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Wanted: A 419 Czar!

July 27, 2007

from The Guardian

What is Nigeria best-known for?  I could say: contributions to science and technology.  Or her revolutionary development strides.  Or her leadership of the African continent.  Or her amazing network of first-rate roads.  Or her acknowledgement and reward of merit.  Or her world-beating sports institutions.  Or her commitment to justice and the rule of law.  I would be lying.

I know, I know: we enjoy flattery, particularly when it comes from our own mouths.  We call ourselves the Heart of Africa, or the giant of Africa.  With egos as expansive as our agbada and buba, we speak sneakily about our “leadership role” on this continent, and about the treasures nature has buried in the earth below our lucky feet.

But it is not South Africa that calls us the Heart of Africa.  It is not Libya or Burundi or Senegal that calls us the giant of Africa.  I have heard such negligible figures as one West African leader refer to Nigeria in guardedly lofty tones, but that was just before he left for Abuja to ask for favours; in any case, it is the same man who says he can cure AIDS.  Olusegun Obasanjo was awarded the leadership of the African Union several years ago, but there is no country that remembers him with any fondness for moving Africa forward by as much as one practical inch.

No, it is not our pretensions that Nigeria is best known for.  It is the national shame of our favorite crime, ripping foreigners off.  Known worldwide as Advance Fee Fraud (AFF), or the Nigerian Fraud, we know it at home as 419.

But 419 is less known at home than it is abroad, particularly in the developed countries.   That is because those foreigners are the target of 419-ers.  That is where letters and e-mail and faxes continue to pour into homes and offices as our criminals practice their hunt for the gullible and the greedy.  That is where, as a result, the best of Nigerians are held in deep suspicion, and must continue to prove not only their innocence, but that they are often a target as well.  

Abroad.  That is also where Nigeria, as a nation, seeks credibility for everything from its reform programmes through its rigged elections to its foreign policy to its foreign investment needs.  The trouble is that, abroad, the odour of AFF has already polluted the air and diminished our image.  419 are the glasses that foreigners use to diagnose every Nigerian.

The time has come when we must turn those glasses around and look at the world through glasses cleaned by integrity. To do this, we must re-evaluate our 419 file, and develop a new strategy.

Such a strategy must begin by acknowledging that the Obasanjo government completely misunderstood and mishandled the challenge of AFF.  Under the terrible illusion that 419 is just another economic crime, it was lumped together with the slew of challenges given to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). 

But 419 is not just another economic crime; it is the principal crime confronting Nigeria’s foreign policy and development prospects.  It colours our relationship with other nations and is the first thing people think about when the subject is Nigeria. 

It may be convenient for us to downplay it, but foreign governments continue to warn their nationals who have anything to do with Nigeria.  Businesses routinely issue internal Nigeria advisories.  Friends and families share their favourite 419 anecdotes.  Nigerian embassies and consulates receive sack loads of 419 solicitations from people who do not know where else to turn.  Many foreigners would rather do business with a Somali than a Nigerian, and Somalis do not really have a state.  On a slow news day, or to liven things up, the foreign press goes to town with canned Nigerian 419 and identity theft stories. 

In other words, 419 is much more serious than Nigeria has accepted up to this point.  Regrettably is only in Nigeria that it seeks like a harmless prank.  But this crime is eating Nigeria alive, and the time has come to seize it by the throat.

I suggest that the federal government separates AFF from the EFCC file, and appoints a “419 Czar” to drive this menace out of our lexicon.  Unless a particular office is able to focus on this ailment, it will continue to flourish while we pretend that we are dealing with it and the rest of the world turn to lesser African countries than Nigeria. 

The 419 czar should not be one of those government officials looking for contracts or a cushy office to play Big Man.  He should be a Nigerian looking for a fight, someone who wants to accomplish something and be judged by his performance, not his title or the expanse of his office.

He should be someone driven by the desire to put the shine back in our national image; someone who understands how painful AFF is abroad, and the factors that 419ers exploit at home.  I argue again that, with the right system in place, 419ers can be routinely arrested and taken out of circulation, and their ill-gotten gains lost as they are prosecuted. 

With the right mechanism in place, AFF can be made the most expensive game in town within one year.   Expensive to practitioners, but profitable to the government which will win twice.  First, it will collect vast fortunes that include bank accounts and property (including some that it can give back to the fools that should not have fallen for the scam in the first place).  And it can sharply improve our national image by showing the world the seriousness with which Nigeria is really combating this menace, and the results it is achieving. 

I repeat what I have said here before.  AFF is a crime people are committing in the open.  Although they pretend to be hiding, they always advertise themselves and their locations.  Let us give this critical file, uncluttered with any other business, to one motivated individual, and set him free to develop his own Swiss Army knife of tricks to put this menace on the back foot. 

The first order of business, however, is to acknowledge that AFF is very serious business to Nigeria’s corporate agenda.  And time is running out on Nigeria.

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