LAGOS, Nigeria — Almost every day for the last year, a Nigerian courier has been arrested at some major U.S. airport with enough narcotics concealed on his or her body to make someone rich in this overpopulated African country.
And U.S. officials estimate that 10 shipments get through for every one that is intercepted.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz said Monday that he was assured by Nigerian officials of their intensified efforts to stop the traffic.
"We believe that there is a considerable flow of drug traffic through Nigeria to the United States," Shultz told a press conference after talks with Nigeria's military president, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, and with External Affairs Minister Bolaji Akinyemi and Justice Minister Bola Ajibola.
Local Drug Problem
"The Nigerians are also conscious of the fact that they have a drug problem themselves," Shultz added. "So it is something we need to work on together. I found a very positive attitude toward doing that work together."
The first task may be to stop corruption by lower-level Nigerian bureaucrats. A U.S. Embassy official said that customs inspectors frequently take bribes to let drugs slip through. He said some Nigerians arrested in the United States were traveling with U.S. visas that were issued on the basis of "diplomatic notes," implying complicity at some government level.
Nevertheless, said the official, who asked not to be identified by name, top leaders have mounted an energetic law enforcement effort to combat both the drug trade and the corruption. He said several customs inspectors have been arrested and others have been fired for collaborating with the drug smugglers.
Starting from almost nothing only a few years ago, Nigeria has become a major transshipment point on the narcotics road from Asia to Europe and the United States. The U.S. attorney in Washington has estimated that during some months, almost 90% of the heroin supply in the nation's capital's came through Nigeria.
U.S. officials say the Lagos government once refused to admit that drugs were a Nigerian problem. But officials discussed the issue openly during Shultz's visit. Akinyemi even referred in public to the country's "drug problem."
Shultz invited Ajibola to Washington to continue the talks with Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.
The U.S. Embassy official said drug arrests in Nigeria increased from 84 in 1985 to 294 last year, marking an increase both in the dimension of the problem and the government's understanding of it.
Drug Runners Jailed
The official said that an average of five or six Nigerian drug runners are arrested every week at New York's Kennedy International Airport. He said arrests at other major airports, including Los Angeles, bring the total to an average of well over one a day.
The official said that as recently as March, 1985, Nigeria had no police or customs officials concentrating on drugs. Today, the customs service has about 50 narcotic specialists, most of them trained by U.S. customs officials who came to Nigeria late last year. Additional training programs are planned.
Although marijuana has been grown in Nigeria for years, the country does not grow the poppies and coca leaves that are the raw material for heroin and cocaine. But the Lagos airport has become a favorite distribution point for drugs from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Thailand destined for Europe and the United States.
"Nigeria has always been, by the nature of the economy, involved in some kind of smuggling, in or out," the official said. "Smuggling is smuggling--it all depends on what brings the most money."
The economics of the drug trade are staggering, especially in a country like Nigeria, where the per capita income is about $700 a year.
The embassy official estimated that five ounces of high-purity heroin could be bought in India for about $400. Airline tickets for the courier from Lagos to India, back to Lagos and on to New York could be obtained on the black market for less than $1,000. Payment to the courier is less than $2,000.
Delivered in New York and diluted the usual five times, the heroin would be worth $125,000 at least, a handsome profit on an investment of around $3,000. Converted to Nigerian currency on the black market, a single shipment produces a small fortune.
"There are some 25, 26, 28-year-old millionaires that have sprung up," the official said. "This money corrupts everybody."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sent an agent to Lagos in March, 1985, to assess the problem. He had been expected to stay for just a few months, but he found the situation so serious that he has remained in Nigeria ever since. A second U.S. drug agent will join the staff today.
Shultz said that he and his Nigerian hosts also discussed U.S. policy toward South Africa and the war in Chad.