Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Arab Rebellions and America’s Double Standards

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This was not what I wanted to write about this week. I wanted to honor the request of a friend and faithful reader of this column who asked that I write about the black experience in America in the spirit of the Black History Month, which is celebrated every February in America. But recent developments in the ongoing upheavals in the Arab world caught and detained my attention and made it impossible for me to honor my pledge.

In the wake of the revolutionary tumult that is sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the American establishment has displayed the kind of invidious hypocrisy that has been the source of worldwide resentment against it.

First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a speech titled “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World” at George Washington University last Tuesday, pledged American government’s assistance to cyber dissidents in MENA. The Obama administration, she said, will devote $25 million to help cyber dissidents in these societies to foil Internet repression.

Furthermore, the U.S. State Department launched Twitter accounts in Arabic and Farsi and would soon begin tweeting in Chinese, Hindi, and Russian. The goal is to expand the discursive and subversive opportunity structures that the Internet enables for citizens of repressive societies. This all sounds good, frankly, except that on the very day that Clinton gave her admirably high-flown speech on the virtues of unfettered deliberative democracy on the Web, the US Department of Justice appeared in court to defend its request to compel Twitter to make available all of its records to help the US government prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who exposed hundreds of thousands of embarrassing US diplomatic cables.

In other words, the American government wants to trespass upon the discursive spaces of certain Twitter users—who may, in fact, be non-Americans— in order to criminalize and imprison Assange. But the same government wants to democratize access to Twitter for citizens of other countries in order to help them bring down their own admittedly despotic and unrepresentative governments. But it is the same self-preservationist instinct that causes autocratic governments to impose iron-clad repression on freedoms that is causing the US government to lose sleep over WikiLeaks’ unmasking of their inner, sordid workings.

Thankfully, I am not the only person who is outraged by these galling double standards. A Harvard university law professor by the name of Alan Dershowitz, who recently signed on to advise Assange’s legal team, told Politico, an American political newspaper, that the American government’s witch-hunting of WikiLeaks while supporting cyber dissidence in other countries is a “typical example of it’s right for thee but not for me.”  

He added: “They’re perfectly happy to see all of Iran’s secrets disclosed, but they draw the line at their own. They’re perfectly happy to see open media in every other part of the world, but here they’re trying to close down media that has challenged them. It’s a clear double standard at work, and we’re going to expose that double standard.”

The irony of it all, one might add, is that the MENA rebellions that the American government wants to support with an unsolicited $25 million largess are partly inspired by revelations from WikiLeaks cables for which the American government wants to jail Julian Assange. The barefaced hypocrisy in all of this just stinks to high heavens.

But that is not even the worst. While Hillary Clinton was delivering her lecture promising support for cyber dissidents in the Arab world and preachifying about the merits of freedom, civil liberties, and human rights, a 71-year-old former CIA worker by the name of Ray McGovern was “grabbed from the audience in plain view of her by police and an unidentified official in plain clothes, brutalized and left bleeding in jail,” according to an online source. His offense? He heckled and turned his back on Clinton as a symbolic gesture of defiance. As the man was being dragged out with bruises on his body, he screamed, “So this is America?”

This scream, in more ways than one, capsulizes the moral burdens of America’s contradictory, ambidexterous preachments on democracy and human rights. In essence, the man was saying: So this is America, the self-imposed moral police of the world, the evangelist of democracy, human rights, and civil liberties brutalizing its own citizen for a mere act of peaceful, if rude, civil disobedience? So this is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where a high-ranking public official (who is ironically sermonizing about the virtues of tolerance, human rights, and civil liberties) watches in contentment while an old man is being viciously assaulted by government security forces? Or is this perhaps some repressive Third World country in the Middle East or North Africa?

Interestingly, the mainstream media here largely blacked out this aspect of the story. And Clinton herself has not talked about it thereafter even though the video of the incident has been captured, posted on YouTube, and viewed by thousands of people.

If you appoint yourself as the world’s police, the least you should do to earn that title is to rise superior to the infractions you habitually point out in others. When you default in that elemental obligation, you invite resentment and scorn in people who didn’t like you in the first place-- and disillusionment in those who look up to you as a moral compass. But the American power structure seems splendidly unreflective about this basic fact.  

You see, most people admire the industry and progress of America. They love the infectious spirit, energy, and friendliness of many ordinary Americans. They only hate the two-facedness of American foreign policy. They resent a government that makes high-minded pontifications about and support for cyber dissidence in other countries but wants to file criminal charges against people who use the Internet to expose the workings of the American government. They have no respect for a government that blocked WikiLeaks from being viewed in certain government offices and that told its workers not to view contents of the leaks even in their homes, but wants to set up Twitter accounts in foreign languages to bring down other governments—even if the governments deserve to be brought down.

To be sure, all of these despotic governments deserve to be uprooted. And, in spite of everything, the American society is light-years freer and more progressive than they are, but if the American government wants to play the role of unsolicited guardian of human and civil rights and free speech, it shouldn’t just preach it; it should practice it as well. It is not doing that now.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Egypt’s Mubarak is Gone, So What?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In the well-justified triumphalism that has greeted the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, we all seem to have deadened our historical consciousness to the consequences of popular revolutions. Almost without exception, the gains of revolutions are often too fleeting to be worthy of the emotional and intellectual energies invested in them. 

Let’s start from close home. Uthman Dan Fodiyo’s religious revolution in the 19th century was inspired, among other things, by the urge to purge northern Nigerian Islam of a decaying, oppressive monarchy and the syncretism of idolatry and Islam that defined public life at the time. But the precise conditions that Dan Fodio and his followers fought to uproot have returned in newer, more vicious forms.

 His successors have constituted themselves into a parasitic, profligate, patrimonial monarchy—in contravention of the spirit and letter of leadership in Islam where knowledge and consensus, and not heredity, are the bases of leadership. Were Dan Fodio to return today, he would certainly wage another revolution against his heirs.

Similarly, the liberatory afterglow of the Russian Revolution lasted only a few years. From Josef Stalin onwards, Communist Russia was just as oppressive and as primitive in its cruelty as the Tsarist era it extirpated.

And the emancipatory effects of the Iranian Revolution have all but evaporated now. It has been replaced by suffocating clerical despotism, repression, and paranoid leadership. I have more than a dozen Iranian friends, one of whose fathers was, in fact, a leading light in the Revolution. They are all now thoroughly disillusioned. They complain that their country, like ours, is wracked by unspeakable corruption and cronyism, and burdened with an insecure, insensitive, and out-of-touch leadership. Now, the youth of the country want another revolution to flush out the beneficiaries of the earlier revolution. A potentially explosive ferment is brewing there as I write this column.

I can go on, but the point I want to make is that revolutions historically do no more than replace one set of oppressors with another. The emergent beneficiaries, of course, at first sound radical and refreshingly different and make the right noises and spout the noblest sentiments. They may even radically overhaul the system for a while and succeed in inspiring a renewed sense of purpose and direction in ordinary people. But shortly after, the reversal would set in: the revolutionaries become indistinguishable from the reactionaries they overthrow.

In the case of Egypt, it’s an even worse scenario. What happened in Egypt wasn’t, properly speaking, a revolution. It was merely a rebellion. Like in Tunisia, disparate resentments quickly coalesced into a mass resistance, then blossomed into a protest, and culminated in a rebellion without ever achieving the status of a revolution. In a revolution, a vanguard takes ownership of the rebellion and uses it as a ladder to climb to substantive power. But all that the popular rebellion did in Egypt—and in Tunisia earlier—was to overthrow the public face of an oppressive power structure while leaving the power structure itself intact. The outcome, if you ask me, is hardly worth the effort.
I know this is a very cynical take on a heroic and historic event that has captured the imagination of the whole world. But it doesn’t hurt to inject our mushy effusiveness over the “triumph” of the Egyptian masses with a little dose of reality check. If even real revolutions—where a vanguard of fighters takes over power—are often customarily no more than a flash in the pan, why should we be overly optimistic of a rebellion that merely scratched the surface of an entrenched, well-coordinated power structure? Mubarak has only been replaced by the military which, in any case, has always been the power behind the throne. Nothing, really, has changed.

But more than all this high-minded pontification about the Egyptian “revolution,” for me, is the question of the racial politics of the country itself. While the Arab majority cries for freedom, justice, and equality from their central government, the country seethes with a regressive, racist culture that dehumanizes its minority black population. Yet black Africans are exulting in vicarious excitement over the “success” of the Egyptian “revolution.”

An article by an Arabic-speaking African-American Muslim convert by the name of Sunni M. Khalid titled “Does Egypt Have a Race Problem?” reveals the sordid, soul-depressing anti-black bigotry that is rampant in the Egyptian society. I can’t recapitulate the whole article here, but three things he related from his experiential encounters in Egypt struck me. First, he says—like many before him—that back women are stereotyped as prostitutes in Egypt. Should black women find themselves in certain companies, according to Khalid who is so light-skinned that he is often mistaken for an Egyptian, “Carloads of Arab men drive by, hanging out of windows, shouting catcalls, or making loud demands for sexual favors.”

Khalid is married to a dark-skinned Kenyan-Somali Muslim woman. One day, while eating at a posh restaurant with his wife, he said, a bevy of Egyptian women accosted him and said to him in Arabic, “Don't you know better? How dare you bring a woman like that into a place like this?"

The second thing that struck me in the article is the public ridicule that Egyptians habitually subject dark-skinned people to. One way they do this, according to him, is to gratuitously ask black Africans what time of the day it is. When they look at their wrists to tell the time, the Egyptians would laugh boisterously and then vamoose. “This was apparently done so that the sub-Saharan Africans would look down and be reminded of their dark-skinned wrists, where their watches might be,” Khalid wrote.

While in Egypt, Khalid came across a group of northern Nigerians studying in various Egyptian universities. They shared with him their heart-breaking experiences of racial oppression. I am going to allow his narration to run without my intervention:

“‘I learned something much different from what I believed,” said Bala, a native of northern Nigeria and a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, who lived in Egypt for six years. “I thought [the Arabs] were our brothers in Islam, but they don't bother about that when you're black. ... They pretend that you are a brother in Islam, but this is different from what they hold in their hearts and in their minds.’

“He told me that for many Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, the spiritual solidarity with Egyptian Muslims was misplaced. ‘I was coming out of masjid [mosque] in a place called Dar-el-Malik,’ Bala said. ‘So we used to say “Salaam” to one another when we came out of salat [prayer]. There was one child, called Mohamed, and we were used to shaking hands with him. And one day, I came out to shake his hand and he refused. He told me his father told him never to shake hands with a Sudani -- that is black. So he is telling me his father told him he cannot say, 'Salaam,' to any [Africans].’

“Through Bala, I met other African students, including some who were studying at al-Azhar University, with the hope of returning to their native lands as imams and religious scholars. Some of the students told me that they experienced racism within al-Azhar to such an extent that they eventually renounced their vows as Muslims.”

Don’t even get me started on the indigenous black population in Egypt, the Nubians, who have lived in that country thousands of years before Arabs invaded the place in the 8th century. The Nubians have literally and figuratively been pushed to the margins of the Egyptian society and rendered invisible.

So why should I celebrate Mubarak’s overthrow when people who look like me will never benefit from the gains of the revolt—if there ever will be any?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The British Origins of Nigerian 419 Scams

By Farooq A. Kperogi

A few weeks ago, a British journalist and documentarian called me from London. He was researching so-called Nigerian 419 scams and wanted to confirm a piece of information he stumbled on the Internet which was attributed to me.

As he was surfing the Net for his documentary, he told me, he came across an article that quoted me as saying that 419 scams actually constitute less five percent of all online fraud and that Americans and Britons, not Nigerians, make up the bulk of the world’s online scammers. Someone obviously quoted my July 4 2009 article titled, “American Ponzi Schemes versus Nigerian 419 Scams” where I stated, among other things, that “Nigerians are not the worst perpetrators of Internet fraud in the world. 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 (IC3) show that between 87 percent and 76 percent of all Internet fraud reported in the world between 2001 and 2008 was committed by Americans.

“In 2008, for instance, only 7.8 percent of Internet frauds were perpetrated from Nigeria. Compare this to America's 66.1 percent and the UK's 10.1 percent.”

My interviewer wanted to confirm the authenticity of these claims, which I obliged him during our more than two-hour phone chat. But he got more than he bargained for. After giving him the Web links to the Internet Crime Complaint Center where I got my statistics from, I asked if he knew that so-called Nigerian 419 scams actually came to Nigeria from Spain by way of Britain.

I could almost “touch” the discomfort and anxiety that welled up in him. Not only had I just shown him that the British, his people, commit more cyber crimes than Nigerians do, in spite of appearances and popular narratives to the contrary, but that the Nigerian 419 scam he was investigating came to our country by way of his country.

“What’s your evidence?” he asked defensively. Well, several well-regarded scholars have provided the evidence, I told him.

For instance, writing in the Canadian Journal of African Studies in 2005 in an article titled "The Nigerian 419 Advance Fee Scams: Prank or Peril?" Harvey Glickman, a Harvard-educated, Jewish-American professor emeritus of political science who studies Africa, wrote that Nigerian advance fee frauds (more popularly known as 419 scams) have roots that go deep into sixteenth-century Spain. In this article, he also reproduced a 1914 letter to British colonial officers in Nigeria from the then British ambassador to Spain that conclusively links the emergence of 419 scams in Nigeria to Britons.

Originally known as the "Spanish Prisoner Letter," the scam has been historically perpetrated through ordinary postal mail. In its original form, affluent businessmen were contacted by an unknown person who usually falsely asserted to be a prison chaplain. The scammer would claim to be part of an effort to save the sheltered but endangered child of an estate-owning, incarcerated family member who was reputedly dying as a result of the harsh conditions of a Spanish prison.

 The senders of the letters would solicit the financial assistance of the recipient of the letter to free the child or the parent in return for a financial reward several fold their initial investment, and an additional promise of the marriage of the distressed wealthy prisoner’s beautiful daughter after the deal was done.  It was often claimed that the putative rich prisoner could not disclose his identity without grim consequences, and was therefore relying on the sender of the mail to raise money to arrange for his escape from the prison.
Compassion and greed—and, in some cases, lust— would usually strangely intermix to sustain the interest of the victims in the deal. Invariably, the first rescue attempt usually failed. What was initially an innocent, modest financial request for help in a “charitable” cause would morph into a more elaborate scheme that would require the businessman to travel to Spain.  As soon as the dupe made the initial deposit, he would be told that unforeseen snags had arisen that required more money to fix, until the dupe was rendered bankrupt and the game ended. There are many mutations of the scam, which bear so many uncanny resemblances to contemporary manifestations of 419 scams.
Now, here is the British angle to the scam. The “Spanish Prisoner Letter” was so pervasive that in 1914, the year Nigeria in its present form was formally born, the British ambassador to Spain wrote to British colonial officers in Nigeria to be wary of the swindle, and to warn the people of Nigeria to keep their guard against it. 

Professor Glickman found a letter in the Nigerian Customs and Trade Journal of April 1914 by the British ambassador to Spain, Arthur Hardinge, calling attention to “the Spanish Prisoner swindle… established in Madrid and other Spanish towns…ASSISTED BY ACCOMPLICES IN ENGLAND [my emphasis]” The letter added: “It appears that perpetrators of this fraud are still endeavouring to victimise residents of the British Colonies and it is considered advisable that the public in Nigeria should be warned to be upon their guard.”

 It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the “accomplices in England” that the ambassador referred to in the letter somehow finally found their way to Nigeria but chose not to “victimize” us; instead, they recruited and trained Nigerian accomplices. Three considerations justify this assumption.

First, in 1914, almost no Nigerian had any contact with Spain both on account of geographic distance and language barriers. So it is inconceivable that the scam came to Nigeria directly from Spain. It had to have come through those wily “accomplices in England.”

 Second, in 1914, the only Europeans who related to Nigerians on a sustained basis were the British. They were, after all, Nigeria’s colonial overloads and had untrammeled access to the country. Plus, no visas were required of British citizens to travel to any British colony.

 Third, the fact that the British ambassador to Spain had a need to single out the emergent nation of Nigeria to send this warning was indicative of the fact that he knew his compatriots were indeed making determined efforts to get into Nigeria. I don’t imagine that there were enough rich Nigerians in 1914 for the Spanish and British scammers to fleece. Interestingly, there is no record of the ambassador sending similar letters to any other British colony at the time.  Of course, at the time the letter was written, no Nigerian was aware of, much less involved in, the Spanish Prisoner swindle, which has now mutated to 419 scams. So it makes perfect sense to attribute the emergence of 419 scams to the British. It’s part of our British colonial heritage.

What is not clear, however, is why the British scammers chose Nigeria as a recruiting ground. Why not India or Uganda or Sudan or some other British colony? Well, a good guess is that Nigeria was attractive at the time because, after the merger of the then southern and northern protectorates to form what became known as Nigeria in 1914, Nigeria became the single largest British colony in Africa (except for Sudan, which had always been bigger than Nigeria in size but not in population).

It is also possible that by 1914 the rhetorical armory and appeal of the Spanish Prisoner scam had become exhausted and was in need of a radical makeover. It is entirely imaginable that one of the ways the British accomplices of the scam wanted to sustain it was by introducing novel dimensions that had the potential to win the credulity of their victims. A letter from a black man in Africa, who was constructed in popular European narratives as congenitally daft and guileless, promising princely sums to would-be European targets for all kinds of things would be irresistible. That’s probably how 419 scams came to our shores.

After the conversation, my British interlocutor was crestfallen. He couldn’t hide it. He said he would get back to me in a few days’ time. It’s been three weeks now. I am still waiting to hear from him.

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