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American Ponzi schemes versus Nigerian 419 scams

Yet, although Madoff is American and the Ponzi scheme he perfected to a science is as American as an apple pie (Ponzi scheme is named…

Yet, although Madoff is American and the Ponzi scheme he perfected to a science is as American as an apple pie (Ponzi scheme is named after an American called Charles Ponzi who invented the scam in 1903), no one has called the swindle an “American scam” in the same way that 419 email scams are called “Nigerian scams” even in the official communications of Western governments.

Indeed, shortly after the magnitude of Madoff’s fraud became public knowledge and the mass outrage of Americans began to seep in, the American media, including the influential New York Times, strained hard, in fact too hard, to exculpate Jewish Americans of associational complicity in Madoff’s staggeringly monumental scam. Which is as it should be. No innocent person deserves to share in the guilt of another person’s crimes by the mere fact of sharing the same ethnicity or national space with the criminal.

The trouble is that this consideration is not often extended to “other” people. Email frauds from Nigeria are committed by a tiny minority of Nigerians— and from a particular part of the country. But the scam is named after the entire country even in official U.S. government documents.

As I once argued on this page, even though 419 email scams are omnipresent on the Internet and swindle many innocent (but sometimes greedy) people out of their hard-earned money, Nigerians are not the worst perpetrators of Internet fraud in the word. That dubious honor, interestingly, belongs to Americans, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, the two U.S. agencies that monitor Internet crime. Yet there is no such thing as “American Internet scams.”

The statistics on the Web site of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) show that between 87 percent and 76 percent of all Internet fraud reported in the world between 2001 and 2008 was committed by Americans.

In 2008, for instance, only 7.8 percent of Internet frauds were perpetrated from Nigeria. Compare this to America’s 66.1 percent and the UK’s 10.1 percent. Add to this the myriad of offline frauds that America has birthed in the past couple of years—Ponzi schemes, multi-level pyramid schemes, telemarketing frauds, etc—and you have a place that is more deserving of the epithet “a nation of scammers” than Nigeria.

The figures from IC3 also show that 419 email scams cumulatively constitute less than 3 percent of all online frauds and that the prevalence of these email scams decreased from 15.5 percent in 2001 to less than 3 percent in 2008.

While our unflattering international reputational profile may be deserved—no one can deny, for instance, that there is high-level corruption in high and low places in Nigeria and that many of our compatriots engage in spectacularly high-profile international crimes—we are not worse than many countries that are outside the radar of the Western media.

This was the conclusion reached by a US-based Gambian professor of international relations at Miami University called Abdoulaye Saine who visited Nigeria for the first time this year. In a perceptive essay titled “Why the bad-rap about Nigeria/ns,” Saine wrote: “Contrary to generally held negative perceptions of Nigerians, they are a gracious and hospitable people who are welcoming of visitors.  This is not the case in many parts of the world. Why then have Nigerians and Nigeria had such a bad-rap?  In a country of over 130 million or more along with a large Diaspora, one is certain to find many bad apples.  Regrettably, it is the bad apples that give Nigeria and Nigerians their less than flattering image.”

This gracious appraisal of Nigeria and Nigerians, rather paradoxically, elicited negative reactions from many Nigerians in the diaspora. Some said the author’s account of Nigeria was overly saccharine; others slandered him as being “in the pay of the Nigerian government.”

It would appear that most diasporan Nigerians have a deep psychological investment in the perpetual portrayal of Nigeria and Nigerians in the worst imaginable light. It’s hard to locate the inspiration behind the excessively showy but contemptibly piteous self-loathing that many diasporan Nigerian unceasingly exhibit on Internet discussion boards. I can only surmise that some diasporans have a psychic need to justify their dysphoric exilic conditions by habitually imagining the worst of their homeland. National self-hatred now functions as a psychic defense mechanism to suture and soothe the rupture and frustrations of voluntary expatriation.

While I perfectly understand the sentiments that inform the angst that many of us—both at home and in the diaspora—feel at the unimpressive pace of our growth as a nation and the ineptitude of our post-independence national leadership, I am constrained to observe that the counter-intuitive, knee-jerk self-hatred Nigerians spewed in response to Professor Saine’s sober and nuanced article was truly pity-inspiring and ridiculous. For me, that wasn’t patriotic disillusionment or self-reflexive criticism; it was ludicrous self-dislike.

The larger import of the author’s write-up, in my mind, is to make the case that Nigeria isn’t nearly as terrible as it’s been cracked up to be, that many countries that have more flattering external images than Nigeria are, in fact, not qualitatively better than Nigeria.

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