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Nigeria's love-hate relationship with the US blooms; Lagos entices Western trade, hopes for US aid, even as it blasts Reagan's Africa policy

By Tom GilroySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1981



Lagos, Nigeria

Despite widespread unhappiness here with Reagan administration Africa policies, relations between Nigeria and the United States are improving. This apparently contradictory assessment, offered by both diplomatic and business sources, is to some extent the result of residual good will for the Carter administration -still extremely popular here.

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It also reflects current political and economic realities: The US buys almost half Nigeria's oil exports, and provides Lagos with close to half of its annual foreign revenue.

Moreover, Libya's incursion into Chad last year, and its continuing presence there, apparently has shaken leaders here enough to look more to the West for support in its efforts to dislodge the Libyans from their northern border.

Hence, the improvement in relations between the US and Nigeria in the face of strong disagreement over southern African issues, say the diplomats and businessmen, reflects a decision on the part of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari's government to look to the West -particularly to the US -for help in its development efforts.

At the same time, these sources warn, this improvement is not irreversible.

One Western diplomat says Nigerian authorities have already exhibited "a sort of reserve" in dealing with the Reagan administration. Several longtime Western residents here warn that continuation of good relations is dependent on real progress, and soon, toward Namibian independence, and issue on which Washington and Lagos are far apart.

Nevertheless, the willingness of the Shagari government to "agree to disagree" with the US -for the moment at least -on a fundamental African issue, while pursuing a number of other bilateral interests, demonstrates a pragmatism not evident in past military administrations.

Thus at the Commonwealth conference in Melbourne in early October, President Shagari blasted US policy toward Africa. But at the same time the Nigerian Navy elaborately welcomed the USS Conyngham on a courtesy visit in Lagos Harbor. (In contrast, displeasure with US southern African policy in 1975 led Nigeria's last military government to deny Secretary of State Henry Kissinger permission to land here.)

And according to US sources here, the number of technical and military personnel leaving each year to study in the US is growing substantially.

Under an agreement reached between vice-presidents Alex Ekwueme and George Bush last month, the number of technical training positions for Nigerians in the US will double by 1982.

Sources here say that the Nigerian military "has shown interest" in replacing at least some of its aging equipment, which includes Soviet-made MIG fighters, with US material.

A measure of America's enhanced prestige with the Nigerians, said sources both here and in neighboring Cameroon, was the weight the Shagari government gave to US -as well as French and British -arguments against a Nigerian military action in Cameroon in response to a border clash between the two countries last May. The West played an important role in defusing the situation.

It is in trade, and particularly agriculture, however, that Nigeria hopes to benefit from closer ties with the US. Nigeria has announced plans to open trade offices in New York and Chicago. A joint commission started under the Carter administration is also drumming up business.

In January, a high-level trade delegation from the US, led by Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldridge and Deputy Secretary of State William Clark will visit Nigeria. Agriculture will be a major focus of their visit.