Uprooted from Nigeria

The crumb of comfort in West Africa at the moment is the international effort to aid hundreds of thousands of ''illegal aliens'' being harshly expelled from Nigeria. The United Nations, individual governments, religious organizations, and private citizens in nearby countries are trying to alleviate hunger and sickness among the refugees.

Yet a number of deaths by starvation or accident have been reported. And the task of reabsorbing the expellees in their home countries is enormous. This is especially so for Ghana since Ghanaians made up most of an estimated two million aliens who were living in Nigeria when the abrupt order to leave came two weeks ago.

They were described as illegal aliens, but their presence was accepted during Nigeria's oil boom years, which coincided with harder times elsewhere in Africa. Now the oil glut has hurt Nigeria, and elections are coming up. Authorities say the foreigners have caused economic problems and religious and racial turmoil.

The expulsions appear to be within Nigeria's legal rights. But at least the manner of the expulsions is not worthy of a major nation like Nigeria, with its claims of tolerance and leadership. Its trade with the West has grown to twice that of South Africa. It has accepted the challenge of trying to prove that multiparty democracy can work in a large and heterogeneous African state.

When such a leader of the continent acts so summarily against citizens of other African states it threatens to worsen the recent impression of African disunity. The head of the Organization of African Unity could hardly do less than call for ''humanitarian treatment'' of the expelled workers. Even the United States, though seeking to work mainly through nonpublic diplomacy, quickly expressed the hope that Nigeria would take measures to make the departure of the foreigners more humane and orderly.

This is what all must hope as the work goes on of caring for the new uprooted.

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