In the past 10 months, Karma has dealt with young Nigerians allegedly involved in transnational crimes. In August 2019, Obinwanne George Okeke, aka Invictus Obi, was arrested in Virginia by the FBI over an alleged $11 million fraud. Three weeks later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested another 14 Nigerians and indicted 57 others who had allegedly fleeced up to $6 million from unsuspecting businesses and elderly folks through romance scams. Just this June, the Dubai Police, in conjunction with the FBI, arrested Ramoni Olorunwa/Igbalode Abbas, aka “Hushpuppi” and one Olalekan Jacob Ponle, aka Woodberry. Along with 10 other suspects, they are being held for allegations of fraud bordering on millions of dollars and almost two million victims.
Since these people’s actual activities have been publicly unfurled, they have been rightly condemned by Nigerians that think all of these scandals will have a boomerang effect on the nation. Because most of those arrested for the above-listed crimes belong to what you might call “Generation Z,” writers and commenters have also displayed the tendency to view these scams as fallout of a generation’s defectiveness.
Most times, when issues of crime and morality arise and older people start perorating on what “children of these days” do, what they are also doing is separating themselves—and their generation—from the stain the scandals bring to society. They treat the issues as if they are novel and isolated from the larger trends of history. That kind of declinism is disingenuous.
The present generation did not invent the idea of scams in whatever form. If we start the global history of frauds and scams —from snake oil sales to mail fraud to Ponzi schemes— we will be talking for a long time. The late Stephen Ellis, in a book titled, This Present Darkness, documented the long history of scam in Nigeria. Those that are chalking cybercrime to a younger generation thing need to read the book to see their generation was just as corrupt.
What we call “419” today dates as far back as 1958, and it came from Section 419 of the Nigerian Criminal Code. The present generation did not come up with the trope of “mugun,” the dupe, and which would later be transmuted into “maga” by Internet fraudsters. They did not invent housing scams that led to people writing “this house is not for sale” on their finished or unfinished landed property. The present generation did not invent importation scams that dispossessed many business people of their money and led them into ruins. There was a time when people used to be accosted on the road by scammers who told them to provide a certain sum to buy chemicals to wash money that would turn to dollars. There were, and still are, many unsuspecting victims of those kinds of scams.
Whenever I encounter older people who start lecturing on how younger people and their taste for the nicer things of life are ruining the world, I call on Chinua Achebe as a witness. In Chike and the River, Achebe talked about how the protagonist, Chike, almost got into trouble with his schoolmates who had been sending letters to England asking for money in exchange for some things. One of the boys, Ezekiel, sent letters to three boys asking for money, a camera, and shoes. He promised each of them a leopard skin in return even though he had never even seen one in his life. What I find particularly interesting about that story is that when the boy got some money, he was celebrated by his friends and also his mother who called him “Clever Boy.” She helped him to cash the money at the post office.
Look, Achebe might have been a fiction writer, but he did not pull that story from the air. He wrote from the reality of the times, and that was in the 1960s. If boys were already writing to scam “John Smith” in England 50 years ago, why act as if any of these things is unprecedented? Those Ezekiel’s classmates are the ones now wrinkling their noses at the “Hushpuppi generation.” The story Achebe told in 1966 continues to manifest in the present time. We have seen “Yahoo boys” get arrested along with their mothers in recent times. In September last year, a woman was apprehended after she went to the bank to withdraw money from her son’s account. She knew the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was investigating her son for cybercrimes and she wanted to move the money he had allegedly scammed off his victims away from sight. Did her values too get corrupted with those of Hushpuppi’s generation?
The difference between then and now is Instagram. By that, I do not mean just the social media network but the whole apparatus of modern technological devices that has made these crimes far more wide-reaching across the globe, and which has brought the exhibitionism of the fraudsters’ right to our faces. From personal computers to emails, smartphones, Internet, cellular data, etc., we have access to the world, unlike never before. None of these scams and frauds is new; they just moved to a new realm of operations where the possibilities of finding ready victims are almost endless. Yes, and nowadays, the opportunity for crass wealth display is also broader.
Even at that, the culture of exhibiting wealth, whether righteous or ill-gotten, is not new. If there had been Instagram in the 1950s, the former Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, would have done the same thing with his wrappers that were so long-flowing he had to attach their ends to a young boy so they would not sweep the floor. He would probably have exhibited his fancy cars online the same way the present generation does.
In the ‘90s, people used to converge around almanacs that displayed the wealth of rich people like the late Chief Victor Okafor, alias Ezego 1 of Ihiala, the famed king of money. None lingered on the question of how he made his money; they focused on ogling his stupendous wealth. They also made him a point of contact for their blessings. So, Hushpupi and co were exhibitionists of allegedly stolen wealth? Yes, and so were many Nigerians like Sani Abacha who did the same through a popular colour magazine
There was never a time that the world was better; neither is the propensity to steal other people’s money a new thing. The arrest of Hushpupi and co is one of the many manifestations of an economy of fraud and scams, even when they go by different names. That prosperity preacher teaching us about “wealth transfer,” and that young woman in the video telling people to patronise her “special packages” to get male sexual partners to part with their money are both in the same business: trading techniques of dispossessing others of their resources. When we trace issues within the broader context of history and connect them to contemporary happenings, we will come to terms with our culture’s imperfection. With that clarity, we can consciously shape our societal values more positively rather than indulge in nostalgic sentiments for a world that never existed.
In making the crimes seem like a cultural aberration, we even miss the wider moral implication of why they persist. Who knows, 10 to 20 years down the line, people of Hushpuppi’s generation too will be talking about the organised crime of the future as a generational thing. Once we acknowledge crime as an ineluctable part of social advancement and also understand that as modern technologies progress, all social behaviours —from religion to prostitution—too will seize on the new opportunity to propagate their wares, we will tackle them more competently.
Countries that understand those things have made allowances to mitigate the human proclivity to cheat by developing more sophisticated tools of combating the variants of crime each new era throws up. That is a more productive approach than passing down the responsibility across generations. There is no need for superciliously lecturing “younger generation” on their declining morals when the older ones were no different. Lose the hoity-toity attitude; the world did not start spoiling last night.