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.
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.
"They the Nigerians really do see the US as able to solve their agriculture problems," said and international banker.
Nevertheless, while the Shagari government would clearly like US help in whittling its $2 billion-a-year imported food bill, continued US support for the white-controlled government in South Africa could jepoardize chances for closer economic cooperation, according to political observers here.
Shagari's room to maneuver also appears to be limited by an ever more hostile public assessment of the Reagan administration's African policies. Denunciations of US policy in southern Africa are daily affairs in the country's influential newspapers. Headlines such as "Reagan: a historial disaster," "Reagan's hypocrisy," and "Ronald Reagan's adventurism," appear regularly.
What's more, Nigerians take seriously the country's leading role in the fight for Namibian independence: Every wage earner here pays, by all accounts uncomplainingly, an "apartheid tax" that is used to finance the resistance in southern Africa.
According to reliable sources here, the US is aware of the limits to Nigerian patience.
"There is no desire here to unsheath the oil weapon," explained one Western diplomat, referring to repeated warnings by Shagari that the Nigerians could stop oil shipments to the US to bring it into line on the Namibian issue.
"What the Nigerians are afraid of is that the US will go over the cliff, and they won't be able to follow," he added.
Despite the criticism of US policies, particularly on southern Africa, there is an abiding interest among Nigerians in all things American, but it is a combination of fascination and revulsion, love and hate.
Thus while the general view here is that the US is behind the current world oil glut (the somewhat sketchy logic holding that Washington has pressured Saudi Arabia to flood the markets and thus weaken oil exporting countries), US business people, including oil company employees, report no anti-American undercurrent whatsoever.
To some extent, suggest Western residents here criticism of and interest in the US stems from its role as leader of the developed world, which is generally at odds with aspirations of the third world -of which Nigerians see themselves as a leading advocate.
However, there is a "special" link between the Western superpower, and the "giant of black Africa," say several political analysts here. They point out that Nigeria selected the US-style of government for its second republic, reflecting both admiration for the multiparty system and a desire to break with the colonial past.
Moreover, because of its size and wealth, Nigeria shares many of the same problems as the US. Its smaller neighbors, for example, are suspicious of its desire to influence events on the African continent. And a rising tide of immigrants looking for work is causing trouble with Nigeria's workers.
"They feel very proud to the 'United States of Africa,'" said one Western diplomat.
Whether that's the case of not, developments in the US hold more than a passing interest for many Nigerians.
"On election night we were thousands at the (US) Embassy," said Tony Idigo, a political jounalist with the News agency of Nigeria. "I doubt there are many Americans who would give up a night's sleep to follow Nigeria's elections."