Cantankerous, arrogant, impatient, hassling and hustling, Nigeria is Black Africa's richest and most sopulous state and, on paper, its best set for large-scale, long-term success.
But its king-size problems make even optimists cautious about its future, despite its wealth as the world's seventh-largest oil producer.
Although Nigeria's gross national product is expected to outstrip South Africa's within a year, inadequate facilities and inefficient bureaucracy make many Nigerians wonder wherther the oil money is doing anything more than buying time to aviod yet another of its devasting periodic convulsions.
Nigeria is simultaneously capable of producing the most sensitive writing and thingking on the continent, and a robber-baron, rags-to-riches society.
Yet in recent months, the military government has shown increasing signs of renewed self-confidence after a period of hesitation, xenophobia and acute security-consciousness. That in itself is no small accomplishment in light of Nigeria's 16 years as a sovereign entity marred by political crises, civil war, authoritarian rule, massive corruption and waste and gargantuan ambitions.
The recent welcoming of President Carter's Africa troubleshooter Andrew Young demonstrated a new foreign affairs pragmatism and, in effect, let the Nigeirans off an anti-American [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of their own devising. Not even an allusion was made to Nigeria's militaryhostility to former Secretary of stateHenry A. Kissinger, whose attemptsto visit Nigeria last year were [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
This return to a more balanced view of the outside world has a parallel at time. The military recently staggered throughhosting a month-long African culture festival, a feat that to outsider may sound unimportant. But the often postponed festival's mushrooming extravagance was sufficient to help justify the 1975 coup that replacedGen. Yakubu Gowon with Gen. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Mohammed.
Two hundred days after that coup, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] was murdered in another [WORD ILLEGIBLE] attempt, and there is an odd feelingexpressed here that his successor Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, wants a return to civilian rule more as a means of survival than out of pure principle.
A worldly-wise Nigerian remarked: mine is an odd country.The military want to honor their word and relinquish power in 1979. But, aside from that press, old pols and university professors, I bet 90 per cent of the ordinary people would vote to keep the military on."
It is not necessarily that the military is loved, however. For an under-developed country, the army is vastly overstrength at some 200,000 men - only slightly smaller than during the 1967-70 Biafra civil war - and eats up a disproportionate share of the national income.
Yet, despite their costliness and their often brutal, arbitrary behavior toward ordinary citizens, the soldiers are seen by many as the only froce capable of bringing about positive change. Whatever their shortcomings, they are credited with trying hard to shove Nigeria toward nationhood.
For much of the older generation, the politicans' free-for-all rule during the first five years of independence remins the nightmare that produced the Biafra secession.
The young, who make up a great proportion of a population estimated at 75 million, feel no nostalgia, for a civilian rule they never knew. Nigerian cyn's, moreover, fear that civilian rule would prove so ineffective and venal that it would soon give way to renewed military government.
Many ordinary Nigerians seem convinced that only the military could achieve such feats as last fall's bullying through of compulsory elementary education. Civilian politians would have tended to temporize, to question the wisdom of such radical action when teachers, schoolrooms and textbooks were lacking and jobs for the more demanding - if half-educated - graduates far from assured.
Similarly, only the military, its defenders argue, would have cut the Gordian knot of Lagos' traffic jams by instituting alternate-day driving for cars with odd-and even-numbered license plates.
So distant is the memory of civilian rule that the military is rarely blamed for not dealing earlier with these problems, as well as the inadequate roads, wretched housing, often nonexefficient plumbing, food prolems, an inefficient marketing and distribution system and wholesale corruption.
Such uncharacteristically Nigerian self-doubt about anything, much less civilian rule, refects the Texas-plus size of the land that, despite its Biafran war slogan "One Nigeria," is still in nation-building stage, at best.
A draft constitution, which must be approved by a constituent assembly this fall, calls for a strong American-style presidency, rather than the British parliamentary model that came to grief in the early 1960s. But, in an effort to dilute the old major tribal jealousies among the northern Hausa-Fulani coalition, the western Yorubas and the eastern Ibos, the new constitutional draft requires that a presidential candidate win a majority in two-thirds of Nigeria's 19 states.
Murtala's creation of seven new states - bringing the total to 19 - was part of his effort to reduce sectional power. But the most discernible result so far has been to provide more patronage jobs amid fears that mushrooming state bureaucracies will leave relatively little cash for economic investment.
Regional rivalries were a major factor in the collapse of the first republic - after a controversial census claimed the conservative Moslem north constituted more than half the country's population. A 1973 census was scrapped after Gowon's overthrow, largely had increased its share to two-thirds because southerners refused to accept findings that showed that the north of all Nigerians.
Nigeria's political stability must remain in doubt as long as successive governments prove incapable, as they have since independence, of carrying out a census acceptable to the entire nation.
Signs still abound that the Yorubas are distrusted by northern Moslems and eastern Ibos alike. Emerging from the shadow of the Biafra secession, the Ibos are still kept at arm's length in the federal bureaucracy's power jobs and especially in the armed forces and on the ruling Supreme Military Council.
Optimist - and there is a vitality to Nigeria that seems to justify them - hope the money Nigeria is receiving from the sale of its oil to Western Countries including the United States, a chief buyer, will last long enough to build the roads, airports and schools that somehow much persuade Nigeria's 250 tribes to transcend their present acquistive, clan-oriented horizons and accept the spirit of larger community and sacrifice associated with nationhood.
Obasanjo himself has tried telling Nigerians that despite the country's oil wealth - currently running just under $9 billion annually - they are not as rich as they think. But Nigerians seem to be so busy making money - or trying to - that they do not appear to have gotten his message.
Nigerian society seems impervious to the penchant of its lively press to recount apparently endless examples of grand and petty corruption, massive waste and mismanagement. Nothing shows any signs of abating Nigeria's continuing caricaturization of itself as a rapacious and insensitive, if dynamic, society.
It is as if the petty-trader tradition has discouraged productive investment in favor of conspicuous consumption. Typical is Lagos, the overcrowded, under-equipped capital where the lion's share of new sewers to replace open drains is earmarked for luxury residential areas rather than the slums housing 3.5 million inhabitants.
It is a city where the rich ride around in monstrous traffic jams in the most expensive Mercedes, and few price-gougers ever go to jail despite supposedly stringent regulations.
Pessimists fear a genunie social revolution - perhaps Black Africa's first instead of the now classic revolving door coups and their purely rhetoric and radicalism.
"You know," a Nigerian intelluctual lamented, "even state ownership isn't really a workable alternative when you look at the nationalized ports, air ways or electricity authorities and see the mess they are in.
"We're in a period of capital accululation," he said, "which is ugly, but not really different from 19th century Europe or the United States. For the next five years, if we're lucky eventhe most exploited wretch can still conhimself into thinking he can make a killing."