The hooded police crashed through Olufemi Odekunle's front door at 3:30 a.m. two years ago, beating him and dragging him away while his wife and young children wept.

Odekunle, 56, an academic trained at the University of Pennsylvania, was accused of plotting to overthrow Nigeria's dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha.

He spent five months shackled to an iron ring set in the concrete floor of a prison cell, still in his pajamas. Nigeria's chief security officer interrogated him; Mohammed Abacha, the president's son, tortured him with electrical prods.

A military tribunal acquitted Odekunle, but the security police ignored the decision and chained him to the floor again. There was no rule of law in Africa's most populous country.

Then, last year, the dictator with the dark glasses dropped dead of a heart attack. A new military leader released Odekunle and other political prisoners, setting the stage for elections this year in which Olusegun Obasanjo became Nigeria's first civilian president since 1984.

As Nigeria emerges from 15 years of dictatorship, it is payback time. Odekunle and thousands of others have joined in an effort to open the country's dungeons and clear out the cobwebs accumulated during decades of despotic military rule. Odekunle is among more than 10,000 Nigerians who have filed claims with the new Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, a panel set up by Obasanjo to look into arrests, murders, beatings and tortures.

The panel, headed by retired judge Chukwudifu Oputa, can hold hearings and recommend prosecution, but can neither punish wrongdoers nor compensate victims.

Many Nigerians, cynical after years of broken promises, are skeptical that the commission will accomplish much. Its scope is so broad--it can look into violations dating to Nigeria's first military coup in 1966--that Oputa recently said there could be more than 1 million claimants.

Nevertheless, Odekunle gives the panel the benefit of the doubt.

"I decided I wanted to file the complaint for historical purposes, so people would know what happened," said Odekunle, a professor of criminology who was a government adviser when he was arrested. "I want something like the South African situation, where these people at least have to apologize to me."

The creation of the human rights panel is one of several actions that Obasanjo's government has taken to change Nigeria's course. Only days after assuming office, Obasanjo purged 150 military officers suspected of enriching themselves at public expense. He created a commission to investigate hundreds of contracts that were paid for but uncompleted.

He enlisted the help of governments from the United States to Switzerland to try to recover billions of dollars stolen by corrupt officials. Obasanjo said last month that the government has recovered more than $120 million and frozen $600 million in foreign bank accounts.

He also sent signals to the country's military and police that corruption and strong-arm tactics would no longer be tolerated. It had an immediate effect. Nigerians say the police are less hostile and less likely to stop them to demand bribes.

In the government's perhaps boldest and most popular move, prosecutors in October charged Mohammed Abacha and five others in the assassination in 1996 of Kudirat Abiola, wife of the late opposition politician Moshood Abiola.

Obasanjo's moves have come as a refreshing surprise to skeptics, who thought he would initiate cosmetic reforms at best.

Though Obasanjo is a member of southern Nigeria's Yoruba tribe and had been jailed by Abacha for four years, many southerners did not expect him to challenge the rich northern generals who had bankrolled his campaign. Obasanjo was also part of the old order: He was Nigeria's military leader in the 1970s, the last one to give up power to a civilian.

Obasanjo's administration says it is serious about challenging Nigeria's corrupt ways.

"What people here must realize is that this is a government with a mission," said Doyin Okupe, the president's spokesman. "It's not unexpected that a government that embarks on this sort of crusade will hurt even some of its friends."

But so far, most of the government's actions have focused on easy targets in the hated and unpopular Abacha regime.

The government may find itself in more treacherous territory if it aggressively tries to recover money or prosecute more powerful figures, such as retired Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the military leader who broke his pledge to restore elected civilian rule when he annulled elections in 1993.

The human rights panel is still in its infancy. Its offices are tucked in a corner of the Federal Secretariat. The shelves are filled not with legal tomes, but with unfinished plates of food left by a staff in disarray.

The panel's leaders traveled to South Africa last month to learn how Archbishop Desmond Tutu organized that country's truth and reconciliation commission.

So far, most cases filed with the human rights panel have come from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, whose leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged by Abacha in 1995. But statements are now rolling in from other people, such as Odekunle.

Odekunle also laughs now, because of the absurdity of his experience. He particularly loathes Mohammed Abacha, the dictator's son, who doused him with cold water before applying the electrical shocks.

"I believe in God," he said, "but I'm not forgiving anybody."

CAPTION: Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's first civilian leader since 1984, is trying to change the course of Africa's most populous country.