LAGOS, NIGERIA — ALONG with the international push to curtail toxic-waste dumping, Nigeria - a victim of such dumping last summer - is taking steps to prevent a recurrence of such incidents. The government has already enacted a Harmful Waste Decree, which stipulates life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of dumping or aiding the dumping of toxic waste in Nigeria. In addition, a federal environmental protection law and an Environmental Protection Commission will soon be established. Several analysts point out that many industrializing nations such as Nigeria will soon be producing their own toxic wastes - and will need national agencies to regulate disposal.
The punitive measures are part of an effort by African countries to tackle the rising incidence of toxic garbage ``imported'' or dumped by businessmen from the industrially advanced countries. All 16 members of the Economic Community of West African States now have such laws. However, at an international meeting last week in Basel, Switzerland, Nigeria was among 40 member states of the Organization of African Unity that refused to sign an agreement on toxic waste dumping. These states want an outright ban on waste exports to Africa.
Until last summer, most Nigerians were unaware of the existence and effects of chemical wastes. But news media reports revealed that, between September 1987 and May 1988, an Italian firm, with the help of corrupt Nigerian port officials, illegally shipped 10,000 barrels of radioactive nuclear waste products. These products were deposited in an empty lot at the small Nigerian port of Koko. Thirteen persons were later arrested.
Italy has evacuated the barrels, but Nigeria has brought legal action against it in the World Court, claiming damages on the basis of state responsibility in international law.
The Koko case is only one of several that have occurred in West Africa in recent years. Strapped for cash and burdened by debt, some African countries have accepted waste drums for handsome fees. But since the uproar, most have abandoned such agreements.
Early in 1988, Guinea-Bissau canceled a lucrative contract to accept 12 million tons of toxic wastes over five years for $120 million a year, a sum that favorably competes with that nation's annual gross national product of $150 million.
In February of the same year, a Norwegian shipping company - Torvald Klaveness - dumped 15,000 tons of ``raw material for bricks'' on the island of Kassa in Guinea. Suddenly, trees and plants in the island started dying. Investigations showed that what was said to be ``raw materials for bricks'' was actually toxic incinerator ash from Philadelphia. Authorities arrested Norway's consul-general, who authorized the importation of the waste.
According to Kaare Borch, an official of the firm, ``Their reaction is excessive. They've been fooled by ecologists whose goals are not realistic in our industrialized world.''
But the Africans see it otherwise. In the words of a May 1988 resolution adopted by the Organization of African Unity: ``We declare that the dumping of industrial and nuclear wastes in Africa is a crime against Africans, and we condemn all companies that participate ... in introducing these wastes into Africa. We ask them to clean up the areas already polluted.''