When Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, who died on Wednesday at age 58, took power in May 2007, he did not look like the most promising of leaders. The first democratic change of civilian power in West Africa's giant at a general election earlier in the year had been a sham, widely dismissed as a ruling-regime fix by international election observers. Also, Yar'Adua was a virtual unknown. In an interview just before his formal accession to power, TIME asked whether he was a puppet of departing President and strongman Olusegun Obasanjo, who had unsuccessfully tried to rewrite the constitution to give himself another term. "Puppet?" said Yar'Adua, laughing. "You obviously don't know me."
As Nigerians and the world got to know the President, what they discovered was surprising. Even within the confines of Nigeria's factionalized, winner-take-all politics, Yar'Adua strove to be his own man. Unlike his predecessors, he acknowledged Nigeria's problems, mainly its criminalized governing and business elite, which inspired a violent anti-elite insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south and a Taliban-like violent Islamist movement in the north. And under him, the government pushed through business and banking reform, cracked down on corruption albeit, as some charged, selectively and secured a cease-fire from the Delta militants. All this was done with a patience and bookishness that contrasted favorably with the rough-and-tumble nature of Nigerian politics. "The problem is that people think that problems can be solved magically," Yar'Adua told TIME. "Too many people with loud voices like to condemn and condemn. But with patience, we will all get there."
Nigeria is not there yet. Yar'Adua, a chain smoker who was already in poor health when he won power, had been hospitalized or bedridden since November 2009, and the power struggle that ensued between his family and supporters and his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, all but paralyzed the government and stymied progress. Jonathan became acting President in February and replaced Yar'Adua's Cabinet with his own in March; now Yar'Adua's death puts the final seal on what has been a damaging and drawn-out transition.
Jonathan, like his predecessor, has proposed ambitious reforms. But also like Yar'Adua, he's unlikely to have the time to see them through. Nigeria is due to hold another general election in early 2011. And under an informal agreement that holds that the presidency should alternate every eight years between the largely Muslim north of the country and the largely Christian south a religious divide that regularly sparks bloody outbreaks of violence the Muslim north is owed one more term. Whoever eventually leads Africa's most populous country could do worse than to follow what Yar'Adua said was his guiding principle, one that was almost revolutionary in the venal and self-serving world of Nigerian politics. "I think people should know that you derive the greatest satisfaction from serving others, rather than serving yourself," he told TIME. "I would want more and more Nigerians to define themselves also in this light of service to the nation and service to humanity."