By Farooq A. Kperogi
Nigerians— both at home and in the diaspora— have lately been the objects and subjects of renewed American news media attention consequent upon the ever-increasing fleecing of Americans by Nigerian 419 con artists. American investigative reporters in the major news media here now deploy the Nigerian 419 scams as avenues to demonstrate their investigative journalistic prowess.
The reigning trend in reporting the 419 scams here is for American investigative reporters to pretend to fall prey to 419 email propositions. Using a hidden camera, they then follow the lead until they trace the scammers back to Nigeria—often with the aid of officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)— or to Europe or even to cities here in America. This is called “scam baiting” or “scamming the scammers.”
As you can imagine, this makes for good TV infotainment, and also reinforces (in some cases creates) the stereotype of Nigerians as ruthless scammers in the popular imagination of Americans.
But this phenomenon assumed an even greater significance when Oprah Winfrey, arguably America’s most powerful talk show host and world’s richest black person (although our own Aliko Dangote says he is richer than Oprah, but let’s wait and see what Charles Soludo’s “redenomination”/”redecimalization”/”revaluation” of the naira does to his “billions”!), discussed the topic of Nigerian 419 email scams on her immensely popular TV show sometime in April this year.
A certain Okoli Vitalis, apparently a Nigerian resident in America, was angered by the Oprah show and expressed his feelings in a widely circulated letter published in the Punch of July 26, 2007 titled “Oprah Winfrey Got it Wrong.” Among other claims, Vitalis alleged that Oprah importuned the American government to sever diplomatic and trade ties with Nigeria on account of the growing menace of Nigerian 419 email scams. He further claimed that Oprah said "all Nigerians—regardless of their level of education— are corrupt." Now, this does rankle— if she actually said all these. But did she? I will get to this shortly.
“Oprah's conclusion,” Vitalis added, “is based on the fact that a Nigerian of Igbo extraction was caught with $500,000, which was alleged to have been stolen from a foreigner through the Internet fraud popularly known as 419.” (The link to the letter can be found here).
When I read this letter, I was at once livid and worried—for three reasons. First, even though 419 email scams are omnipresent on the Internet and swindle countless innocent (but sometimes greedy) people out of their hard-earned money, Nigerians are not the worst perpetrators of Internet fraud in the word. That dubious honor, interestingly, belongs to Americans, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, the two U.S. agencies that monitor Internet crime.
The statistics on the Web site of the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which is a partnership between the National White Collar Crime Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, show that the United States leads the world in Internet crime. Between 87 percent and 76 percent of all Internet fraud reported in the world between 2001 and 2006 was committed by Americans. (The 2006 annual report of online fraud can be found here.)
The figures also show that 419 email scams constitute less than one percent of all online fraud and that the prevalence of these email scams decreased from 15.5 percent in 2001 to less than one percent in 2006. So I wondered why all Nigerians should be vilified for the crimes of a few dishonest people among us.
Second, Nigeria’s 140 million people are composed of over 300 distinct ethnic groups, and it doesn’t seem fair to tar all Nigerians with the same brush on account of the misdeeds of “a Nigerian of Igbo extraction [who] was caught with $500,000,” to quote Vitalis directly.
Third, and most important, Oprah is not just another American talk show host; she is arguably America’s most important talk show host. When she talks, America listens—and acts. For instance, sometime ago, a cattle-rancher-turned-vegetarian appeared on Oprah’s show where he told her grim stories of the effects of the “mad cow disease.” And her response was: “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!”
The next day, cattle prices dropped by 10 percent. And Texas cattle producers sued her for libel. They alleged that her statement was responsible for the dramatic drop in the demand for cattle. Of course, she won the case, but I cite this anecdote to show how powerful Oprah is—or is believed to be. People ascribe to her words the power of a social syringe that can inject instant attitudinal changes to a large section of the American populace with immediate and dramatic effects.
When she recommends books, they become instant bestsellers. And I tell you, if she says all Nigerians are criminals and should be avoided, it is not unlikely that a majority of Americans will believe her and act accordingly. The reverse is also probably true, although I must admit that I am being a bit of a vulgar empiricist here. But this woman’s influence on the American public is simply phenomenal. If not, why would Texas cattle producers attribute the drop in the demand for cattle to her apparently innocuous, off-the-cuff remark?
Of course, many communication scholars have argued that the impact of the mass media cannot be read straight off from the content of output; people read, hear, see and understand media messages selectively based on predetermined values and therefore have the capacity to, and indeed do, resist media persuasion.
But it is also true that there are limits to interpretation; meaning cannot be simply “private” and “individual.” For one thing, frames of reference, which audiences bring to their consumption of media messages, come from somewhere, are formed at some time, and are liable to be re-formed over time through symbolic interactionism. Besides, long-time exposure to the media play a crucial role in determining the predispositions by which people make sense of both the world and, in turn, of the particular interpretations of the world offered by the mass media. But I digress.
So in my exasperation and my desire to find the truth, I combed Oprah’s Web site to get the transcript of the show where she allegedly said, among other objectionable things, that all Nigerians, regardless of social status, are corrupt. (I don’t watch her show often because I am way too busy for that diversion). It turned out, however, that she never said any such things! Vitalis made them up and gratuitously caused Nigerians, especially in the diaspora, to be riled to no end.
This claim is traceable to Oprah’s show titled "Conmen and How to Avoid Them," which featured people who have fallen victim to different kinds of scams, including (no, I should say especially) the Nigerian 419 email scam. At the end of the show Oprah said, "I know we're going to get a letter from somebody saying that Nigeria has a lot of wonderful people. You don't have to send the letter. We already know that. We're just talking about this particular scam that's going on. We're not talking about the entire country and everybody in the country." (The entire transcript of the show can be found here).
This seems to me like a fair-minded comment. It is not clear why Vitalis attributed to Oprah what she never said. Perhaps, he was simply incensed that Oprah brought the issue of 419 scams to the forefront of popular consciousness in America.
Someone once remarked that those of us who live outside Nigeria are often excessively obsessed with Nigeria’s image abroad, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Perhaps this is true.
I attribute this to what I call the narcissism of transnational citizenship: transnational citizens simultaneously savor the comfort of the foreign country in which they live and are also, mostly for egocentric reasons, so emotionally invested in the external image of their home countries that they habitually lapse into exaggerated fits of nationalistic fervor at the slightest negative publicity of their ancestral countries in the foreign mass media.
Maybe we are all sometimes guilty of this self-absorption. But outright mendacity in the name of patriotism should be condemned.