Behind Nigerian exodus: nation on economic slide

As the deadline for the expulsion of millions of illegal aliens from Nigeria passed Monday night, some international institutions were moving to ease the sudden plight of the countless numbers of refugees leaving the country.

With thousands still stranded at Lagos airport or port facilities, Nigerian authorities were said to be beginning inspections for remaining unskilled immigrants.

The expulsion order by the Nigerian government of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari may have been caused by the country's worsening economic conditions, the collapse of the oil market, and increasing political instability.

Estimates of the numbers involved in the expulsion order announced on Jan. 17 ran as high as 3 million. But African sources said that since the actual population of Nigeria itself is difficult to calculate, it is almost impossible to ascertain the numbers of unregistered aliens. Some estimates put the number of Ghanaians in Nigeria as high as 2 million. There may be another million foreigners from other West African countries, and perhaps 700,000 Chadians.

Thousands of deportees at Nigeria's western border with Benin are reported to be awaiting repatriation, in some cases without food, water, or adequate shelter. The European Community (EC) mission in the region last week reported that ''there are stories of death due to fatigue, wounded, women giving birth in indescribable conditions, and the presence of numerous drug addicts suffering from withdrawal.'' Nigerian radio Monday reported the death of several persons seeking to board ships bound for Ghana in Lagos harbor. Ghanaian radio reported 12 deaths.

The problem was complicated for several days because the border between Ghana and its neighbors had been closed since late September and authorities in Benin and neighboring Togo were trying to prevent Ghanaians from entering their territory for fear that they would remain.

But up to 300,000 Ghanaians were later reported to have crossed into their homeland in the 36 hours following Ghana's decision to open its border with Togo. They made the 120-mile trek from Nigeria across Benin and Togo on trucks, buses, taxis, or sometimes on foot with what little possessions they could take with them to beat the expulsion deadline. Hundreds of thousands were reported to be camping in Benin and Togo before the border opened.

The massive and abrupt exodus was arousing the attention of governments and officials not only in the region but in the Western world as well.

M'Hamed Essaafi, the United Nations disaster relief coordinator, was in Brussels this week to discuss aid plans with EC officials. The EC had earlier allocated an initial grant of $500,000 to help the refugees and was considering a new $5 million allocation.

Mr. Essaafi said during an interview that ''the international community has been alarmed'' by the situation. He said aid efforts were aimed at providing tents, blankets, medicine, and water and to help the evacuees resettle in their country of origin. ''Everything will be done to avoid people settling in countries they are crossing,'' he noted.

But the situation, despite the millions of persons affected, was said to have aroused less reaction and sympathy than other such dramas. European sources said officials were cautious about the possibility of creating more-or-less permanent camps of refugees and the danger and instability often associated with such conditions.

The fact that the problem arose from a calculated government decision rather than a war or natural disaster also was considered a restraining influence. Some wanted to avoid an undesirable precedent for other countries.

The expulsion may have serious political repercussions for the West African region. Nigeria tolerated the presence of millions of foreign workers during the economic boom of the 1970s when oil made the country the most prosperous in black Africa. But the current oil glut and foreign debt have seriously eroded Nigeria's economy.

Increasing sentiment against aliens was reported to have developed after foreigners were involved in serious riots last October and in urban street violence. African press reports have speculated that the government may have decided to act on the basis of intelligence reports about Muslim extremists in northern Nigeria. These problems loomed even more importantly in the current buildup to Nigerian presidential elections nine months ahead.

If these millions of foreign residents had become troublesome for Nigeria, they are seen as a problem for their home countries as well. While citizens of Ghana, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, and Benin were affected, the impact is expected to be the greatest in Ghana.

The revolutionary government of Ghana's Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings is also facing mounting economic and political pressure. The return of millions of unskilled workers to Ghana is expected to put further strain on the system. The government closed its frontiers in September for fear of a foreign-based attack, as well as to ostensibly guard against smuggling. The Ghanaian press raised this issue in the wake of the Nigerian expulsion order. A Ghanaian Times editorial last week was reported as noting, ''No one can be deceived that the purpose of the move to send Ghanaians home is to cause a mass hysteria situation by their repatriation in order to infiltrate among them Sudan-trained mercenaries into Ghana.''

The Nigerian expulsion order is also a serious setback for regional cooperation. Citizens of the Economic Community of West African States are supposed to benefit from freedom of movement among member countries. Nigeria was the most prominent in launching the group and its action is seen as questioning its existence.

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