Shortage of materials and food: the uncast vote in Nigerian elections

Shortages and sharp price increases of rice and other food items are likely to swell opposition votes when Nigeria's month-long voting marathon starts on Aug. 6.

The shelves of the large Lebanese department stores in Lagos display a much thinner selection of goods than a few years ago. And many items like margarine, laundry detergent, and toilet paper have been hard to find.

President Shehu Shagari's National Party of Nigeria (NPN) government, conscious of the electoral importance of such shortages, recently brought in several shiploads of rice, flour, and sugar.

''But you don't play politics with people's stomachs,'' protested Dr. Alex Fom, national secretary of the Nigeria People's Party (NPP), one of the main opposition parties. ''It's too explosive,'' he told the Monitor at the party's headquarters in Lagos.

Lateef Jakande, governor of Lagos state and a leading member of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), the other major opposition party, said, ''The government should lift the ban on rice imports, encourage domestic production, and stop profiteering, which triples the final consumer cost.''

There are widespread shortages of imported spare parts and industrial raw materials. Many factories have had to close, go on short-time working, or give workers extended holidays. Cement works have stopped production because of a sack shortage, and sweets manufacturers from a lack of wrappers.

Car spare parts are in particularly short supply. A taxi driver complained that he had spent all morning searching the suburbs for a new tire, and then had to pay four times more than last year. Americans and other expatriates are careful where they park their cars for fear they might be ''cannibalized.''

The shortage of car parts, raw materials, and food items are due to import restrictions imposed by the government last spring following a sharp decline in oil income.

Nigeria is almost totally dependent on oil exports for its income. Oil provides 95 percent of export earnings and 75 percent of total government revenue.

Between 1981 and 1983, prices for its oil fell by $10 per barrel, while production dropped to only 60 percent of capacity.

Restrictions have been slapped on the import of over 250 items ranging from frozen chickens to nails. Practically all the raw materials used by industry are affected. The government's aim is to limit the outflow of foreign exchange to $ 900 million a month - half the 1981 level.

Trade with the United States, Nigeria's main trading partner, has declined sharply. The US takes about half Nigerian oil exports. But during the first quarter of 1983, US imports were down by nearly 80 percent compared with the same period last year.

Nigerian imports of US goods were off 40 percent during the same period as a result of the import curbs.

The NPP, which favors a laissez-faire economic policy, is highly critical of the austerity measures. They have forced industries to close, thrown hundreds of thousands out of work, halted investment projects, and driven consumer prices beyond the reach of the common people, it says.

The UPN criticizes the government for banning the import of bicycle spare parts for the poor while allowing the ruling NPN ''juggernauts'' to purchase private jets.

However, top officials of the ruling NPN say the stringent austerity program is helping to restore the country's financial equilibrium. ''We did not want to become another Mexico or Brazil and try to borrow our way out of trouble,'' they explain.

Nigeria's total external debt of $14 billion is fairly modest, especially for a country with an estimated population of 89 million.

Breathing space was recently provided by the rescheduling of $1.6 billion of short-term trade debt with 26 Western and Arab banks.

And talks are in progress with the International Monetary Fund, which could result in a massive injection of aid, provided the government agrees to a devaluation of the naira, currently traded at three times the official dollar value on the black market.

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