The general who last month seized control of the government here has invited all the citizens of this West African country to advise him on economic policy.

And advice has come -- at high volume on street corners, in taxicabs, at open-air markets, on state-owned television and in the pages of Nigeria's 16 daily newspapers.

Amid the din of macroeconomic advice, Chief John Akinwunni-George, one of Nigeria's leading businessmen, said last week, "This is the only country I have seen in the world where everybody is an expert."

What the 100 million or so experts of Africa's most populous nation are debating is this: Should Nigeria, now sliding from riches to rags after mismanaging and misappropriating billions of dollars in oil revenue, accept an International Monetary Fund bailout?

An agreement would unlock up to $5 billion in urgently needed loans. In return, however, Nigeria would have to submit to an orthodox IMF regimen that would, at least temporarily, make life even more onerous than it is now.

A sampler from the great IMF debate: "The IMF loan is poison, and devaluation [of currency, an IMF demand] is death," decreed M.O. Onofowkan, president of Methodist Boys High School, in a speech Friday night.

"What happens if we tell IMF to go to hell since without the fund's loan we are still surviving up till now?" wrote columnist Niran Malaolu in the Sunday Punch newspaper.

"We do not yet have the self-discipline to use these loans. The money would just be stolen and put in foreign banks, like all the oil billions," said Alaba Ogunsanwo, a professor of political science at the University of Lagos.

If this sampler sounds biased against taking the money, that's because Nigeria's IMF debate, as far as the voluble masses and mass media are concerned, appears to be a one-sided affair.

"The IMF loan is seen as a challenge to Nigeria's sovereignty," Donald B. Easum, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said. "The man in the street sees the IMF as some kind of ogre that will take away his manhood."

Be that as it may, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the new military leader who invited the debate, is believed by western diplomats and bankers here to favor the loan. He has appointed as finance minister Kalu I. Kalu, a former World Bank economist and a crusader for a Nigerian agreement with the IMF.

Babangida also has appointed a "committee on the IMF loan," which western diplomats also see as loaded in favor of taking the money.

The great IMF debate is expected to go on for at least two more months before the government decides whether to begin negotiations with the fund. Nigeria's oil-dependent economy, however, appears to be running out of time.

The country's Central Bank is more than three months behind in releasing hard currency to pay off short-term trade debts, according to representatives from three major western banks operating here. They say most U.S. and European banks, fearing they will not be paid, are refusing to do business with Nigerian importers.

"What Nigerians don't understand is that they don't have any money now," one financial analyst here said. "They can't bring anything into their country."

There are ominous signals from Saudi Arabia that it may step up its oil production and force a one-third reduction in the price of crude oil.

Nigeria's economy, which depends on oil exports for about 96 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, already has been crippled by the world oil glut. Its revenues have been cut in half in the past five years. To adjust, the government has imposed an austerity program that has laid off tens of thousands of workers, reduced social benefits and canceled ambitious government building plans.

A further one-third reduction in national income, oil analysts here say, would make it all but impossible for Nigeria to pay interest on its $22 billion foreign debt. Service on that debt already eats up 44 percent of export earnings.

"This would just kill the country," one analyst here said.

Western diplomats and bankers say that Babangida's new government has no real choice but to accept the IMF loan and the IMF conditions, which include a sharp devaluation of the naira, reduction of subsidies on fuel prices and opening of Nigeria's economy to imports.

The IMF loan itself would amount to about $2.5 billion over three years. But a Nigerian promise to abide by IMF conditions would release another $1.5 billion from the World Bank, and up to $1 billion from commercial banks. The agreement also would reschedule medium- and long-term debt, and free up oil income from paying for debt service.

While Babangida has vowed to "break the deadlock" on the IMF, he insisted again last week in an interview with a government-owned newspaper that any decision "must be governed by the yearnings and aspirations of the Nigerian people."

This statement is consistent with the congenial, democratic tone that the general has struck since taking control in a bloodless coup Aug. 27.

The 44-year-old former tank commander has sought to distance himself and his government from the aloof, authoritarian style of his ousted predecessor, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari. Babangida had been the third-ranking military leader in Buhari's government.

Babangida, known for personal warmth and a willingness to tolerate dissent, quickly freed political prisoners of the Buhari regime, including several journalists. He repealed a decree that made it a crime for journalists to criticize the government and vowed to govern by consensus.

"He sure is saying all the right things," said one senior western diplomat here, who added that Babangida's call for debate on the IMF loan appeared to be part of his effort to distance himself from Buhari's autocratic style.

"It gives people a chance to let off steam," the diplomat said. The volume of anti-IMF steam that continues to rise from the Nigerian people however has surprised the bankers and western diplomats here who are quietly lobbying Babangida to make the deal with the IMF.

Among the most influential of the IMF opponents is Ogunsanwo, the professor, who contends that Nigeria does not have leaders capable of managing billion-dollar loans. He refers to the scores of Nigerian officials who, during the oil rich 1970s, misappropriated millions of dollars of oil earnings.

In an interview, he said Nigerians were better off living within their means, even if it meant radical and painful contractions in the economy. He said that a loan would only increase Nigeria's debt while those officials responsible for managing the money would spirit it away to foreign bank accounts.

Ogunsanwo, who spoke last week in a televised debate, has many followers across Nigeria.

Tajudeen Owolabi, a cab driver here, summed up the professor's argument this way: "No more loan. The big man, they just take the money again. And the poor man, he suffers."