New sharp rises in oil prices that have been painful for consuming nations have placed this African country in a commanding position in the development steeple-chase that many of Africa's emerging states have been steadily losing.

Nigeria's crucial race is not against its neighbors, however. It is against the increasingly sophisticated and growing demands of the estimated 80 million to 100 million citizens who make it Africa's largest nation.

High wages, agricultural development, education, social welfare, availability to health services and, to the rural peasant farmer, access to piped dring water, are but a few of the benefits Nigerians and other Africans have come to expect from their governments.

In two decades, most African governments, including Nigeria's, have been unable to match the demand. That inability, and the perception of discrimination in the distribution of scarce resources, has been one of the root causes of Africa's postcolonial tribal rebellions and bloody military coups.

Nigeria's oil sales, a boon expected to double the country's earnings from $10 billion in 1978 to $20 billion in 1980, palce it in Africa's coveted "could succeed" category, according to one normally cynical Western economist. "

With the Jan. 1 boost of Nigerian oil prices from $27.26 a barrel to $30, Nigeria could attain the highest level of export earnings in black Africa.

The crucial question for Nigeria lies in its record of poor, patchwork economic planning in the past, mainly under its 13 years of military rule, and whether this will be repeated by its newly installed civilian government.

The military did much to improve the country's roads, telecommunications network and ports -- developments that have aided the previously isolated rural areas that comprise 75 percent of the Nigerian population.

But the generals, flushed with the mid-1970s price boom in oil, raised civil servants' salaries excessively, and helped bring on spiraling inflation. They virtually ignored agricultural development, which turned Nigeria around from a food exporter to a food importer. They jumped the gun in 1977 on oil price increases and that left the country with a deficit of almost $4 billion in 1978 when the demand for Nigerian oil dropped sharply.

The picture today is relatively bright. The former government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo slapped on a stringent wage freeze, drastically reduced government spending, and banned the importation of a wide range of consumer items and commodities.

Remembering the experience of 1978, Nigeria now cautiously follows the pricing lead of Libya and Algeria, since all three have the same high-quality, easily refinable "sweet" crude oil. The three also stay in close coordination on oil prices.

Nigeria, the second largest supplier of oil to the United States after Saudi Arabia, has reduced its production from last summer's high of 2.4 million barrels a day down to 2.1 million barrels a day while raising its prices.

When Obasanjo handed over power to the civilians on Oct. 1 and retired to his farm, he left a leaner budget and a cash reserve of $7.5 billion.

But Nigeria's new civilian president, Shehu Shagari, will not be able to rule by decree. Ahd where Obasanjo's government was able deliberately and publicly to underestimate Nigeria's growing oil revenues -- keeping down rising expectations -- Shagari's government will not be able to exercise such tight control. In a nation whose citizens are not known for biting their tongues, the clamor for a piece of the pie will be loud.

Barely a month in office, Shagari clashed with the 544-member National Assembly over salary scales for himself and the legislators. The legislators recommended an $89,000 salary for him with their own wages scaled down from that level.

Shagari countered that he only required a $44,000 salary and, in stern terms, suggested the legislators lower their income expectations. The issue is still unresolved.

How well Shagari will manage to corral the members of his own National Party of Nigeria, which is top-heavy with Nigerian businessmen who universally gripe about the ban on imports, is still open to question.

The ban, while it has saved precious foreign currency reserves such as the $1.5 billion spent annually on food imports, has created some hardship.

Industry, which in recent years has not been a strong growth area for the Nigerian economy, is operating at less than capacity for lack of raw materials. A dearth of spare parts has caused industrial breakdowns. There is an openly flourishing black market and Nigeria's modern ports, which had ships backlogged for months in the mid-1970s, are now underutilized.

Labor's demands for an end to the wag freeze will also be a high hurdle for Shagari. While the reduction in government spending and ceiling on salaries reduced inflation from 25 percent to a rate officially pegged at 15 percent, Nigeria's minimum wage of $100 a month has not come close to meeting the average urban family's everyday needs. Although Nigeria's per capita annual income of $700, high for African countries, is expected to double in 1980, only a fraction of the population actually receives that amount or more.

"On wages," said a Western observer, "Shagari will probably have to give in gradually to try to keep the lid on."

From a humble farming background himself, Shagari has said his immediate development aims will be to make Nigeria self-sufficient in agriculture and make its independence on food the basis for industrial growth. He also highlighted improvement in the road network and a need to halt the rural migration to Nigeria's bulging cities by providing expanded health and educational services in the countryside.

"People leave the rural areas" he has said, "not because they can't get jobs on the farm but because of intolerable conditions -- drinking water is scarce, there is no electricity and no medical facilities."

Shagari said $32 million in agricultural grants for increasing staple food production, such as yams, corn and cassava, will be released between now and March. Only one-third of the country's arable land is presently cultivated.

In early December, he lifted the ban on rice imports -- Nigeria is not even close to self-suffiency -- allowing 200,000 tons to enter almost immediately. But he warned Nigeria's importers that such measures were only temporary.

Foreign investors have a strong interest in Nigeria's huge domestic market and Shagari said they are welcome as long as they include Nigerians as partners. There will be no changes in the "Nigerianization" policies begun by the military government, he said. Under this program, at least 40 percent of a firm -- and in some case 100 percent -- must be owned by Nigerians.

Nigeria's natural gas reserves exceed its amounts of discovered oil, which are expected to last for the next two decades, and the country is now negotiating for the sale of gas it expects to sell well into the 21st century. One American firm that has benefited from Nigeria's desire to tap its natural gas potential, Pullman Kellogg, recently won a tentative agreement to build a $344 million petrochemical fertilizer plant. The entire project will cost Nigeria $500 million when completed.

In July, Nigeria increased its share in the country's oil operations from 55 percent to 60 percent, leaving foreign oil companies with 40 percent. Observers said the move brought Nigeria into line with other oil producing nations.

American investment in Nigeria approaches $1 billion and Shagari said he desires more, particularly in areas of technology transfer such as the Pullman Kellogg deal. But he has said he knows Nigeria's future depends on his government's ability to balance successfully the country's myriad competing interests.

Nigeria "wants to create an atmosphere of confidence for investors and industrialists," Shagari said in a recently published interview, "and that means peace and stability."