THE TRANSACTION took place right beside me, in the chill of early morning, on a slatted bench at the edge of Central Park. The dealer counted the money, folded it, and nodded. The buyer slid the packet, probably containing heroin, into his jacket pocket.
"Thank you, my brother," said the buyer. The dealer smiled. The two young men stood and clasped hands, then walked off in different directions.
Thank you, my brother. Thank you for the opportunity to shoot up, to get high, to wallow in the degradation of addiction, to contract disease, hepatitis perhaps, or maybe AIDS. Thank you so much, my brother.
Whenever I see black people involved in any way in the drug trade I think of the prototypical Uncle Toms, the black Africans who sold their brethren into slavery. Thank you, my brother. Excuse me while I clamber aboard this ship. Thank you.
Something similar is happening with drugs. Much of the heroin and cocaine that comes into the United States is shipped through Nigeria, which has become one of the world's great drug-smuggling and money-laundering centers.
Enormous amounts of drugs produced in Asia and Latin America are delivered to Europe and the United States by networks with headquarters in Nigeria. It is estimated that a third to nearly a half of all heroin that reaches the United States passes through Nigeria.
Couriers from Nigeria are in prisons around the world. The U.S. State Department has classified Nigeria as an international drug trafficker -- in effect, an outlaw nation -- and has imposed sanctions. But the drug trafficking and the money-laundering continue.
The effect of this flourishing of evil in a country that once was the pride of its continent has been deeply tragic. Drug abuse in Nigeria and neighboring countries has surged. And Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, the Washington-based lobbying group, said, "The dramatic increase in drug consumption in South Africa is directly attributable to Nigeria."
Thank you, my brother.
Narcotics trafficking is not the only evil flourishing in Nigeria. A report issued last fall on the country's human rights abuses was titled, "The Dawn of a New Dark Age." Succinctly put, Nigeria is in shambles. Gen. Sani Abacha's military dictatorship has crushed all opposition. There is not even the pretense of a democracy.
The economy has collapsed, despite extensive oil resources. There is 100 percent inflation and extreme unemployment. The per capita income, which was $1,000 in 1980, has plunged to $250.
Nigeria has become a nation of sorrow, its crumbling infrastructure mirroring its economic, social and educational decline.
Mr. Robinson has organized a national campaign, supported by a large group of prominent African-American, to push for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria. Except for the color of the oppressors, Mr. Robinson noted, there is very little difference between the abuses in Nigeria today and the abuses that prevailed for so long in South Africa.
"Nigeria should be completely isolated," Mr. Robinson said. "Politically, economically and socially."
It is highly unusual, probably unprecedented, for American blacks to speak out so loudly about the abuses of a black African regime. It is a major step, a triumph of outrage over a deeply embedded (and profoundly destructive) sense of collective mortification.
We have closed our eyes and kidded ourselves for too long. It is only in the never-never land of denial that barbarism by blacks is less evil than barbarism by whites. When someone denies you your freedom, or puts a bullet in your mother's heart, or a needle in your baby's vein, the correct response is not thank you, my brother.
Randall Robinson would like the United States to boycott Nigerian oil. Until changes are made, he would like the international community to treat Nigeria as a pariah. He is on to something. Barbaric behavior, by anyone, cannot be tolerated.
I would like to see a similar high-profile effort launched by African-Americans against some of the evils occurring here at home. Randall Robinson knows there is great power in ostracism. It is a lesson that more of us need to learn.
Bob Herbert is a New York Times columnist.