The Pentagon, after years of shunning the Nigerian military because of its political meddling, rampant corruption and abysmal human rights record, is quietly reengaging West Africa's most influential armed forces in the hope that they can be placed under effective civilian control and become an agent for stability in the troubled region.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired army general who last year won one of Nigeria's few clean elections, requested U.S. help to reorganize and professionalize a discredited military that is despised by most Nigerians. It had ruled Nigeria for all but eight of its 40 years of independence.

On April 1, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, visiting Nigeria for the first time, announced a $10.6 million military aid package, the first such program since the United States slammed the door on all aid to Nigeria in 1993. The aid cutoff followed a brutal coup that brought to power Gen. Sani Abacha, who until his death in 1998 had opposition leaders killed and looted the national treasury, using the army to run what one U.S. official described as a "kleptocracy" and "criminal state enterprise." But Nigeria's return to a democratic government last May and its regional importance have led U.S. officials to lift the aid ban.

"We want to have a long and enduring relationship with Nigeria because we recognize that Nigeria is going to be a very important country in terms of its role throughout Africa," Cohen said after meeting Obasanjo and Nigerian defense officials.

Senior military officials, including Gen. Victor Malu, the military chief of staff who is close to Obasanjo, have praised the U.S. aid program. And they said it signaled that the military was no longer viewed as a rogue force.

"Those of us that are here are here because we did not get involved in politics," said a senior official. "It is right to recognize that it was not the entire military that took over, but small groups that hurt not only the country but the institution as well. The aid is a way of recognizing that."

The package includes $4 million to help train pilots and refurbish Nigeria's aging fleet of C-130 airplanes, used mostly to transport troops for peacekeeping missions in a region that has been plagued by civil wars, ethnic strife and military coups. Nigerian troops have formed the bulk of the regional peacekeeping forces that have fought extensively in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Another $3.5 million will pay for a private U.S. company to implement a plan to install civilian control over the military, redesign the military's three branches and devise a strategy for dealing with officers who lose their jobs as the bloated forces are trimmed. MPRI, which is based in Alexandria, Va., and is operated by senior retired military officers, will also get $3.5 million from Nigeria. The consulting firm has done extensive contract work for the Pentagon, including training and organizing the Croatian army in the mid-1990s.

While human rights organizations have expressed concern about aiding a military with a long history of abusing civilians, U.S. officials and some Nigerian analysts argue that helping restructure and restore the institution's prestige is the only way to ensure it stays out of politics.

"Any military assistance to the Nigerian military should be carefully tailored to ensure that it cannot be used to benefit officers who have been responsible for human rights violations or in situations where human rights violations are likely," said Janet Fleischman, Washington director for Africa of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. should emphasize that those responsible for attacks against civilians must be held accountable."

U.S. officials said the program will be set up to hold abusers accountable, but acknowledged that punishment for past abuses is not a precondition for the new aid.

Obasanjo is aware of the threat the military poses if pushed into a corner, diplomats and senior government officials said. Since taking office he has retired more than 400 officers, including all who previously held political positions. He also restructured national and regional commands, breaking up traditional ethnic cliques. But he has not initiated any legal cases against those suspected of ordering massacres or stealing billions of dollars.

At the same time, he has promised to increase soldiers' wages and improve their living conditions.

"Obasanjo cannot afford to cut loose altogether from the military," said Tunji Braithwaite, a political analyst known for his opposition to the military regimes. "Obasanjo was allowed in as a buffer period, so the military can get away with its loot until such time has passed that people are too exhausted to ever go after it."

Pini Jason, a political analyst and newspaper editor, said, however, that the aid was helpful. "It was only a small clique of senior officers that benefited from military rule. There was no trickle-down effect," he said. "To not give aid is to punish the wrong people."

At the main army headquarters, it is apparent that times are hard. The paint on the buildings is peeling, there is no electricity, and a number of soldiers were lounging in the shade of a fleet of nonworking military vehicles.

"Things are very different now--we have to adjust to our new role," said a senior Nigerian officer sitting in a sweltering office with no working telephone. "We are no longer the government, and we have to begin to relearn our profession."

Some of the lounging soldiers said they had not heard of any U.S. aid, but said they hoped it was true. "I hope we can go to the United States," said one. "All I want to do is learn how to be a real soldier."

An audit of the military, conducted earlier this year by MPRI and paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development, found that more than 75 percent of the army's equipment was not operational and that training had virtually stopped, said two sources familiar with the document. The study found that the air force's pride, its 22 MiG-21 and 15 Jaguar fighter jets, were grounded, as were all but two of the eight C-130 transport planes, the sources said. And, the audit found, the navy had 19 admirals but only nine seaworthy ships.

"The army has to win back the confidence of their people," said Ed Soyster, a retired lieutenant general and MPRI's vice president for international operations. "We have to change the concept that a military career is the way to high political office."

Soyster said that MPRI would hold seminars with senior Nigerian military officials on civilian-military relations, and will help the military define its size and structure and help map out training and weapons needs.

"The tendency is to want to buy equipment," Soyster said. "That is the last thing they need. They have to develop standing and status within their society and improve their capabilities if they are going to participate in regional peacekeeping operations."

REBUILDING NIGERIA'S MILITARY

The United States has agreed to give Nigeria $10.6 million in military aid, the first since aid was cut off in 1993. Although Nigeria's military has a long history of abusing civilians, Washington wants to help restructure the force and restore its prestige.

Nigeria's military

Armed forces: 94,000

Troops serving as peacekeepers in Sierra Leone: 10,000 to 12,000

Of some 30 ships, only nine are seaworthy

22 MiG and 15 Jaguar aircraft are grounded

Of eight C-130 transport planes,only two are operational

Defense budget (1998): $2.1 billion

The U.S. aid package In millions

To refurbish fleet of C-130 transport aircraft $4.0

Plan to create greater civilian oversight of military and restructure army, navy and air force. (Nigeria is adding another $3.5 million.) 3.5

Computer simulation center for teaching peacekeeping skills 2.0

Training of Nigerians in the United States 0.6

Classroom equipment for military 0.5

TOTAL $10.6 million

SOURCE: Staff reports, Military Balance