Nigeria exodus: aid alleviates suffering, but instability ahead

An outpouring of money, trucks, tents, rice, cereals, powdered milk, cooking oil, dried fish, soap, medical supplies, and other aid from global relief agencies has alleviated suffering in West Africa among workers suddenly expelled from Nigeria.

But aid officials and European governments alike expect fresh instability in the region - and the need for more help - as those expelled find their own countries in desperate economic straits. The refugees are expected to drift back from the countryside, where they have been sent, to the cities to look for jobs which just aren't there.

''The big question mark is Ghana,'' says one British analyst in close touch with daily events.

Officials here do not profess to know exact numbers, and they distrust many public estimates so far. Sources think that around 750,000 Ghanaians are now back home, dispersed into villages and onto farms to keep them out of the public eye and to encourage them back into subsistence farming.

''But these people were attracted by Nigeria's oil boom in the first place because they disliked working on the land. Ghana's economy is now worse than when they left,'' the analyst added.

Result: more trouble for the military government of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. Ghana is asking for at least $10 million worth of emergency aid of all kinds as Lieutenant Rawlings faces the same economic hardships as the man from whom he seized power at the end of 1981, President Hilla Limann.

Salt, soap, sugar, car tires, and other goods are in short supply. The government deficit is still about $: 1 billion (about $1.5 billion). Talks with the International Monetary Fund have been slow.

In Chad, Togo and Benin, the impact of returnees fom Nigeria may be less, if only because economic conditions are so bad already.

There is famine in the Abeche region in the east of Chad. Other regions are decimated from years of civil war. Libya still claims the northeastern Aozou region. Sources here believe that about 100,000 Chadians are now back from Nigeria.

In Nigeria itself, the most populous country in Africa, the impact of the expulsions has been mixed.

Nigerians have seemed to approve, so the expulsions have been at least a short-term political gain for the government. Yet elections are not until the summer and memories fade quickly.

Far more important to the future of the Nigerian economy is the price of oil, and how far it falls. Nigerian oil exports have now dropped almost to zero, in a country whose government depends on oil for 90 percent of its foreign revenue.

Moreover, reports reaching London say the economy will slow down even further. Nigerians are turning up their noses at the low-paying construction and other jobs the foreign workers were doing when they were expelled.

Britain, in particular, worries about Nigerian instability. Absorbing $: 1.5 billion of exports in 1981 and $: 1.2 billion last year, Nigeria was Britain's biggest market outside of Europe and North America. It was bigger than South Africa, and twice as big as Japan.

Exports will be drastically cut this year, however, much to Britain's unhappiness. If oil prices fall sharply, Nigeria's economic position will be even worse.

Meanwhile, North American and European countries, as well as United Nations bodies, coordinated relief efforts in recent weeks.

''It was a very generous response,'' says a British relief official. ''We are watching and waiting now. Relief agencies on the spot have asked us to pause. . .''

Assistance has come from the International Red Cross, church groups, the UN Disaster Relief Organization, the UN Childrens Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Program, and several Western governments.

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