How Events Play Out in Nigeria Will Affect Africa - and the US

`The Giant of Africa,' the size of two Californias, weathers civil unrest as unions confront a military regime

CIVIL rights activist Jesse Jackson is back in the United States after delivering a message from President Clinton to Nigeria's military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha. It seems the Clinton administration is realizing the dangers in that West African country of nearly 114 million people, with more than twice the land area of California. Many Nigerians are saying to the ruling military dictatorship, ``We've had it up to here.'' The ongoing treason trial of Chief Moshood Abiola, who appeared to have won a democratic presidential election last year but was denied office by the military, has complicated the issue. Last Friday the government offered to free Mr. Abiola if he would agree to suspend any political activity; his lawyer said the terms were unacceptable.

Meawhile, oil workers have walked off their jobs in protest, other unions may return to striking shortly, kerosene and fuel prices have skyrocketed, milk for babies costs as much as one quarter of some workers' monthly wages, the homes of two former heads of government (retired Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and Ernest Shonekan) and other key figures have been vandalized, public transportation has ground to a halt, talks about various regions seceding have gained ground, and vulgar displays of ill-gotten wealth are being questioned by ordinary people. It all seems as if Nigeria is a disaster about to happen. Add in very disgruntled university-trained working people whose monthly salaries cannot support their families, and the future becomes even more dispiriting.

What will a severe political and economic crisis in Nigeria mean to the United States?

* Oil, fertilizer, chemical, and engineering-services businesses will be affected negatively, although some American oil companies will enjoy a temporary advantage arising from a likely increase in prices. Already, crude-oil futures at the New York Mercantile Exchange are rising. Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria's exports.

* The crisis will create a foreign-policy a quagmire for the Clinton administration and undermine the region's stability. Walter Carrington, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, understands the sociological subtleties and diplomatic imperatives of Nigeria. It would not be easy to manage relations with a Nigeria engulfed in civil strife. When I interviewed Ambassador Carrington, an African-American, at the American Embassy in Lagos, he gave a good explanation of why Nigeria is a vital part of US national security and economic interests. He stated the commitment of Washington to work in the interest of one, peaceful, democratic Nigeria.

* In the US, Houston, New York, California's Bay Area, Washington, and Los Angeles are said to have the highest numbers of Nigerians. A civil war or deconstruction of Nigeria as we know it will bring social challenges and unanticipated social-welfare and budgetary problems to those cities.

* A turbulent Nigeria will curtail investment interest from African-Americans, large numbers of whom have invested and done business in West Africa.

Nigeria's problems are not merely internal. Nigeria bears the burden of a negative impression created by its international scam artists and by a small number of Nigerians who are said to traffick in cocaine. Internationally, Nigerians seem to be hapless immigrants, given little concern by the embassies of their government abroad. Some Nigerians have been shot like dogs with no names in foreign lands, but no one seems to care.

Nigeria, once called the ``giant of Africa,'' has been disfigured and enfeebled into a skeletal disgrace by very bad leadership since its political independence from Britain on Oct. 1, 1960. Its combustible mix of ethnic hatreds, severe economic deprivations, and large-scale corruption, as well as frustrating political scheming on the part of its military dictatorships and corrupt civilian politicians (converting public property and wealth into personal acquisitions), have severely damaged Nigeria's vital instrument of national development, a strong middle class.

Meanwhile, the ongoing national constitutional conference has become a playpen for ethnocentric warriors and thieves against a handful of concerned patriots and fainthearted politicians.

Nigeria's recent history, therefore, seems largely a chronicle of the games and graft of its less-than-properly educated soldiers and retired Army generals, careerist politicians, buccaneering contractors, and showboating political bandits.

MID all these problems, there is a strong moral opposition by Nigerians to the system of bribing key public and private citizens fancifully called ``settlement.'' It seems the days of such settlement are coming to an end.

Soon, the hour of a true historical settlement will set in. That is an irreversible lesson of history. When will the so-called ``giant of Africa'' take its proper place in the sun?

* Chido Nwangwu, founder and publisher of USAfrica magazine and newspaper, is based in Houston. He is a former member of the editorial board of the Daily Times of Nigeria.

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