Nigeria is not alone in cybercrime. But among a considerable number of Nigerians, cybercrime or Yahoo Yahoo exists at the intersection of crime and means of livelihood; wrong but necessary.
On June 29, 2009, the former Nasdaq chairman and Wall Street giant, Bernard Madoff, was sentenced to 150 years in an American medium-security prison for running what has been described as the largest Ponzi scheme in history.
Using the wealth management arm of his company, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, Madoff is estimated to have defrauded his victims of figures ranging from $35-65 billion. The monetary and human toll of his crime was unprecedented and even now, ten years later, the scars of his crime still exist for the victims. Despite the fallout of Madoff’s fraud and the efforts of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission to stamp them out, Ponzi schemes still continue to thrive in America and, by extension, the world. And yet, curiously, there is no such thing as an American Ponzi, or a word that exists to suggest, post-Madoff, the ‘Americaness’ of Ponzi schemes.
If dictionaries or web-based knowledge sources exist to serve as repositories of humanity’s lived experiences and history, then Nigeria stands apart as one of the few countries to have a specific criminality named after it. Per these sources, there is a Nigerian scam or, more commonly, a ‘419’ scam that originates from and is fiercely identifiable to Nigeria. These scams are partly defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) online resource as:
‘combining (sic) the threat of impersonation fraud with a variation of an advance fee scheme in which a letter mailed, or e-mailed, from Nigeria offers the recipient the ‘opportunity’ to share in a percentage of millions of dollars that the author—a self-proclaimed government official—is trying to transfer illegally out of Nigeria. The recipient is encouraged to send information to the author, such as blank letterhead stationery, bank name and account numbers, and other identifying information using a fax number given in the letter or return e-mail address provided in the message. The scheme relies on convincing a willing victim, who has demonstrated a ‘propensity for larceny’ by responding to the invitation, to send money to the author of the letter in Nigeria in several instalments of increasing amounts for a variety of reasons.’
Undoubtedly, Nigeria has a problem with advance-fee scams and one that has quickly morphed into cyber-criminality; one, most of all, that continues to tarnish Nigeria’s image in the international community. However, if we remove all mention of Nigeria from the definition above and tweak the methodology of this particular advance-fee scam scenario to reflect hacking and ransomware attacks, what are we left with? Do we have a Nigerian online scamming problem or a global cybercrime issue?
Navigating Historical Pathways
The first cybercafes appeared in Nigeria in the late 1990s; spacious and swanky in some areas, cramped and stuffy in other places but, nonetheless, spaces that depicted the world’s commitment to globalise. Cybercafes opened up large and small in major cities all over the country, often working around the clock and providing a window to the Internet at agreeable financial rates. These establishments opened their doors and Nigerians visited them in droves for a multiplicity of reasons—academic, exploratory, familial and fraudulent.
There is a long-standing association of Nigeria with cyber-fraud. The origin of these scams in the country can be traced to the 1980s: beset by flailing oil prices—crude oil being Nigeria’s primary source of income—the Shehu Shagari administration oversaw a period of economic decline that caused a spike in unemployment rates and a billowing poverty problem that kick-started the postal fraud era. Perpetrators promised their marks—mostly British-American for ease of conversation—percentages of illicit riches (from corrupt governmental institutions) they were trying to transfer out of Nigeria in return for help in providing sensitive financial details. Typically, perpetrators required a foreign a bank account to receive the wealth abroad and, crucially, an advance fee to sort out ‘domestic issues’.
The deposing of President Shagari in a coup led by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari in 1983 did little to improve the economy, Buhari’s repressive laws failing to inspire hope nor commerce. The regimes of General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha sandwiched by a six-month tenure for Ernest Shonekan did not fare much better. These respective governments could not chart a course for national economic recovery, and it is the displacement and vulnerability of youths in that period that provided the perfect backdrop for the institutionalization of an already-emergent postal fraud culture.
In the 90s, as cybercafes emerged in Nigeria and provided more access to email, and, in turn, new avenues for communication, veterans of the postal fraud era sensed an opportunity opening for a larger market to direct their scams; and together with newer, younger perpetrators seduced by the promise of quick wealth from email scams, they finessed and upgraded the old Spanish Prisoner trick. In Nigeria, these online fraudsters soon came to be known as ‘Yahoo Boys’, so named after their major tool of operation—Yahoo Mail. Before long, Nigerians were no longer the sole perpetrator of these frauds. Citizens of neighbouring country, Ghana, were also actively involved with culprits referred to as ‘Sakawa Boys’, messages also appeared that sought to free illicit funds tied in corrupt Zimbabwean companies with the aid of benevolent foreign parties.
Since cyber cafes usually operated for 24 hours, cybercriminals operated without restrictions and worked as long as they wished, these scams, often successful, brought underhand riches to scammers and soon created a class of nouveau-riche citizens. The success of these criminal operations inspired equal remonstration in the nations of their victims and before long the image of Nigeria globally was connected to email frauds, popularized as ‘419’, in honour of the section of the Nigerian criminal code pertaining acquisition of property by false pretences. Embarrassed by the international gaze on Nigeria due to actions of conmen, the Nigerian state responded by clamping down on cybercriminals through surprise raids on cybercafes and sanctions targeted at limiting, or at least, discouraging the operations of Yahoo Boys headquartered in these establishments.
This push by the federal government soon yielded partial success: the number of cybercafe patronisers dwindled considerably inducing a brief lull in the activities of cybercriminals between 2006 and 2009, but technology soon made a big leap forward. By the early 2010’s, the expansion of portable Internet-enabled devices like laptops and first-generation smartphones in Nigeria market signalled the end of cybercafe dependency and the coming of a motile generation of cybercriminals now known as ‘G boys,’ unburdened of the static nature of cybercafes (as technology now brought the Internet tothem), these scions have largely abandoned the older variation of advance-fee fraud that involved a Nigerian party trying to move money out of the country with the aid of an outside party.
Technological advancements that underpin globalization like language translators and voice modifiers innocuously abet their actions, the capacity of a random Nigerian to understand and respond to multiple foreign languages. These technologies have been appropriated by Nigerian cybercriminals. They’ve enabled scammers to expand the scope of their operations beyond the United States and Europe; to adopt a myriad of foreign personas making it easier to target victims in previously unmined regions like Asia and Latin America.
A Shadow Industry
The sophistication, prevalence and notoriety of cybercrime suggests that web-based infringements are now big business. Moreover, cybercrime has significant economic impacts. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), estimated in its 2018 report that around $600 billion dollars is lost to cybercrime. This figure roughly amounts to 1 per cent of global income and factors in all aspects of cyber-criminality: advance-fee frauds, identity theft, financial hacks and phishing. To put it into context, cybercrime is only third behind government corruption and narcotics trafficking as a global crime though it effectively affects more individuals than either crime with an estimated two out of every three people in the world having been a victim of its reach at least once in their lives.
With the money at stake in cybercrime and its relative ease, it is not surprising that something approaching a global ecosystem has emerged that serves to make perpetration more fruitful. Using Nigeria as an example, despite the almost exclusive practice of aggressive advance-fee frauds, the crime is rarely, if ever, perpetuated in isolation. Specific roles exist within the Nigerian cybercrime community that interconnect with primary services. Aside from the scammer who opens a line of communication with the victim and baits them into sending money, there is the hacker who handles financial schematics or more complex crimes involving identity theft and phishing. Often, they break into secure networks used by financial institutions for high-level scams that take place across multiple countries. In cases of small to medium-value scams, there’s the picker who receives money from the victims and launders it without suspicion. In essence, there is a chain of service and reward.
This economy of cybercrime is not Nigeria-specific; it operates on a global scale. Driven by the connectivity of the Internet, which relegates the concept of borders and jurisdiction to the background, an international shadow economy of cybercrime that deals primarily in illegal information and communication technology has emerged. Spread across new outposts like India, Russia and Vietnam, this transnational shadow economy is fast gaining notoriety. Aided by the increased demand for cybercrime tools, this economy organizes and aids the monetization of goods such as pre-packaged malware, spyware and credit card information, and services such as secure hacking, spamming and money laundering—all of which are negotiated over untraceable IP addresses.
The division of labour that drives the global cybercrime economy has successfully created linkages between perpetrators of distinct aspects of cybercrime (such as identity theft and phishing) that now resemble organized criminal syndicates and cartels. Worryingly, the virtual nature of their interactions and the built-in prevention and reactiveness to anti-cybercrime measures means that tracking the perpetrators remains a herculean task.
A Seared Conscience?
In April 2019, Nigerian rapper, Naira Marley, made headlines when he declared online fraud not to be a crime. Marley’s opinion was that cybercrime served as recompense for the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. His incendiary comments polarized opinions but, nonetheless, succeeded in showing how those involved in and sympathetic to cybercrime view, and justify their actions. The online debates that Marley inspired revealed the desensitization of some Nigerians to the impacts of Yahoo Yahoo and 419, globally and locally. On Twitter, the debate featured comments like, ‘Yahoo is bad no doubt bt it has contributed to the success of this country, with the way our leaders are operating, if there was no yahoo we will be doom now,’ another Tweeter said: ‘Make una live naira Marley alone oo.. Atleast one of una relatives go dey into this game and y’all know.’
Among a considerable number of Nigerians, cybercrime exists at the intersection of crime and means of livelihood; wrong but necessary. This complication also exposes the fractured state of the national psyche in Nigeria today. In the earliest days of postal and online fraud, perpetrators were scorned and derided for the illegitimate source of their wealth as they flaunted their dishonest returns. However, some change has occurred in the public perception of Internet fraudsters. In certain communities, there is ambivalence towards cyber-criminality that borders on empathy for the perpetrator’s plight. This casual indifference towards cybercrime in these societies also manifests online.
Both online and offline, society-linked narratives are used to rationalize the crime. One of such narratives is that the scammer as a product of their time, an individual trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty without any welfare support from the government or access to legitimate economic opportunities. Subsequently, scammers, the narrative purports, resort to fraud to lift themselves and their families out of economic misery. Another narrative used to rationalize scamming is the projection of the perpetrator as pro-reparations; a modern-day vigilante who takes from Euro-American citizens (benefactors of the slave trade and colonization) and transfers the wealth to Nigeria. Among Nigerians, little remains known about the exact scale of losses both human and material caused by transatlantic slave trade and colonization, and both experiences, if at all discussed, are a sensitive part of national memory. Hence their obvious use by many including Naira Marley to court public support for fraud.
The lack of physical proximity between online scam perpetrators and their victims, in particular, constitutes a virtual wall of separation that obscures the negative result of this interaction in the consciousness of an average Nigerian. The virtual nature of online scams and the unwillingness of victims to report due to fear of stigma, essentially creates a disconnect in how some Nigerians perceive conventional crimes and unconventional crimes. Conventional crimes like the misuse of guns or other weapons of physical harm more naturally permit ‘a game of wits’. However, the wall of separation that keeps the agony of cybercrime victims unseen often allows for simplistic discussions and conclusions about motives and culpability that enables the continued aggrandizement of the crime culture.
The unfavourable consequences of having an image of Nigeria as an outpost for Internet fraud and similar vices is almost incomprehensible to an average Nigerian whose lived experiences are limited to Nigerian borders. Regardless the consequences are severe. An example of this severity is the internationalization of Nigerian criminality, the worldwide suspicion that everything Nigerian is inextricably linked to one scam or the other. A popular vessel of this suspicion is the infamous question: ‘Are you a Nigerian prince?’ The Nigerian prince scam is a relic of the postal fraud era when perpetrators would introduce themselves as royalty looking to sell outlandish animals to white parties or offer sham investment opportunities. From being a ubiquitous feature of that era, it has now reshaped to being the bane of every Nigerian’s existence. It is often faced by Nigerian workers, immigrants and professionals abroad who deal with condescending and sometimes dehumanizing questions and interrogations.
Despite being a part of an increasingly globalized world in which financial activities are digitized and, through the Internet, penetrate borders, Nigeria remains on the periphery of this particular global revolution. Scarred by decades of unflattering reportage about the cybercrime culture in the country, international service providers such as Amazon, Spotify and PayPal are wary of the nation despite its 200-million people strong market.
But the biggest drawback of Nigeria’s cybercrime reputation is its impact on national economy. Cybercrime apologists rationalize the crime with talk of how much it brings into the country annually. Conversely, what should be discussed is the money that does not flow into the economy due to these fraudulent crimes. The underdeveloped nature of Nigeria’s economy demands that we seek foreign investments to catalyse growth. However, legitimate investments do not find their way into Nigeria’s ailing economy and, often, because of a reputation for fraud that invariably hampers the nation’s burgeoning tech space and its small and medium-sized enterprises. In 2018 alone, the Nigerian tech scene made $95 million despite the reputational risk attached to the country but it is evident that much more funds should entering Nigeria by virtue of its potential and size.
A central part of cybercrime perpetrated in Nigeria that is often left out of cybercrime discussions is its impact on other Nigerians. For all the talk of the international focus of online scammers, cybercriminals also target the home base through multiple formats, and none more so than through banks. The integration of e-banking services in the Nigerian banking sector has opened a loophole that is being exploited for nefarious purposes. A significant number of Nigerian banking customers receive suspicious emails from criminals that claiming to be bank representatives asking for financial details with the ultimate aim of gathering information to steal funds from vulnerable citizens. For instance, a 2018 report by the Nigeria Electronic Fraud Forum ( NeFF) estimated that more than 17,600 Nigerian bank customers lost N1.9 billion to online fraudulent activities in that year alone. In the three years before that, electronic banking fraud losses were averaged at N1.86 billion per year highlighting the persistence of fraud attacks by Nigerians against Nigerians.
The Glorification of Cybercrime in Popular Culture
In The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s expository noir fiction on the inner workings of organised crime in the US, Puzo explored a theme often less expanded upon but nevertheless factual: the subtle way the criminal world intersects with the entertainment and showbiz industries. Contrary to Puzo’s fictionalized work, in Nigeria, cybercrime and contemporary culture intersect without subtility. Films and popular songs that shape the views of impressionable young people reinforce the ritzy life of 419 perpetrators and validate the online fraud culture. Not unlike the Narco-football age of Colombia in the 1990s, the Nigerian entertainment scene is being swamped by Yahoo Yahoo money.
Despite the increasing modernization of Nigeria’s showbiz industry, the sector and its target market remain chaotic and unstructured primarily due to piracy and infrastructural bottlenecks, which limits investment. With investors unwilling to invest in a challenging climate, the door is open for the continued involvement of Yahoo Yahoo money, and its glorification by popular culture. As far as rejoinders go, artists are wont to explain the heavy influence of Yahoo Yahoo lingo and nuances on their work as a candid reflection of the society’s fractured state but listening carefully it is difficult to agree with their postulations.
The exploration of cybercrime in music by Nigerian artists does not fit the profile of what can be considered introspective commentary on society and its way of life. Where these works should serve as honest, factual and penetrative exposés on the culture of fraud in Nigeria, they falters and lapse into plain glorification, validation and worship without context.
On his 2007 breakout single, ‘Yahooze’—one of the biggest collisions of cybercrime and Nigerian pop culture—Olu Maintain flamboyantly sings about the lavish lifestyle of fraudsters who are known to buy exotic vehicles and frequent nightclubs off the proceeds of their duplicitous scams. The lyrics of the song, which he explained as celebrating a million dollar deal, appropriate aspects of the Yahoo Yahoo lifestyle and though it stops short of urging involvement in the crime, the implied meaning betrays intent.
The new generation of indigenous Nigerian rappers who have gained mainstream acceptance in recent years have carried the torch of cybercrime glorification without pause, ‘Able God,’ a song that enjoyed heavy rotation in 2018 has a verse that goes:
‘Ọmọ Ase, o lọ n tọrọ ọja kiri (kuro n’bẹ)
T’o yẹ k’o lọ ra lapi
Tete kọnẹti, k’iwọ naa le kọlẹti
K’o le ra ile si Lekki, k’o put ẹ For Rent’
The verse loosely translates, ‘dunce, you’re begging for business (drop that). Instead, get a Laptop (for cybercrime), quickly connect (start online fraud) so you can collect (money from your victims), so you can buy a house in Lekki and put it up for rent.’
The 11-year span between both songs and the open manner of Yahoo Yahoo validation in the latter song is a reflection of changing times, the increasing proliferation of cybercrime culture and Yahoo Yahoo’s growing intersection with pop culture. However, on the flip side of art’s reflective function as a mirror of society is its more urgent role as a tool for social improvement. Art should ameliorate its resident community by bettering opinions, challenging negative notions, instilling purposeful values and translating positive human experiences across the constraints of space and time.
It is to this more humane, progressive and, presently, anti-establishment use of the arts that the shapers and wielders of Nigerian pop culture must aspire. Voices that fiercely identify with the anti-419 stance are likely to be vilified as has been the case of lawyer and rapper, Falz. The 28-year-old has often used his music to speak against the ills of the cybercrime culture in the country despite being branded a loudmouth and tagged inconsiderate because of his privileged background. Singer, Simi, is another popular figure who has taken a public stand against Yahoo Yahoo and its glorification. She also has been criticized by the fraud-inclined percentage of the populace who have an ever-expanding digital footprint. Regardless, it is important that those with huge platforms such as Falz and Simi continue to speak out against criminality.
In discussing cybercrime, it is easy to fall into the spurious stereotyping of Nigeria as a frontier for the global perpetration of online fraud. The recent indictmentagainst 77 Nigerians in the US on charges of conspiracy to commit cyber-fraud and launder money using business email compromise and romance scams plays into this myth. More so, the manner of some of the reporting(one report called it Nigeria’s ‘fraud-filled’ week)—misleading as the statement is—reflects the dynamic between power and labelling. Cybercrime remains a complex worldwide phenomenon that stretches far beyond Nigeria. As a shadow industry, the most devastating and ruthless sub-divisions of the international cybercrime complex are firmly rooted in what some analysts would call the ‘Global North,’ and while this criminality extends to the Global South where these analysts conceptually situate Nigeria and other African countries, the economics of cybercrime remains decidedly Western-oriented.
The burden of labels does not rest on Western nations for a number of reasons, chief amongst which is the economic might of these countries. This economic might helps to deflect the gaze of the world from the Western online fraud quandary and to enable Western countries maintain positive spin on their image globally. As such, it is important for Nigeria to forge stronger economic viability and stronger machinery to manage international perception. The culture of cybercrime in Nigeria will not go away without urgent and deliberate actions. Traditions of instant gratification and celebration of unaccountable sudden opulence must be stripped away from our society. Artists must also realise that they play a key part in framing of national psyche and international opinion through their actions and inactions. And they must develop the ability and willingness to self-censor and educate through their works⎈