Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Photo: Speigel / Thomas Grabka

If
you were a decent sort of person, the last thing you would do is forward to anyone an
email from a distant country offering a fortune in return for a small
administration fee. However, the millions of Britons who receive scam letters
and emails every year are now being encouraged to forward them — to the National
Fraud Authority — the BBC
reported
recently.

At
least 3000 people are scammed in the UK yearly and most of these letters come
from certain African countries where confidence tricks and business frauds are rife.
From the Feymen, a Cameroun group of international swindlers, to the fraudster
schemes in Nigeria called “419s”, which became prominent in the early 1990’s, these
scams have common features.

They
begin with a letter asking from unsuspecting victims an “advance fee” for goods
or services. Once the fees are paid, more is demanded until the scheme blows
open and the scammers disappear. Most Nigerians first became aware of 419s — named
after
the section in Nigeria’s criminal code outlawing them — in 1993,
when a Germany lady, Frieda
Springer-Beck
, went public because she had been duped. According to her,
two years after her husband died in an auto accident she received a letter from
a Nigerian lawyer addressed to her deceased husband and informing him of $26m
profit from his investment in power plants in Nigeria. She contacted the lawyer
who assured her that the money now belonged to her but that she was required to
make an advance payment of a few of dollars for the “processing” of some
matters with the government before the money would be released.

Well,
she paid; a little at first, but the demands kept up until at the end she had
given over $350,000 belonging to friends and family to the fraudsters.
Frustrated and disgraced, she moved to Lagos to trace the scammers and was
almost killed. But in the end, she managed to bring the crooks to justice. But
her life had been ruined. Left with nothing and a string of broken relations
and hurt feelings back home in Germany, Frieda relocated to Lagos to commit her
life to helping other victims bring scammers to justice.

Her
task gets more difficult, however, as the number of 419-type scammers are
increasing rather than decreasing; and the playing field moves to the internet.
Today, hundreds of young Nigerians emulating this “lawyer” spend days in
cybercafés searching the internet and sending tons of scam letters, leaving in
their wake hundreds of foreign victims and staining the name of Nigerians all
over the world. The 419 scam has become so successful over the last 20 years
that campaigners say it is now one of the African country’s biggest exports
after oil, natural gas and cocoa. One only has to check the internet to see a growing list of people duped of their
monies throughout the world.

What
accounts for the growth of 419ers in Nigeria? Some say it is simply a failure
of government in its duty to check these dishonest people; also, despite
billions of dollars of oil income, mismanagement and corruption destroyed the
government’s ability to provide basic infrastructure like electricity and water.
This has forced many of the brightest Nigerians to flee the country for Europe
and America, while those left behind are engaged in a Darwinian struggle for
survival. Money in the hand provides what the government will not or cannot
provide: security, justice and many other social amenities so necessary in
urban area.

In
the past, the close knit nature of African villages helped the villagers
organize basic security and other services for themselves. But migration to
urban areas destroyed or at least weakened the forces that united them in providing
for themselves; the mix of different peoples with no bonds makes cooperation
difficult, impossible at times. Individuals have to provide for themselves all
of these, with hard currencies. This contributes to the pressure to get rich
quick, driving the less virtuous to cut corners.

But
it is difficult to make money legitimately in an environment where basic
services have collapsed, where many companies, especially startups, often buckle
and collapse for lack of basic infrastructure; spilling a large army of
unemployed young people into the streets where they fall prey to the most
dishonest schemes flying around. In these environments with a sharpened
instinct for survival, dishonest ideas catch on and, left unchecked, get
entrenched quickly and become “normal”, so to speak.

“In
the absence of central leadership, everyone must become a leader”, says
Pat Utomi, a presidential aspirant and an entrepreneur. “In that way, each
one would create a circle of good environment around him”.

In
most cases the exercise of good leadership, this insistence on the right thing,
has to be carried out in the local setting, in community meetings and secondary
schools, for instance. Here is an anecdote about how one father, Mr X,
challenged other parents on the issue of cheating.

Students
at the school his son attended were consistently achieving lower grades than
other secondary schools in the district — a circumstance that parents
attributed to cheating and purchase of exam questions by the other schools. “If
we can’t beat them, we had better join them,” reasoned some parents at a school
meeting. When Mr X heard this he was shocked and objected strongly. Raising his
voice he asked his fellow parents:

‘Are
you seriously considering buying exam answers for your wards?”

“Yes
we are,” the other parents echoed in unison.

“Now
tell me, after you have done that, what next? Are you going to buy them a place
in the university, and after that, a job?

To
these questions the astonished parents had no answers and they quietly dismissed
the idea of buying answer scripts for their wards. Such is the effect one man
can have who sticks to his principles.

Two
decades ago in Nigeria, if a 25-year-old man, without any verifiable source of
income, bought a car, friends and relations would ostracize him if he could not
prove that the source of income was legitimate. Today things are different. Now,
no one asks any questions, people celebrate with him and parents even point him
out as a role model to their children. This loss of moral sense is made worse
by the absence of good moral education in schools.

Extreme
hopelessness among youths with even good university degrees but no job drives
them into internet scams. A friend who graduated with an upper credit from the
University of Jos was shortlisted for a job interview in Port-Harcourt. He
reported that, when the interview was held, there were over two thousand
candidates competing for three vacancies.

This
is not to excuse scammers. They only make things worse for honest Nigerians,
who constitute the majority of citizens but are derided by citizens of other
nations as crooks. I once sent an email to a company in Italy, and on the reply
email, there was a warning sign in bold letters: “This email has the word ‘Nigeria’,
please be aware that it might be a scam!”

But
the fault does not lie entirely with the Nigerian scammers, who, after all,
could hardly succeed without a corresponding weakness in western culture.

While
dire economic difficulties pull young Africans onto crooked paths, avarice
lures many people in the West into lions’ dens. Against the advice of relations
and friends, and driven by dreams of riches, Frieda Springer-Beck took money
from her company — perhaps with the intention of paying it back come payday —
and gave to the gangsters. Saddled with huge mortgages and debts from a “buy
now pay latter” culture, many westerners have lost their good sense and in
their desperation become sitting ducks for fraudsters.

“The
letters are so cleverly written, that you think oh this is my salvation,”
says Peggy, a British woman
who lost thousands of pounds to fraudsters. The sad fact is that spectacular
successes such as that perpetrated on Frieda Springer Beck emboldens old scammers
and encourages many more youths to cross the crooked line.

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical
engineer in Enugu, Nigeria

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria.