"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 06/26/09

Friday, June 26, 2009

Our image as a nation of scammers (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This first appeared in my column in the Saturday, July 15, 2006 edition of Weekly Trust, Abuja, Nigeria.

If you think it’s only financial crimes that Nigerians are involved in, you will be shocked to know that even a few of the people that have been publicized and elevated as our intellectual icons in the United States are also soiled in disgraceful intellectual frauds. The most shocking cases are those of Philip Emeagwali and Dr. Gabriel Oyibo.

Emeagwali was etched into our national memory when President Bill Clinton, in the course of his speech to a joint session of the National Assembly during his first visit to Nigeria, called him the “Bill Gates of Africa.” As will be shown later in this column, Clinton was duped, and he became an inadvertent medium for the popularization of a well-knit intellectual fraud.

Dr. Oyibo got national visibility when he claimed to have dislodged Albert Einstein as the world’s greatest physicist with the “discovery” of his oddly named “God Almighty’s Grand Unified Theorem,” or GAGUT for short. He even makes a ridiculous pretence to omniscience by labeling his GAGUT “the theory of everything.” He also falsely claims that he is a three-time Nobel Prize nominee in physics. The Nigerian media uncritically bought the fraud and undeservedly celebrated the man to high heavens.

It has now come to light that Emeagwali and Oyibo are high-profile impostors. Emeagwali, praiseworthy as his contribution to supercomputing is, did not invent the supercomputer as he claims, nor is the Gordon Bell Prize he won for supercomputing on which he stakes his claim to genius nearly as significant as he cracks it up to be.

The real “Nobel Prize for computing,” as he misleadingly calls his award, is the Turing Award. The award has been around since 1966, and has a monetary value of $100,000. The Gordon Bell
Prize, on the other hand, was instituted only in 1987 and has a cash value of $1,000.

In fact, Emeagwali did not complete the Ph.D. that he started at the University of Michigan, yet he attaches Ph.D. to his name and even sometimes calls himself a professor. Inquiries from the University showed that he failed his Ph.D. qualifying exams twice and wrote a doctoral dissertation that fell short of the standards of the Graduate School there. He was therefore not awarded the Ph.D. He filed a racial discrimination suit against the university, but it was thrown out for lack of merit.

A search on his name in all the peer-reviewed computing journals in the world often yields no matches. It is his wife’s name that manages to show up in three places. Yet the man claims to be one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Apart from the fact that his name is absent from the list of the true fathers of the Internet, a feat such as he claims to have achieved in computing cannot merely be limited to word of mouth and self-promotional Internet sites; it has got to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s an inviolable article of faith in inventions and scholarship.

As for Dr. Oyinbo, his GAGUT is just as cranky and nonsensical as it sounds. It is pooh-poohed by his colleagues because it has no basis in any known province of knowledge. What is worse, it is not published in any peer-reviewed journal in his field. All he has is a vanity, self-published book, which a U.S. professor in his field characterized as a “Nigerian 419 scam-within-a-book.”

Again, he is only a visiting associate professor at a nondescript U.S. college. Any scholar who is truly a three-time Nobel Prize nominee will certainly be a much sought-after researcher/professor in all the major universities in the United States. He will not be vegetating in some backwaters.

As for whether he is a three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy, which administers the Nobel prizes, told a U.S.-based Nigerian citizen reporter that it does not reveal the names of its nominees, even to the nominees themselves, until after 50 years. It is therefore clear that Oyibo merely elevated his wishful thinking to “reality,” and got gullible Nigerian reporters to publicize this fabrication. In time, the fraud captured the imagination of a Nigerian public that is more than eager for such oases of glory in our desert of national despair.

But it was easy to know that the man was a fraudster from the beginning. Physical science and spirituality are two mutually exclusive provinces of knowledge, and anybody whose scholarly activity pretends to reconcile these provinces can only either be an intellectual fraudster, a deranged person, or a joker—or all of these!

Physical science is hallmarked by its search for precision, by the implicit admission of the provisionality and tentativeness of its findings, by the amenability of all its ontological and epistemological resources to review, and by its concern with the known and the knowable.

Spirituality, on the other hand, thrives on faith without proof, on the celestial, on the imprecise, the unknown and the unknowable, the mysterious and the transcendent. It dispenses with rationality and formal logic because these apparatuses are considered too self-limiting in its quest for eternal verities. None is wrong, and none is necessarily superior to the other.

The foregoing, however, does not mean that a scientist cannot be spiritual. But it does mean that science and spirituality not only deploy different methodological apparatuses to appropriate their realities but also have almost mutually exclusive preoccupations. Their existence encapsulates the rich multiplicity and complexity of our humanity.

Well, so much for pontification. Now, what can we do to repair our image? Or, more appropriately, what drives many of our compatriots to crime, and what can be done to stop or lessen this? How can we replenish our severely depleted international reputational capital?

These are soul-searching questions that we should all chew over if we are still interested in salvaging what remains of our badly soiled international image.

It is all too easy to blame our proneness to criminality on poverty. It is a well-worn, all-too-familiar excuse, but it is one that is weakened by the reality that we are not the poorest people in Africa. Why are citizens of nations that are poorer than Nigeria not as criminally-minded as many Nigerians are?

Perhaps, an explanation can be found in the form and content of many Nigerian cultures. We have cultures that celebrate wealth, however ill-gotten, and scorn modesty of means. A U.S. writer who investigated the 419 phenomenon in Nigeria described our country as a “land where con is king.”

However, we all know that there is also a regional and ethnic dimension to Nigerian fraud. In fact, 419 refers to a section in the (Southern Nigerian) Criminal Code that criminalizes the impersonation of government officials for fraudulent financial gains. I remember that when we watched the CNN documentary on Nigerian fraudsters in the U.S. sometime ago one fellow Nigerian remarked to me that he wished Biafra had seceded from Nigeria. “What is now called Nigerian fraud here would simply have been called ‘Biafran fraud’,” he said in obvious reference to the preponderance of Igbos in 419 frauds.

Perhaps if an Igbo man were present when he made the comment, he might have reminded my friend that the people of his own ethnic extraction, the Yoruba, are the geniuses in credit card and identity frauds.

But it is unhelpful to dwell on the regional and ethnic content of Nigerian fraud because non-Nigerians cannot tell a southerner from a northerner. No non-Nigerian who is a victim of “Nigerian” scams is impressed or even persuaded by the fact that 419 and credit card frauds are perpetrated largely, if not wholly, by southern Nigerians. The shame and embarrassment of these scams affect us all, irrespective of our regions of origin.

This is an issue that should concern any government deeply. The restoration of civilian rule may have brought our government officials back to the official circles of the so-called international community, but we are still pariahs in many ordinary circles because of our image as a nation of scammers.

Instead of worrying their corrupt little heads about this serious image problem, our president and our state governors are held prisoner by a childish obsession to “attract foreign investment” into the country.

With our current severely battered image and culture of fraud, only three kinds of foreigners can be persuaded to come and invest here: a naïve person, a criminally minded investor, or a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence.

Our image as a nation of scammers (I)

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.

Armed robbers in my bedroom!

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The following first appeared in my column in the Weekly Trust of June 10, 2006.

I apologize that this week I am compelled to share my personal tragedies with readers of this column. In the early hours of Thursday, June 8, a gang of ruthless and mean-spirited armed robbers invaded my room in Abuja. They prized open the door of my bedroom with the fiercest, rawest and most cold-blooded show of crude rage that I have yet seen in my entire life.

The first words the robbers uttered when they gained entry into my room were: “Where are the dollars!” They threatened to kill me and my family if I didn’t produce the dollars they said I had brought from the United States. As anybody in my situation would do, I gave them free access to the recesses of my room. And they thoroughly ransacked and stole everything that came within their sight.

They carted away my phone, my money, including the money I had withdrawn from my bank the previous day. They also took my laptop, which contains so many things that I can’t begin to recall in my present state of shock. The column I had written for this week’s edition is in the laptop. Incidentally, the subject-matter of the write-up is the fraudulent activities of Nigerians in the United States and my first-hand baptismal encounters with bank and airline frauds upon my arrival in Nigeria.

As I write this column a few hours after the robbery, I am still too much in a state of shock and disbelief to afford the comfort to be coherent in my thoughts. And I hope that I will be excused for the rather slapdash and jumbled fashion that my thoughts will be presented in this week.

Of all the personal losses I have suffered in this devil-may-care robbery, it is the loss of my original credentials that troubles me the most. The original copies of my bachelor’s and master’s degree certificates from Bayero University, Kano and the University of Louisiana, USA respectively were kept in my laptop case. My U.S. Social Security card, I-20 forms that I need to renew my visa and to re-enter the United States with, and my U.S. bank cheques were also in the laptop case. So were my admission letter to the U.S. university that admitted me for my doctoral studies and letter of financial assistance from the same school, including my certificate of induction into the Phi Kappa Phi Academic Honor Society—one of the oldest and most respected academic honor societies in the United States.

I had never experienced armed robbery first-hand all my life. Now that I have experienced it, I can only say that words are miserably inadequate to capture the inner dislocation, hopelessness, rage, and emotional torture that are the natural after-effects of this ugly encounter.

Just last week, I lamented on this page that the near-sightedness, ignorance, unimaginativeness and thoughtlessness of the gaggle of bandits invested with the delicate, all-important task of managing the affairs of our country is rapidly pushing Nigerians to the crushing heights of unimaginable suffering and severe deprivation—-and the nation to the precipice of self-annihilation.

What happened to my family and my neighbours today is just a sample of the practical collapse of the Nigerian state, and our consequent descent to social anomie. There is nothing to inspire belief that there is a government in this country.

The robbery went on for one full hour uninterrupted—-as if we are living in some anarchic jungle. And when the police finally arrived—-of course, after the deed had been done—-their presence was heralded by shrill sounds of siren. It doesn’t take much intelligence to know that only two types of people will attempt to catch a thief through an exhibitionist show of their presence: a man who is encumbered with an unbelievably subnormal intelligence quotient or a criminal accomplice who is warning the thief to leave the stage.

I suspected the latter, not least because the robbers were communicating with each other during the robbery in the all-too-familiar lingo of officers of the Nigerian Police.

My suspicions were strengthened when my neighbours told me that they saw four of the robbers in police uniforms. These suspicions were confirmed when I discovered that the robbers left their police boots by my door! They apparently mistook my black cover shoes for theirs—-or, better still, in their haste to steal my shoes, they didn’t have the presence of mind to take away the shoes they had brought along with them. And when a bunch of miserable police officers came to take inventory of the losses we suffered after the robbery, I could detect a subtle, even suppressed, but nonetheless perceptible glee in their eyes as we told them of the things that were stolen from our room.

As my wife correctly observed, the police officers’ main reason for coming to us was probably to have an idea of how much loot their accomplices were able to extort from us—-to help them in their negotiation for the division of the loot. The officers’ excessive, almost unnatural, concern with the monetary value—-or naira equivalent of the monetary value—-of the valuables stolen from me appeared to redound to the notion that the officers merely wanted to have a sense of how much to expect as share from the operation of their co-conspirators.

This suspicion may be entirely inaccurate and misplaced, even unfair. I could very well be paranoid. But how can I help being paranoid when I was robbed by people who wore police uniforms and left police boots in my room, people we pay to protect us? How can I transcend the urge to be neurotic when I have the misfortune of being the citizen of a country where life is short, cruel, brutish and chaotic? How can I afford the luxury to be dispassionate and clear-headed in a country where the faintest evidence of the presence of government has evaporated, where thieves and crooks and despicable beasts are our rulers, and where untrammelled anarchy defines our national existence?

What happened to me this week was just another addition to a long string of personal tragedies that keep elongating since I returned to the country. First, my carry-on luggage, which I was forced to check in at Memphis International Airport in the United States, was missing upon my arrival. And when it did arrive five days after, I discovered that it had been forcibly opened and all the valuables in it—-video, web and digital cameras, portable digital radio, books, even my toothpaste and many other things I will rather not bore you with—-stolen.

In the heat of the intense passion that my discovery of the theft provoked, my brain almost literally shut down, and I was only able to file a complaint on the disappearance of my video and web cameras. I discovered the disappearance of the other valuables after I got home. The airline officers are still investigating this detestable pilferage as I write this column.

Again, sometime in March this year, I sent a cheque to my sister in Lagos by mail. Up to the time my plane touched down in Nigeria, my sister said she had not received it. My first temptation was to conclude that the mail had got lost in transit. So when I returned to the country, I went to my bank—-a major Nigerian bank—-to cancel the cheque. But it turned out that some disreputable vermin had actually intercepted the mail, stolen the cheque, and cashed it without exciting any suspicion—-or so I think for now—- from the cashier who paid him.

The fraudster jerked up the original cash worth I wrote on the cheque by about 100 percent (which added up to a lot of money—-at least by my standards—-that almost drained my entire account), changed my sister’s name and replaced with his, and used a fake Nigerian Ports Authority ID card to confer false authenticity on his identity. (My sister works with the Nigeria Police). The case is still being investigated as I write this column.

I am profoundly disillusioned, crestfallen, and enraged. I don’t know what further tragedy awaits me. Given the rapid succession of travails that have been befalling me since I returned to my country, it is not entirely out of place, I think, to fear for my very life. If I survive till next week, I will attempt to recapture what I wrote earlier this week on Nigerian fraudsters in the United States.

Sometime last month before I set out to visit home, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired a hugely controversial documentary titled, “How to rob a bank,” which essentially chronicled the strategies Nigerian criminals in the Unite States deploy to steal people’s identities and empty their bank accounts—-and many other scandalous frauds that have come to be associated with Nigerians.

Nigerians living in the United States were understandably outraged by what they said was the racial profiling implicit in the documentary. In truth, the documentary made subtle, subliminal extrapolations that suggest that Nigerians, because of the culture of rampant fraud in which they were born and bred, have a natural predisposition for criminality. This broad stroke is undeniably untrue and invidious. But who can blame anybody for calling Nigeria a nation of scammers?

We have a tainted external image because of the high-profile criminal activities of some (perhaps many) of our compatriots abroad and at home.