Approaching Lagos Island in the pouring rain, light from the dilapidated buildings and shacks came through in pastel colours, so that by squinting you could almost imagine you were in Dublin looking across the River Liffey. Then the reality of Lagos's commotion returned as the traffic got thicker, and suddenly there were girls in orange, white and green t-shirts running alongside the cars, trying to shove flyers through car windows.
“So many politicians, running for governor and for the senate, how can they pay these people?” asked my driver Isaac. “They just want to get into office so that they can get rich.” I looked at the yellow car sticker that had just been given to me. It did not say what candidate it was for, just: “Lagos - 2007. We need a responsible female leader who is accessible to the people as a student of Bola Tinubu [Lagos's outgoing governor] democratic values.”
Nigeria enters the April 2007 elections – when the presidency as well as numerous governorships and senate seats are up for grabs – at a critical juncture in its history. President Olusegun Obasanjo previously became the first military head of state in the country's post-independence history to hand over power to a civilian administration in 1979. But the army was back after just four years, and remained until 1999 when Obasanjo, by now a civilian, returned as the elected president. He now has the chance to preside over Nigeria's first transition from one civilian government to another, all previous ones having ended with military coups.
But many of Nigeria's problems have festered over the past seven years. Tension is still high in the oil producing Niger Delta, while periodic flashes of inter-communal violence in the country's centre has been a characteristic of Obasanjo’s time in office. These clashes, usually between Muslims from the north and Christians from the south-west or the south-east, have caused thousands of deaths.
As the supporters of various politicians, holding parallel rallies that day, swamped the car taking me from Murtala Mohammed Airport to my hotel, Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), was simultaneously being admitted to senate chamber in Abuja. There he presented a report in which he said he was investigating 31 of the country's 36 state governors, including Tinubu, over alleged corruption.
Tinubu claims the EFCC is being used as an instrument to target Obasanjo's enemies, and believes he is being persecuted for supporting the successful campaign to stop an ammendment to the constitution that would have allowed Obasanjo to stand for a third term. The issue led to a major spat between Obasanjo and his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, a prominent opponent of the ammendment who has presidential aspirations of his own, with each accusing the other of corruption.
Obasanjo, a Yoruba Christian, derives the core of his support from his fellow Yorubas in the south-west, where Lagos is situated. This is a reversal of the situation when he was first elected in 1999 on the back of support from the predominantly Muslim north with the south-western states mostly voting against him.
I got a foretaste of the distrust with which his northern opponents now hold Obasanjo in August, when in England I met Mohammed Mahdi Shehu, a Muslim cleric from the city of Kaduna. At the time the date of the elections had yet to be announced, and Mahdi Shehu, who said he supported Obasanjo in 1999, was convinced the president would use the troubles in the delta as a pretext to declare a state of emergency and call them off.
“Obasanjo can’t afford to let go of power because then the scale of his corruption would come out,” he said. “Sani Abacha [Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt former military dictator] is like Mother Teresa compared to Obasanjo.”
But this is a view disagreed with by many others, including my driver Isaac, who say the situation has steadily improved under Obasanjo, albeit from a low base.
The situation certainly seemed better at the Murtala Mohammed Airport where I got through customs quickly enough, despite a feeling of dread borne from hearing horror stories of first timers' experiences entering the country.
Meanwhile on Lagos Island the streets were filling with supporters of various aspirants to political office. From the following day's press reports, it seems the main event was the launch of the Lagos chapter of the Action Congress, a new political party formed by the merger of several smaller parties, including Tinubu's, joined by disaffected former members of Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party (PDP).
My luck from getting through the airport so quickly was unfortunately short-lived. The rain combined with the disruption caused by the rallies created a traffic jam so severe that the journey from airport to hotel took five hours.