On April 14, citizens of Africa’s most populous country will go to the polls to elect state governors. One week later they’ll also elect their senators, representatives and a new president. If all goes smoothly, it will mark the first time in Nigeria’s tumultuous history that one democratically elected civilian government has handed over power to another. Rarely on Africa’s long and troubled road to democracy has there been a more important turning point.

With a population of 130 million (one in six Africans is a Nigerian) and one of the continent’s largest and most experienced armies, Nigeria plays an important peacekeeping role in the troubled West African subregion. It also happens to be home to some of the greatest reserves of hydrocarbons outside the Middle East. A key source of oil for Europe and North America for more than forty years, and the site of major operations by oil companies including Shell and Exxon, Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. Both the United States and Britain–the former colonial power–treat it (along with South Africa) as an anchor of their Africa policy.

Sadly, though, the initial indications regarding the elections have not been promising. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a darling of Western business interests, has appeared reluctant to leave office; last year he attempted, somewhat ham-handedly, to engineer a movement to amend the Constitution’s clause on term limits. The power grab failed, but Obasanjo has left Nigerians in no doubt about his intentions to stage-manage the country from beyond the political grave. At its nominating convention in December, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chose a relative unknown–Katsina governor Umaru Yar’Adua, a staunch Obasanjo loyalist–as its presidential candidate, bypassing several far more prominent figures in the party. Yar’Adua has insisted he will be his own man, but few believe him.

Nor has Nigeria’s recent experience with elections been particularly encouraging. For much of its turbulent forty-seven-year history as an independent nation, Nigeria has been ruled by a succession of iron-fisted, incompetent and frequently corrupt military juntas. In 1999 constitutional democracy was finally restored. But Nigerians have become dangerously disillusioned with democracy. In 1999 and 2003, elections in many parts of the country were decided by widespread intimidation and threats of violence, with politicians hiring armed militias to bully voters into turning out for them. Thousands of people died in the process.

Then there is corruption. Some thirty-one of Nigeria’s thirty-six state governors are currently under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for financial wrongdoing. The EFCC was created by Obasanjo as a way to demonstrate his seriousness about combating corruption, but critics have grumbled that Obasanjo’s enemies are the only ones investigated.

As if all this were not enough, Nigerians have also been treated to the bizarre spectacle of open warfare between Obasanjo and his vice president, Atiku Abubakar. The two men barely speak, and in 2006, at Obasanjo’s behest, the ruling PDP voted to suspend Abubakar from the party. Abubakar has been attempting to mount a bid for the presidency with a rival party, but when Nigeria’s electoral commission published the list of candidates eligible to run for president, his name was absent. He mounted a legal challenge to be allowed to stand, but ten days before the vote, it was still unclear whether this would happen.

Meanwhile, at least 100 people have been killed in election-related violence since November, several gubernatorial candidates have been assassinated under mysterious circumstances, and after one presidential candidate died (apparently of natural causes), confusion broke out over whether the elections would still go ahead. Cynics have suggested that constant rumors about the election being postponed or even canceled have played neatly into the hands of the PDP. In town after town, opposition activists have kept a low profile after hearing rumors of a cancellation, only to see the PDP sweep through with a giant rally the next day.

Regardless of who ultimately takes control, the biggest challenge to Nigeria’s long-term success and stability will remain the ongoing struggle for control of the country’s formidable oil revenue, and the stubborn insurgency it has created in the oil-rich Niger Delta. There, decades of frustration over environmental destruction and the unequal distribution of oil money have created an ugly and intractable conflict. Rival gangs cruise the mangrove swamps in speedboats bristling with military hardware, foreign oil workers are kidnapped on a weekly basis, oil company installations are attacked and vandalized, and crude oil is stolen under cover of night and sold to raise funds for ethnic militias. At last count, some 10 to 20 percent of Nigeria’s daily oil production was shut down because of the volatile conflicts in the delta.

Thanks in part to the high price of oil, Nigeria is in the best position in thirty years to move ahead economically and to deal with difficult political issues. But whether those who will emerge as winners in this election are up to the task of overseeing these changes remains to be seen. With a boisterous press, a sophisticated middle class and at least the institutions of democracy in place, Nigerians have every reason to believe that the time is ripe–finally–for their country to become one of Africa’s powerhouses. Unfortunately, though, they have been disappointed more than once before.