NIGERIA, which celebrated its 25th anniversary of independence on October 1, is important to the United States for several reasons. Included are its abundant supplies of high-grade oil for export, which is not susceptible to Middle Eastern conflicts, a population of 100 million -- 1 out of 4 Africans is Nigerian -- and a generally pro-Western government. Nigeria's political cooperation is desirable and perhaps necessary for the success of US foreign policy initiatives in Africa. Political relations between the two nations have ridden a roller coaster. Under President John F. Kennedy the US greatly increased economic and educational cooperation. US foreign aid doubled between 1962 and 1964, and many Nigerians still emotionally recall President Kennedy's Peace Corps.
The subsequent Nigerian civil war introduced tension into the relationship. While the Johnson and Nixon administrations supported ``One Nigeria,'' a vocal ``Biafra lobby'' pressured Washington to supply substantial food and logistical aid to the secessionist Biafran regime and precluded any direct US military assistance to the central Nigerian government.
In the mid-1970s, differences over southern Africa -- especially Angola -- troubled the two nations. The US had opposed Soviet and Cuban involvement in Angola and unsuccessfully lobbied African nations not to recognize the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) regime, in part because of the presence of Soviet and Cuban assistance. Nigerians stoned the US embassy and mobbed the ambassador's house while the Nigerian government accused the CIA of complicity in an attempted coup and three tim es turned down requests from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to visit Nigeria.
Nigeria believes that the Cuban troop presence in Angola should not form a precondition for Namibian independence, while America believes in parallel progress, or linkage, on these two issues. The Nigerian government, very sensitive to South African apartheid, has continually pressed for stronger Western action against the minority white government in Pretoria.
The improved relations of today actually began during the Carter administration with a series of reciprocal state visits. Nigerians applauded President Jimmy Carter's 1978 trip to Nigeria, which was included in a presidential state visit to black Africa, as well as the appointment of Andrew Young as US Ambasssador to the United Nations and the administration's support of black rule in Zimbabwe.
Overall, political cooperation has continued without serious incident: Recently Nigeria allowed the US to transship relief supplies to famine victims in Niger.
Political differences have not seriously affected US-Nigerian trade. During the troublesome years of 1975-76, trade increased by 50 percent. Whereas the Nigerian government in 1979 nationalized British Petroleum holdings over differences with Britain on South Africa, Nigeria did not follow suit with US-owned Caltex, Standard, and Mobil holdings.
Economic relations have greatly benefited both countries. Two-way trade rose from $756 million in 1960 to a peak of $12 billion in 1980; America is Nigeria's largest oil customer. The M. W. Kellogg Company and the Nigerian government are constructing a $900 million nitrogenous fertilizer plant near Port Harcourt which, when completed, will save Nigeria over $100 million a year in foreign exchange.
American and Nigerian governments have differed over the International Monetary Fund's three major preconditions for substantial loans to Nigeria: a more than 50 percent devaluation of Nigeria's naira, a cut in the subsidy of domestic petroleum, and a liberalization of international trade.
Private companies sometimes complain about Nigerian regulations: excessive delays, corruption, and the amount of money they may repatriate. The US government also worries about rising numbers of individual Nigerians in the US participating in drug trafficking and credit-card fraud.
Overall, cooperation can be expected to increase between Nigeria and the US. Often overlooked are the nondramatic but durable bonds of language, a shared history of British colonial rule, common ancestry (the US has the largest black population outside Africa), a spirit of individualism, and a devotion to free enterprise.
America has emerged as the largest foreign educator of Nigerians. In 1958 some 258 Nigerians were studying at American universities; by the early 1980s the annual figure had jumped to 30,000. More than 100,000 Nigerians have studied at some form of US educational institution.
US military training of Nigeria's officers has political repercussions, since Nigeria's 25 years of independence include 15 years of military rule. The US has trained 3,000 Nigerian officers and cadets since 1962, including Nigeria's last ruler, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Bahari and the current one Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
Herbert M. Howe is a research professor of African Politics at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.