Of all black African nations, Nigeria seemed the most likely to grow into the first successful democracy. It has a relatively large number of educated citizens, an established democratic structure, and a major product to export -- oil. Thus the weekend military overthrow of the elected civilian government is particularly disappointing.
To be sure, President Shagari's government had had its problems. As in many other African nations much government inefficiency and corruption existed. Too much of the wealth from oil exports had gone to the affluent few: The vast majority lived in great poverty. Due to the recent drop in world petroleum prices, oil -- which comprises 90 percent of the value of all Nigerian exports -- had brought in less money than anticipated, producting a domestic economic setback.
Nonetheless it would have been preferable for the Nigerian Army to have let democracy learn from its mistakes and overcome these and other problems. President Shagari had seemed to be trying to produce solution. He had put forth a plan to root out corruption, though it had not been markedly successful. Just 48 hours before the coup he had announced a major austerity program designed to get his nation's economic situation under control -- and, possibly, to clear the way for a major loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Then came the military's Dec. 31 coup, a return to the too-prevalent pattern of military rule in black Africa. For Nigeria it is the fifth time since its 1960 independence that the military has overthrown the government.
In the short run the military needs to prove that it can do a better job of running the country than the Shagari government. Beyound ending inefficiency and corruption, the new leadership's first priorities likely will be economic: obtaining the IMF loan, taking domestic austerity measures, and getting more money from its oil exports.
This last exemplifies a classic problem of most developing nations, in Africa and elsewhere -- the challenge of trying to establish a stable economic program whenthe country's income depends almost wholly on the world price of one export -- in this case, oil. It is good that the man in charge of the new government, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, was heavily involved in the management of Nigeria's oil reserves during the military regime of the late 1970s.
But in the long run there is a more fundamental need. The military needs to return the nation to democracy and do it far more promptly than last time (which took 13 years). The African continent -- indeed, the world -- will be waiting to see how this troubled giant fulfills its potential role as black Africa's democratic leader.