Up in the spectators' gallery, they're fighting over the red, plush seats. They're sitting on the stairs. They're standing on tiptoe to get a glimpse of the Senate chamber. Suddenly, it's the best show in town.

It's democracy.

In a country so overwhelmed by troubles that it often appeared destined for collapse, the end of military rule has opened a deep vein of optimism in this nation of cynics, and fueled a fierce loyalty to Nigeria's new president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

It has also turned the national legislature, long a toy for a succession of military puppet masters, into a spectator sport.

On busy days, the galleries are crowded with students, bureaucrats and aides. Janitors stop by on breaks. Average citizens, who need appointments, argue with guards to get in. They all come to watch the army of well-fed, cell phone-toting legislators in flowing robes battle it out.

"We're making progress," said Femi Oldobaju, a law student watching Senate proceedings on a recent afternoon.

His words echo across this nation of 110 million. Small businessmen in the dusty northern town of Gusau gush about the end of military rule. Taxi drivers creeping through Lagos's filthy, chaotic streets proclaim devotion to Obasanjo. In the pastel condominiums of Abuja, a city that seems more California office park than African capital, bureaucrats criticize the government without fear of arrest.

After 15 years of brutal military rule that left their country an international pariah, Nigerians are learning to be democrats.

A mile or so from the green-domed legislature, in a fortified compound built by his military predecessors, lives the man who embodies this era.

Obasanjo, a former military ruler who 20 years ago gave up power to Nigeria's last elected government, has moved swiftly since taking office in May. He has backed tough anti-corruption legislation, tried to blur ethnic and religious lines and, perhaps most importantly, convinced ordinary Nigerians they have a role in their government.

And while most people here say it's too early to tell if the campaign will be successful, they are giddy with the possibilities.

"The new government has brought hope to my life," said Michael Okunsanmi, a struggling real estate broker sitting in his closet-size office in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital. "I can aspire to be whatever I want. My children can be whatever they want."

The problems Obasanjo faces are immense. Corruption is endemic, horrific ethnic violence is practically routine, and unemployment hovers near 50 percent. Nearly one in five children dies before age 5. The country's infrastructure--phones, electricity, water--is beyond crumbling.

Obasanjo's biggest challenge may lie in the Niger Delta, home to the country's enormous oil wealth. There, in a maze of swamps, millions live in desperate poverty. Gangs attack oil installations, kidnap oil workers and feud with other ethnic groups.

The problem has worsened in recent days: A dozen police officers were killed in one state alone, leading soldiers to seal off the region. Human rights groups fear numerous civilian casualties and say democracy there is just a dream.

In theory, Nigeria, a regional power that dominates West African politics, should live comfortably off its oil profits. Instead, living standards have declined, consumed by corruption and chaos.

"For now, the feeling of Nigerians is, 'Yes, we feel we're involved in our government.' But the question is, how will this translate into improved living standards?" asked Idris Abubakar, a senator from northern Gombe state.

The burden of solving these problems has fallen to Obasanjo, whom critics accuse of waffling on whether to privatize Nigeria's inefficient state industries, pushing anti-corruption legislation that gives too much power to the secret police and treating the legislature as a mere annoyance.

Obasanjo's success at bringing more fuel to gasoline pumps, ending shortages that often forced drivers to wait in line for days, has boosted his popularity--but not enough to buoy his entire four-year term, many say.

"The euphoria will clear shortly," predicted Olissa Agbakoba, a human rights lawyer. "He's more of a wheeler-dealer than a true visionary leader."

It's the legislature, though, that has attracted most criticism.

Legislators have repeatedly embarrassed themselves, demanding enormous furniture stipends and squabbling so much that they have passed just a few bills. The House speaker and the Senate president were forced from office over resume-padding allegations.

Recently, a group of senators defeated a procedural motion so intricate that even Oldobaju, the law student, was baffled.

Then the legislators jumped from their seats, cheered, and slapped each other's hands in a sort of Nigerian high-five.

"As you can see, we're just beginning," Oldobaju said, smiling wryly. "We'll get there. We'll get there soon."

CAPTION: Mary Adewale, 2, hangs on to her mother's dress as she does laundry outdoors in the impoverished Oworonski neighborhood of Lagos.

CAPTION: Nigerian students listen as their teacher gives a lecture, switching between English, the national language, and the locally spoken Hausa tribal language.

CAPTION: A father and his daughter, at right, members of the Hausa tribe, bring their herd of cattle back home after a day of grazing in Gusau, northern Nigeria.