IT IS CLEAR enough what force is currently propelling hundreds of thousands of desperate West African refugees out of Nigeria. In better days, Nigeria's expanding oil-based economy drew workers across its traditionally porous borders from Ghana, Togo, Benin and other countries nearby, with little official heed being paid. But in current conditions of falling oil prices and global recession --and with elections possibly coming up soon--the Nigerians see them not as useful and welcome hands but as a burden and a source of internal strain. Just two weeks ago, the government in Lagos abruptly ordered out all illegal aliens--there may be a million or two or more. They are departing in pell- mell and pathetic fashion now.

No one questions Nigeria's right to remove undocumented aliens; the United States ousts people in this class every day. What is hard to understand, however, is why the Nigerian government would have acted so precipitately, without giving the aliens time to arrange their affairs and without consulting the neighboring states which, notwithstanding the distress of their own that led their citizens to leave home in the first place, are expected to take them back without a moment's pause. It is quite true that on occasion Nigerians living elsewhere in Africa have themselves been rudely ousted. Still, the manner of the ouster of the current unfortunates seems inconsistent with the relaxed and compassionate attitude that Africans have often shown to the movement of their fellow Africans back and forth across national lines.

Legitimate political refugees, the Nigerians say, will not be involuntarily repatriated. But a great many other people will be in urgent need. Their relatives will take in some of them. Others will have to be cared for by the international relief agencies, whose purpose it is to buffer the great shocks that continually convulse nations around the world.