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Nigeria Faces Uncertain Future Under New Leader


Even as Nigeria marks the inauguration of its new leader Umaru Yar'Adua, many in the West African nation claim to know very little about their president. Gilbert da Costa in this background report for VOA, profiles the 56-year-old and discusses the challenges that may define his presidency.

Nigeria's incoming president, Umaru Yar'Adua, is often portrayed as a private, introspective man.

The reclusive former Muslim governor comes from the northern state of Katsina and is not a major political mover or shaker. But he boasts a political pedigree that dates back to the 1960s when his father was appointed as a minister in the post-independence administration.

Yar'Adua also is the first university graduate to rule Nigeria. He says his love of books shaped his political philosophy.

"My late brother kept a library at home. And I was going through his library, one book that really had tremendous impact on me was Kwame Nkrumah's Collapse of the Congo," he said. "I think that book, more than any other book I read, opened a window for me; national and international politics, in terms of the political economy of Africa and the world, and even the current globalization. From then on until now, it has become a habit of mine that I always go to sleep reading."

Critics of Yar'Adua see his low-key personality as a sign of weakness and question his ability to rule one of Africa's most corrupt and unpredictable nations.

"He is an anonymous politician, his position on any major issue is not known, and he is media-shy; apparently, he has health problems," said Maxi Okwu, an opposition leader in Abuja. "Honestly, I worry, for such a man who is foggy. He is not the kind of president Nigeria needs at the moment."

But even his critics acknowledge that Yar'Adua has shown remarkable integrity in the running of Katsina state. Despite spending more than any other state on schools and infrastructure, Yar'Adua claims he is leaving Katsina with a $60 million surplus after inheriting substantial debt when he took office in 1999.

Yar'Adua won a massive victory in the April poll, but there is a dark cloud hovering over that win as critics question the legitimacy of the election.

Political analyst Mike Ogar says the administration will have to grapple with this issue.

"I think that the number one challenge is how the new team can generate confidence because of the crisis of legitimacy, which nobody can wish away," Ogar said.

One of Yar'Adua's biggest challenges is addressing widespread poverty. Despite being the world's sixth-largest producer of crude oil, with huge reserves of mineral and agricultural resources, Ogar says Nigerians living standards have gotten worse.

"There is no gainsaying the fact that we exist in situations that are less than optimal for Nigerians. There is no water, there is no light, our infrastructure is in bad shape. You name it and there is a problem there," he said.

One bright spot, however, is Yar'Adua's image as a straight-shooter who has not been tainted by runaway corruption.

Yar'Adua's former campaign manager, Alhaji Abdu Mashi has known the new president for 30 years and says Yar'Adua's talents will change the face of Nigeria.

"People are entitled to their own opinion, but for those of us who know Yar'Adua being a very hard working and trustworthy person, I am sure he is capable to hold this country tight," Mashi said. "This country of ours, Nigeria, needs a leader who is transparent, who is honest and hardworking and we find all these qualities in Umaru Yar'Adua. So I am very optimistic that Yar'Adua will lead the country very well."

While many are still trying to anticipate what Yar'Adua's presidency will mean, there is a sense of relief that Nigeria has finally made a democratic transition in a country still scarred by decades of military dictatorship.

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