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Nigerian Leader’s ‘Wife’ Challenges Him

April 16, 2003

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ To win re-election Saturday, President Olusegun Obasanjo must beat out an unusual challenger _ someone claiming to be his wife.

Moji Adekunle-Obasanjo, a 54-year-old former military officer, says they’re still legally married; his aides deny it.

Domestic squabble aside, Adekunle-Obasanjo accuses the president of failing to tackle corruption and poverty since his 1999 election. She’s one of 19 opposition candidates trying to unseat the incumbent, a one-time military ruler who has transformed himself into a civilian statesman.

Obasanjo’s party won a majority of seats in the weekend’s legislative vote, though the opposition complained of ballot-stuffing and on Wednesday threatened massive protests if the ruling party uses fraud in the presidential vote.

``The parties have told us about some alleged cases and we are of course investigating,″ Steve Oseneke, a spokesman for the Independent National Electoral Commission, told The Associated Press.

The weekend vote was marred by more than two dozen deaths and organizational chaos, including ballot shortages. Some voting was being held over Wednesday in areas where there were logistics problems and fraud.

Despite the problems, international election monitors said that the balloting went better than expected.

It was the first civilian-run ballot in 20 years and a key test of Nigeria’s fledgling democracy.

Both of Nigeria’s previous attempts to hand over power democratically from one civilian administration to another were thwarted by military coups.

``His government is very bad,″ Adekunle-Obasanjo told The Associated Press in an interview before the elections.

Adekunle-Obasanjo accuses Obasanjo of failing to fight graft and kickstart the economy of oil-rich Nigeria _ Africa’s most populous nation _ since his election ended 15 years of brutal military rule.

``Corruption is now at its peak, and (government officials) are doing it with impunity,″ said Adekunle-Obasanjo, leader of the fledgling Masses Movement of Nigeria.

Question marks hang over their relationship and the president has declined to discuss it. His campaign spokesman acknowledged that Adekunle-Obasanjo ``was (once) married to the president″ but said the union was over. Later, the spokesman stressed they were never ``legally″ married. He wouldn’t elaborate.

They married in a traditional Yoruba ceremony in 1991 and then had a daughter together, Adekunle-Obasanjo said. Although they separated in 1998 after Obasanjo was released from a period of political imprisonment, the union was never formally revoked, she said.

``We haven’t divorced, we’re only operating on different wavelengths,″ she said.

Obasanjo is widely reported to have more than 20 children from several wives _ past and present _ in addition to Nigeria’s first lady, Stella Obasanjo. Polygamy is common in Nigeria, where marriages can be legally recognized if performed under traditional rites and witnessed by both families.

Adekunle-Obasanjo speaks forcefully and punches the air with balled fists to drive home her message: Regardless of her relationship with the president, her campaign is political, she says, not personal.

She says the two met in the late 1970s when Adekunle-Obasanjo was a radiologist in the army medical corps and Obasanjo was the country’s military ruler.

Years after Obasanjo voluntarily handed over power, they formed an organization together in the 1990s that promoted a ``united Nigeria, good government, equity and social justice.″

The group met often in Obasanjo’s farmhouse until then-junta dictator Gen. Sani Abacha raided meetings and eventually jailed Obasanjo for allegedly plotting to overthrow him.

When Abacha died of apparent heart failure in 1998, Obasanjo was freed. Adekunle-Obasanjo says they have spoken to each other only once since then.

As for her campaign, Adekunle-Obasanjo knows the odds are against her. But she’s running to make a point.

``We don’t even expect to win,″ she said.

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