419

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419: The Death of a Nation’s Aspirations and the Corruption of her Reputation

 

By

 

Uche Onuora

uonuora@yahoo.com

 

September 9, 2004 

 

I intended to write a brief opinion as a follow-up to a posting that I made on the NaijaPolitics.com Yahoo discussion group yesterday. However, somewhere along the line, the opinion developed into a full-fledged article. I hope that you will oblige me a little leeway in making my points, no matter how incoherent they might seem at first. I forwarded the posting in question to the discussion group after a member on another discussion group (of which I am a member) posted it on the listserve. My immediate response was one of alarm at the implications. However, on further studious reflection, I have determined that a rush to judgment on this particular issue, and on the incendiary passions that it stokes, would be a great disservice to the bigger struggle that stares us in the face.

 

The listserve posting that sparked it all off was one that contained a link to the website of a fictitious university called the University of Nigeria (U of N) located at: http//:www.universityofnigeria.com. The university purported to offer courses in Macro Economics 101 (for lessons in leveraging mass marketing emails for 419 scams); History and World Events 400 (for a history lesson of how the US developed ARPANET to empower the Nigerian Economy via 419 email scams and other cyber perpetrated crimes); Accounting 419 (for a course on how to manipulate the US banking system); Statistical Psychology 200; and Fishing 100 amongst others. After getting over the initial shock of it all, I did a little bit of digging and discovered that the owner of the website set it up as his own way of fighting 419 scam emails. I discovered from the “whois” domain registration information that the site is owned and maintained by Mr. Steve Bedrosian.

 

In the course of my research and cross-referencing, I was able to contact Mr. Bedrosian directly, and speak to him at length about the impetus for the site, and the passion that sustains the substantial capital outlay and recurrent costs that go into maintaining the site. Apart from the domain registration, bandwidth, and hosting costs, there are costs associated with developing the websites (I found out that he had quite a few, about 3 or 4 related ones, see: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/weblog/bedrosian/), having real-time chat interfaces manned during business hours, answering service for the contact numbers provided, and manpower costs for content updates and management, to name just a few. I took on a pseudonym (and a false identity to boot) in my initial contact with him, because I was not sure who he was or what he was really up to. But after talking to him for about half an hour, I came to certain conclusions and I will share them with you in due course.

 

I will be honest, when I initially skimmed through the website (the University of Nigeria one); I was pissed off and upset with whoever was running the website. Even though I realized that it was basically a parody of the concept of 419, I was upset nonetheless. I was upset because of my misplaced righteous indignation as a result of the close similarity in name of the fictitious 419 university (U of N), to the real University of Nigeria at Nsukka (UNN), and my suspicions (which were eventually proven unfounded) that the site was hosted solely to disparage Nigeria’s already molested reputation. I recognized that a whole bunch of people could be misled into believing that the site was real with all the associated misconceptions that that would entail. However, on further reflection on the 419 scourge generally and this website in particular, I came to the conclusion that enough was enough, and that sitting on my butt ruing developments such as these was not going to make the 419 problem go away. The frustration gave way to mirthless laughter, and in the silence of my computer room, I came to realize that a gauntlet had been tossed to the ground in front of me; it was up to me to pick it up or shirk the responsibility. The ball, just like I admonished Civil Society in my last piece, was in our court, and whether we floundered or aced the serve was entirely up to you and I.

 

You see my people; the problem is not Mr. Steve Bedrosian or any other individual or group who tries to utilize parody (or any other means for that matter) to attack 419. The problem is with “we the people”. Those of us who still love Nigeria enough to give a damn. The problem is that once in a while when we receive the deluge of emails (either forwarded from co-workers, friends, or family) containing the tantalizing offers that 419 scams have become renowned for, our protestations rarely go beyond indignant petulance and ephemeral exasperation. While we condemn the scammers and vituperate to no one in particular about their soiling of our beloved country’s name, we do little else to move out of our righteous comfort zone, and neither do we actively participate in actions directed at unmasking, destroying, ameliorating, or checkmating the antics of these bastards.

 

We, in essence, have abdicated our responsibility to our society. A society that even though we reside outside its shores, we still owe an allegiance to; since that is where most of us were born and raised, and it is where our hearts hearken to on the lonely days and nostalgic nights. A society with which we share an unyielding love, and whose stumbles along the road to vibrant nationhood, gives us painful aches and sleepless dreams, even as we rue the idiocy of the parasitical elite that has usurped our mandate since as long as we can remember. As members of civil society outside the corridors of power, it is incumbent upon us to mobilize our rank and galvanize our file, in spearheading the societal renewal that we hope will take root at home. The scourge of 419 was given life and the sustenance to flourish by a lot of the “strongmen” (and women) that we see parading the length and breadth of political reality today in Nigeria. And just like the EFCC’s case against Maurice Ibekwe revealed, a lot of these miscreants have legitimized themselves and their cohorts, becoming in the process, as dangerous to our commonwealth, as sharks moonlighting as goldfish in a fish-tank full of tilapias.

 

Our inability to recognize this, or rather our complacency in the face of such clear and present threats, has meant that non-Nigerians and “outsiders” like Mr. Steve Bedrosian of www.universityofnigeria.com fame, the originator of www.419eater.com (whom I shall call Mr. Mike X), amongst others, are in the lead of civil society groups and individuals fighting these miscreants. With all the bad publicity and reputation shredding that 419 brings to Nigeria, it is a wonder that we have not been galvanized in sufficient enough numbers, and with an overwhelming array of resources to fight these characters head-on. And before we get all hot and bothered about this latest website, let us take a step back and honestly evaluate what it is that civil society, especially Nigerians in the Diaspora, with all their wealth of experience and IT savvy can do in battling this scourge.

 

In fact, if you read between the lines of Mr. Bedrosian’s site, you will no doubt marvel at the tongue-in-cheek manner with which he lays bare the absurdity of the 419 scam process. The very fact that he claims facetiously that ARPANET was created to give Nigerian 419 scammers unprecedented access and leverage to the international community via online scams, thus empowering the Nigerian economy, is enough to get us thinking in the direction that we need to take in combating this horde. The uncanny revelations that this website brings to the fore of the debate are what have astounded me out of my docile detachment from reality.

 

The side effects of the deluge of email scams emanating principally from Nigeria, or at least from Nigerian-oriented scam artists (even when they are not Nigerian nationals), continue to erode what is left of Nigeria’s vibrancy and/or reputation the world over. This is because of the simple fact that most individuals come across Nigeria or her reputation for the first time via the antics of these shadowy warriors of Nigeria’s new economy “miracle”. So the President’s image-laundering proposal notwithstanding, the opinion of Nigeria is formed and fashioned thus, and even by the behavior of Nigerians here in the Diaspora who by sheer hard work, rise into positions of authority. And if I may deviate from my train of thought for a bit, a major reason why the debacle of Emmanuel Onuwor, who gave quite a rousing speech at the NIDO conference in Atlanta in October last year, is especially heartbreaking to me. Moving along…

 

In trying to make sense of the 419 phenomenon vis-à-vis Nigeria’s visions of greatness, I have come across the persistent train of thought, no matter how misplaced, that this is our way of repatriating African resources that have been plundered from her shores over the centuries. These new age proponents of capitalist reversal of fortunes, argue that 419 is our way of paying European chauvinism back for its dismissive perception of African docility, and penance for the sins that Europe committed against Africa in the furtherance of its interests. These latter day pseudo-neoclassicists further intone that since succeeding African governments have colluded with Western Imperialists to strangle the local economies of African societies, especially in Nigeria with its huge human resource, then 419 scammers, as the new knights of the roundtable (not unlike Camelot) are determined to crusade in the interests of their societies to reclaim that wealth which was once lost, but is now found.

 

The warped logic of this mindset is difficult to dispel, especially if one is in the fervent clutches of extreme poverty, hunger, and disillusionment, so I will not even attempt to do it. The best I can try to do is reason with those who are not prisoners of a malnourished human existence, to help fight the scourge, not necessarily for themselves but for those who will come after. As its perpetuation is a fleeting relief for its proponents at best and an impediment to Nigeria’s wholesale economic integration with the global knowledge-driven economy at worst. Even then, I have learned certain insightful lessons after a careful study of the 419 phenomenon and its underlying philosophy. Apart from the obvious misapplied intellect, industry, and knowledge resource, it is safe to say that the only sector of the national economy in Nigeria, which has sufficiently leveraged the power of the Internet in a post-industrialized world, the economies of scale of emerging technologies, and the sophistication and innovativeness of the synergies of click-and-mortar collaboration (even better than AOL-Time Warner), are Nigeria’s 419 scam artists. They have utilized this channel (with tremendous lethality) to reach out and touch, and in turn be touched, by their prospective victims. So why haven’t we (the collateral damage of their war of “reparations”) been able to reach back and collectively damage them in return? That is the real question.

 

With the scourge of 419 email scams emanating from the homestead, and identity theft schemes rampant here amongst certain Diasporan Nigerians, efforts to attract benefits of the global outsourcing bonanza which countries like India, the Philippines, China, Russia, and now, even Ghana, are leveraging, will remain barricaded from Nigeria. The very thought of Nigeria and the idea of Nigerian participation in a market that entails the handling of sensitive data and records, conjures up frightening images even to Nigerians here in the Diaspora. A friend of mine was blunt and quite emphatic when he said to me that if his credit card company or insurance company outsourced work to any Nigerian company, he would cancel all his accounts with said company. Coming from a “patriotic” Nigerian, those were quite strong terms; a wake-up call like none other. And even as we bicker in debates over such topics, Nigerian 419 scammers are perfecting and reinventing strategies aimed at ramping up the number of “mgbadas” that they can capture. Employing all the principles of general business and corruptions of commercial practices, they have been able to carve out a multi-billion dollar economy for themselves. Aided and abetted perhaps by both the overtly and covertly criminal element within our society’s leadership.

 

It has been a long-running open secret in Nigeria that as long as you “settle” the powers that be, either in the security agencies or political leadership, then you are free from worries about repercussions. In fact, apart from the EFCC (under the leadership of the incorruptible Nuhu Ribadu), which has done a tremendous job of fighting 419 with little or no resources, the rest of the Nigerian anti-corruption fight can be deemed a farce. To put it more bluntly, the EFCC is out of place in an otherwise complicit (either by omission or commission) society. What is attainable is a situation where it (the EFCC) is fighting with both hands tied behind its back, as the legal system is outdated and is skillfully manipulated to perfection, by financially liquid 419 barons bent on avoiding consequences and punishment.

 

I am of the steadfast opinion that all the resources earmarked for the Nigerian image Project should be quintupled, and handed over to the EFCC as a stopgap, with the promise of an even heftier funding mechanism on the way, because with a laughable funding structure and scarce resources, there is no way that it (the EFCC) can make a significant dent in the armor of these reinforced stalwarts. Furthermore, adequate technically-savvy legislation (beyond all the big grammar) must be formulated, and entrenched into the legal statutes, granting the EFCC overriding power to enforce it, by pursuing and prosecuting complicit characters of the 419 scourge, especially of the cyber criminal variety. But that’s a topic for another day; back to the issue at hand.

 

In speaking to Mr. Bedrosian, he made certain poignant observations about 419 and Nigeria that got me thinking. Mind you, he is not a Nigerian and only came up with this website because of the preponderance of scam emails that he came across over the years. He was of the perception that judging from certain underlying and universally applicable principles, the Nigerian scam emails had a unique temperament or tone or philosophy inherent in them. It was these universal truths or principles or science that characterized their art, and which convinced him that most (if not all) of Nigeria’s scam artists must have shared a common academic alma mater in Nigeria. And that these principles of 419 (if you want) had to have been ingrained in a formalized academic setting, with course material professionally spelt out, curriculum clearly delineated, and credit meritoriously and academically determined. This perception is what gave birth to the imaginary University of Nigeria (U of N; not to be confused with UNN) concept. Of course when he initially started the website, he had no idea that there really existed an actual University of Nigeria at Nsukka (UNN). He was subsequently made aware of this fact when he was contacted by UNN representatives, who though they understood his parody, where ultimately unenthused about the similarity in the names of his fictitious university and the hallowed den of Lions and Lionesses.

 

As I thought more about the issue, certain technical strategies for fighting back started popping into my head. I discussed with a few of my friends on the listserve, and the decision was reached to utilize the same technology which these cyber-tyrants have utilized so effectively to terrorize Nigeria’s reputation, in returning the favor as it were. I have already written in a previous article about Mr. Femi Oyesanya’s schema for filtering 419 scam emails at the originating email servers. Mr. Oyesanya’s complete schema can be found at: (http://www.nigeriavillagesquare1.com/Articles/femi_oyesanya1.html). So we know for certain that the technology exists. What has been lacking is the political will to give the EFCC the legal backing to compel all ISPs and Cyber Cafes in Nigeria to install such 419 email blockers on all their email servers. But waiting for the Nigerian Legislature to back a law that could potentially curtail some of its members’ incomes or that of their friends, is like waiting for the proverbial camel to stroll through the eye of the needle with me on its back.

 

And so it is that civil society must lead the charge in fashioning effective means of societal participation in playing their role as watchdogs. This democracy that we all claim to love and cherish goes beyond berating the government and sitting on our butts all day long, moaning and gripping. It is hard work, it is 24/7 work, it is persistent oversight; it is continuous vigilance over all aspects of society. As was demonstrated admirably by the activities of the London-based N.A.F (Nigerians Against Fraud) which precipitated Suspended-Governor Joshua Dariye’s ordeal, ordinary citizens can play an integral role in the battle to redeem the fortunes of our country. As in that case, the battle to ameliorate the effects of 419 email scams can be taken to another level if we are ready to do so, and if we are sufficiently fed up.

 

The simple breakdown is to treat 419 scam emails as spam emails, and fight them as such, with a twist all of its own. After all is said and done, every email transmitted can be traced back to its originating source, or to a source close enough to its originating system or network, such that further back-tracking can discover the system that was used to transmit said email. The technology exists out there, and is relatively inexpensive. In the fight against terrorism, the US (and other) intelligence agencies have used sophisticated email trackers and electronic sniffing technology to pinpoint terror emails, their origins, and other particulars of each communication. However, relatively inexpensive methods of sleuthing can unravel the originating ISPs and Cyber Cafes in Nigeria of most of these emails. All it entails is persistent strategies and dogged oversight, combined with a group of fed-up citizens coalesced around a common charge. That is my challenge to you; there are plans in the works for that initiative, and when the time is ripe, I will reveal them. Enough is enough.

 

But going back to my contact with Mr. Bedrosian; while I cannot begrudge him his decision to deploy parody in taking the 419 scammers on, I do wish he had used a different domain name in setting up his fictitious university. This is just for the avoidance of mistaken identities in a cyberspace notorious for the gullibility of its unsophisticated part-time denizens. However, the entrepreneur in me recognizes the importance of a domain name that is similar to that of an actual prominent offline entity. It reminds me of the issues on both sides of the debate precipitated by the fight between the purveyor of the http://www.whitehouse.com adult website and the real Whitehouse.

 

The room for the mistaken identity issue to affect unassuming people’s perception of the real University of Nigeria, Nsukka might seem trivial to some and pronounced to others (depending of course on where you stand on the debate), but ultimately each party has a point. Since websites depend a lot on ad revenues driven by increased traffic, it is understandable why Mr. Bedrosian would want to keep the name. In actual fact, he doesn’t owe UNN any apologies; after all if they wanted the domain, why didn’t they register it before March, 2004 which is when Mr. Bedrosian registered the domain name? Nevertheless, an amicable settlement could definitely be reached if both parties agree to terms for a transfer of ownership. It could include compensation of some sort, but since I am not directly involved with either side, and in order not to prejudice any eventual outcome, I will leave my comments about the domain name’s future thus. Moving back to the more salient issues…

 

The truth of the matter is that most Nigerians that I sent the link to responded in righteous indignation for the simple reason that they are tired and exasperated by the negative news and reputation that Nigeria has garnered the world over. However, it took the work of a satirical vigilante, Mr. Steve Bedrosian, to spur me into action and out of my deep slumber. Most of us wish that the 419 scourge will simply go away and die out by some miracle of supernatural fiat. However, I have news for you. That ain’t gonna happen. American vernacular aside, if wishes were horses, we would have a plethora of horse-riding beggars gallivanting all over the place.

 

Since they are not, we have to get off our high horses and our lazy behinds, and step up to the line of scrimmage. It’s the fourth quarter and the clock is running out, we have one last time-out, but our opponents have the ball and are up by half a dozen points. We are in the huddle; I say if we fake a blitz, then their Quarterback will be surely poised to throw another Hail Mary into the end-zone, and seal their victory. Their Wide Receiver stands at 6’11”, with a vertical elevation of 4 feet; there’s no way we touch pigskin before him. I say we feint a 3-4 defense formation, then take the time-out immediately. Next we kill their Quarterback and then the Wide Receivers and the Running Back, all their offensive options, and I am sure the refs will fall in line after that and give us the win. You say that’s drastic? That’s taking the analogy too far? What the hell do you think this is; football? You better think again Skippy. This is the fate of 120 million human souls hanging in the balance, I am not here to entertain what-ifs or why-nots; I’m here to obliterate the enemy. But wait, give me a second, time-out’s not over yet, I’m loading up my gun. This is a civil war between 419 and Nigeria, and the former has definitely got to go. I don’t know about you, but I know what side I’m on. In this fight, I agree with the Bush doctrine, but I’ll paraphrase it a bit. You are either with us, or you’re with the cyber-terrorists. Think carefully and then choose; because this is a fight to the death, so that our country can live free.

 

Websites that you must see:

 

http://www.universityofnigeria.com

 

http://www.419eater.com

 

http://www.nigeriavillagesquare1.com/Articles/femi_oyesanya1.html

 

ftp://www.molsonandlee.com/m3u/ibru.m3u

 

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