By Toyin Falola
When the drafters of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act formulated Section 419 of the Act, I am sure that they never intended that the number of the section would supplant the name of the crime. The section prohibits the offence of obtaining by false pretence with the intent to defraud. The Code imposes a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment as punishment. However, the section that intended to legislate the prohibition has been elevated by society to be the offence itself, and many who use the word do not know that it was an instrument for preventing such a crime and not the definition of the crime itself. This is how socio-lingual developments work. Despite the rich cultural diversity of the people, these common experiences, languages and phrases aggregate social intents and depict society’s position on a particular social phenomenon, with fraudulent activities as one of them.
The word 419 is used in two ways: as a noun for the offence itself and as a word to describe the person involved in such an act. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, wicked individuals who take from you, inconsiderate of your trust in them and how hard you worked to make ends meet. They are the neighbours who live off your kitchen utensils with no intention of getting theirs, knowing you are too kind to deny them the urgent use of your gas cooker. They are the Omo Nna who sell you carefully sealed fufu wraps as luxury phones in Computer Village. They are the Omo Onile who sell the same parcel of land to five different people and threaten to attack you if you dare confront them. They are 419, and they are everywhere.
Nigerian society is a cloak of many colours: while you meet outstandingly good and nice people, you must shine your eyes in certain instances to ensure that all you have are not pilfered from you. Else, your head will keep spinning in the rhythms and lyrics of o ti lo, e don go! Everyone who wants to carry out a transaction or get involved in a business that you cannot predict its outcome is always cautious and on edge. For a thief, you lose your belongings instantly and often with the fear of being attacked or killed, but it is more painful when you replay how you ignorantly lost money or willingly parted with your possessions without a gun to your head. You then beat yourself up for foolishly falling “mugu” to the fraudsters; that is the horror of 419, self-blame and regrets.
Bawa, EFCC Chairman
There are the common Yahoo boys who defraud people both within and outside the country and lavish the hard-earned labour of another at parties, doing dorime. Spending a lot of money aimlessly and on frivolities is easy for their likes as they do not know or have never experienced the pain people go through to make money. These sons and daughters of deception disguise themselves in so many ways to convince you about their genuineness. They have created and developed different techniques. Sometimes, they use unsolicited emails to propose a project in real estate, financial advice, investments and wealth developments, or anything that can easily capture the interest of their victims.
In other ways, they devise hoax strategies to sell non-existent properties to innocent individuals. A popular example is the former internet celebrity Ramon Abbas (Hushpuppi), with a track record of successful scam deals and a plan to defraud an English football club. Hushpuppi built a 419 network almost worldwide, scamming the unimaginable and amassing unbelievable wealth. On October 24, 2021, the Vanguard Newspaper narrated the story of one agriculture exporter, Obinna, who fell for a fake letter of credit from a purported bank in New Zealand and was defrauded for about $150,000.
In Nigeria, thousands of low-budget Hushpuppies wreak horror nationally and internationally. Probably, there might have been some level of compensation if the money that is obtained is reasonably used; instead, they “bleach” their skins and live expensive lifestyles, amassing cars, luxurious designer clothes, and, of course, with loads of babes and oloshos on whom they carelessly lavish other people’s hard-earned money. They are OG Phresh on white socks, making Grade 8 government workers question their existence and causing lecturers to be ashamed of bringing their cars to school. I mean, the parking lot is already filled with exotic cars; where would the innocent and hardworking lecturers park their pangolo. These young fraudsters do drugs, harass people, and do whatnot with money scammed off unsuspecting victims.
Regrettably, society indirectly celebrates these miscreants and worships their money. Churches and mosques give them special seats and reverence in congregations. Police officers salute them for N1000 egunje. Police? These are another set of 419s in black uniforms. I think some wear blue on-black and camo uniforms now. You can change the appearance but not the man! They camp on roads to intimidate people and forcefully take money from those going about their daily duties. Most often, they do not even bother to search you or are interested in discovering whether you are a suspect or thief. While they leave the children of the dark world alone, they threaten to shoot the innocents who cannot transfer money to them from mobile bank apps. They are the ones that search for applications that show any form of international conversations or transactions. Some also claim that some seize your phones and install incriminating applications and materials. Some also plant contraband materials on you so that you would be at their mercy, and when you refuse to cooperate on days that they are not in the mood, they shoot you dead without remorse. Ole Alasodudu!
A careful look at other sectors shows that 419 is a thriving business in Nigeria. For instance, it is a common sight in certain areas to see parcels of land, houses, and other landed properties marked with “Not for Sale, Beware of 419.” These imprints on buildings would not come as a surprise, as many landlords have lost their houses through dubious schemes by unscrupulous societal elements. They mostly approach their victims with fake documents and sell the same property five times to unsuspecting individuals. Should we discuss how the jobless ọmọ onile saga affects the country’s real estate sector?
There is enough to say about 419 in real estate and agencies. Caretaker Jara e would show you an apartment he manages, telling you the landlord has travelled abroad. He would offer an overpriced amount as rent and still collect other charges, then ask you to wait for the landlord. You will only realise that they have “shown you Lagos” when you realise his number is unreachable and he never managed the house. That is for fake agents, but even the real ones are not without fault. The difference between the rent of an apartment and the “total package” is about 50 per cent of the rent, which is different from the huge form for agreement fees, service charges, and caution fees. When they give you that total package, you might think you are renting an apartment in heaven. And the apartment in question? A mouse hole with a toilet and kitchen merged an eyesore.
In 2020 and 2021, there was a wave of investment scams across the country, especially among youths who, with the mindset of a better tomorrow, agreed to invest their savings and any money they could raise. The agreement was to pay them back a percentage between 15 and 30 as a return on investment while their capital subsists. These Ponzi schemes come with overbearing assurance, as the interest is paid for some months, so you will be encouraged to increase your capital, only to tell you that they have crashed and lost all your life savings. On December 1, 2022, an article published in The Guardian by Geoff Iyatse and Anthony Otaru revealed that Nigeria had lost about N911 billion in the past 23 years. MMM, MBA Forex, Nospecto, Givers Forum, Get Help World Wide, Ultimate Cycler, Crime Alert Security Network, Voltac Global Capital, and Racksterli, among others, are popular names in the business. There were claims of people who invested their pensions so that they would only be getting monthly salaries, those who invested their school fees took loans, and many others. This has led to untimely deaths, sicknesses, and unspeakable repercussions caused by lifelong regrets.
What about the 419s in the oval offices of appointments and elected positions? The political terrain has dished out several versions of scams to innocent Nigerians. While snakes are swallowing public funds, monkeys are carting away millions in Naira, records of funds are being burnt in fire accidents caused by demons, and investigated individuals effortlessly faint, acting out their best Nollywood soap opera.
Let us speak about 419s in the Holy of the Holies, dishing out the verdicts of the Almighty, with the aim of filling their bank accounts. There are men and women of God, but many of them only do their bidding. These men (and even women) of the cloth have become so influential in the lives of the people whom the country’s economic situation and challenges have pushed to an endless search for solutions. Unfortunately, they fall victim to these wolves in sheep’s clothing, with their situations becoming even worse than it was.
See, the shades and versions and acts of 419s are endless. The point is these people are close to you. They are the beggars who pretend to be blind or ill. They are the fine boys and biz girls who send you fake alerts of bank deposits. They are the travel agents who can send you to heaven after duping you of your last penny. They are the Baba Ifa who ask you to return recharge card pins they “mistakenly” sent you. They are bank officials from any bank you are led to mention while they ask for your BVN. They are simple and easy-going individuals you can never imagine. They are average and unsuspecting, but they are deadly. They are 419s! Before you know it, they are dancing “Maga don pay” at the club while you tearfully and passionately sing “In Christ alone my hope is found.”
Today, the nation is fast growing a despicable identity and reputation because of the level of fraudulent activities allowed to foster in society. My wish for you is that you never fall victim to a 419 scheme. I implore the government and citizens to take this growing tumour seriously, or else we all will lose the fruits of our honest toils. The country must provide more job opportunities for youths, increase average salaries, and empower relevant agencies to stop this menace. If we do not do this, I hope Aso Rock or the National Theatre will not be eventually sold to an unsuspecting and gullible buyer.