Nigeria's elite wait for a pukka chukka elite unmoved by Nigeria's revival

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THINGS ARE looking up for Nigeria: President Olusegun Obasanjo takes office in three months, Commonwealth re-entry looks certain and investors are back. But among the jet set, the real sign of recovery will be the return of pukka chukkas to Lagos Polo Club.

This huge grassy pitch, surrounded by stables more solid than many family homes, is the playground of Nigeria's mallet-wielding elite.

But the club, situated in the teeming and formerly chic Ikoyi district, has lost all of its class, according to Dolapo Akinrele, a lawyer who is its secretary.

"We need to attract the right type of people. The club's heyday was during the oil boom. But in the Eighties it started to go downhill and it hit rock-bottom in 1993. People who had made their money in dubious ways just joined to make contact with the military," he said, sipping a club soda at the bar after a ride on his favourite pony, Tyson.

Just as Nigeria's present military ruler, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, wants to improve Nigerian governance by moving towards civilian rule, Mr Akinrele believes the club's standing will be relative to the standard of play.

"Standards have dropped terribly," said Audu Oshogwemoh, a former president of the club, adding that the days are long gone of player-members flying in Argentinian ponies worth up to pounds 3,000 each.

"Now we mostly ride ponies from Sudan or Chad. They are brought to Nigeria by foot or by road and sold at markets in Maiduguri.

"They are much cheaper - as little as 100,000 naira (pounds 750) - and actually very good. But the Argentine horses, if less used to the hot climate, are beautifully trained when they arrive," he said.

In Nigeria, where polo was first played in 1904, the sport has provided a bridge between the traditional ruling classes of the north - where horse- loving emirs played polo with the British army - and the economically powerful south- western Yorubas who are dominant in Lagos.

All around the field - some two-and-a-half times the size of a football pitch - grooms on horseback break into sudden gallop, only to stop dead 50 metres on.

"The hallmark of a good pony is that it should be nimble and able to stop and to turn very quickly to keep you moving with the ball," Mr Oshogwemoh said.

Behind the grooms, along the wall which separates this huge slab of green from the rest of smoky Lagos, their wives cook over open fires.

Armies of young boys arrive on foot, their heads completely concealed by bunches of loose hay.

At the bar, mobile phones ring, BBC World is on the television and the imported beer mats say "Heineken". There is much enthusiasm that Mohammed Babangida, son of the still-influential former dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, has had a good season with his Kaduna El-Amin team.

"Anything that is good for the young Babangida is good for polo," says one drinker.

What is even more certain - in a sport which attracts big-name sponsors such as Shell, Elf, First Fuels, Coca-Cola and Air France - is that whatever is good for polo isgood for just a few of those who make up Africa's most populous country.