Nigeria tries to bounce back to influence in midst of chaos

The race is on: A taxi, its rattling doors secured with bent wires, is determined to overtake a speeding passenger bus that, despite a slogan on its yellow sides saying, ''Only Jesus saves,'' shows a curious disregard for highway safety.

Suddenly there is a screech of tires. Both taxi and bus come to an abrupt stop just inches away from a terrified pedestrian who is trying to cross the noisy intersection.

The pedestrian, a Yoruba woman bedecked in her refined West African headdress and a yellow and chocolate tiered dress, strikes back at the taxi driver with a fusillade of angry words.

Then, quickly, she pushes her head into the open driver's window and, like a mother boxing the ears of a naughty boy, playfully punches his nose and runs off , laughing at her own sense of mischief.

Lagos is like that. It's mercurial and volatile, rowdy and rambunctious, aggressive and willing to take anyone on, yet willing to forgive and forget when the spirit moves it.

Nigeria is a country of staggering proportions. It ranks in the world's 10 most populous countries with a population estimated at between 90 and 130 million.

It is black Africa's giant. As large as Texas and California combined, Nigeria houses 1 of every 4 persons in Africa. It is also the world's most prosperous black-ruled state. Economically, it is a colossus - one of the world's biggest oil producers and one of the West's major trading partners.

Yet the self-confidence that makes Nigerians both respected and resented in Africa now has a brittle edge to it. The basis for this confident air - oil money - has been severely shaken.

A Nigerian international civil servant who is at ease in four European languages and travels widely, but who periodically returns home to Lagos, says that because of Nigeria's wealth, arrogance, and assertiveness, ''We have become the 'ugly Nigerian,' the 'imperialist.' ''

A diplomat, who is based in a neighboring African country, prays that he won't be assigned to Lagos. Speaking of Nigerians, he says, ''They're pushy. They're aggressive. They think they're No. 1 and they let you and all the other Africans know it.''

A West European ambassador who doesn't necessarily fault that analysis is more charitable. He wanted to come to Nigeria.

''Yes they are rude. They are arrogant, but they're fantastic people. They're fun to be with,'' he says.

What makes this country stimulating and compelling to diplomats and other foreign visitors, is the energy, the drive, the frontier spirit, the rugged individualism that makes Nigerians willing to accept others as equals if they're tough and resilient enough to stand up to them.

But the oil profits that helped fuel this expansionist, free-enterprise, no-holds-barred attitude have slipped dramatically. Oil revenues were $22.4 billion in 1980 but only $9.6 billion in 1983.

No longer do Nigerians boast, ''We'll be modern; we'll be rich, we'll do anything.'' Now the buzzwords are ''accountability'' and ''austerity.''

Not only has the money well run dry; but many of those who profited and became millionaires overnight achieved their riches through dubious means.

The country is in an uproar over flagrant corruption and looting of the nation's treasury by public officials. Many Nigerians welcomed the military coup of last Dec. 31 because they felt the country had been ripped off by unscrupulous civilian politicians.

They know that Western constitutionalists find this troubling, but many of them are convinced the military is more in step with the mood of the country. In retrospect these Nigerians tend to view ousted President Shehu Shagari as a good man who was surrounded by crooks. They think he wasn't strong enough to curb his colleagues.

Tough times lie ahead for the new regime, too. Nigeria is saddled with a $14 billion debt and it has yet to clinch an International Monetary Fund package that would ease its balance of payments difficulties. The sticking point so far has been Nigeria's reluctance to devalue it currency, the naira.

The slump in economic fortune has sobered Nigeria. It is forcing a reordering of national priorities and perhaps even a reappraisal of moral values.

Businessmen's travel allowances are sharply down. Lavish capital-intensive projects are out. They were a sure way to earn profitable kickbacks. All government programs are closely supervised.

Ishrat Husain, the World Bank's Lagos representative, thinks Nigeria is suffering from the effects of what he terms ''the oil syndrome,'' in which the economy fluctuates with the ups and downs of oil prices.

While Nigerians have reaped the benefits of higher oil prices, he says, they have also had to adjust more recently to a standard of living that has declined because of plummeting oil prices.

Dr. Husain says the World Bank's aim is to assist Nigeria to diversify its economy. It favors reducing Nigeria's dependence on oil in the long term by establishing incentives to promote industry and agriculture. His hope is that Nigeria will win back the competitive advantage it had before the oil syndrome began, when it was a leading exporter of groundnuts, cocoa, and rubber. Another analyst thinks the fallen oil revenues could prove to be a blessing.

''Too much oil money has corrupted the situation,'' says John A.A. Ayoade, professor of political science at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria's second-largest city. ''It destroyed the morality of Nigerians. It destroyed the morale of civil servants, who saw people get rich at the expense of the state; and then it also created a situation where it debased the state because the state became an instrument in the hands of the individual.''

Professor Ayoade, interviewed on the Ibadan University campus some 100 miles northwest of Lagos, claims that Nigeria has become a disappointment to Africa because of excessive wealth and corruption. Nigeria has not lived up to the expectations of Africans, he says.

''I find it embarrassing that single individuals in Nigeria have through oil wealth become richer than some African states.''

Some Africa watchers think that with a hard-pressed economy Nigeria is less likely to adopt an assertive foreign policy.

When oil prices were high, Nigeria had the political clout to make the United States and Britain heed its counsel on African issues, especially in regard to southern Africa, they say.

But with a depleted treasury, Nigeria ''no longer has the bucks,'' as one diplomat put it, to bankroll Angola or the liberation movements in that region.On the foreign policy front, another diplomat suggests that ''with no money they (the Nigerians) will have to do it (assert political influence) with mirrors. Now somebody has thrown a brick through those mirrors.'' The brick that the diplomat alluded to was the fall of the civilian government, which he considered a serious blow to Nigeria's prestige as one of the few African states exercising multiparty democracy.

Some Nigerians deny that oil riches dictate foreign policy. They note that Shagari was cautious and conservative despite earlier oil wealth. They dispute that Nigeria's influence in Africa should be eroded because a discredited government was removed.

Nigerians are often irked by the West's clucking over the demise of democracy in Nigeria.

Professor Ayoade, for instance, thinks the West attaches too much importance to the trappings of democracy.

''I think when one talks about democracy in a developing country, one has to make a distinction between democracy of accession to office, and democracy of performance in office. And democracy of performance in office looks like the more critical thing.''

Nigerian officials were democratically elected to office under Shagari's civilian administration, but they are widely believed to have lacked a sense of public accountability once they assumed office.

It is not uncommon for people on the streets of Lagos or Ibadan or Kano to say they feel the newly installed military government is a better example of democracy than the ousted civilian one because the soldiers in power are more responsive to the public's needs.

Many analysts point out a sharp distinction between the new military rulers of Nigeria and some of their khaki-uniformed counterparts in the rest of Africa. They say Nigeria's leaders are not authoritarian.

Nobody disputes that the new head of state, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Buhari, is a tough, no-nonsense soldier who intends to knock the nation into shape. But a Western ambassador who works closely with the top leaders finds the new rulers almost tentative and apologetic about seizing power.

''They're very sensitive to any suggestion they're acting in a manner undemocratic and unconstitutional. They'll tell you what they are doing is temporary and vital.''

Nigerians, who regard themselves as a highly individualistic race, pooh-pooh the idea that Nigeria under military rule will become a dictatorship or substantially lose its freedoms. Nigerians as a people don't like to be dictated to. As one Nigerian quipped: ''Nigerians are a government unto themselves.''

Although political parties are banned, the press remains free. The judiciary remains intact. Many Nigerian judges have served uninterrupted terms for as long as 20 years. And churches have remained remarkably critical, forthright, and independent of party politics.

At Nigeria's last Remembrance Day memorial service to honor those who fell during the civil war of 1967-70, a Christian preacher fixed a beady eye on the minister of defense, Maj. Gen. D. Y. Bali. The defense minister, who was sitting in one of the front pews as the military government's representative, was told in no uncertain terms that the military must not fail the nation, that it must root out corruption, and, more significantly, that the military itself was not free of corruption.

While such comments would be unthinkable in many other parts of Africa, Nigerians are more likely to be surprised by an official who does not have the temerity to say what is on his mind.

At the same time, any romantic view of the military as savior of Nigeria gets short shrift from those who have seen previous military governments tainted by corruption. During Gen. Murtala Muhammad's administration, 10 of 12 military governors were found to have illegally amassed fortunes in the real estate business.

''After a while the military (under General Buhari) will become corrupt, too, '' alleges someone who worked with the military regimes of Murtala Muhammad and Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. He said both military administrations were tainted by corruption.

Any assessment of Nigeria naturally dwells on the chronicling of major developments: the boom and bust oil cycles, the veering from military to civilian rule and then back to military rule, and its violent internal politics. Three of Nigeria's first five heads of state have been assassinated, and the country was plunged into civil war between 1967 and 1970.

What is not always readily discernible to the outside world is the degree to which Nigerians have become reconciled to one another.

This is not to say that the Yorubas of the west have overcome their feelings of being cheated at last year's civilian elections. They haven't. Or that some Ibos of the east have forgiven the Yorubas for doing nothing when they were being attacked by the Muslims in the north. They haven't either.

But those who travel widely in Nigeria are often surprised to see how well the federation of 19 states - devised to neutralize earlier political, religious , tribal, and linguistic polarization - is working.

Many Nigerians believe the speed with which Gen. Yakubu Gowon pardoned the separatist state of Biafra, as the eastern region was known during the civil war , has much to do with it.

Within days of the issuance of an amnesty, prominent Ibos who had fled Lagos to fight for Biafra were absorbed back into their old positions. In some cases, they were paid retroactively for lost wages.

General Gowon, the federal leader, was toppled in 1978. He took the advice of the new military rulers and left the country to become a student at Warwick University in Britain. Gen. Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, fled to the Ivory Coast when Biafran resistance collapsed in 1970. Both men have been pardoned. Both are back in Nigeria. Gowon was greeted as a hero on his return last December. An Englishman who was staying at the hotel where a reception was held for Gowon said the man was so popular that everyone - policemen, waiters, diners - dropped what they were doing and mobbed him.

The return of Gowon last year and General Ojukwu in 1982 has a special symbolic significance, says Clara Osinulu, a Lagos social anthropologist.

''It's a sign of maturity. What has happened to two people is happening at a higher level,'' she says, alluding to the extent to which Nigeria, a country of 50 major tribes and 250 linguistic groupings, is consolidating its sense of nationhood.

John Harris, director of the African Center at Boston University and a frequent visitor to Nigeria, believes that Nigeria's record of reconciliation is much better than that of the United States after its civil war.

Many other academics feel that the spirit of reconciliation is one of the unsung success stories of Nigeria today. Perhaps it explains why the Yoruba woman was so ready to forgive the young taxi driver who nearly mowed her down at that busy Lagos intersection.

The big question is to what extent this growing sense of Nigerian nationhood will translate into a patriotism that will make all Nigerians work harder to overcome their staggering economic problems.

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