Fraud in Nigeria is, according to documented history, at least a hundred years old, which means that for close to the duration of its existence, Nigerians living in Nigeria have, through some form of communication—letters, faxes, emails and now, social media—sought to receive sums of money from people or organizations abroad under false pretenses.
While the particular origins of the very first Nigerian scam attempt will vary according to sources, it is even more difficult, and more important, to ascertain the point at which point Internet Fraud in particular became so ingrained in Nigerians that it is now recognised less as crime and more as legitimate “hustle”.
When did parents stop asking their children about their sources of income? When did pastors start praying for the success of fraudsters? When did young boys start looking down on education in favour of a life of crime? There are questions to be asked forensically, and an autopsy to be conducted, because the damage to our society is already done.
Our society’s rose-tinted view on fraud is at least as worrisome as the crime itself, for any culture that seeks to lay down its code of conduct and actively ostracize those who contravene it will be alright in the long run—nobody would be in a hurry to make dubious money if it would guarantee they are cut off from everyone else. But Nigeria, in 2023, has effectively turned this around, and it is now those who still pursue legitimate interests that are under undue pressure.
Every society’s pop culture is a reflection of itself, so Yahoo has become a common theme in Nigerian music and comedy, and it is now very common and even uncontroversial to see artists explicitly recall their journey into crime in music.
When Olu Maintain’s “Yahooze” released in 2007, it was banned in many homes; Bella Shmurda’s “Cash App” dropped in 2020 to social media arguments over its glorification of fraud (that did nothing to halt its commercial success); now Shallipopi’s “Elon Musk”, essentially a tribute to fraudsters, is gliding up the charts with nary a pushback about its content. With each track, just like each year, we have unwittingly become more tolerant of crime.
Fraud, 419, wayo, yahoo yahoo, G-boy, coding boy, working boy—every new appellation for crime comes an attempt to dress up the act, to make it a little more acceptable, more humorous even, but the crime and its effects on victims have not lessened.
Any approach to reversing our society’s decadence will have to be two pronged—societal and governmental. Any attempt to win the conscience of those already involved or in support of fraud, futile as it may be, must lean on humanising the victims of these crimes.
The money does not come from nowhere. Real people, with real lives, have lost real money that they planned to do things with. An American teenager recently took his life after falling victim to 3 Nigerians who sexually blackmailed him, and it is a reminder that even if the after effects of fraud do not always make it to your cognizance, they are always there. For every Benz acquired and every club ‘shut down’, someone has suffered.
In reality, we cannot hope to change the worldview of our youth who are already actively benefiting from fraud by making him see his victims. You cannot say to a multimillionaire to leave his life of crime and dust his CV. He will need to be coerced, and this is where law enforcement should come in in an ideal country.
But if repentance was easier said than done, the government’s intervention is outright impossible, for the men who make the laws in this country often have strong links to a criminal past, and indeed our soon-to-be president is already swatting his own allegations of crime here and there.
The future looks bleak. And if these men were to take a break from plundering the country themselves and actually create stringent laws against fraud, who can we trust to actually enforce them? The conspiratorial Nigerian police?
If faced with a serious enough deterrent, a fraudster may have no choice than to return to the straight path. If no such checks are put in place, we run the risk of losing the rest of our youth to crime. Sooner rather than later, working class men and artisans earning a living not enough to actually live on will get their heads turned.
It is inevitable. Any society that leaves a man’s decision to delve into crime solely to his conscience, that provides no legal or social deterrents to crime, that even shames him for taking the right path, will crumble.