The state of Jimmy Carter's global human-rights campaign in its second year was reflected on his recent visit to Nigeria. There a vague, supercautious intimation that even African nations sometimes abuse their citizens was barely kept in his speech.

The original version of Carter's April 1 speech in Lagos contained a more candid statement opposing human-rights violations in Africa. But Richard Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, fought to get it out. Presidential speechwriter James Fallows fought back, and the result was a watered-down compromise.

No such caution was shown at the president's previous stop in Brazil, which, like Nigeria, is under military rule. Carter did not hesitate to mention human-rights differences with the Brazilians and conferred with Roman Catholic Cardinal Paul Arns, a liberal dissenter against the regime.

The contrast is no accident. After early anti-Soviet emphasis, the Carter human-rights crusade has taken this peculiar course: While pulling no punches in assailing anticommunist dictatorships for their human-rights transgressions, Washington often looks the other way at abuses by neutralist dictatorships - particularly in black Africa.

That fits the global strategy charted by ideological young policymakers at the State Department but offends other liberals in the administration. "It gets hypocritical when we're attacking Brazil and Chile but close our eyes to human-rights violations in Africa," one presidential aide told us.

He and others did not believe Carter should ignore such violations on a continent where there is mass murder in Uganda, slave labor in Equatorial Guinea, political repression in a dozen other countries and freedom almost nowhere. So the draft of his Lagos speech contained a statement that, without mentioning Uganda or any other country by name, condemned what goes on.

But that violated the policy, sculpted by Moose and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, of courting black Africa at any price (including rejection of moderate biracial solutions in southern Africa). Moose contended that single statement would doom the president in Africa.

That's when speechwriter Fallows, a liberal young journalist from Texas, stepped in. There were reports he threatened to resign, though well-informed presidential aides tell us it never got that far. He finally managed to get these two watery sentences through Moose's censorship: "Our concern for human rights extends throughout this continent and throughout the world. Whatever [the] ideology or the power or the race of a government that abuses the rights of its people, we oppose those abuses." No names mentioned, of course.

The Moose-Fallows clash was fought without appeal to Carter, but the president himself is not immune. On April 2, he admitted to a press conference he had not mentioned Uganda's egregious Gen. Idi Amin or his anti-human-rights outrages to Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's chief of state.

The president next declared "gratitude" that "the organization of African states" has condemned "black leaders" who "deprive persons of human rights." In fact, last year's meeting of the Organization of African Unity, which we attended, lionized Idi Amin and issued not one word of criticism against atrocities in Uganda or anywhere on the continent.

Carter wound up equating the United States and Nigeria in making "every effort to enhance human rights." Actually, non-ideological Freedom House calls Nigeria "partly free" and gives it a 5 rating in political rights out of a worst possible 7 (worse than Brazil's 4). The president was comparing the U.S. to a country where public executions are held, where American newsmen are excluded and where military rule still prevails.

Why that extraordinary treatment for Nigeria? One cynical, high-ranking U.S. official says there is a "three-letter answer": oil. But far more important than dependence on Nigeria as the second-largest oil supplier of the United States is its supposed leadership role in black Africa. If Nigeria wants no talk about the Cuban expeditionary force or black African repression, that is not viewed by Young, Moose & Co. as too large a price for friendship.

That actually supports the traditionalist view that foreign policy cannot be based strictly on human-rights performance. But why a double standard for leftish black Africa and rightish Latin America? Since it is hard to argue enlightened self-interest, the suspicion arises that ideological preferences at certain levels of the State Department now shape foreign policy, just as they did the speech at Lagos.