The Nigerian government and the partially nationalized oil companies operating here are caught in a potentially disastrous slow motion game of chicken.

Despite recurrent suggestions of imminent settlement ever since the argument began two years ago, any solution has now been postponed again until April - at the earliest.

As usual in arguments over oil, the stakes are high and the real motives obscured in technical details and self-serving reasoning.

The crux of the disagreement revolves around demands by the oil companies for bigger profits before financing further exploration and production and the Nigerian conviction that their oil is in such demand in industralized countries trying to expand their economies that only minor concessions are in order.

Political and foreign policy factors - and uncertainties - provide further potential irritants.

Growing American dependence on Nigeria's pollution-free crude - the United States now buys half the output of the world's sixth largest producer - is perhaps overly optimistically dkescribed here as a "mutual lock." Only the U.S. market, the argument goes, is willing to pay the current premium for Nigeria oil.

On the other hand, Nigeria's insatiable need for hard currency to help its 80 million citizens develop has moderated the militant military regime's undoubted desire to force Washington to exert economic pressures on South Africa.

The oil companies have two worries: first, they perceive a volatile nature to Nigeria's oil policy, which in recent years has veered from welcoming foreign investment and reasonable profits to militancy. Second, mindful of Nigeria's civil war and political instability, they are not reassured about the promised return to civilian rule in 1979.

Already more than half-owned by the government, the companies fear total nationalization despite Nigerian claims that the country has too few trained oil specialists to take such a step.

The companies also have not forgotten the Nigerians' proven ability to force U.S. foreign policy changes and they worry about the implications for their South African operations.

It was Nigeria that reversed the State Department decision to place in escrow Gulf Oil payments for oil from Cabinda, the Angolan enclave, to signal displeasure toward the leftist Angolan regime of President Agostinho Neto.

Top Nigerian officials called in Gulf executives, and while they made no threats about the company's extensive operations here, they hinted that future concession awards would be made in light of the Cabinda problem. Soon after, the State Department approved resumption of payments to the Neto government.

Brig. Joseph Garba, the foreign minister, is on record as warning that "it will be either South Africa orthe rest of Africa. Retaliation will have to be considered against transnationals" - apparently meaning oil companies - "who want to have their cake and eat it."

For the time being, the companies are suspicious of Nigerian intentions, especially given their treatment since 1973. Following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, there was a rush for non-Arab sources of oil and a major investment rush in Nigeria.

New concessions issued in 1971 and handsome $1.32-a-barred profits on equity oil into 1974 gave way to tough policies influenced by the more radical members of the Organization of Petroleum Experting Countries.

Since 1973 the government increased its company ownership from 35 to 55 per cent, raised taxes from 55 to 8 per cent and raised the royalty rate from 12 to 20 per cent. Company profit margins on equity oil dropped to 90 cents in 197 and 70 cents in ground lakes - Nigerian oil in present circumstances is no longer an attractive investment, according to the companies. The biggest producer here is Shell-BP with some 40 per cent of total concessions, mostly the more profitable onshore operations.

Nigeria's proven reserves of 19 to 19.5 billion barrels may indicate a potential of as many as 40 billion barrels, according to specialists.

The current stalemate involves Nigerian, reluctance to announce a new package of incentives for further exploration and a predicted decline in production over at least the next two years.

Despite its 1976 oil revenues of some $8.5 billion - thanks to its top-of-the-market posted price of $15.39 a barrel for certain grades - Nigeria appears to be spending money as fast, if not faster, than it earns it.

Lagos may be forced to approach world capital markets for the first time later this year to meet the goals of it, $32-billion 5-year plan.

Potential lenders are reported hoping the government comes to an arrangement with the companies as proof that Nigeria can put its houses in order with the source of more than 90 per cent of its foreign exchange.