Lagos, Nigeria — Though Nigeria's economy is in a shambles, the nation's President, Shehu Shagari, is the most admired man in the land. The explanation for this paradox is complicated. One reason is that Mr. Shagari tends to look good in comparison with other Nigerian politicians, whose chief concerns are often very narrow ethnic interests, Nigerians say.
"He [Shagari] is the only one who has broken out of the ethnic mold," a Western diplomat agrees.
But the major factor behind the President's extraordinary popularity in the face of hard times is the President himself.
"It's his restraint that they [the Nigerian people] admire," a Nigerian political analyst says. "He has shown himself to be a man of peace. Oh, the arrows they sling at him, and he absorbs them," he explains.
Shagari is likely to face a good many political arrows slung by his opponents as he enters the second half of his first term in office. The outlook for the country's economy is bad.
Nigeria's first civilian President since 1966 has initiated austerity measures in the face of slumping oil exports. Exports fell from 1.9 million barrels per day last January to less than 500,000 barrels last month.
Industry sources expect exports to improve to just under 1 million b.p.d. this month, but no one gives the country any chance of returning to the 1.9 million level for the rest of the year. The states and the federal government are now arguing angrily over the proper allocation of diminishing oil revenues.
President Shagari's foreign policy, particularly on Namibia and Chad, is being criticized as ineffective and uncoordinated. One newspaper called it "toothless," and even a sympathetic Western diplomat acknowledged that it was "somewhat in disarray."
As if that were not enough, Shagari's National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which just lost its coalition partner, and therefore its fragile majority in the National Assembly, faces the strong possibility that some or all of the four other political groups will band together to challenge it in the 1983 elections.
And yet, were elections to he held tomorrow, not only would Shagari win handily, the NPN would probably capture a majority of its own in the Assembly, and probably additional governorships as well, according to Nigerian and Western political analysts here.
"He has even more admirers now than he did in 1979" (when he won the first civilian elections held here since the military took over in 1966), says a leading Nigerian journalist who claimed to be generally dissatisfied with all political parties.
Deterioration and internal squabbling among Nigeria's other political parties have contributed to the solidification of the NPN, and with it, Shagari. Three of the four parties -- the Nigerian People's Party, the Greater Nigerian People's Party, and the People's Redemption Party -- have actually split, and there is speculation that some may not last until 1983 as viable political bodies.
"There is a political realignment coming," said a Nigerian journalist for the News Agency of Nigeria.
It is anything but certain, however, that Shagari will withstand the problems cropping up in the second half of his term. By all accounts, the recent austerity measures have not hit the average Nigerian. But any long-term cutback in oil revenue -- now looming as a definite possibility -- could sour some of the goodwill that now makes Shagari so popular. Reserves of about $9 billion in mid-July will sustain Nigeria's $1.2 billion-a-month import bill for a while, but almost every Western economic analyst here expects further belt tightening.
And while talk of a return of the military is inevitable here, neither Nigerians nor Western political analysts -- who acknowledge that it is an area they follow closely -- give much credence to fears of the Army's coming back.
As far as anyone can tell, the military's concerns are purely military, whether they get their share of the budget and so on, said one Western diplomat.
As if answering the same fears, the retiring chief of the defense staff, Lt. Gen. Alani Akinrinade, has just advised the military not to "commit suicide" by involving itself again in the country's politics.
Ironically, several Nigerian sources said, it was Shagari's unpopular decision to settle a border clash in May with Cameroon through diplomatic, rather than military, means that that has also gained him respect. According to reliable sources here, some top-level Nigerian officials, both civilian and military, pressed hard for a retaliatory strike against Cameroon. That Mr. Shagari persevered, even where the powerful military was concerned, appears to have won the admiration of a population that wants at all costs to keep the military subservient to the civilian authorities.