good enough,” he says.

A former military ruler himself and a commander during the Biafran war in the 1960s, he was picked in 1998 as a potential election-winner by the military and political establishment after serving three years as a political prisoner under General Sani Abacha, the penultimate and most brutal of a series of dictators.

After relinquishing power in 1979 he had campaigned on a global stage for more accountable government, and as a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group played a role in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa. A tough paternalist with a conservative streak, he also spent time tending his chicken farm outside Lagos, the crowded, high-octane commercial capital on the Atlantic coast. The born-again Christian from the ethnically Yoruba south-west was seen as the safest pair of hands to guide a country that had become an international pariah state, with an economy ravaged by military misrule.

When Mr Obasanjo took office in 1999, the world price of oil – on which the state depends for more than 90 per cent of export earnings – was below $10 a barrel. The treasury had been stripped by the outgoing military and much of the proceeds deposited in bank accounts abroad. Militant gangs demanding a fairer share of revenues for the oil-producing Niger Delta had shut around a third of the country’s 2m bpd oil production.

Fed up with military rule, Nigerians questioned whether the resources were then available to hold the nation together – and whether the same political class that had contributed so much to Nigeria’s demise could be trusted to build a better future.

In macro-economic terms, the country’s fortunes have dramatically improved since then. Under Mr Obasanjo, the government has built up foreign reserves of just over $40bn from almost nothing. Nigeria has won international debt relief and the government has itself written off the rest of a once-crippling $35bn debt burden, ­wiping the slate clean and allowing the state and corporations to access international markets again.

But while the government has won some credit internationally for laying the foundations of sounder economic management, it has also been rescued by the steady rise of world oil prices since. “It is one thing to talk of price of oil. But we had price of oil before and it fizzled out. This time we are managing the price of oil better than before. In the past we used to have it, spend it. This time we have it and manage it and keep it,” Mr Obasanjo says.

There are tentative signs of an emerging middle class, for whom some services have improved. From barely half a million connected telephone lines a decade ago, there are now around 40m Nigerians with mobile telephones. But the proceeds of the oil boom have remained in relatively few hands. Nigeria’s 140m people are still by and large deeply impoverished. From the swamps of the Niger delta to the arid savannah of the predominately Muslim north, few have access to electricity and clean water.

Soaring revenues from oil and now gas, which has emerged under Mr Obasanjo as another big source of revenue, give Nigeria perhaps its best chance since the 1970s of rebuilding the country’s shattered infrastructure and providing for a more prosperous future. Radical restructuring of the financial sector has transformed the country’s image abroad as a financial basket-case. Mr Obasanjo has swept away dozens of high ranking officials suspected of graft, also recovering nearly $2bn of money stashed abroad by his military predecessors.

Yet, much of the emerging political and business class appears as unconcerned as ever with the plight of Nigeria’s far more numerous poor. Once a man who decried the decadent consumption of the country’s elites, Mr Obasanjo is now known to boast in private circles of the number of billionaires he has helped to create.

“Why can’t we have a Nigerian among the three richest persons in the world in the next 10 years?” he asks. Provided the elite had a social conscience and a sense of responsibility, the riches of a few would trickle down to many, he argues. “Why are the others making it and we are not making it? What makes the Russians’ oligarchy or whatever you call it, [and those] in China, in India, more different?”

Mr Obasanjo admitted that his ruling People’s Democratic party had not done enough to rein in its more venal state governors, of whom 31 out of 36 have been investigated for corruption. As chairman of the board of trustees of the party after he steps down as president, Mr Obasanjo says, his role will be partly to ensure that changes.

Despite a failed attempt last year to change the constitution to allow him a third term, Mr Obasanjo says he is well aware of the dangers of hanging on. He seems now at ease with the prospect of his retirement from the front line.

As he prepares to leave office he is a more consummate politician, still gruff but better able to navigate through Nigeria’s complex, venal and often ethnically riven political system. But he has become unpopular at home, having failed to restore stability to the oil-producing delta, or a much greater sense of responsibility to the wider polity.

Many Nigerians suspect that in choosing a soft-spoken and sometimes reclusive former chemistry lecturer as his preferred successor, he hopes to remain a powerful influence. Mr Yar’Adua has little of Mr Obasanjo’s experience of managing the many crises that Nigeria throws up, and has spent little time abroad.

Mr Obasanjo insists that the candidates coming in this election, however, are of a higher calibre. And those who erred most in the outgoing administration will be brought to book when they lose their immunity to prosecution, he says. It is this corrective agenda, he says, that has helped give Nigerians hope; but that has also set many of his countrymen against him.

After leaving power, Mr Obasanjo says he will simply retire to his chicken farm, along with continuing activity on the diplomatic stage, where he has played a leading role in championing the continent’s causes, and to a library he is building. “In my part of the world, we have a saying that the kingmaker is the first that the king kills. But it is only an unwise kingmaker that will allow the king he has made to kill him. As soon as the king is on the throne you run,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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