Nigeria after the coup: no law, no budget, but many high hopes

Nigeria is waiting for the other boot to drop. The first boot dropped New Year's Eve when a lightning military coup toppled Nigeria from its rank as the world's fourth-largest multiparty democracy after India, the United States, and Japan.

Now this vast country of more than 90 million people, accounting for nearly a quarter of black Africa's population, is waiting for the other boot to drop: the formation of the new Cabinet.

Until that happens - and two weeks have already elapsed since the Dec. 31 coup - Nigeria is in a state of limbo with no law, no Constitution, and no budget.

Yet the political uncertainties have not inhibited the irrepressible mood of this stimulating, sassy capital where everybody feels just as good as everybody else, and where drivers display their rivalry by racing pell-mell, horns blaring , down narrow thoroughfares scattering people from crowded streets and large lizards from the sidewalks.

Overloaded buses, jaunty with such religious slogans as ''Praise the Lord'' and ''If you miss Christ you miss all,'' throw up coils of dense fumes which hang in the heavy tropical heat.

Everybody, though, gives way to ubiquitous Army personnel, crisp in their smart berets and sharply creased trousers. Yet the mood of these rifle-toting troops is carefree.

''Have a happy new year,'' says a young soldier leaning into an open car window at an Army roadblock on the way in from the airport. ''And what new gifts have you brought me from America for the new year?'' he asks.

He and his rifle are an acknowledgment that the military is now on the streets and in power in an attempt to halt extortion and other rampant forms of corruption that have beset the nation.

Leading the nation in this new crusade is a tough, no-nonsense former military governor, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, widely seen here as an island of probity in a sea of corruption. Nobody doubts that Buhari intends to put the country back on its economic feet with a rigorous austerity program. The signals as to how he will do it, however, have been slow in coming.

There is no law because the Constitution has been suspended. Nothing has yet been put in its place. In 1966 when the military took over, things fell into place in two days. Some sections of the Constitution were abrogated, some retained.

Two weeks after the latest coup, the country awaits a decree from the top promulgating the new law. Without such a diktat there is no law, no legal framework in which the country can operate.

''We're in a legal vacuum,'' says an informed source.

The judiciary is one of the three branches of government that has been retained. But jurists are unsure of how judges will write their opinions in the absence of law.

Nigeria also has no approved budget - and thus no money to spend. Former President Shehu Shagari was ousted before the new budget could take effect.

President Buhari's first test comes when he installs his new Cabinet. It is expected to be predominantly civilian with a smattering of the military. If he can attract civilians who have already earned the public's trust, he will not only have won a crucial ally - the middle-class professional - but he will also have succeeded in broadening his national mandate, which is deemed essential if he is to embark on his promised program of austerity.

One reason the press has remained free and feisty, scolding soldiers for occasional excesses, may be that the news media can play a more credible role in spreading the government's message if it is a voluntary partner.

The new government has promised a lot of conflicting things. On the one hand it calls for a tightening of the screws. On the other, it implies it wants to reduce unemployment at a time when economic experts believe more, not less, unemployment is necessary if the country is to get back on a firmer economic footing.

In these early days of firmer government rule, the military leaders are riding high. For a broad spectrum of public opinion, the new military administration is viewed as the solution for the country's economic problems.

An engineer for a large British construction company who has worked in Lagos for the past seven years says, ''Something had to happen. Construction was at a standstill. The government was not giving out any licenses. No foreign exchange was being remitted. Businesses were going bankrupt overnight.

''We had a paper company next door to us with about 3,000 workers. About two-thirds were laid off overnight recently. Can you imagine 2,000 people thrown out onto the streets in one swoop?''

Along a narrow sidestreet off Tafawa Balewa Square, green-shirted barefoot schoolboys kick up the dust and lob tennis balls over graceful Yoruba women, their heads wreathed in elegant swirls of colorful fabric. The women banter in front of their open-air stalls piled high with teetering stacks of washing detergent and canned fruit.

Frank Dairo, the proprietor of an office equipment company here, knows well Nigeria's economic problems. Sales have dropped 245 percent since last year.

''At that time we were importing 200 machines and typewriters from Switzerland a month,'' he says. But his firm is a victim of the cutoff of most import licenses, which came with the country's lack of foreign exchange. Companies like his have been forced to diversify into domestically produced goods.

Devaluation - considered to be an inevitable condition if Nigeria is to successfully conclude talks on an International Monetary Fund loan to finance its $14 billion external debt - will make things worse for Mr. Dairo.

The Nigerian currency he has on deposit with the central bank to pay for his foreign imports would count for less. The central bank is neither returning his funds nor transferring them abroad because of Nigeria's difficult foreign exchange problems. Since the bank is unlikely to assume the shortfall, businessmen may have to come up with the difference by paying in more naira.m

In some circles, the sudden drop in high oil prices, which has contributed to Nigeria's economic decline, is considered to have a possible salutary effect on the body politic. When the country was suddenly awash in oil money during the boom times of the 1970s, the temptations of having so much money around proved irresistible. Now that the well has run dry the temptations, too, have gone or are at least reduced.

For a leader who vows to root out corruption, the market place for oil may have rendered him a service by narrowing the latitude public officials now have to misappropriate public funds.

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