Nigerian coup plot reflects impatience with new leader. Four-month-old regime has yet to keep promise on ailing economy

The recently foiled coup plot in Nigeria points to the continued political instability and economic crisis in this troubled black African nation. The plot, uncovered last week, reflects dissatisfaction with the failure thus far of Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida's four-month-old regime to deliver on the promises made after seizing power in a bloodless coup Aug. 27.

Among these promises was a pledge to break the 21/2-year deadlock with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which would give Nigeria access to badly needed funds to bridge its financial crisis and restructure its oil-dependent economy. The coup plot was discovered only days after the government had decided it would not seek an IMF loan worth $2.5 billion.

Three Army generals have reportedly been arrested, but neither their identity or motivations has so far been revealed. Defense Minister Domkat Bali said that the plotters planned to assassinate the head of state and leading members of the military regime.

Informed sources in Lagos believe that the so-called ``Kaduna Mafia'' -- a shadowy group of northern Muslim powerbrokers -- may be behind the plot. Northerners have been angered at the increased prominence given to the mainly-Christian southerners and minority groups in the new government. Observers say that Babangida has merely tried to redress the balance that has been heavily skewed in favor of the north.

There is also believed to be resentment at the retention of some officials from the previous military regime, as well as at the appointment of middle-ranking officers to some of the 19 state governorships.

While the government's decision to break off talks with the IMF was immensely popular with the Nigerian people, there is concern among bankers and industrialists that the lack of fresh funds will cause a collapse in imports, huge inflation due to scarcity of goods, an end to development spending, and further massive unemployment.

An IMF agreement would have enabled the World Bank to grant some $1 billion of structural adjustment loans, the rescheduling of interest payments on the country's estimated $20 billion debt, and commercial banks to resume lending.

The decision to break with the IMF followed an intense national debate in the news media. The public was opposed to what it perceived as a surrender of ``national sovereignty,'' as well as to the IMF's conditions, which include a sharp devaluation of the currency (the naira), ending of petroleum subsidies, and liberalization of imports. The naira is exchanged at only about one-fifth of its official value on the black market. Devaluation, combined with the lifting of petroleum subsidies, would cause a sha rp rise in the price of food and other basics.

Instead, Nigeria plans to implement its own austerity program. In October, Babangida announced a 15-month ``economic emergency.'' Army and civil service salaries were cut, diplomatic staff abroad reduced by nearly one-third, and rice and maize (corn) imports banned. A new $70-billion development plan due to start in January has been postponed until after the economic emergency is over.

Debt servicing absorbs 44 percent of export earnings, which, because of the slump in world oil markets, have plummeted by more than half since 1980.

``The country hasn't enough resources for daily needs, let alone development,'' one banker commented.

``There has been much talk about restructuring and reducing oil dependence, but it is difficult to see how this can be achieved without outside financial and technical support,'' he added.

But perhaps the 1986 budget, due to be presented soon, will provide some clues as to how Nigeria plans to face the future on its own.

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