As leader of the multination peacekeeping force ECOMOG, Nigeria established itself as West Africa"s superpower, intervening militarily in the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone. But Nigeria"s costly war efforts were unpopular with its own people, who felt Nigeria"s limited economic resources were being unnecessarily drained.
Abacha died of a heart attack in 1998 and was succeeded by another military ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, who pledged to step aside for an elected leader by May 1999. The suspicious death of opposition leader Mashood Abiola, who had been imprisoned by the military ever since he legally won the 1993 presidential election, was a crushing blow to democratic proponents. In Feb. 1999, free presidential elections led to an overwhelming victory for Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former member of the military elite who was imprisoned for three years for criticizing the military rule. Obasanjo"s commitment to democracy, his anticorruption drives, and his desire to recover billions allegedly stolen by the family and cronies of Abacha initially gained him high praise from the populace as well as the international community. But within two years, the hope of reform seemed doomed as economic mismanagement and rampant corruption persisted. Obasanjo"s priorities in 2001 were epitomized by his plans to build a $330 million national soccer stadium, an extravagance that exceeded the combined budget for both health and education. In April 2003, he was reelected.