Yar'Adua takes helm of crisis-ridden Nigeria

ABUJA Tue May 29, 2007 1:03pm EDT

New Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua (L) is welcomed by Idris Kutigi, chief justice of the federation, during the swearing-in ceremony at the Eagle square in the capital Abuja, May 29, 2007. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

New Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua (L) is welcomed by Idris Kutigi, chief justice of the federation, during the swearing-in ceremony at the Eagle square in the capital Abuja, May 29, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

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ABUJA (Reuters) - Umaru Yar'Adua took office as president of Nigeria on Tuesday, promising to tackle a catalogue of crises in Africa's most populous nation and conceding that his own election was "not perfect".

International observers said the poll that brought the 56-year-old former state governor to power was "not credible" because of widespread vote-rigging and violence.

In his inaugural address at a military parade ground in the capital Abuja, Yar'Adua began by saying there were "lapses and shortcomings" in the poll.

He urged losers to use legal avenues for redress and promised to make electoral reform a national priority.

"Our experiences have presented an opportunity to learn from our mistakes," the former chemistry lecturer said, adding that he saw himself as a "servant leader".

He spelled out priorities including talks to end violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta, creating jobs, strengthening the police and improving erratic power supplies.

The handover was billed as a democratic landmark in Nigeria because it is the first transfer from one civilian leader to another in a nation scarred by decades of army misrule. But the flawed election wiped the gloss off the occasion.

Washington and former colonial ruler Britain sent relatively junior envoys to the event, and only a handful of African heads of state showed up.

"Nigeria will be willing to forgive him for the elections if he can tackle the issues quickly," said columnist Pini Jason.

Yar'Adua, a Muslim and former socialist, praised his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, for laying the foundations for economic take-off. He promised to reduce inflation and interest rates and keep the exchange rate stable.

NIGER DELTA

Yar'Adua said spiraling violence in the southern oil states, which has hit the country's economic lifeline and driven away thousands of foreign workers, would get "urgent attention".

"We will move quickly in securing lives and property and making investments safe," he said, urging an immediate halt to violence for dialogue to take place.

Militants fighting for regional control over the delta's oil wealth have already promised to release six hostages on Wednesday as a sign of their readiness to talk.

Yar'Adua also pledged to pursue a "dramatic improvement" in erratic power supplies, and to carry through an ambitious plan to build a nationwide railway network.

But much of his speech focused on restoring morality in a nation where shameless corruption in government has infected society and rising poverty has fuelled violence and desperation.

Analysts say one of Yar'Adua's biggest challenges will be how to handle his predecessor, who picked Yar'Adua from obscurity six months ago and made him president.

Many Nigerians suspect Obasanjo wants to use him as a puppet, though both men have denied this.

In the dying days of his administration, Obasanjo lifted fuel prices by 15 percent, doubled value-added tax and sold off two oil refineries to business allies -- all moves that have inflamed the opposition and civil society groups.

Many Nigerians hope Yar'Adua will break free from Obasanjo, whom critics accuse of an autocratic leadership style, hypocrisy in his war on corruption and cronyism.

"Yar'Adua is honest. The problem is that Obasanjo drew him out, so he has to obey Obasanjo. He does not have freedom," said Ola, a construction worker in the capital.

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