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New Bushs Old Ghosts

Cyber crime is a burgeoning business in West Africa, despite often primitive infrastructure, intermittent electricity supply and Western assumptions that Africans surely could not be capable of the third largest bank heist in history. Louis Chude-Sokei tells otherwise.

Despite being accused of mangling Africa’s past and embarrassing its present, author Amos Tutuola was really after the future, something his critics never understood. Prophesy is a dirty business and the future he saw for Africa – assuming you read The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with forward-looking and backward-bending eyes – was simply not as pretty as that old mania for freedom insisted.

For example, there was nothing quaintly folkloric about the description toward the end of The Palm-Wine Drinkard of marching armies of dead children, terrorising villages and towns just like the child soldiers who’ve been suckling at the guts of the continent for the past decade. And they are always already dead. In Tutuola, nothing was more terrifying than this inevitability.

But it’s in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts that you get the clearest mangling of youth and the possible. The book is full of references to Western technology – all indistinguishable from the “juju” that suffuses his work. As Arthur C. Clarke postulated, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, which is to say that magic is merely any sufficiently advanced technology.

Take the “Television-Handed Ghostess”, whose palms are screens through which our lost hero sees his home, family and friends. It is through those screens that he teleports home after decades lost in a bush that upon careful reflection is very similar to the internet. It is structured by de-centered, recursive pathways, full of strange sudden creatures and is rich with endless possibilities for freedom and terror, valleys of gain and loss.

Take also the “Invisible Missive Magnetic Juju”. Tutuola describes it as a communication that can bring someone home no matter the distance, even against his or her will. Now past the 1990s cusp of the Nigerian internet crime industry, what matters is that for this juju to work (and it doesn’t), one has to pay up front. It is essentially a 419, named from the Nigerian criminal code, also known as “advance fee fraud”.

It’s hard to shake these scenes from your head as you walk through those areas in Nigeria called “computer village” – from Alaba in Lagos to the one in Onitsha, by the River Niger. Through clouds of red dust are signs: “Computer Repair”, “Speedy Programming” and “Internet Café”. These are indeed magical places, made of battered wood and rusted zinc. It’s where the detritus of Western and Eastern digitisation either goes to pile up in jagged cathode ray mountains and die, or awaits repurposing in wiry bundles and circuit board batches spread across acres of e-waste.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts cover

These computers and components have been donated by Western charities and NGOs. Many were brought from Ghana or South Africa while a steady stream arrived from China even before that country began its obsessive courting of the continent. But the vast majority of these machines have been brought in by enterprising Nigerians, who since the late 1980s have known that what would mark this generation more than blight, violence or corruption was a hunger for web-based connectivity. With almost no formal education, many would master the essentials of computing in this bush of potential ghostware.

The hunger for information technology wasn’t generated simply by the dubious pleasures of globalisation on satellite TV. It was generated by decades of forced national myopia due to a series of military dictators, who appeared just as the overdeveloped world was going digital. The government’s intense denial of information during that period had much to do with the hunger for global connectivity and the lust for economic growth that has characterised these last 30 years of Nigerian cultural life. So if Bangalore can be credibly called the “Silicon Valley” of India, “computer village” demands some similar sobriquet because its place in the world and history of the internet is equally assured. While India has become a primary site of internet outsourcing, Nigeria has become home to “invisible missives” that might have emerged following oil wealth during the era of the dictators, but arrived at everyone’s doorstep with computers. That they began as hand-written letters, travelled globally with the introduction of fax machines and the internet, and are now disseminating wildly with cellphones, shows their tandem evolution with communications technology in West Africa.

What these scams really are is the public face of West Africa’s intimacy with digital technology and of Nigeria’s refusal to wait passively for justice from their political system or global charity. Few outside of Nigeria, however, take them seriously and are stunned to learn that so many people in so many countries fall for them. Official statistics suggest they bilk the United States of billions of dollars per annum and even more in the UK. Now that they’ve set their sights on China and India after decades assaulting Singapore, Australia and Ukraine, there is more for them to gain.

With this year’s global economic downturn promising to affect not only foreign aid but also the economy-sustaining remittances sent home by immigrants, we should brace ourselves. There will be more of those comical, strangely earnest emails clogging our inboxes and promising us intimacy with a world that might be as excitingly unstable and magically profitable as it seems.

The strangest thing about these scams is this: they have become such a part of our lives and the lives of banks, lawmakers, the FBI, Interpol, Scotland Yard, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and innumerable citizens without anyone balking at the very idea of cyber-crime from a country where much of the population is without regular electricity, running water, access to computer technology, decent transport and road infrastructure, and survives on less than one US dollar a day. Even with optimum access to an internet café in Nigeria it can take hours to download a single song from iTunes or days to retrieve a simple document.

Yet Nigerian scammers are perfecting the art and science of website construction and pulled off the third-largest bank theft in history: Banco Noroeste in Brazil in 1998. They have robbed Merrill Lynch, impersonated governments and hustled government officials, and done irreparable damage to the reputation of Nigeria’s legitimate business sector.

Though belied by the ramshackle modesty of internet cafés, staggering losses have been identified in more than 38 countries. This should make us rethink commonly held assumptions about the “digital divide”, as well as stereotypes of passive Africans whose suffering is their only virtue. But this is not unprecedented in the black world. A prophetic example is an island like Jamaica, which on the verge of its political independence produced a tech-savvy and machine-obsessed shantytown musical culture that went on to irrevocably transform global sound production. Reggae too emerged in, around and, arguably, due in part to crime.

It’s no accident that the scammers – locally called “Yahoo Boys” after their beloved ISP, one of the first to be freely available in Nigeria – carry themselves with a trickster swagger. Much of their style and taste in music is indebted to reggae rude boys and hip-hop ‘hustlas’. Because their activities are tacitly supported by many of the disenfranchised and because they are connected to forces in the political status quo, they walk aware of their position as quasi-folk heroes.

One wonders if the casual acceptance of their scams and the ease with which they have been turned into humour might have something to do with how the world generally feels about blacks and Africans. It is possibly because the scammers and their fake websites, counterfeit documents and intricate global networks come from a place rarely linked to sophisticated technology or this level of guile.

Many letters actually play on this combination of innocence and venality. They are written in a prose not too far from Tutuola’s, with its brash, hyperbolic naiveté, its wild schemes and seemingly accidental poetry and its clear hearkening back to those wide-eyed Onitsha Market Pamphlets that are the root of modern Nigerian fiction. Such language easily reduces one’s guard. After all, could you really be duped by someone with such atrocious grammar?

It’s a classic con, really, the first rule of which is that you convince the victim that you the conman are an utter idiot. The second is to engage the victim in a conspiracy in which both of you are on the edges of guilt, if not in the midst of full culpability. That conspiratorial intimacy keeps them afloat over time and space. It is also responsible for one of the most curious psychological aspects of these scams. After investing x amount of money, it becomes easier and easier to invest more. Desperation mutates into an aggressive form of trust. Victims begin to flagrantly display their vulnerability, sending money blindly into the void.

This conspiratorial tone is crucial to the ethics of the scammers. Ethics, because if the success of the 419s depend a great deal on how the developed world sees Africa and Africans, so are they an index of how many Africans see the over-developed world. Yahoo Boys – or Sakawa boys in Ghana, who have turned explicitly to juju to guarantee their scams – certainly know they are breaking the law.

However, they are not convinced what they are doing is a crime, especially if the so-called victim willingly participates in a clearly suspicious scenario. To respond is to comply, blinded by your own greed. The money, after all, comes in sums far too large to be legal and the transaction is in some trans-national grey area, hence the need for haste and secrecy. This, however, is only true for the “advance fee” scams, but is the structure to which the Yahoo Boys almost all refer to for justification.

To speak to them and move through the culture that has sprung up around them in Lagos – beer parlours and night clubs on Allen Avenue, Chinese restaurants in the suburb of Ikeja or on Victoria Island where real money displays itself – is to hear talk largely of morality. In some ways this is not surprising. Nigeria is a barely secular country and the Yahoo Boys are Christians mostly, since it is in the south and south west that these crimes and this culture are largely clustered.

The Muslim north has always been cautious of and resistant to Western education and technology, which is also why it is taken for granted that 419 must have been developed by Igbos. Igbos were among the first to embrace Christianity and Western education in Nigeria and are most often victims of the genocidal fury of the North. Since the Nigerian Civil War, in which that fury was most notoriously expressed, ended in 1969, they have felt kept from their share of the country’s wealth and political power.

Yet the obsession with ethics is also not surprising because to speak of morality in the context of Africa, Jamaica, the West and crime, is to speak of colonial history. However disingenuous their arguments might seem, most Yahoo Boys are clear about their relationship to continuing forms of economic and political domination. Or, at least, they are clear about their mastery of this language of guilt and innocence, victimisation and responsibility.

So to speak of 419 is to address the fragile and dubious architecture of foreign aid, debt and charity that undergirds the West’s continuing under-development of the African continent. It is also to address the complex and often inadequate ways that many on the continent respond to their predicaments. But perhaps in this muddle of ethics and reparations, history and compensations, there remains a hint of that strict moral code that papa [Chinua] Achebe famously identified in Tutuola’s writing.

After all, despite their intimacy with computers and the internet and despite new, ever-more sophisticated generations being spawned in “computer village,” no Yahoo Boy has ever directly hacked a system. Well, none so far.

 

 

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Louis Chude-Sokei‘s story was originally a feature in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available in our online store). A comic version by 3bute is digitally viewable here.

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

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