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For the past week, many citizens of Africa's most populous nation have been conducting audits of their country's fragile democracy.

It is half-time in Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's administration, the second anniversary of Nigeria's latest experiment in civilian rule -- so the country's pundits have been busy. But their punditry would be best summed up as saying that while things have changed, everything remains the same.

Last week, Mr. Obasanjo appeared in person on a live television and radio program to debate the state of the federation with a handful of politicians from around the country. Titled Democracy Dividends, the show was sponsored by the government to showcase its achievements. Nigeria's President was quick to remind his listeners of the fact that he was putting himself at the mercy of critics -- ipso facto, a sign that democracy was stronger.

True enough -- Nigeria's leaders are not exactly known around the world for opening themselves to public scrutiny; but the exercise only confirmed the suspicion that if there is one achievement Mr. Obasanjo's presidency can be credited with, it is slick public relations.

Pressing hard against the shiny shop window of the President's version is the great unwashable reality of Nigeria. Laying out the usual grim statistics to articulate the country's dysfunction is a national pastime, but here we go again: Nigeria, the sixth-largest oil-producing country in the world, has one of its lowest per-capita incomes. Transparency International, the U.S.-based international monitoring group, ranks Nigeria as the 27th most corrupt country in the world. This is a surprisingly disappointing showing for those of us of a self-flagellatory bent, but then we remind ourselves that Nigeria has a reassuringly burdensome national debt of $40-billion (U.S.).

Among the more memorable books about my country are Crippled Giant, The Open Sore of a Continent, and This House Has Fallen.

To be fair to Mr. Obasanjo, those books were written during 16 calamitous years of military rule between 1983 and 1999. He inherited a country reeling from the excesses of military governments. The charge sheet against the soldiers is long, but for many Nigerians the most damning indictment of military rule has been the precipitous freefall of our currency.

In the early 1980s, the naira was valued at 50 cents (U.S.). Today it takes 113 nairas to buy one U.S. dollar. Nigerians now have the indignity of having to carry our pocket money in bags, in the trunk of our cars or in the folds of our billowing national costumes.

How has President Obasanjo dealt with this symptom of the decline of our former economic virility?

In his live show last week he vigorously defended the naira's plight. "We came [to power]when it was about 95," he said, "and today it is about 112 to a dollar." What has happened is this, he said: Over that period of two years, the dollar has remained strong, while the euro has been devalued against the dollar by about 18 per cent, and the yen by about the same amount.

"If the naira remains at about 96 to a dollar, that means that the naira is appreciating against the euro, against the pound sterling, against the yen."

A fine piece of economic sophistry, that -- but even if Nigeria's currency is falling roughly in line with other currencies, the foundations of its economy remain in dire need of reconstruction.

Despite Mr. Obasanjo's laudable efforts to deal with endemic ailments, such as corruption, he remains hamstrung by an economy that is more adept at making private profit than at creating wealth.

The plain truth of the matter is that it will take a leader of Machiavellian cunning, broad socioeconomic vision and political courage to wean Nigerians off their junkie economy and introduce healthier, more productive habits without antagonizing vested interests.

And those interests are oil.

Crude oil defines the state of the nation. When Mr. Obasanjo came to power the endemic fuel shortages that had plagued the country under military rule disappeared overnight. In the past year they have returned. When I was in Nigeria last month, I kept passing long lines of cars at dry gas stations. Often, on the other side of the road, tankers laden with gasoline would be rolling out of a refinery.

Not all the trucks were headed for gasoline stations, though. Despite Mr. Obasanjo's efforts to introduce more transparency in the oil sector, old habits such as "oil bunkering" die hard. The term refers to the way people within the refineries work with outsiders to divert some of the crude, in order to sell it on the black market. Oil bunkering is rumoured to be at the root of Nigeria's recent fuel shortages. Rumour also has it that with jockeying for positions in the next elections already under way, Nigeria's power brokers are resorting to old and quick sources of funds to build up campaign war chests.

Meanwhile, Nigeria remains deeply divided on ethnic fault lines. Tensions have increased under Mr. Obasanjo, in part because he has met agitation for devolution of power to the regions with scorn. A firm centralist, he will brook no talk of devolution.

His critics point out that while he has remained steadfast in his opposition to southern demands for a sovereign national conference to restructure the country, he has not moved quickly enough to deal with the unconstitutional implementation of Islamic law in many parts of the Muslim North.

One Islamic state, Kaduna, erupted in Muslim-Christian clashes last year that left between 2,000 and 3,000 people dead. Last week, when Borno became the 10th northern state to introduce sharia, the police used tear gas to break up demonstrations.

Meanwhile, in facing the demands of the ethnic groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta for a greater share of oil revenues, the President has veered from indignation to heavy-handedness.

In November, 1999, soldiers flattened a town in the Delta where policemen had been allegedly killed by locals agitating for more resource revenues.

Mr. Obasanjo has never been sympathetic to the region's demands; it remains to be seen whether his recently commissioned Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) will bring any kind of relief to the region.

Looking over his record, some observers may argue that the President is simply Nigeria's undertaker.

Others say that he has halted its slide into oblivion.

Mr. Obasanjo has always struck me as a man trying to make the best of a bad and unenviable job. Nigeria's problems are endemic; those of us who have tired of the naysayers cling to the words inscribed on a wall in a back street of Lagos: "The worst democracy is better than the best army rule!" Born in Lagos, raised in London, and now based in Toronto, Ken Wiwa is the author of In the Shadow of a Saint.

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