Nigeria may be the wrong first developing country to visit, and Lagos the wrong first African city. They are so vast in size and ambition, so exploded by economic growth and social crisis, so caught up by sudden, unbalanced modernization, so burdened with the quest for political forms that will let alien tribes coexist, so ridden by the drive to establish national values and a national identity.

If this suggests I am overwhelmed by the place, hesitant to claim a grasp after looking about and picking the best Nigerian and foreign brains in Lagos for four days, quite uncertain whether Nigeria or other developing countries so situated can make it, then its true.

Lagos is, first, exciting: the crushing street life . . . the tribal dress and marked faces . . . the filth . . . the construction everywhere, even at night . . . the new office towers . . . the executives with secretaries in silk . . . the civil servants with Western doctorates . . . the cops with whips to lash up the numbing traffic. Tourists are touted on native artifacts, but the real show is on the road.

This is Nigeria's Houston. Nigerians are traditional traders, acquisitive and energetic, natural free-enterprisers. The ending of the Biafra civil war of the 1960s, the military's diversion of ambitious civilians from politics to business, and the coincidental post-1973 leap in production and price of oil - all coincided to point the nation toward economic growth. The economy is where the action is. In the ministries, the bureaucrats strain to direct it.

It is a fair question whether Nigeria's growth is any more rewarding to winners, crueler to losers, more destabilizing to tradition and more subversive of humane government policy than was growth in the West's own takeoff stage. Certainly to judge by the military leadership's outrage, mirrored daily in the press, it is.

The official rhetoric and press burst with attacks on the greed of Nigerians and their indifference to each other, the criminal indiscipline in the schools, the pervasive corruption, the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government programs, the trampling on traditional culture. "We steal, cheat or sell even our blood relations if only that brings money," declares the Daily Times.

In the absence of a civilian political system enforcing accountability, this self-criticism has something of the allmotion, no-movement character of an exercycle. The young military men who rule the country perhaps saw no alternative to letting Nigerian and foreign capitalists wheel. They can at least claim impressive results in spurring growth (gross national product of $27 billion, of which a third, and 93 per cent of foreign-exchange earnings, is from oil) and in producing jobs (though not services and amenities) for hundreds of thousands of the peasants now storming the cities.

The fabled go-slows of Lagos, extending a half-hour trip to three or four hours, attest to the city's growth and wealth and inequity. With telephone service a cruel joke, messages are sent by car. To beat the decree limiting cars to alternate-day driving, families have gone from one car to two, or two to four. Public transport makes even Metro look good. Undisciplined soldiers periodically shoot up villages. Disciplined soldiers intimidate the occasional incipient political opposition figure, like pop star Fela Anikulapo. In the warming climate of U.S.-Nigerian relations I got the red carpet from official Lagos, but in the airport departure lounge I was briefly threatened with arrest and confiscation of papers by backed up by a soldier with submachine gun at the ready.

The previous strongman, who cultivated a man-of-the-people image by going about with just a driver, was assassinated in, yes, a traffic jam. The current leader, Gen. Olesegun Obasanjo, is escorted by armored cars. He is credited with performing well the military's chosen mission: to heal a nation brutally torn by civil war, to start establishing the procedures and institutions to replace tribal and regional rivalries with a sense of single nationhood, and to move by deliberate stages toward the return of civilian rule (after 13 years) in 1979. But many Nigerians, and not only cynics, wonder if civilization politics may not again prove too heavy a load to bear.

I left with a sense of the marginality of the United States to the process of development now unfolding in Nigeria. We of the West can supply some necessary know-how, technology and capital, and a democratic example encouraging to the elite.But it does not diminish these things to see, on the ground, how necessarily reliant Nigeria is on its own resources, natural and human, how little inclined to look abroad for excuses to avoid coping with its own staggering growing pains, how aware of the dilemmas created by its own choices, how determined to get on with the business of shaping its future.