6 August 2006

Nigeria: 419 Scams - Setting the Records Straight (i)


Kaduna — I have received a torrent of venomous reactions from Igbo readers to my last two articles titled, "Our image as a nation of scammers," many of which have been reproduced in this column in the last two weeks.

Unfortunately, a lot of the reactions are sadly familiar lazy, infantile, and pedestrian emotional eruptions that don't deserve to be dignified with a response because they evaded, or were incapable of addressing, the substance of my observations. Others were mere cheap maudlin balderdash that sought to construct an image of me as an Igbophobe, and proceeded on the basis of this to assume my identity and launch a vicious philippic on me.

It is beneath me to descend to the gutter of name-calling and invidious geo-ethnic stereotyping, as some of the respondents have done, in the name of defending myself. I have transcended that crude parochialism-sadly typical of public discourse in Nigeria- a long time ago. However, one or two of the reactions raised some valid queries on the historical and factual correctness of some of my claims. One of the respondents, for instance, questioned whether there is such a thing as a southern Nigerian Criminal Code. Another contested my claim that 419 is derived from a section in the Criminal Code, which criminalizes the impersonation of government officials for pecuniary gratification. It is these questions that I hope to address in the next two weeks.

Perhaps, I should begin by stating that the intention of my previous write-ups was not to pathologize Igbos as congenitally criminal. My reference to the dominance of Igbos in 419 scams was a harmless (at least from my point of view) side comment, which was incidental to the basic tenor of my writing: that we have acquired the unflattering global image as a nation of 419 scammers because of the activities of a few of our citizens at home and abroad.

I have no reason at all to resent Igbos. Some of my best and most dependable friends from my formative years to date are Igbos. I therefore know enough to know that many Igbos are decent, honest and upright people whose moral sensibilities are as outraged as anybody else by crime and fraud. This knowledge should not, however, obscure the indisputable reality that 419 scams have an unmistakable Igbo ethnic coloration.

My concern with what I call the progressive atrophy of our international reputational capital as a result of 419 scams derives not only from my experiential encounter with the phenomenon both in Nigeria and in the United States but from the fairly extensive research I have done on the subject, which will be published by the University of Texas Press before the end of this year. So my claims and observations in the last two columns did not simply sprout from the resources of my imagination; they were rooted in painstaking research.

I will not bore my readers with the details of my research. However, I want to use the opportunity of the queries from my readers to share a few of my findings on the 419 phenomenon.

To begin with, there is indeed such a thing as the Criminal Code, which regulates the judicial process in the south. And 419 refers to a section of that Code. However, contrary to what I wrote, it is not officially referred to as "Southern Nigerian Criminal Code." However, I deliberately I prefixed "southern Nigerian" to indicate that the Code does not have pan-Nigerian applicability. Perhaps, I should have enclosed the phrase "southern Nigerian" in parenthesis.

Another reason that informed my decision to precede the name of the Code with "southern Nigerian" is because I discovered that there is a common misconception in popular and scholarly commentaries on the advance fee fraud to state that 419 refers to a code in Nigeria's constitution.

As anybody with even a fleeting familiarity with the judicial process in Nigeria knows, although Nigeria has one federal constitution, it has two separate judicial systems. While the Criminal Code regulates the judicial system in southern Nigeria, where the 419 phenomenon is prevalent, Northern Nigerian laws are guided by the Penal Code. The Penal Code, which is a mishmash of neo-Islamic laws, British common law, and native Northern Nigerian customs, does not have any section, at least to my knowledge, that specifically addresses the crime of advance fee fraud. The reason is simple: advance fee fraud is not prevalent enough in the north to deserve such a judicial attention.

Section 419 of the Criminal Code Cap. 777, 1990, from which the fraud derives its name, was promulgated to prosecute perpetrators of advance fee fraud in southern Nigeria, which includes states in the eastern and western parts of the country, including Lagos State ( see Uche J. Osimiri, "Appraisal of Nigerian Advance Fee Fraud Legislation 1995," Journal of Financial Crime 4 3, (1997): 271). It was only on April 1, 1995 that a new national military decree incorporating the northern states titled, The Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Related Offences Decree (No. 13 of 1995), took effect. Sub-section (1) of section 1 of the decree provides the courts and law enforcement agencies with extraterritorial jurisdictional powers to proscribe conduct carried out by individuals within or outside Nigeria who defraud persons located in any country of the world.

So the codification of the criminalization of advance fee fraud (or 419) did not precede Nigeria, as one of the respondents erroneously stated. But as a crime, it does. As will be shown later in this series, advance fee frauds actually have roots that go deep into 16th-century Spain.

Today in Nigeria the term "419" has become so much a part of our demotic vocabulary that we scarcely think of its semantic roots. 419 now means more than scam e-mails or other kinds of advance fee frauds; it encapsulates a whole range of practices that are deemed guileful, dishonest, reprobate, and morally reprehensible. However, although is it is usual to label 419 e-mail frauds as "Nigerian" e-mail scams, they are, in reality, largely an Igbo scam. Even the Igbos who are sincere with themselves know and admit this. There is, in fact, anecdotal evidence that many parliamentarians, political godfathers and even state governors from southeast Nigeria are 419 scammers.

The preponderance of Igbos in 419 scams is hardly a contested fact even in official circles. An indication of the perception in official quarters in Nigeria that 419 is almost the exclusive criminal province of the Igbos came to light last year when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission sponsored ads on national television calling attention to the dangers of 419. It used subliminal messages that suggested that Igbos dominate 419 scams. The ad used the name Chike, and affected an Igbo English accent for demonstration. Ohanze Ndigbo, of course, took umbrage at this and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the ads. It said, "The advert is not only capable of discrediting Ndigbo wherever they are found on the face of the Earth but also exposing [them] and their entire generations yet unborn to the risk, scorn, and shame of public opprobrium, contempt, and ridicule with its attendant consequences of loss of face, respect, trust, faith and standing among the other ethnic nat ionalities of Nigeria and indeed the entire world" (see Ndidi Onuorah, "Ohaneze Protests EFCC Sponsored '419' Advert," Champion, August 25, 2005).

Although no study has accounted for why the 419 scam phenomenon is virtually non-existent in the northern and central states of Nigeria-and to a certain extent in western Nigeria-yet thrives among the Igbos, it is conceivable that the Igbo domination of the scam is the consequence of the scam's secretive nature. All underground economies are sustained by trust, secrecy, and high-level solidarity among its accomplices. Ethnic bonding, which comes from shared language, customs, and even ties of consanguinity, appears to be a major reason why the 419 scam remains largely among the Igbos.

Andrew Apter, a cultural anthropologist who studied 419 scams traces the provenance and popularity of the 419 trend to pre-existing Igbo cultural practices that celebrated material possession at the expense of human dignity: "Based on cultural idioms of money magic, whereby human blood and body parts are stolen and used to conjure illicit wealth, the 419 represents a nefarious trade, draining victims of their goods and cash through forged documents and staged performances... the 419 has migrated to the Internet, where it has proliferated and shifted through digital 'cloning' from the circuits of oil to the information highway... [a] return to tropes of hidden bullion taken out of circulation and buried beneath the ground," he said.

Stephen Wright made similar arguments when he said the incidence of 419 is the manifestation of a cultural success syndrome, which is lubricated by prebendalism, political patronage, and even elements of witchcraft that celebrate "big man" leadership.

It bears repeating, however, that not all Igbos are 419ers. A majority of the people are entrepreneurial, industrious, and honest, as I pointed out earlier. But it is also the case that while the majority of Igbos are not 419 scammers, the majority of 419 scammers are Igbo.

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