Nigeria military tries to do what civilians didn't

Nigeria's new military leader, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, Thursday promised to clean Nigerian society of the ''cankerworm of pervasive corruption.'' General Buhari was speaking at a packed press conference in Lagos to explain the reasons that precipitated the New Year's Eve coup that ousted the four-year civilian regime of President Shehu Shagari.

''The Nigerian armed forces could not stand idly by while this country was drifting towards a dangerous state of political and economic collapse through the continued ineptitude and insensitiveness of a political leadership who were apparently unwilling to change,'' Buhari said.

The military ''had a duty to intervene to clean up the economic mess and set this country once again on the path of sanity,'' he added.

Buhari, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, said the civilian regime had allowed the buoyant economy to run down though ''mismanagement.'' He said that food imports were either ''diverted, hoarded, or sold at prices beyond the reach of ordinary man.''

''Fraudulent acts, arson at public buildings, corruption, indiscipline, smuggling, armed robbery became the order of the day,'' he continued. The government ''seemed unable or unwilling'' to deal firmly with the offenders, he said.

Buhari - a slightly built, bespectacled, and ascetic-looking figure, was accompanied by several senior Army officers belonging to a new 19-member military council.

Reading a prepared speech in a clear, confident voice, Buhari criticized last August's elections as ''anything but free and fair.''

The government's ''suspect massive victory'' lulled it into a state of ''complacency'' and the ''planlessness, downright incompetence, and irresponsibility'' of the previous four years of civilian rule continued, he said.

Buhari accused the civilian government of indisciplined spending, which turned a 1979 budget surplus of $2.25 billion into a deficit of $6 billion in 1983. Inability to sufficiently cut imports encouraged a sevenfold increase in external debt of $11.6 billion between 1977 and 1983.

Buhari promised to cut spending, restructure the economy, and manage the country's resources more judiciously. He said Nigeria would continue discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and corporate creditors.

Asked whether the military regime would consider devaluation of the naira - one of the main sticking points in negotiation with the IMF for a $2 billion aid package - Buhari replied, ''We don't want to mortgage our country, but if this has already been done, we might be forced to (devalue the currency) to get industry working again.''

Buhari said the main priority was to revive the economy by prudent management of available resources.

He vowed to check the activities of hoarders, smugglers, and all other social and economic saboteurs.

He added that Nigeria would continue to honor its international commitments. He confirmed that Nigeria would remain a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but will continue to uphold Nigerian interest.

He said he was encouraged by the ''massive support'' of the Nigerian people.

There is widespread expectation that prices of staple foods and consumer items such as washing powder will start to fall as the military cracks down on unscrupulous traders.

General Buhari stressed that President Shagari was ''safe and sound'' and like the vice-president, Alex Ekwueme, had been put under ''military protection'' in Lagos. He denied reports that Shagari had been brought to Lagos in handcuffs.

Meanwhile, a search is on for several permanent members of the civilian regime suspected of corruption. And the military government expects to launch judicial inquiries into the alleged mismanagement of the country's resources.

Buhari said the country's former leaders would be kept in custody until the worst cases of ''mismanagement are cleared.''

Asked whether the military had made any pledge to return the country to democracy, he replied, ''The council hasn't yet discussed it.''

Meanwhile, the country's commercial capital, Lagos, is calm with relatively few and perfunctory military checkpoints. Traffic in the normally chaotically conjested city is easier than usual.

Although the international airport is now opened, few planes have landed because of thick dust that has engulfed the city for the past week from dust winds (harmattan) common this time of year in West Africa.

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