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Letter from ...Lagos: Nigerians see the light

The fluffy new turquoise and black carpet at Lagos international airport made all theFINAL observers of the Nigerian presidential elections feel that a special effort was being made for democracy last month. But was it really necessary, for the sake of a few visitors, to raze all the shacks on Bar Beach, rendering hundreds of people homeless? "For the football, we will do anything," said Tunde, selling 100 naira (60p) levy tickets for Nigeria 99, football's World Youth Championship beginning on Saturday. Everyone passing his booth at Lagos domestic airport - and wishing to board their flight - had to buy a ticket. This is a country of tips and bargaining, but everyone respects the football levy.

Even the impoverished residents of Bar Beach - a shanty town which has grown up beneath the plush blocks of Victoria Island - seem to accept their lot at the hands and rifle butts of Operation Sweep. They are the uniformed hooligans of Nigeria 99 - a joint military and police unit who drive navy blue cars, wear combat colours and stop at nothing to put the force into law enforcement.

"The Bar Beach shacks were all pulled down by a bulldozer a month ago. But the Waste Management Authority were good and left the materials behind. We will build our homes again once Nigeria 99 is over," said Pius, an evicted resident, with extraordinary magnanimity.

Pius, 25, currently spends nights in a friend's house on the mainland and says many of those evicted from Bar Beach - up to 500 - have returned to their villages where they will remain until the championship ends on 24 April. "It is my patriotic duty to support Nigeria 99," he said.

The world's biggest black nation - and proud to be Africa's most populous country - has hated the pariah status inflicted upon it by a disapproving world after the late General Sani Abacha ordered the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine other environmental activists in November 1995.

Around about the time General Abacha died last year, the Super Eagles disappointed at the World Cup. His successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, promised elections and a civilian government. But no one here has much time for those who fight political games, including General Olusegun Obasanjo, elected last month to become president on 29 May.

No, what really matters is football - even the politicians admit it. "If you ask me my priority, I will say Nigeria 99, because of the fact that the whole world will be coming here," said Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah, minister of sports, last month. "Therefore all of us should package ourselves enough for the whole world to admire us, like us and want to come back here and invest." The packaging is a problem. Up to N10 billion (pounds 600m) has been paid to Strabag, a German construction company, to bring eight stadiums up to scratch, including making them all-seaters. But the inspection teams of Fifa, the world's governing body, who have travelled from Calabar in the east to Kano in the north, have found problems with floodlights, practice pitches and scoreboards.

Most of those privileged Lagosians who have electricity for a few hours each day are fully prepared to spend the next three weeks in darkness. When General Abubakar formally launched Nigeria 99 in a live television broadcast last month, he was interrupted by a power cut.

There are also question marks over whether Nigeria can keep its fuel flowing for the three weeks of the championship. One of the world's leading oil producers, it suffers from petrol shortages because refineries are run down and the black market has the upper hand over the legitimate distribution network. Nevertheless, it is a fairly safe bet that Nigeria 99 will be a success - for the visitingFINALers, if not the locals, and for the dozens of scouts who regularly comb Africa for cheap talent.

They will be looking at Ghana's strikers, Issa Abdurahaman and Owusu Afriyie and their midfielder, Baffour Gyan.

Nigeria's best performance was a silver in Saudi Arabia in 1989, after which its relationship with Fifa went sour. Officials noticed discrepancies between tournaments in the players' ages - a perennial problem in Africa where little notice is taken of dates of birth - and the Flying Eagles were banned from the 1991 tournament. Later, they failed to qualify.

But most Nigerians agree, despite their fiercely competitive approach to football, that minimising the glitches is more important than winning this time.