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Nigeria learns to march - happily - to the beat of its new military rulers

All over Nigeria alarm clocks are ringing a good half hour earlier in the mornings and catapulting workers out of their beds. For Nigeria, the dawn of a new workday has begun.

The need for Africa's most populous country to adjust to more disciplined work habits is apparent here - from the sandpaper-textured, red-clay houses in the kiln-hot north to the teeming tenements of the sweltering south with their windows and shutters flung wide.

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The movers and shakers behind Nigeria's drive to boost efficiency are the country's new military rulers. They are determined to get the nation back into economic shape.

And the message is reverberating loud and clear through all the ranks of civilian life.

Here in the parched Muslim north, the employees of the Kano Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, sponsors of the largest agricultural project in Nigeria, if not all of Africa, are left in no doubt about where their bread is buttered.

In a crisp memorandum issued four days after the Dec. 31 coup, the secretary of the authority, Sarki Abubakar, in language suggesting the military might have dropped by, told his staff:

''1. Everybody should report to his working place as early as possible and close at the precise time, i.e., 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Members of staff who are in the habit of reporting to work late and close early must stop this in their own interest. Anybody who disregards the rule will have himself to blame.

''2. Any indiscipline among the staff will not be tolerated. You are expected to obey the rules and regulations of your superior officers. You are expected to contribute as much as you can for the progress of our country.

''3. Mismanagement of public property is prohibited.''

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Such instructions are commonplace these days. Federal government workers are told alcohol is off limits during work hours. A state government insists that officials who obtained car loans from the previous civilian administration must repay them forthwith.

Not only is the military setting the tone - it is striving to set an example.

For the military governor of one of Nigeria's 19 states, Mercedes-Benz cars now are out for top officials. The more modest Peugeot 504 model would be his official car. The Peugeot may well turn out to be the new prestige car in Nigeria.

Other frills may be out, too. A military governor rebuked a local reporter for addressing him as ''your excellency.'' The leader shot back that his title was ''military governor.'' ''Excellence,'' he pointed out, could only be measured by what he would achieve in office.

The more Spartan approach of the new government has gratified many Nigerians who had grown cynical about corruption and who now feel that only the military can provide the discipline needed to put the country back on the right road.

Nigeria, second-largest member of the OPEC after Indonesia and the world's ninth-largest producer of crude oil, is having to cope with shrunken oil revenues. Since Nigeria's population is so vast - estimates vary from 90 million to 130 million people - the loss of oil revenues because of plummeting prices has been felt more markedly than in most OPEC countries.

The country is also reacting to revelations on how much of the oil money from the boom years of the 1970s was squandered by the civilian administration.

Although the reelection of Shehu Shagari as president last August was hailed as an unprecedented exercise in universal suffrage in Africa, his government has been discredited since the coup.

The power of the pocketbook rather than the ballot box explains public disillusionment with the civilian administration.

The military government is seen as a welcome relief. As Ita Oko Oku, a civil servant with the Nigerian port authority in Lagos, puts it: ''The economy was getting too bad. Prices were soaring every blessed day of the year. Already we are feeling the impact of the new prices. Prices in the market have gone down about 50 percent at least. We feel a big load has been taken off us immediately.''

The government's ability to flush out hoarders who inflated prices and the desire of merchants to escape public wrath drove down the price of soap from 80 kobo (about $1.06) to 45 kobo. Milk has dropped from 70 kobo to 35 kobo.

The story is the same in the north.

Emmanuel Olutunji Anuma, resplendent in a flowing robe of dark blue and flashing a dazzling smile, gets the goods he sells from large distributors.

His beverage and toiletries shop outside Kano is reached by weaving through a labyrinth of market stalls filled with the chatter of children, bleating goats, and the bargaining voices of merchants selling goods laid out on rickety tables.

Mr. Anuma says: ''We enter the civilian government, become democratic, we begin to get high economy. Imagine Omo (he points to a detergent) starting first at 30 kobo, then 50 kobo, and now 2 naira, 10 kobo.'' (100 kobo is 1 naira.)

Was the military government better?

Under civilian rule, he explains, sometimes what the federal government says is thwarted by the state government ''because of party politics.''

''When they are all military governments at federal level and at state level, they work together. . . . They can acquire land for agricultural development. . . . Nobody to query them. Under civilian government, it's not possible.''

At the same time he sees dangers in military government. ''If you don't like something, you just plan a coup.''

The problem for Nigeria is that in the past the people have tired of both civilian and military leaders. The return to civilian rule was welcomed here because the military - previously committed to rooting out corruption - itself had fallen victim to corruption.

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