Nigeria?s leading human rights activist ? Chief Gani Fawehinmi marked his 64th birthday Monday by announcing his interest in contesting in the 2003 presidential election. Other pro-democracy activists welcomed the announcement but for Fawehinmi to realize his presidential ambition, he has to be picked as candidate by his party ? the National Conscience Party (NCP), while the party has to scale the registration hurdle of the Independent National Electoral Commission ? INEC.

Chief Fawehinmi has been a popular lawyer and human rights activist ? often standing in court to defend victims of human rights abuses. He has often said he preferred doing just that. And when he formed the National Conscience Party ? NCP on October 1 1994 he said it was a deliberate act of defiance of the military that had banned all political groups ? and not an electoral platform. The party therefore boycotted the transition program that brought civilians into power in 1999.

But since the return of civil rule, the tone has changed as Chief Fawehinmi says that the party will now seek political power. Even at that he has repeatedly said he was not personally interested in political office ? partly due to his failing health which he attributes to years of imprisonment by the military.

Monday in Lagos however, it was a different Fawehinmi that announced his movement from the realm of social criticism into full politics on the occasion of his 64th birthday. He says there are too many problems with the present democracy that require the intervention of men of goodwill like him. Otherwise the country faces the danger of the return of what he calls undemocratic forces.

Chief Fawehinmi says if elected president he will run a single term because age is not on his side. Within the period he hopes to tackle four problems which according to him are fundamental ? corruption, unemployment, high cost of funds or high interest rates and poor exchange rate of Nigeria?s currency ? the Naira to the international currencies like the dollar, the pound and the Euro.

He must scale two major hurdles before he can seek votes from Nigerians. First the NCP has to be registered by INEC and cleared to run candidates in elections. Chief Fawehinmi says the party has fulfilled all requirements by submitting its national executive list, logo, and constitution to INEC in line with the provisions of the constitution ? and therefore should be registered.

National Deputy Chairman of the party in the southwest, Amitolu Shittu, says Chief Fawehinmi will face the second hurdle at the party?s national convention. He says he will face other aspirants and will be presented as presidential candidate only if he wins majority support of party members.

Chief Fawehinmi?s announcement is, however, already drawing the support of Nigeria?s pro-democracy activists. One of them is Dr. Beko Ransom-Kuti ? former President of the rights group ? Campaign for Democracy. He says, "We all share in his ambitions and we like to be associated with him. His positions are very laudable and we see how it all goes. Probably he?s more principled than (Nigerian President Olusegon) Obasanjo or anyone else so we should see an improvement if he?s elected."

Gbolahan Gbadamosi a journalist also says Chief Fawehinmi?s entry into the presidential race if selected by his party may change the quality of Nigerian politics and make the presidential race interesting.

It is still months away to the presidential polls billed for April next year. But if the National Conscience Party is registered and Chief Fawehinmi is picked as a candidate, then for the second time, President Obasdanjo will face a fellow southwesterner at the polls. He is expected to announce his interest formally in a second-term soon. His sole opponent in 1999 was Chief Olu Falae, also a Yoruba, from the southwest.

But political analysts say the presidential election may not be a two-way or all-Yoruba affair- that is if other parties are registered by INEC and if they pick their presidential candidates from other parts of the country.