This is not the best of times to be identified as a Nigerian, especially if you are a Nigerian in diaspora. It is indeed the worst of times to be Nigerian because of the kind of daredevilry that our compatriots have demonstrated in recent times, in criminal pursuits of such scale, texture, volume, and depth, not at intervals but at an alarming pace and regularity, not just in one country or continent, but from continent to continent, country to country, giving such impression that perhaps apart from the traditional Cosa Nostra, the Italian Mafia, or the Russian Mafia, or the Colombian Mafia, Nigerians probably run some of the most notorious underground crime networks in the world today.
In the last few weeks alone, there have been so many reports of Nigerians being involved in one crime or the other, and apprehended for the same reason, and these are reported cases from Singapore, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and the United States. There may well be many other cases that are yet unreported or that may never be reported. Nigeria is thoroughly embarrassed. The Nigerian brand is damaged. Our national identity takes a bashing, even if the crimes are committed by a minority. “What a country?”, you may ask? The sharp increase in the frequency and scale of these international crimes involving Nigerians is something worthy of closer interrogation. What is wrong with our people?
The Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) reports that in 2018, 73 Nigerians were sentenced to death in Malaysia for drug-related offences. When the figures for 2019 are collated, that number is likely to be higher. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are 144 Nigerians serving various jail terms for drug crimes; and according to the NDLEA, all 144 convicts are from one Nigerian village – “Nnewi in Anambra State”. In Thailand, 650 Nigerians (650!) are in prison for drug trafficking. In Saudi Arabia, there are, according to reports, 23 Nigerians currently on the death row, again for drug-related offences. Saudi Arabia is a religious and spiritual destination for many Nigerians. It is shocking that some of those Nigerians who go to that country for pilgrimage also carry on them narcotic and psychotropic substances. Saudi Arabia has a very strict death penalty law. Not a few Nigerians have been executed in the Kingdom for drug-related offences.
Many Nigerians live and work in the United Kingdom. Perhaps for reasons of historical affinity, Nigerians troop to the United Kingdom in search of a home away from home. But our compatriots are also gradually becoming far too notorious in that country. In March 2019, six Nigerians were members of a 10-man gang of fraudsters who were found guilty of online fraud, hacking software, in a total of 228 diversion frauds over a period of four years. They were convicted and sentenced. The gang was led by one Bonaventure Chukwuka. They robbed their 69 victims of a total of 10.1 million pounds. In May, a 28-year old Nigerian, Gloria Makanjuola, described in the UK media as a “Nigerian serial robber” was also convicted. Her specialization: theft of bank cards which she used to make contactless payments. There is also the report on three siblings (the Nakpodias) who in August 2019, were jailed in the UK for a total of 16 years for helping “the Black Axe syndicate” to launder about one million pounds through the UK banking system. The trio and their patron also face criminal charges in Greece for advance fee fraud.
In the last decade alone, more than 10 Nigerians have been executed in Indonesia for drug-related crimes, four of them by firing squad in 2015, despite pleas for leniency by Nigeria, the United Nations and Amnesty International. About 153 others are still on the death row in Indonesia. Across Asia, it is reported that about 16, 500 Nigerians are in prison, and in South East Asia alone, up to 600 Nigerians are on the death row.
But perhaps the most shocking report of criminal conduct by Nigerians would be two major cases reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. The first case involves Obinwanne Okeke, 31, also known as “Invictus Obi” who has been arrested by the FBI over an alleged $12 million fraud. Okeke’s case is interesting in that he seems to fit perfectly into the typical profile of those Nigerians refer to as “Yahoo Boys”. These are young men who live large, and conspicuously, and who may on the surface run what looks like legitimate businesses as cover for the wire and internet fraud that is their main occupation. Obiwanne Okeke, especially, just 28, when he launched out, cultivated the image of a role model for young persons in Africa. In 2016, in recognition of his investments in real estate, oil and gas and the construction industry in Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, he was listed by Forbes Magazine among Forbes 100 Most Influential Young Africans. He was also nominated for the All African Business Leaders Award. In 2017, Okeke was recognized as a panelist at the Wharton Africa Business Forum. In 2018, he gave a TEDx talk in Lagos. Okeke was also later featured on BBC’s “Focus on Africa”. The BBC described him as “an inspiring entrepreneur”. Forbes must be ruing its error of judgment. The BBC must be wondering what is still inspiring about the guy. It is up to Obiwanne Okeke to defend himself.
The second topical case is the indictment again by a US Federal Grand Jury of 77 Nigerians on August 22, 2019, for their involvement in massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through Business E-mail Compromise (BEC) scams, romance scams and other fraudulent schemes. The FBI has already arrested many of these persons while the remaining suspects are believed to be at large, in Nigeria and elsewhere. This is said to be one of the largest scam busts in the history of the United States, involving victims from about 11 countries. In the past, Nigerians talked about 419 (Section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraudulent advance payments and obtaining by pretense), but the scammers soon raised their game and began to engage in online scams, (the yahoo boys as Nigerians call them), then of course, there was the growth of romance scams, and now, the proliferation of hackers and business account compromise scammers. Nigerians scammers are determined; some of their antics are unbelievable. One Amos Paul Gabriel, a 48-year old Nigerian was jailed for money laundering in Singapore. He went to jail but he remained a criminal even in prison. He has now been convicted and jailed again for defrauding a fellow inmate of $37, 800. He remained active even in prison! Obviously, imprisonment was not enough deterrence for him.
In all of these cases, Nigeria’s name gets dragged in the mud. The collateral damage is colossal. It explains why for example, in South Africa, Nigerians are looked down upon and treated with utter contempt by persons who were beneficiaries of Nigeria’s generosity and solidarity during the fight against apartheid. South Africans accuse Nigerians and other Africans of coming to spoil their country and steal their women and businesses. In Ghana, next door, Nigerians are not popular either. When stories are told of how a group of Nigerians once robbed a bank in Dubai, and all these other stories of internet scam come up, security agencies, diplomatic missions around the world and other persons are likely to latch on to a stereotype about the Nigerian brand and identity, even if unfairly. Days after the arrests by the FBI hit the airwaves, the US Embassy in Nigeria cancelled all appointments for visa by Nigerians and by that effect also abolished its “Drop Box” policy for visa applications. There has been no public uproar among Nigerians. What can we say?
The Nigerian Government through its agencies has made it clear that it frowns upon any form of misdemeanor or criminal conduct by Nigerians either at home or in diaspora. It affirms its readiness to co-operate with international security agencies to track down any Nigerian, complicit in international criminal allegations. The Nigerian President, we are told, may also sign an Executive Order to address the issue of online fraud. But while government may have been hitting the right notes on this matter, the emergent public conversation has been dominated by ethnic and religious name-calling, further reflecting Nigeria’s fault lines and moral turpitude.
The arguments that have been put forward in this heavily conflicted public conversation are as follows: (i) that it is not fair to tar all Nigerians with the same brush because the Nigerians indicted, convicted and punished abroad represent only a very small fraction of Nigeria’s 200 million plus population; (ii) some other Nigerians insist that it is mostly Igbos, that is Nigerians of South Eastern extraction, that are usually guilty of international crimes. They insist that all the 77 Nigerians indicted in the recent FBI case in the US are Igbos, and most of the drug cartels are led by Igbos; (iii) Igbos retort that crime has no religious or ethnic face. There are criminals in every community, and in every religion and so it would be unfair to put the blame on Igbos, and that in any case, the FBI failed to observe Federal Character which is a constitutional requirement for everything Nigerian! (iv) Nigerian Muslims have pointed out that most of the arrested and/or identified suspects in the US are Christians and Southerners, but they are also immediately told that Nigerians on death row in Saudi Arabia are basically Muslims and they are not Igbos, but Northerners, Yoruba and other ethnic groups; (v) some other commentators argue that Nigerian drug dealers and internet fraudsters get caught because they are petty fraudsters who can be easily caught. They argue that the biggest criminals in the world are not in Africa, but in Europe and the US, and that the FBI and similar organizations should focus more on the big scammers instead of trying to harass small-time fraudsters; (vi) there are other Nigerians who try to strike a moral tone and advise that crime does not pay, all that glitters is not gold and that every criminal should expect to be caught someday.
Nigerians always find it difficult to form a consensus on anything. Football used to be a unifying force but with many Nigerians now addicted to European football leagues, teams and players, even football has become a source of division. Certain points need to be made. Nigerians behave like aliens in their own country. When they travel abroad, they are worse. Since the civil war, 1967-1970, there has been an abiding sense of alienation between the state and the people and the gradual erosion of a sense of what it means to be Nigerian. The country’s value system and ethical codes have failed. The leaders, military and civilian, have not set good examples, the institutions function at habitually sub-optimal levels, civilian rule has not led to expected rise in standards and values. Under the military, theft and impunity became the order of the day, under civilian rulers in the last 20 years, the threat of impunity has doubled, the collapse of morality has tripled.
Nigeria is one country where gain without work is acceptable as long as everything glitters. It is one country where a man or lady, who had no job in January can suddenly become a multi-billionaire in dollars in August and nobody will ask questions. He or she doesn’t even have to pay tax or declare the source of income. He will get the best women, the best cars, the largest circle of friends, chieftaincy titles, national honour, and a government appointment. He will dine with the high and mighty, childhood friends in high places whose election campaigns he would have funded anyway, and in addition, he will enjoy massive police and military protection. The media will celebrate him or her. If the police try to arrest him, the military will set him free! To play big in this kind of a-normative environment, where the state itself is a criminal enterprise, where credibility is on decline, many Nigerians resort to criminality on a bigger scale, locally and internationally. When they get caught abroad, in places where the systems work, even if they are convicted or executed, they may still be treated as heroes by their relatives and kinsmen back home in Nigeria who will simply argue that they were just unlucky to have been caught. Nigerians are likely to blame a Pastor or shamanist for failing in his or her spiritual duty to the convict. One drug trafficker who was executed abroad was given a lavish burial in his community in 2016, in a golden casket and hailed as a savior!
Nigerian leaders need to provide good leadership and lead by example. Institutions in Nigeria have to be strengthened. Religious leaders, who wield so much influence over the Nigerian public mind, must stop acting like rogues and teach the truth. Nigeria needs a Ministry for Ethical Re-orientation! Unemployment drives young Nigerians to the Devil’s workshop. We must do something about that. In April/May, Zainab Habib Aliyu, 22, and one Ibrahim Abubakar were saved from being charged in Saudi Arabia in a drug-related matter after the Nigerian Government intervened. In Singapore, another Nigerian, Adili Chibuike Ejike, 39, barely escaped the death row because the court acquitted him. It is not every Nigerian criminal suspect abroad that will be so lucky. The rest will be punished, they will tarnish Nigeria’s image and they will inconvenience the rest of us.
Dr. Reuben Abati is a former Special Adviser to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan.