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When Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president, steps down tomorrow, the leadership of Africa’s most populous nation will be handed over to a relatively unknown man.

Umaru Yar’Adua, a devout Muslim and mild-mannered state governor from the northern state of Katsina, comes from an influential family. His brother Shehu Yar’Adua was Mr Obasanjo’s deputy when he was military ruler in the 1970s.

But Umaru himself is a relative newcomer to mainstream politics – a factor of some concern to those who see Nigeria as central to the future stability and prosperity of much of Africa.

A former chemistry lecturer who once described himself as a Marxist, Mr Yar’Adua will be the first Nigerian head of state to have received a university education. Dogged by a longstanding kidney condition and with a character at odds with the gruelling and venal nature of Nigerian government, his friends say he never harboured presidential ambitions.

That was until last year, when in the wake of a failed attempt to extend his tenure beyond his constitutional limit of two four-year terms, Mr Obasanjo had to find someone to succeed him.

Neither frontrunner – a former military ruler who annulled democratic elections and a state governor with corruption allegations hanging over him – could be relied on to carry forward a reformist agenda. By contrast, Mr Yar’Adua’s reputation was unscathed and he was a family friend of the outgoing president, who steamrollered him through party primaries.

From the outset the flawed nature of the primaries tarnished Mr Yar’Adua’s standing among political elites. Last month’s presidential elections, marred by widespread fraud and violence, compounded questions about his legitimacy, undermining confidence in what should be the first transfer of power from one civilian to another in a history littered with military coups.

The guest list of international dignitaries attending tomorrow’s inauguration is thin. Last week a group of 48 Nobel laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an icon of African democratic struggle, said the polls should be re-run to avoid “violent conflict with serious consequences for Nigeria and the region”.

In apparent response, one of Mr Yar’Adua’s first promises has been to reform the electoral process.

Mr Obasanjo’s ruling style has often been brusque and paternalistic. Allies of the incoming president say that, by contrast, Mr Yar’Adua will be a consensus builder, and that Nigeria has had its share of bullies.

“Yar’Adua will probably be more amenable to the principles of democracy. Perhaps these could even be Nigeria’s first steps to democracy,” says Matthew Kukah, a Catholic clergyman who often mediates in government affairs.

But establishing his authority without compromising his ideals on “good governance” will be tricky in a system where loyalties are cemented through patronage.

Nigeria’s 140m people are evenly divided between Muslims and Christians and split between three main ethnic groups and hundreds of fractious minorities prone to politically manipulated violence. Nowhere more so than the Niger delta, where escalating militancy has disrupted the oil production that keeps Nigeria going, and presents Mr Yar’Adua with perhaps his stiffest challenge.

Some Nigerian cynics liken the incoming president to Shehu Shagari, another mild-mannered northerner who succeeded Mr Obasanjo as an elected president in 1979, only to be toppled by a coup four years later. They also suggest he may be overshadowed by Mr Obasanjo, who will retain a say in government policy as chairman of the ruling party.

Nasir el-Rufai, a top government member helping steer the transition process, acknowledges that Mr Yar’Adua is “unlikely to bite the hand that fed him”, but says the new president is “under considerable pressure” to assert his own authority.

A vital test will be whether he can insulate himself from the political and business oligarchs that have grown in stature under Mr Obasanjo, and rein in powerful state governors who have won a reputation as robber barons.

With so much on the domestic agenda, Mr Yar’Adua may have little time to spare for international affairs. In contrast to the outgoing president, a globetrotting point man for diplomatic efforts to solve African crises, Mr Yar’Adua has had little experience of the world beyond Nigeria. As such he is likely to enter cautiously into the international arena, starting at the G8 meeting in Berlin next month.

“I don’t expect him to play the kind of role Obasanjo did for a while. He does not have the experience, and has a lot to do at home first,” says Princeton Lyman, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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