Because of a typographical error, a story yesterday about Nigeria gave an incorrect date for the country's independence. The correct year is 1960.

Three months into the first civilian government here in more than a dozen years, Nigeria is a lively cauldron of political passion.

Depending on where the new-found liberties take it, the most populous nation in Africa and the largest oil exporter south of the Sahara could realize its potential as black Africa's leading political and economic power.

For the moment, the Nigerians are struggling to create a system that consciously copies the American federal model and relies on compromise and consensus -- two concepts notably absent in the civilian government that crumbled in 1966 when the military seized power.

Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1980. It includes more than 200 tribes and ethnic groups among a population estimated at 80 to 100 million. A crucial question is whether the excesses of tribalism that previously have torn the nation apart can now be overcome without reasserting military force.

"We are practicing a new system of government for the first time in our history," Nigeria's new civilian president, Shehu Shagari, cautioned his supporters in November. "It is a system that requires persuasion rather than coercion."

Almost from the moment when the military relinquished power in October, the resolve of the fledging civilian government has faced extraordinary tests.

The civilian government has endured c harges of election rigging, the development of unexpected political alliances and a rising clamor from the country's regions, its 19 states and its workers for larger shares of the rising oil revenues.

The main economic resource, petroleum, has become one of the most persistent political headaches as the new government ponders how the wealth from the 2.1 million barrels of oil Nigeria pumps each day should be distributed.

Nigeria is second only to Saudi Arabia as an oil supplier to the United States, and it enjoys a $6 billion trade surplus with Washington. But due to past mismanagement, the country has had to adopt a tight austerity budget. With the people now able to speak their minds, voices can be heard from every corner crying for a share of the annual $15 billion in oil revenues.

The normally docile trade unions, whose million members have been under a three-year wage freeze, have announced they want hefty pay increases. Large raises could wipe out recent modest economic gains by forcing up the inflation rate, officially said to be 15 percent.

Demands are growing for an expensive but necessary expansion of educational and health facilities. minority tribes have started to clamor for their own states and all 19 governors of the present states are jealously awaiting the formula for federal revenue allocation.

"The politics of Nigeria are like the politics of urban America," said a Western observer familiar with ethnic competion for scarce municipal funds in U.S. cities. "Any perceived slight is interpreted as conpiracy."

The austere -- some say dour -- President Shagari must balance these competing interests to insure the still fragile stability that follows a bitter 2 1/2-year civil war in the late 1960s.

Shagari is operating, as American polticians might say, without a clear mandate. His election victory has become the focus of repeated and divisive denunciations by his principal opponent in last fall's five-way race.

The challenger is Obafemi Awolowo, 70, the leader of the Unity Party, who has wide support among the Yoruba, one of Nigeria's three largest ethnic groups.

Nigeria's constitutional formula requires the president-elect to capture at least 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the 19 states. Shargari met the requirement in 12 states, but won only 20 percent in the 13th.

A few days before Shagari was scheduled to take office, Nigeria's courts finally cleared the way by using some complex arithmetic to rule he had in fact won the election.

Awolowo has refused to accept the judgement and his sharp attacks on Shagari have raised the level of discontent among some Yorubas.

Shagari has dismissed the challenge as "unsportsmanlike" and concentrated on what he considers the more dangerous actions of the winners, rather than the losers, in several state elections.

In a New Year's Day speech, Shagari warned that "in all parts of the county" there have been increasing abuses of power by political parties that won state offices. Such moves, he said, are all too similar to the kinds of abuses that helped precipitate the collapse of democracy in the 60s.

The crucible in which Nigerian democracy will ultimately be tested, however, is not so much in the states as in the new bicameral National Assembly.

Since its opening session in October, the legislature has been flexing its muscle to see just where its strengths lie vis-a-vis the president.

In an early confrontation, which knowledgeable Nigerians compare to the Carter administration's initial relations with Congress, the Senate rejected two of Shagari's Cabinet nominees.

Shagari "didn't do the spade work to get his boys through," as one politician put it. After some further politicking by Shagari advisers, however, the names were resubmitted and confirmed.

A major and unexpected development in the new congress has been the formation of a working alliance between Shagari's National Party and the Nigerian People's Party of former cermonial president Nnamdi Nzikiwe.

Shagari and many of his followers are from the predominantly Moslem Hausa-Fulani people, with further support coming from smaller ethnic groups. Azikiwe's major backers are the Ibo people, whose secession attempt precipitated the civil war of the 1960s.

"Anarchy" would have resulted without such a political alliance now, Azikiwe said. It "combines" two parties in a temporary union for joint action towards a definite objective -- the preservation of the peace and stability of Nigeria."

The country appears to have come a long way from the days when its first civilian government disintegrated six years after independence. Its new attempt at democracy has been shaped by the experience of what came afterward: the several military coups, a disastrous war and, in October, the voluntary transfer of power back to civilian hands.

If Nigeria's experiment with political freedom meets with success, some observers believe it could start a liberalizing trend spreading through a continent noted mainly for dictatorships.

Concurrent with Nigeria's year-long transition back to civilian government, there have been various degrees of movement toward liberalization among some of its West African neighbors, most notably Ghana, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

In an area where tight one-party or one-man regimes have been the rule, "Nigeria's example is bound to have a wide impact," said a senior U.S. diplomat.

"Freedom," he said, "is contagious."