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Nigeria tries to bounce back to influence in midst of chaos

By David WinderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 1984

The race is on: A taxi, its rattling doors secured with bent wires, is determined to overtake a speeding passenger bus that, despite a slogan on its yellow sides saying, ''Only Jesus saves,'' shows a curious disregard for highway safety.

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Suddenly there is a screech of tires. Both taxi and bus come to an abrupt stop just inches away from a terrified pedestrian who is trying to cross the noisy intersection.

The pedestrian, a Yoruba woman bedecked in her refined West African headdress and a yellow and chocolate tiered dress, strikes back at the taxi driver with a fusillade of angry words.

Then, quickly, she pushes her head into the open driver's window and, like a mother boxing the ears of a naughty boy, playfully punches his nose and runs off , laughing at her own sense of mischief.

Lagos is like that. It's mercurial and volatile, rowdy and rambunctious, aggressive and willing to take anyone on, yet willing to forgive and forget when the spirit moves it.

Nigeria is a country of staggering proportions. It ranks in the world's 10 most populous countries with a population estimated at between 90 and 130 million.

It is black Africa's giant. As large as Texas and California combined, Nigeria houses 1 of every 4 persons in Africa. It is also the world's most prosperous black-ruled state. Economically, it is a colossus - one of the world's biggest oil producers and one of the West's major trading partners.

Yet the self-confidence that makes Nigerians both respected and resented in Africa now has a brittle edge to it. The basis for this confident air - oil money - has been severely shaken.

A Nigerian international civil servant who is at ease in four European languages and travels widely, but who periodically returns home to Lagos, says that because of Nigeria's wealth, arrogance, and assertiveness, ''We have become the 'ugly Nigerian,' the 'imperialist.' ''

A diplomat, who is based in a neighboring African country, prays that he won't be assigned to Lagos. Speaking of Nigerians, he says, ''They're pushy. They're aggressive. They think they're No. 1 and they let you and all the other Africans know it.''

A West European ambassador who doesn't necessarily fault that analysis is more charitable. He wanted to come to Nigeria.

''Yes they are rude. They are arrogant, but they're fantastic people. They're fun to be with,'' he says.

What makes this country stimulating and compelling to diplomats and other foreign visitors, is the energy, the drive, the frontier spirit, the rugged individualism that makes Nigerians willing to accept others as equals if they're tough and resilient enough to stand up to them.

But the oil profits that helped fuel this expansionist, free-enterprise, no-holds-barred attitude have slipped dramatically. Oil revenues were $22.4 billion in 1980 but only $9.6 billion in 1983.

No longer do Nigerians boast, ''We'll be modern; we'll be rich, we'll do anything.'' Now the buzzwords are ''accountability'' and ''austerity.''

Not only has the money well run dry; but many of those who profited and became millionaires overnight achieved their riches through dubious means.

The country is in an uproar over flagrant corruption and looting of the nation's treasury by public officials. Many Nigerians welcomed the military coup of last Dec. 31 because they felt the country had been ripped off by unscrupulous civilian politicians.

They know that Western constitutionalists find this troubling, but many of them are convinced the military is more in step with the mood of the country. In retrospect these Nigerians tend to view ousted President Shehu Shagari as a good man who was surrounded by crooks. They think he wasn't strong enough to curb his colleagues.

Tough times lie ahead for the new regime, too. Nigeria is saddled with a $14 billion debt and it has yet to clinch an International Monetary Fund package that would ease its balance of payments difficulties. The sticking point so far has been Nigeria's reluctance to devalue it currency, the naira.

The slump in economic fortune has sobered Nigeria. It is forcing a reordering of national priorities and perhaps even a reappraisal of moral values.

Businessmen's travel allowances are sharply down. Lavish capital-intensive projects are out. They were a sure way to earn profitable kickbacks. All government programs are closely supervised.

Ishrat Husain, the World Bank's Lagos representative, thinks Nigeria is suffering from the effects of what he terms ''the oil syndrome,'' in which the economy fluctuates with the ups and downs of oil prices.