I have finally settled with the reality that international email scam will always have a Nigeria name tagged to it, whether or not it has a Nigerian face notwithstanding. My skin has finally got thick enough. I don’t know how it happened, and it did take a long while, but yesterday while Jon Stewart was making fun of Sarah Palin’s decision to take all the money from donors through her SarahPAC for as long as possible all the while knowing that she wasn’t going to to run for office, and then compared her to “the Nigerian Prince” scam category, I strangely found myself laughing. So, that’s it folks, scam jokes with “Nigeria” in its punchline have come to stay. Git with it!
A crush once told me that her mother warned her to beware of Nigerian men, before politely qualifying it with more information about how the warning wasn’t different from the warning the woman also gave regarding other men from her own country. Don’t worry, she’s not American, but that hardly changes a fact: there is a perception out there that makes for good comedy, or malice, that whenever there is an international scam involving emails, there is a Nigerian somewhere close to it. This, to be fair, is rooted in some fact. Between 1985 and 1999, Nigeria was ruled by some of the most corrupt, most morally bankrupt, must brutal military dictators who rendered extinct a thriving middle class. Along with their looting of the country’s coffers, they also rendered to waste the hitherto reputable social conscience, and ethics. A nation that thrived on hard work and equal opportunity turned to one of vanity and hopelessness, and a futile chase of wealth by all means at the expense of dignity replaced the ethics that once made the country the hope of the continent.
By the late 90s, majority of young (and at the beginning, mostly educated) citizens embraced the new opportunities that the internet brought, and to put it to the use best suited for the loneliness and hopelessness that the situation provided on the ground in the country: for crime. Thinking about it now, I doubt that crime was the real intention of the first people to take advantage of the powers of internet communication. I imagine someone mistakenly discovering that from his apartment building in Lagos, he can have a real romantic relationship with someone as far away in the world as Chicago, or Adelaide, or Brisbane. And then, another one discovered an idea that e-relationship could become a profitable venture. I do not claim to know how this began. I can only guess. I was nineteen years old in 2000 when I entered the University of Ibadan as an undergraduate and I had used email for the first time only one year earlier.
So naive was I of this scamming phenomenon that had, by then, become quite lucrative (that every internet cafe had at least one person using the computers there to send scam mails to unsuspecting people around the world) that when I first came into contact with a sender, I thought that my life was at risk. I worked for a few months between January and September of that year in an internet cafe where emails were still first written on paper, then typed onto the computer, and then sent massively. It was like fax, or telegrams. Only a few people had personal email addresses, and those who did still had to have their emails typed out on the computer in the cafe before they logged on to the internet to send them. My job was to get those typing done, and help customers trying to reach their loved ones. One of the customers we had however was a hairy man of around 33, well built, tall and spoke Hausa, English, and pidgin English. All the emails he had me type always began with “I am the nephew of the late General Sani Abacha, the recently demised Nigerian Head of State”. It went on to say how many millions the late General had stashed somewhere and pleaded to the reader of the email to contact him so that they could transfer the money together to some other account, and share it.
For those familiar with Advance Fee Fraud, this is usually the catch. There is a bogus amount of money somewhere, usually very large and tantalizing. All the reader had to do is to show interest in being an accomplice so that the sender can share some of the loot with them. It usually never works out like that in the end, of course. The unsuspecting responder would be asked to send his/her account number, and then some advance fee to “process” the withdrawal of the loot, and then the criminals go for the kill. By the time the responder discovers that there was no loot in the first place, he/she has already committed a large amount of his/her personal funds and will not be getting it back. There are other variants, of course. A man pretends to be in love with a woman he meets in a chat room. He makes her fall in love with him and then he feigns poverty and the woman starts sending money and gifts to him until he decides that he’s had enough. Sometimes he gets her to loan him a large sum of money, and then disappears. The woman then shows up in Nigeria and makes the front page of a newspaper. She’s looking for so-and-so person who she fell in love with. In many cases, the man had used a fake name as well…
Back to the story. At the moment of typing the said emails, the only thing in my mind was that I had finally met my nemesis. Relatives and family members of Sani Abacha were known to be brutal. People had disappeared and many had been shot for opposing his reign as a military dictator. So here I was talking with his nephew and helping him send emails that detail a series of large financial transactions with foreign correspondents. I was knowing too much and my life was about to change for the worse. I would not know until very much later that my fears were unjustified, and that there was no need for me to have immediately started avoiding the man for fear that he would soon want me dead for knowing his secrets. He was most likely not related to anyone relating to Abacha. All he was doing was trying to swindle whoever was stupid (and greedy) enough to respond to the email.
Of course, in the intervening years, I have also realized the very fine line between romantic scams and real love that transcends distance. I met and dated for a few years someone that I met online who has remained my friend and colleague ever since. I have also discovered the very many scams that dot the internet landscape, including ones that trick you into signing up for “free trial” products only to charge you a month later, or ones that tell you that you’re their “50,000th visitor” and try to get you to sign up for offers that you don’t need and that might either cost you, or clog your email bandwidth. There are thousands. Telemarketers call you with polite requests that you provide your address and then sign you up for magazines you didn’t want who send you the check in the mail a few weeks later. Credit card companies put hidden fees in fine prints and surprise customers across the country every day (with a sustained backing by the conservative political right who insist that banking regulations that look out for consumers are “job killing”.). In short, access to the internet and its many possibilities brought about as many negatives as positives.
Today, as it has been even before the internet came, fraud, by very many political names, have taken over the world – from a criminally-minded Nigerian (and non-Nigerian) youths aiming to swindle greedy western businessmen, or thieving marketing gimmicks aimed at the unsuspecting internet user. The “Nigerian Prince” variety however takes the cake, of course, because everyone at one point or the other has received such a mail claiming to be the relative of a recently dead corrupt politician, be it Saddam Hussein or a recently removed one, like Hosni Mubarak. Not all of those emails are Nigerian nowadays, of course. I know for a fact that regulatory efforts by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has made it hard to commit internet fraud in the country and go free. The “product” has been exported to other parts of Africa and the world. That doesn’t mean that the jokes will go away, but that Nigerians will – and should – begin to laugh with it as it goes on. According to Jon Stewart, they now also have Sarah Palin on their side.