By Farooq A. Kperogi
The following first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust of July 19, 2006
This week, I will attempt to recapture what I wrote in my now stolen laptop. It is about Nigeria’s increasingly unflattering image as a nation of con artists and ruthless criminals. In fact, the phrase, “a nation of scammers” was actually first used to refer to Nigeria by Colin Powell, the immediate past Secretary of State of the United States who is Black (well, “Black” according to America’s strange racial typology).
Even with the most liberal stretch of the imagination, it is difficult to conceive of the utter scorn and resentment with which Nigerians are viewed abroad until one experiences it first-hand. Nigeria and all the inflections of this name, such as “Nigerian,” have now become synonymous with fraud, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The ubiquitous 419 email propositions that pervade the inboxes of email account holders are now called “Nigerian scams” or “Nigerian letter fraud” in official U.S. and U.K. government documents. However, the association of Nigeria or Nigerians with fraud is not limited to official government communication; it has also made a creeping incursion into the demotic speech of many ordinary Americans.
My experience is that being identified as a Nigerian in the United States almost always automatically exposes one to suspicion and distrust. Of course, polite and politically correct Americans who are sensitive to potential charges of racism and xenophobia against them may not show this openly. However, the more frank ones will always ask questions about what drives Nigerians to commit 419 and other financial crimes. I have also been asked countless times if I knew people back home who became millionaires overnight.
I am not suggesting, however, that there are not many Americans who know enough to know that not all Nigerians are scammers. But the growing connection of Nigerians with all kinds of fraud in the American public consciousness puts a question mark on every Nigerian.
At a point I thought to myself that we should change our country’s name from Nigeria to something else—to anything but Nigeria! I thought we should adopt the name of some pre-colonial African empire in the fashion of Ghana, Mali, Benin, etc. And Songhai usually comes to my mind. What is the wisdom in clinging to an indelibly soiled dress, I often thought.
But I knew I was being escapist and reductionist. It is not our name by and in itself that is exposing us to so much international scorn and ridicule, even though I personally have serious objections to the name Nigeria; it is the criminal activities of our compatriots that have globally made us objects of suspicion, distrust and disdain.
About the biggest reason why Nigerians are resented in the United States is the deadly havoc that 419 email frauds, which the FBI calls “the Nigerian Letter Fraud,” are wreaking on their economy. The United States loses over $250 million dollars every year to 419 frauds. And these are only conservative official estimates based on self-reported cases.
Many American victims of 419 frauds don’t report their losses to law enforcement agents either because of embarrassment at being sucked into what, in retrospect, turns out to be cheap confidence trickery, or because of the fear that their misfortunes may be worsened by being found guilty of intent to aid and abet in the commission of fraud. Some people guesstimate that the actual losses that Nigerian 419 frauds inflict on the U.S. economy annually could be in the neighborhood of one billion dollars.
Nigerian 419 scams have ensnared not just ordinary, struggling Americans but also well-placed politicians, professors, pastors, and socialites. A former U.S. Congressman from Iowa, for instance, famously fell prey to Nigerian 419 swindlers, lost millions of dollars, and is now manic-depressive as a result. I have read of at least two professors from the state of Florida who were enmeshed in a distressing 419 swindle that stripped them of the entire money they had saved all their lives. One of them committed suicide.
Just three months ago, a highly respected psychiatrist in California also fell victim to a ruthless gang of con artists from Nigeria. He lost millions of dollars. But he didn’t believe that he was entrapped in the vortex of a carefully executed 419 racket until his son took him to court to stop him from sending more money to his “Nigerian business partners.”
The 419 scammers don’t merely bilk their victims of their resources; they also persuade them to visit Nigeria or other West African countries where the victims are further extorted and then murdered. There is a long list of such cases.
Nigerians are also the masters of high-profile credit card and cheque frauds in the United States and elsewhere. This was the subject of a recent CNN documentary that I made reference to in my last article on this page. Houston, the fourth biggest city in the United States, located in the state of Texas, is the place where most alleged Nigerian 419 scammers and identity thieves now live.
The consequences of these well-publicized cases of 419 frauds on innocent Nigerians are many and varied. They expose Nigerians to life-threatening dangers, such as when victims of 419 frauds in two eastern European countries invaded the Nigerian embassies in their countries and shot to death all Nigerians they set their eyes on.
The consequences of 419 also hurt genuine Nigerian businesses. For instance, no Internet merchant in the United States or the United Kingdom agrees to ship goods to a Nigerian address, or honor a credit card with a Nigerian billing address. Recently, some Nigerian banks, in conjunction with MasterCard—a major U.S. credit card provider—issued credit cards to Nigerian customers to enable them to participate in online transactions. No online merchant honored the credit cards. No one ever will. That’s how low our reputational capital has depleted abroad.
But more than anything, all Nigerians are now labeled as criminals until they prove themselves otherwise. Our reputation as one of the most corrupt countries on earth further helps to lend credence to the notion that we are a country of criminals.
I once narrated my experience in Daily Trust of the harassment that Nigerians face in international airports. When I traveled to the Republic of Ireland sometime in 2004 I was a victim of this. When we got to Amsterdam International Airport, our green passports gave us away as Nigerians, and we were stopped by the immigration officers. We were all thoroughly searched and put through all kinds of gadgets. Our passports were also tested to establish their authenticity. In spite of the thoroughness of the search, two Nigerians were still detained, and they missed their flight to Dublin.
I had a similar experience late last May when I was coming back home from the United States. I was flying from Memphis International Airport in the state of Tennessee. In the process of boarding my plane, I had cause to bring out my passport. The immigration officer who had hitherto looked listlessly as passengers boarded the Amsterdam-bound plane immediately got excited upon seeing my passport, and asked that I leave the line for some “routine” questioning.
I knew it was my Nigerian identity that provoked the man’s curiosity. It wasn’t racial profiling. Other Black people had boarded the plane without any incident. And shortly after I was invited for “routine” interrogation, another Black man who could easily pass for a Nigerian was also invited. (White Americans can’t tell a Black American from an African, but we can sometimes tell one from the other). When it turned out that the man was American, he was spared the catechismal rigor that I had the misfortune to go through.