The latest scandal in this West African capital, whose combative traders thrive on freewheeling capitalism, is an astronomical leap in the price of rice.

Any West African government is playing with fire if it fails to ensure that rice, a major staple of urban populations, is available at reasonable prices. Skyrocketing rice prices have sparked some bitter urban riots in the region and indirectly set into motion events that brought down the government of William Tolbert in Liberia earlier this year.

With roughly one-fourth of Nigeria's 100 million inhabitants living in cities, the increase in rice prices here since last summer has created what one foreign observer described as "an explosive situation, when you consider that most people in Lagos barely earned enough to live on before prices began to climb."

The main question is why a 110-pound bag of imported rice, which arrived at the port of Lagos at the wholesale price of $52, is retailed in the city at $180. The price in other Nigerian cities in the interior is reportedly even higher.

Opposition politicians have charged political favoritism on the part of President Shehu Shagari's administration in the distribution of lucrative rice import licenses. Government officials have countercharged that their political enemies have bought up huge quantities of domestic rice to precipitate a political crisis.

So far it has been revealed that several prominent politicians have suddenly acquired a financial interest in the rice trade.

Having just defused a politically volatile situation caused by allegations that $5 billion in oil revenue was missing, Shagari's year-old government has begun -- after weeks of controversy -- an investigation of the price increases.

Like many African countries, Nigeria does not produce enough food to feed its exploding population and must rely heavily on food imports that total more than $1 billion annually. In an effort to reduce Nigeria's dependence on food imports, the government this year embarked on an ambitious agricultural development program.

As part of that program, certain food items have been put on restricted import lists with the intention of reducing their importation gradually until Nigerian farmers produce enough to end imports altogether. The importation of rice was limited to 200,000 tons earlier this year without specific information that the amount was sufficient to supplement local production.

"We don't have the statistics to know actually how much rice is needed," said presidential adviser Emmanuel Edozien in an interview, "and the merchants have been engaged in massive hoarding of rice" to force the price up. m

Edozien conceded that the rice imports were poorly coordinated and that "the importation licenses were not evenly spread to ensure an even spread of distribution."

Transportation Minister Umaru Dikko, who was appointed head of a task force investigating the rice scandal, is one of Shagari's closest advisers.In an interview, Dikko denied charges that only heavy contributors to the president's National Party of Nigeria received rice import licenses.

"The licenses were not given exclusively to [National Party] members" or its supporters, Dikko said.

He said his position as head of the task force investigating the situation did not allow him to give a specific breakdown of who received licenses along political party lines.

Dikko vounteered that he has specific information outlining how the political enemies of Shagari's administration, whom he also declined to name, had "bought every grain of domestic rice and hoarded it" in an effort to spark domestic unrest. On top of that, Dikko added, the hoarding by traders has exacerbated the problem.

On a list released by the Commerce Ministry, the leader of the Senate and a member of the National Party, Olushola Saraki, was included as the head of a livestock company that got a rice import license. Saraki, however, said he was no longer connected with the company.

National Party deputy leader of the House, Olushola Afolabi, however, was unapologetic about his floor tile company receiving one of the highly sought after licenses.

"Do you think because I am in the House of Representatives I should stop doing business? Afolabi asked reporters who questioned him. "I have been in business a long time."