In fact, some of the bigger bosses have immigrated to places like Holland and London. “So,” Boston Boomer says, “in Lagos, people sit in Internet cafés — catchers, they’re called, the ones sending out these e-mails by the thousands — and they get 10 responses. They pass them on to an Oga. That person [may be anywhere from] the Netherlands to the United Kingdom. They take it from there. The people back in Lagos get a small percentage, while those in the Netherlands and UK get big, big money.”
Nigeria is one of the more corrupt countries in the world, adds Boston Boomer, from the government on down. “Where I sympathize with the Nigerian people, the scammers themselves, is that their culture tells them that it’s okay to do this. Because of the reputation the country ends up getting, no one will do business with them. And so it perpetuates the need to steal.”
As Alhaji Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crime Commission, told Lagos’s This Day newspaper as yet another paltry effort to curb 419 scams was introduced a few years ago: “How do you think that the international community will take us seriously?”
Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa. It’s rich in fossil fuels. Yet its economy is in shambles, and more than 50 percent of the country lives in poverty. Life expectancy is just 47 years, and barely half the population has access to potable water.
And if it’s true that the scammers are exacerbating and perpetuating the problem — and they are — it’s also true that they’re not the cause of it.
“It’s very complicated,” says Jacob K. Olupona, a Nigerian native who chairs the Committee on African Studies at Harvard. “It’s not an easy thing to decipher.”
Olupona insists that he is “not defending” the practice of scamming. But he encourages people to look deeper at roots of the country’s wrecked economy — and the less-than-savory characters who have arisen in the past two decades or so to exact what money than can, in what ways they can.
“There is no reason why Nigeria should be poor,” he says. “Yet we are poor. Our leaders have messed up the whole place. You have 30 or 40 years of military rule that has debased the entire country. People have been subjected to so much abuse by the military. These types of behaviors are responses to these sorts of problems. Somehow, the military culture has introduced greed and corruption.”
And that omnipresent corruption, he says, has permeated society to a very deep level. “You’re talking about a national psyche that is so disrupted, and is exhibiting very unusual behaviors in virtually everything.”
Olupona has even heard stories of “well-educated people — graduates — robbing people at home. At gunpoint. They explain, ‘We have no choice. We have no job. We want to live. So we’ve taken to robbery because that’s the only job in town now.’ The global economy has produced a very serious problem. One needs to look at it from that perspective. The gap between the rich and the poor is getting further and further.”
If it’s understandable to see baiters gleefully exacting revenge on scammers for their larcenous ways, it’s also disturbing to see poor, uneducated people from such a profoundly damaged place posing for obscene and/or absurd photographs in the hopes of getting some money.