Nigerians are intimately familiar with yahoo yahoo, an old term used to describe internet fraud. It started from yahoo boys defrauding unsuspecting foreigners they connected with through their yahoo accounts (hence the name), evolved to Gmail—spawning the G-boyz tag—and now probably covers most of the activities we would call 419.
Even as Nigeria’s international notoriety for fraud and deception persists, young people in the country continue to express diverging views about yahoo yahoo. Is it, as this article will argue, an enduring stain on Nigeria’s reputation, a practice that imposes visible social and economic costs on victims?
Or is it just another way to make money in a country where the only real crime is poverty?
A culture born out of poverty
Our reputation for fraud really took off after the 1985 oil price crash. General Ibrahim Babaginda, military ruler at the time, slashed military and civil service salaries in the wake of a recession. Within five years, Nigeria’s inflation had more than doubled and the exchange rate had gone from ₦1/$1 to ₦17/$1.
But even as economic conditions continued, the Nigerian elite continued to pilfer the treasury. Short-changed by their leaders, young Nigerians turned from victim to villain, exploiting and defrauding unsuspecting—though arguably greedy—foreigners on an expanding internet. As time passed, leaders and citizens doubled down on their exploitation, earning Nigeria a score of 27 out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, and a rank of 144 out of 180 countries.
419 is just a game
Nigerian society is so divided that country’s five richest men could lift all 90 million Nigerians out of poverty for one year. At the same time, money and power are highly intertwined in Nigeria, making the act of escaping from poverty a do or die affair.
In a country where people are willing to do anything to escape poverty and victimization, it is no surprise that we continue to argue whether corruption and fraud are ever legitimate means of making a living. After all, society reinforces the idea that they are: in Nigeria, your wealth allows you to buy nearly any luxury and privilege, including the forgiveness and adoration of the public, irrespective of the source of your wealth.
This narrative feeds into how fraud is implicitly celebrated or glamourised in art and media. Olamide, one of Nigeria’s biggest Hip Hop artists, owns a record label called Yahoo Boys No Laptop (YBNL), and two of the biggest Nigerian records of the 2000s are “Yahooze” by Olu Maintain and “I go chop your dollar” by Nkem Owoh. In the latter, Mr Owoh chimes, “Oyinbo man I go chop your dollar. I go take your money disappear. 419 is just a game; you are the loser, I am the winner.” Grift is a part of the success story in our national narrative.
Fraud and financial exclusion
The most obvious consequence of our reputation as a hotbed for financial crime is the number of international financial businesses that refuse to do business in/with Nigerians.
Until September 2018, American Express had blacklisted Nigeria on the back of a spate of fraudulent activities using its cards. The firm only changed tact after recognizing the large number of honest Nigerians demanding its services. Prior to the change, foreign visitors scrambled to find other payment methods while in Nigeria.
Likewise, Nigerian Paypal users are still not allowed to receive and withdraw funds, they can only send and make online payments. This restriction was imposed when some Nigerians used the payment platform to defraud foreign buyers on Ebay (Paypal’s parent company until 2018). Financial restrictions of this kind are costly and inconvenient, and sometimes deny Nigerians opportunities available to other people. The additional impact here is the reduction in the competitiveness of Nigerian businesses and individuals on the global stage.
Nobody trusts Nigeria
When I moved to the UAE in late-2015, settling in was relatively easy. Getting a visa was straightforward, opening a bank account took less than a day, and getting a house was even easier.
Except for Nigerians.
If you were Nigerian, it took you longer because the immigration authorities and banks had to run your name through WorldCheck or a similar screening system to make sure you were not on any terrorism or corruption watchlist.
Anyone with just a Nigerian passport would be familiar with the experience. Just recently, the U.S. suspended Dropbox visa applications in Nigeria and enacted stricter visa rules. This comes as no surprise though; the Nigerian passport has dropped from 62nd (2006) to 93rd (2019) on the Henley and Partners Passport Ranking. We are ranked above just twenty-one countries, including the likes of Yemen (still in Civil war) and Kosovo (only recognized as an independent country by half the members of the United Nations).
The Index is the most sophisticated measure of global access, and focuses on the travel freedom provided by a passport. In essence, it measures a country’s soft power and reputation. For us, it tells us that many countries do not trust Nigerian passport holders enough to let them into their country without thorough background checks through visa mandated travel.
An underappreciated cost of Nigeria’s reputation for scams is this erosion of the credibility of the Nigerian stamp. Your national ID card is scrutinized, your bank statements are questioned, your employment history is ignored, and so on.
For the honest Nigerian, this is an injustice.
On Twitter, the Nigerian author and satirist Elnathan John wrote a thread on all the extra preparation required while travelling internationally as a Nigerian. The extra paperwork and preparation required while travelling on the global stage is price of Nigeria’s reputation for fraud and corruption.
The Infographic Show, a highly informative channel tackling major issues, did an episode on why so many scams come from Nigeria. The episode provided incredible detail into why 419 remains predominant in Nigeria. The most interesting line in the show points to how a lot of scammers do not consider what they do to be stealing as they are not able to see the wider costs of their crimes to their victims.
This is the heart of the matter: many Nigerians still do not 419 to be wrong in light of the political, economic and social issues faced in Nigeria. Nigerian culture is so focused on getting rich at all costs that even blatantly criminal and immoral activities are papered over. In the game of life and death in Nigeria, they see fraud as a simple cheat code.
One day, we will realise we are all victims of yahoo yahoo.