Nigeria undertakes an overhaul. Nigeria is seeking a new political, economic, and moral balance. Years of easy oil money left the nation with rampant corruption and, eventually, economic turmoil. The first of two reports on Nigerians' efforts to reverse these trends - and achieve civilian rule.

A potential giant is stirring again in Africa. Nigeria, the most populous nation on the continent, is struggling to gain its political, economic, and moral balance through reforms.

In the 1970s, there was a lot of talk about Nigeria becoming the giant of Africa. It had the most people. It had oil - lots of it.

But as the money gushed in and the oil was shipped out, Nigeria began choking on its new wealth. The oil money led to a bloated bureaucracy and rampant corruption. The country could not feed itself. Fat cats grew fatter; civil service became a land of monetary opportunity.

Then, the music faded. Oil prices plunged in the early '80s, and foreign debt piled up as the government failed to cut spending fast enough. The public became disillusioned with both civilian and military government corruption and mismanagement.

A difficult economic adjustment process has been underway for a little more than a year now, and further steps toward political and moral reform have begun in recent months. Nigeria is attempting to live, democratically, within the country's means, without runaway corruption.

Signs of Nigeria's struggle for political reform are evident at wooden voter registration tables being set up through the country as it prepares for its first election in four years. Long-robed men, and women in wraparound skirts, press inked thumbs onto new their voter registration cards. Dec. 12 is election day for local officials. It is the first step in a five-year transition from military to civilian rule.

Steps toward economic reform are visible in the effects tough austerity measures have had on the public: Prices of imports have skyrocketed since the government slashed the value of its currency, the naira, in mid-1986; and trims in government subsidies have pushed up the costs of many basics.

The government says these steps have spurred local manufacturing to fill the vacuum left by import items no longer affordable. But how the public will react to further price hikes is unclear. The growing middle class had become accustomed to cars, videos, and foreign travel. Now air fares have doubled and car prices have tripled.

The government has also cut the civil service, including closure or sale of numerous government-run agencies, and it has reduced controls on international trade. While this may spur some industries to accelerate their efforts, the closures have made jobs hard to find.

Firm figures are hard to find, but unemployment and underemployment run high. One young man in Kaduna works seven days a week at a small restaurant and dreams of opening his own. Others make endless rounds looking for work.

But there is a feeling, at least among the educated employed, that the economy needed correction. ``People are looking beyond the immediate discomfort of economic hardships for a better future,'' says a Lagos journalist.

Actual steps toward moral reform are less evident. But there are clear calls from the government, in speeches and on television, for changes in behavior. Political and economic reforms are not enough, many Nigerians feel. ``There has to be a moral rearmament,'' of this country, says Patrick Nwakoby, an attorney in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria.

In his short book in 1983, ``The Trouble With Nigeria,'' author Chinua Achebe wrote: ``The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.''

The failure is seen as not only one of leadership but also of bad economic policies and of a public too willing to ignore or benefit from corruption. ``The electorate is very corrupt,'' says Mr. Nwakoby.

One recent step aims at both political and moral failings: The government has banned most present and past political office holders from running for election for the next five years. With this move, head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida is making way for newcomers - he hopes an honest batch - to run the country when he hands over power to a civilian government in 1992. Additionally, the government has abolished import licenses, import quotas, and other government regulations that gave government officials leverage for obtaining bribes.

Interviews with people throughout the nation indicated diverse views on what the reforms will bring. Some Nigerians are skeptical; others are cynical. But many echoed the guarded hope of Joshiah Idowu-Fearon, provost of the Anglican church in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria. ``There are potentials in this country. Nigeria could be a great country.,''

Richard Ikiebe, special assistant to Nigeria's Minister of Information, also points to his country's potential. ``Everything begins in the mind,'' he says. ``We are getting an avalanche of solutions'' - ideas for tackling the nation's problems.

Like many Nigerians, Mr. Ikiebe praised the military government's move toward civilian rule. But like others here, a northern Nigerian worries, ``The Army boys may come back.'' Arthur Mbanefo, chairman of the University of Ife's governing council notes: ``In 27 years of independence, 17 years of that has been under military rule. ... Anything can happen.''

Next: Ending political corruption.

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