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Nigeria tries to beat its reputation as hotbed of brazen corruption

For several days the English businessman could be seen cooling his heels on the terrace of a leading Lagos Hotel. All it would take to get him on the first available flight to London's Heathrow Airport is a signed and sealed contract for a (STR)25 million ($35 million) project.

Ironically, it is the businessman who is holding back. He refused to go along with officials in the now ousted civilian government who demanded exorbitant bribes.

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''They were just too greedy. A small percentage would be a reasonable commission. But they were asking far too much. My company wasn't going to pay it ,'' he said in an interview.

What he hopes for now, under the new military government, is a call from a new Cabinet minister for a clean deal.

A Welsh businessman, who sells sealants in East and West Africa, finds Nigeria his most challenging market when it comes to the question of corruption.

His latest contract, worth only (STR)40,000, is modest, but one official has insisted on a 15 percent cut for himself.

''Can you imagine a 15 percent cut out of only (STR)40,000?'' he asks incredulously.

''What's so unnerving is that they are quite open about it. I once tried to slip something under the table to a man sitting opposite me and he said brazenly: 'It's all right. You can hand the bribe over the table.' ''

In another instance, a Nigerian escorts a foreign visitor up five flights of stairs in his new apartment building, then pauses.

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''I always stop here to catch my breath,'' he says before negotiating the next five flights of stairs.

''This,'' he says, ''is the result of corruption.'' He is explaining why the elevators in his building seldom work. This building is for government employees. The building contract had been parceled out to a political party functionary. That person requisitioned new elevators, but installed old ones and pocketed the difference in price.

Although corruption is a worldwide phenomenon that knows no ideological or racial boundaries, global businessmen find that Nigeria ranks high on the list of countries where business is difficult, or almost impossible without dash, the Nigerian term for bribes or kickbacks.

Corruption incenses most Nigerians - but for years it has seemed endemic here. In the final months of 1983, however, discontent over leapfrogging prices, corruption, and government extravagance reached a breaking point. Nigerians welcomed the military government that overthrew civilian President Shehu Shagari Dec. 31. It pledged to straighten out the economy and end corruption.

The feeling among Nigerians now is that the government must press charges against corrupt officials. This month Brig. Tunde Idiagbon, chief of staff of Nigeria's supreme headquarters and No. 2 man in the government, announced that 475 people are being detained for investigation into acts of corruption and ''economic sabotage.''

There are 114 politicians, businessmen, and others - including some former ministers and state governors - in Kiri Kiri jail in Lagos.

The previous civilian rulers made periodic attempts to come down on corruption, too. But the arrival of auditors at government departments precipitated at least a dozen suspicious fires, often beginning in the accounting departments and spreading to destroy entire office buildings. The Nigerian External Telecommunications building, which dominates the Lagos skyline , is blackened by a fire set in January 1983 by those wishing to destroy incriminating evidence.

Not all Nigerian businessmen are bent on exploitation. One well-meaning Nigerian was pleased when he helped to land a rice-growing contract in a state-subsidized agricultural river basin project.

Looking forward to seeing the new rice plantings, the contractor visited the region. But he was appalled when he saw only virgin bush, not rice, growing in the area designated for the multimillion-dollar project. He rushed back to Lagos , demanding an explanation.

A Nigerian relating the case said: ''He was told: 'Why should you be worried? You got your contract, didn't you?' ''

And in an incident that occurred soon after the civilian government was toppled, a boat carrying a large shipment of illegally purchased tires, worth millions of dollars, was intercepted in Lagos harbor. The consignment papers showed the owner was Nigeria's minister of justice and attorney general, Richard Akinjide.

The abuse of public funds and the profligate life styles of top civilian officials and businessmen had become so pervasive that a coined word, ''squanderma- nia,'' is now in the Nigerian lexicon.

It is too early to tell if the military government will have more success in ending corruption than previous governments. Nigerians, however, have their own theories on why corruption is so routine.

''Some of those people in office have only known desperate poverty. Suddenly they have access to lots of money. The temptation is to acquire more because they have felt so insecure in the past,'' says a Nigerian international civil servant. ''I don't think it will happen with my children,'' he adds.

There is also a cultural explanation for the phenomenon. It comes in the form of pressure to help the extended family, which is a form of social security in much of the third world, where governments often can do little to help citizens. It creates tremendous pressures on officials.

The result: Heavy temptations and burdens on otherwise productive employees. They sometimes find that loyalty to a firm or government is subordinated to loyalty to the extended family.

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