The bearded baby-clothes smuggler, with world-weary eyes, sipped iced palm wine in a steamy back-alley saloon here and talked shop.

"What I feel is better to fly with than anything else is baby wear," said the 35-year-old businessman, who travels from this west African capital to Taiwan six times a year.

He explained the advantages of baby wear for a Nigerian trader: a profitable haul could be stuffed in a couple of suitcases. Customs inspectors at Lagos airport usually do not demand duty or bribes to clear booties and bibs. Most importantly, Nigerians will pay a 500 to 600 percent markup for baby wear.

The smuggler, who preferred not to be quoted by name, is one of thousands of Nigerian traders who have made 1985 a banner year for airlines serving Lagos. Passenger traffic is up about 35 percent over 1984. Airlines here report "saturation bookings" in the past two months, meaning that nearly every seat in and out has been full.

In a paradox that points to the entrepeneurial acumen of Nigerians and to warped incentives built into their economy, air travel is booming even as the oil-dependent economy is in crisis.

Many American and European banks recently have stopped doing business with Nigeria because the central bank is three months behind in releasing hard currency to pay for imports. The new president, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, has declared a 15-month "economic emergency" designed, in part, to staunch the hemorrhage of scarce foreign exchange for luxury imports. This was on top of an existing austerity law that limits the amount of money a Nigerian can take out of the country.

"All measures for the conservation of foreign exchange must be rigorously pursued," said the New Nigerian, an official daily newspaper here in a front-page editorial. The paper said the government will "crack down unmercifully on middlemen, hoarders and other exploitive distributors."

Still, flights in and out of Lagos continue to be crammed with frequent-flying Nigerians, such as the baby-clothes trader, who travel with an inordinant amount and exotic variety of baggage.

Women from the Lagos market board London-bound planes wearing loose-fitting traditional gowns. Airline attendants on the Lagos-London run report that these women often travel with dried fish tied to their thighs and upper arms and return with similarly concealed bundles of frozen fish sticks, dried milk and, of course, baby clothes.

In August, scores of London-bound traders showed up at Lagos airport carrying cages containing one or two gray parrots, which are indigenous to northern Nigeria. Until the government clamped down, fearing extinction of the birds, parrots purchased for about $60 in northern villages were being hawked for about $300 in London.

Airline officials say Nigerian traders returning to Lagos check in with baggage including car tires and engines, all manner of video and stereo equipment, clothing, cosmetics, processed foods and spare parts.

At London's Gatwick airport last summer, according to a steward for British Caledonia Airlines, a Lagos-bound Nigerian tried to bring an auto windshield aboard as hand luggage.

About 1 percent of passengers leaving Lagos have excess baggage while more than 30 percent of returning passengers pay excess-baggage fees "without complaint," said an airline executive.

Ishrat Husain, the World Bank representative in Lagos, argues that the Nigerian government's economic policies have created and sustain the perverse incentives that, even as the country's economy unravels, keep Nigerian traders airborne.

In attempting to force austerity on Nigeria, government import restrictions have created acute shortages and, therefore, acute demand for manufactured goods such as windshields and baby clothes.

At the same time, government price controls on airline tickets and a grossly overvalued currency -- which trades on the black market at one-quarter its official rate -- make it extraordinarily cheap to fly in and out of Nigeria. A roundtrip Lagos-London excursion fare on Pan Am sells here for 725 naira, which can be purchased on the black market here for about $182.

The overvaluation of the naira persists, according to diplomats, because it benefits well-placed bureaucrats and businessmen who, in effect, are given subsidized access to foreign exchange. Further, the country's main export, oil, is unaffected because it is marketed in dollars.

On top of the bargain air tickets, the government allows some well-connected traders, who have import licences, to trade their naira for dollars at the official exchange rate. This gives them about 400 percent more purchasing power abroad than they would have if the naira were traded at its real value.

"The government's overregulation of the economy is creating these opportunities for private gain at the expense of the society in general," said Husain. The traders "are not paying taxes. There is no way local industry can compete with these imported goods. Consumers must pay outrageous prices. I call it private affluence, public squalor."

For most of the 1970s, when this country was awash with billions of dollars in oil revenue, Nigeria made little attempt to grow the food or manufacture the goods needed for nearly 100 million people.

During that period, now called the "oil doom" rather than boom by economic analysts here, Nigeria simply bought what the country thought it needed. There was plenty of money to slake a growing taste for luxury imports. In 1975, one-eighth of the world's merchant fleet was waiting to unload merchandise in Nigeria.

The oil glut of the 1980s changed all this. In the past five years, Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings have been cut in half. The government has been forced to abandon ambitious building schemes and to lay off tens of thousands of well-paid bureaucrats. Inflation is running at about 40 percent, interest on foreign debts eats up nearly half of export earnings, and unemployment is rising.

But through it all, many Nigerians, particularly those who live in Lagos, have maintained their taste for imported food and consumer goods. That is why the bearded smuggler can cover his air fare to Taiwan, pay expenses and make what he estimates as a $600 profit with just two suitcases of baby clothes.

A senior western diplomat here -- using government figures showing that 350,000 air travel tickets with an average value of about $1,000 each were purchased by Nigerians last year -- estimates that air travel expenditures came to about $350 million in 1984. That figure represents about 10 percent of the nation's annual discretionary income after paying for debt service and essential imports.

Officials of European airlines operating here say the Lagos run is their most profitable in Africa. British Caledonia, the major carrier here, offers 10 flights a week between Lagos and London.

The U.S. government has compiled trade figures showing the huge illegal leakage of Nigerian money out of the country. Nigeria's major trading partners in 1983 reported selling Nigeria $5 billion more in goods than the central bank here reports were purchased officially. That is about half the country's annual export earnings.

The government policies that fill airplanes and drain money out of Nigeria would have to change if Nigeria decided to accept a multibillion-dollar bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund. It would be granted only if Nigeria devalued its currency and eased import restrictions.

The IMF agreement would allow Nigeria to reschedule its foreign debts and use more of its oil revenues for investments that could increase local production of food and manufactured goods. At the same time, however, IMF-imposed devaluation would increase the price of air travel, wiping out the profit margin for Nigeria's airborne traders.