Nigeria today gave Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright something that has been all but impossible to come by on her trip through Africa: a success to celebrate.

Eighteen months after President Clinton's historic visit to the continent signaled what was described as new interest in Africa, U.S. policy is brightened only by the sudden and unexpected return of its most populous country, Nigeria, to the path of democracy. Most of the initiatives Clinton proposed in the glow of his reception in April 1998 have yet to come to fruition.

Clinton's call for returning direct aid to the levels Africa saw during the Cold War, when both sides were courting the nonaligned world, have gone unheeded by the Republican-led Congress. Spending for Africa is as likely to head down as up. Nor has Capitol Hill approved the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a bill aimed at encouraging what Africa lacks--a manufacturing sector--by opening U.S. markets to coarse textiles no longer made in American mills. The bill may come up for a vote this week.

"What you say sometimes is not what you do," a local activist complained to Albright, invoking the stalled trade bill at a roundtable this afternoon in the northern Nigerian city of Kano.

Albright, fresh from a display of hospitality from the local emir--horsemen charging in salute, tumblers somersaulting, footmen shielding her from the midday sun with an umbrella of purple lame--offered a tactful reply. But on board her plane an hour later, Albright vented her frustration as shepherd of an Africa policy often articulated but barely realized.

"I believe that our administration has spent more time, attention and money on Africa than any other administration," Albright said. "The fact that we haven't accomplished everything we want is unfortunate. But it's not there yet."

It was a challenge that came midway through Albright's sixth visit to the continent as a member of the Clinton cabinet, a trip embracing Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. Administration officials point out that since Clinton became the first president to visit Africa for more than a refueling stop, a stream of cabinet members have followed.

But a big part of the problem has been beyond White House control, beyond the official visits and beyond congressional purse strings as well. Since Clinton's visit, the "African renaissance" he heralded has been overshadowed by war.

In the Horn of Africa, onetime allies Ethiopia and Eritrea soon started fighting over a stretch of border; so far more than 10,000 are believed killed. Two months later, the central African allies of Uganda and Rwanda tried to repeat their success of a year earlier in removing the government in Congo, the massive, mineral-rich nation that adjoins both.

"African solutions for African problems" has been a catch phrase of the Clinton administration ever since the ill-fated U.N. mission to Somalia discouraged further interventions on the continent. Twice this week, in Mali and Sierra Leone, Albright reviewed troops the United States helped prepare to pick up the slack--West African regulars trained under Clinton's African Crisis Response Initiative.

The troops were deployed to contain conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. The organization has received $100 million during the 1990s from the United States, more than any other donor.

In her keynote address of the trip, delivered at ECOWAS headquarters here in the Nigerian capital, Albright lavished praise on Nigeria as the region's bulwark and fresh hope. After 15 years of military rule, the country this year elected Olusegun Obasanjo as president, and he has impressed Nigerians and foreigners alike in his first months on the job.

A senior State Department official described private meetings with Obasanjo as "extraordinary conversations" in which the leader expressed a "comprehensive vision for the continent" as well as an appreciation for regional responsibilities awaiting this oil-rich nation of 120 million.

"When the history of this decade is written, Nigeria's transformation has every chance of standing beside the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution and South Africa's long walk to freedom as a shining example of the strength of human dignity and the depth of the desire for freedom," Albright said.

But she concluded her speech by quoting a Malian newspaper that dubbed her an "Afro-realist," neither optimistic nor pessimistic about a continent that 18 months ago was described chiefly in glowing terms. And when lawmakers ask why they should quadruple aid to Nigeria--as Albright vowed here--her answer will be that it is cheaper than sending U.S. troops.

"When people say how could Sierra Leone have happened, or what have we been doing in Liberia, or what are your responsibilities, I think we have found whether it's in Kosovo or East Timor, that when there is another country or organization that we can work with or plug into, it makes it easier," she said. "I will use that as an argument: By helping Nigeria, we are helping ourselves."