US Senator Ted Cruz recently sparked controversy when he joked that site issues on the new Affordable Healthcare Act (which critics call “Obamacare”) resembled something built by Nigerian scammers. Cruz represents the state of Texas, which has a large Nigerian population, and his constituents were understandably not pleased.
Ted Cruz’s statements were crude and racist, but the fact does remain that Nigerians are the second-highest perpetrators of online fraud (after the United States). Our nation consistently ranks near the top of the annual corruption index and we also run one of the largest criminal networks in the world, usually trafficking drugs and people. So perhaps we should ask ourselves: What is it about we Nigerians that makes us seem so “criminally-inclined”? Are we a 419 nation?
One theory is that the collapse of the economy in the 80s meant that many citizens could not rely on their leaders to provide security, social welfare, health and education and so turned to informal networks instead. Thus, as scholar,Aimar Alkholt noted: “Nigerian citizens are broadly dependent on creating social networks for higher life-quality security.”
Alkholt theorises that this reliance on informal networks, what he calls the “Economy of Affection”, within the country has made Nigerian criminals especially adept at finding the weaknesses in official and bureaucratic structures and exploiting them. Indeed the international Nigerian criminal network has been notoriously difficult to crack because unlike the Chinese Triads or the Italian Mafia, we don’t have a centralised structure. Every Nigerian seems to be in the business for his or herself.
“…individuals brought up in a society where the informal is more important than the informal, where social networking and the people you know gives you more security than the state … Can it not give such individuals a higher potential for social networking skills when their most important day-to-day skills are navigating the social ladders and networks rather than finding their way through a bureaucratic states maze of services? Is it not then possible that the somewhat unique dynamic of 419 fraud in the Nigerian Criminal Networks has evolved partly because of this affinity toward social networking?”
Furthermore, making one’s fortune through criminal enterprise has few social consequences in Nigeria. Commentators have noted that most discoveries of massive fraud and corruption in Nigerian society is often met less with anger and outrage, than glee and more often silence. Historian Max Siollun traces this to the tendency in Nigerian society to revere the ostentatious display of wealth regardless of its source.
In his latest book, Soldiers of Fortune, he notes:
“Large-scale corruption was made possible by the Nigerian public’s worship of money without questioning the moral basis of its acquisition. There is no moral consensus in Nigeria that corruption is necessarily negative. After all, it has allowed some people to get rich – albeit largely at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
This association with criminality has cost ordinary Nigerians. We are often subject to extra searches at airports and we find it difficult to get visas to countries in Europe and North America. The UK recently proposed a N750,000 fee on visitors to the country – refundable only when we leave. Is this a perception we can change? Or are Nigerians doomed to always being a punchline in someone else’s joke?