Nigeria's new military leader, who assumed power yesterday after a bloodless coup, appears more inclined than his predecessor to work out a deal with international lending agencies that could ease the country's worsening economic problems, according to diplomats and bankers here.
The overthrown government led by Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari for 20 months had shunned any agreement with the International Monetary Fund, trying and failing to ride out Nigeria's crushing debt burden and dwindling oil revenues by imposing austerity measures.
Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the new president, said in a television address last night that the Buhari goverment had been arrogant and uncompromising in dealing with the country's economic problems.
Buhari's policies had helped create food shortages and exacerbated unemployment while failing to control inflation. The deposed leader had warned Nigerians this year to prepare for "three tough years" of continued austerity before the economy could be turned around. During that time, more than half of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings would be required to pay interest on its foreign debt.
According to western diplomats and international bankers here, Babangida, 44, a popular military leader, is known to be more willing than Buhari to negotiate a much-delayed agreement with the IMF. The agreement, in return for devaluation (by about 50 percent) of the Nigerian naira and other economic adjustments, would provide about $3 billion in foreign exchange, allow rescheduling of debts and open doors for new loans and credits.
Before yesterday's coup, Babangida is known to have told associates that, in principle, an IMF agreement would help Nigeria's economy. The new government, however, has given little indication thus far of its economic policies.
Communications with Nigeria remained cut today, with borders still closed. Diplomats reported that Lagos, the capital, remained calm. Reuter reported early Thursday that airports reopened at midnight.
Radio Nigeria announced an overhaul of the armed forces command, Reuter reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Maj. Gen. Domkat Bali, a member of the ruling Supreme Military Council, was named to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
[The radio also announced the release of four persons who had been jailed by the ousted Buhari government under a controversial decree banning criticism of the government, Reuter reported. Those freed were named as Lawrence Olanipe, editor of the Nigerian Tribune; Bukar Zarma, editor of the New Nigerian; Alhadj Sule Katagum, former chairman of the Public Service Commission, and Samuel Ikoku, who was not identified. A Samuel Ikoku, who served as a Nigerian observer of the 1980 Zimbabwean elections, was identified then by the British Broadcasting Corp. as former information chief of the People's Redemption Party.]
The new military government is believed to be led by a group of pragmatic senior Army officers intent on reviving the economy.
There had been fears in the international financial community that rampant dissatisfaction with the Buhari government would lead to a takeover by radical junior military officers incapable of managing Africa's most populous country.
The Buhari government, faced with shrinking demand and low prices for its oil, had agreed to a series of barter deals worth nearly $2 billion, trading oil at bargain prices to industrial countries for raw materials and spare parts.
Babangida criticized these deals, which gave government traders easy opportunities for corruption, in his speech last night.