When Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua took power in May 2007, he did not look like the most promising of leaders. 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. Unlike his predecessors, he acknowledged Nigeria's problems, mainly its criminalized governing and business elite. 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 with the insurgents who plagued the oil-rich Niger Delta. 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. But future leaders of Africa's most populous country could do worse than to follow Yar'Adua's guiding principle. "I think people should know that you derive the greatest satisfaction from serving others, rather than serving yourself," he said. "I would want more and more Nigerians to define themselves also in this light of service to the nation and service to humanity."
A version of this story previously appeared on TIME.com on May 6, 2010