Angry Nigerians shed few tears over coup

Few tears are being shed in Nigeria for ex-President Shehu Shagari's civilian government, ousted by the military on New Year's Eve. Instead Nigerians are eagerly expecting food prices to decline and living conditions to improve. But the military, in taking over from a morally and financially bankrupt regime, faces a much harder task than when it ruled the country in the oil boom of the 1970s.

The country's new military ruler, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, has warned there will be no instant miracles. ''Let no one be deceived that workers who have not received their salaries in the past eight awful months will be paid today or tomorrow,'' he said.

But for the time being public attention is focused on food prices, which have rocketed up some 200-300 percent for imported items and 50 percent for local items in the past year.

Soldiers have been going to warehouses and forcing the owners to sell hoarded food at reduced prices. Some 800 sacks of rice imported by the Presidential Task Force - which was set up to ease the nation's food shortage but which hoarded the food in a Lagos suburb - have been sold at a third the market price.

Sugar, groundnut oil, powdered and tinned milk, detergents, and car tires have also been hoarded.

Soldiers also have been going to open-air markets and forcing traders to lower prices. But most traders shut their stalls as soon as they hear soldiers coming.

''We don't want to sell at a loss. The big profits are made by the distributors from whom we are forced to buy our supplies,'' one woman trader complains.

The biggest profits are alleged to have been made by leading members of the former ruling National Party of Nigeria, which the military has banned.

One of the country's most wanted men is Alhaji Umaru Dikko, former transport and aviation minister and organizer of Shagari's election campaign. As head of the Presidential Task Force, he is alleged to have made huge profits by selling imported food at inflated prices.

As the nation sank deeper into recession, Nigerians could not tolerate the extravagance of many politicians with private jets, elegant cars, and palatial residences.

''The economic mess, the corruption, and unacceptable level of unemployment could not be excused on the grounds that Nigeria was a practicing democracy,'' Buhari told diplomats after the coup. ''Democracy at that price was certainly not in the interest of the people of this country.''

''President Shagari's inability to curb either the exaggerated corruption of his supporters or the worsening economic recession hastened his downfall,'' says one Nigerian economist. But one politician pointed out that the former military regime also saddled civilians with costly projects when it handed over power in 1979.

Some observers were surprised that the Shagari government, sworn in to a new term less than two months ago, was not given a chance to prove itself. Some think senior Army officers may have staged the coup to preempt a more radical coup by junior officers.

The new military regime has so far shown itself to be moderate and conservative, emphasizing discipline rather than change. This helps explain the relaxed and even relieved way Nigerians greeted the military coup.

The most immediate challenges are to reach agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a $2 billion aid package and to reschedule some $6 billion short-term trade debts. But any agreement is likely to include a hefty devaluation that will fuel inflation and push up the cost of imported food. ''Even more difficult times lie ahead. The Army is the last line of defense and if it fails there will be pandemonium,'' said one Nigerian observer.

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