Nigeria, Africa's smoldering 'showpiece'

Watch Nigeria. That has been the message in Africa ever since the continent's most populous country overtook Ghana, the pride of early African independence, as the showpiece of the continent.

Watching Nigeria's economic, military, and political power expand during this past decade holds an uneasy fascination for the rest of Africa. Other black Africans both admire - and fear - its growing influence.

Under the Carter administration, the United States acknowledged Nigeria's preeminent role on the continent and turned to it as a conduit for reaching out to black Africa. As a region, Africa has scarcely taken a stand on any critical matter affecting its interests without first ensuring it had Nigeria aboard.

But now Nigeria is sounding economic alarm bells as its reels under slumping oil prices. Once the second-largest oil supplier to the United States, today Nigeria cannot find buyers for the high-quality crude which brings in more than 90 percent of its foreign earnings.

Caught in this slump, and perhaps also in the nation's current election campaign, some 1-to-2 million unskilled West Africans have been arbitrarily shoved out of the country. Still more - this time skilled workers - are being told they must leave Nigeria by month's end.

The reverberations are felt well beyond the impoverished countries of Ghana, Togo, and Benin, which were dependent on the Nigerian job market to keep their people working. The reason is simple: Ever since its central government fought and won (to the surprise of Western powers) a civil war with rebel Biafrans in the late 1960s, Nigeria has been a force to be reckoned with on the African continent.

It was the first black African war of any magnitude and one fought with some of the sophisticated weaponry of such powers as the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. The Biafran war gave Nigeria - and by association Africa - a new international dimension.

More important, for an Africa beset by raging tribal conflicts, Nigeria kept its nation intact afterward, and with a trained and experienced Army unmatched anywhere in black Africa.

Even after the war a longtime observer of the African scene, journalist and author Richard Hall, said the nation was so fraught with political contradictions that he did not give Nigeria five years. It would, he believed, break up into two separate nations.

But Nigeria, through political compromise and careful regional balancing, has succeeded in producing not only a workable political system but also one that emerged in 1978 from 12 years of emergency military rule into a democracy with a feisty press.

Its ability to hold together, lower ethnic tensions, reduce the number of coups (some violent) that afflicted it during the '60s and '70s, and elect a civilian President, Shehu Shagari, who in recent years had become the most admired man in the country, has enormously strengthened Nigeria and helped propel it to political leadership of Africa.

It also has an intellectual elite that is the envy of the rest of Africa. With 15 universities, a remarkable achievement by African standards, Nigeria has produced more university graduates in the 1970s than Nigeria and all the other developing countries turned out during the colonial era.

Factors such as these have in the past made Africa watchers optimistic about Nigeria's future.

Today Nigeria with more than 80 million people dwarfs the other countries of Africa, which appear almost Lilliputian by comparison. More than half of black Africa's 45 nations have populations of 5 million or less, most of them boasting only one or two basic agricultural commodities, which now bring depressed prices on the world market.

But with few exceptions, such as Angola and Gabon, Nigeria has a commodity rare in black Africa: oil. Oil put the country into the international league. In a matter of a few years, Nigeria became a leading world oil producer.

Yet oil - which turned Nigeria from a nation of casava and yam eaters into consumers of imported American frozen chickens, and earned it comfortable foreign reserves in recent years - has also been the nation's undoing. By putting all its economic eggs into one basket - oil accounts for 83 percent of government revenues - Nigeria unwisely neglected its agriculture.

From being Africa's largest exporter of food, Nigeria has now become the continent's largest importer of food, indulging its people in luxuries not attainable in its more impoverished neighbors.

Nigeria's shopping bill for imported food runs as high as $2.4 billion. That, in itself, might not present problems if oil revenues continued to pour in. But like Venezuela and Mexico, Nigeria miscalculated. It saw itself afloat on an ocean of profitable oil. With the world glut forcing prices down, Nigeria's once plentiful financial reserves have dropped from $10 billion as recently as January 1981 to about $2 billion today.

The economy, squeaking from lack of oil revenues, contracted. Up to 2 million West Africans, half of them from Ghana, have become scapegoats for the deteriorating Nigerian economy. The Jan. 17 order to get out of the country came swiftly, and without apparent regard for the possible chaos it would cause in the receiving countries.

The exodus, one of the largest mass migrations in recent history, will undoubtedly dent President Shagari's image in Africa and the outside world. But the Nigerian press has hailed the move, perhaps believing it will open up jobs for Nigerians hitherto held by foreigners. There is another factor: Nigeria is holding an election later this year and the government's decision to act tough could work in President Shagari's favor.

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