Umaru Yar'Adua Sworn In as Nigerian President

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 29, 2007; 1:50 PM

JOHANNESBURG, May 29 -- New Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua vowed in his inaugural address Tuesday to work urgently to quell rising violence in the volatile Niger Delta, a major source of oil exports to the United States.

Speaking in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, Yar'Adua also acknowledged serious problems in last month's election that gave his ruling party massive landslides at the national, state and local levels despite polls showing serious discontent in the nation.

But while noting "lapses and shortcomings," he called on his fractious nation to unite behind an agenda that includes building a new national railway system, improving Nigeria's decrepit electrical grid and ending a rash of kidnappings and attacks aimed at the nation's crucial oil industry.

"We will move quickly in securing lives and property and making investments safe. In the meantime I urge all aggrieved communities, groups and individuals to immediately suspend all violent activities and respect the law. Let us allow the dialogue to take place in a conducive atmosphere," Yar'Adua said, according to Reuters news agency.

Tuesday's inauguration both elevated Yar'Adua, 56, a soft-spoken former northern governor and chemistry professor, and marked the end of outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo's two terms in office.

Both men have hailed it as the first turnover in power between democratically elected governments in Nigeria's turbulent history, but that claim is clouded by serious doubts about the legitimacy of last month's vote. Both foreign and domestic observers said it was so flawed as to not represent the will of voters.

Obasanjo, 70, has been a towering figure in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 140 million people, and also on the continent. Although a dictator during the 1970s, his election to the presidency in 1999 ended decades of military rule and heralded a surge of optimism about democracy's future in Nigeria.

He leaves office diminished, with sagging popularity, numerous scandals and questions about his role in engineering April's election results. Yet analysts say he likely will remain a powerful force in Nigerian politics as chairman of the board of trustees of the ruling party, which has tightened its grip on power at every level of Nigerian government.

"Nigeria is in a better shape today than any time since 1979," he said in a nationally televised addressed Monday night. "We have started to move to the glory that God has ordained for us."

Obasanjo's ongoing influence and bitterness over the election threaten to complicate the first months in office for Yar'Adua. Major opposition parties have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn his election. A two-day national strike this week protesting the election attracted some support.

The outgoing vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who lost by a wide margin to Yar'Adua in the presidential race, boycotted the inauguration after issuing a statement Sunday night saying, "Democracy is in the throes of death in Nigeria and evil forces have laid siege to our country."

Yar'Adua's promise to bring peace to the Niger Delta was greeted skeptically in a region where vast oil wealth long has flowed past impoverished villages without roads, electricity or schools. The past year has seen a sharp rise in the kidnappings of foreign workers, bombings of oil facilities and lethal assaults on Nigerian police and military officials. Substantial portions of the nation's 2.5 million gallons per day of production often are shut down by attacks. Nigeria is the fifth-largest source of foreign oil to the United States.

The spokesman for the region's most prominent militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, dismissed Yar'Adua's inaugural remarks in an e-mail to The Washington Post.

"We want more than words to halt our attacks on installations," said the spokesman, who signs his e-mails as Jomo Gbomo but whose real name is unknown.

Human Rights activist Anyakwe Nsiromovu, speaking in Port Harcourt, the delta's largest city, said Yar'Adua's promises sound similar to those made by many other Nigerian politicians, including Obasanjo.

"It is very difficult for anybody in the Niger Delta to take him seriously right now," Nsiromovu said. "People are very angry."

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