SWITZERLAND, JUNE 14 – As night falls in Agege, a densely populated area of Lagos known for its slums and gangs, street activities continue as usual, despite increasing cases of COVID-19. The street bars remain open here, despite a strict ban imposed by government on night clubs and bars. Suddenly, there is commotion as a group of teenage boys began to celebrate. One of them, a fifteen-year-old, has just received 300 dollars from a ‘Client’.
For those not familiar with Nigerian street language, Client is another word for ‘Maga’, the name Nigerian electronic fraudsters known as Yahoo boys, call their victims.
The boy who had received the money became a hero instantly.
“Hushpuppi!” his friends called, lifting him in the air.
The real Hushpuppi is not likely to get excited by 300 dollars. Known for his flagrant display of an ostentatious lifestyle via social media, Hushpuppi has become a mentor to Nigeria’s new generation of youths seeking quick money in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.
A few days ago, Hushpuppi and some friends were arrested at a hotel in Dubai. Although unconfirmed, there are reports that he was arrested in connection with COVID-19-related fraud in the United States. Today’s Echo had reported last month that over 100 million dollars of COVID-19 unemployment benefits had been stolen by a Nigerian scam syndicate from Washington State in the US. Media sources say the arrest was the culmination of several weeks of investigation involving collaboration among different law enforcement agencies including the FBI, INTERPOL, and Dubai Police.
When Today’s Echo contacted INTERPOL’s international headquarters, the organization said it does not make arrests but investigates and reports to relevant law enforcement agencies in various countries, referring us to Dubai Police. The incidence has however, been confirmed by INTERPOL’s Nigerian office.
From the onset, Hushpuppi had been a somewhat enigmatic character. Although there has been no proof, many Nigerians suspected his wealth may not have been acquired through legal means, but they loved him, nonetheless. Despite his apparent affluence, it was hard to trace a commensurate source of revenue. Once when he was asked what he did for a living, he said he was an internet beggar. At some other time, he said he is an ambassador for Gucci. Even after arrest, his real name remains a mystery with different versions touted in the media including Raymond Igbalodely, Ramoni Abbas, and Ramoni Igbalode.
Hushpuppi’s arrest has generated a lot of attention in the social media as Nigerians discuss the increasingly popular notion among Nigerian youths that money has to be obtained by any means.
Like the teenage boy from Agege, several young Nigerians have looked up to Hushpuppi and other so-called big boys who flaunt incredibly flamboyant lifestyle despite widespread poverty in the country. They drive fast cars, wear designer labels, fly first class and hang out with the sexiest girls. It is easy to see why, in a community like Agege which has been abandoned by the government, these figures will be seen as mentors.
A String of Arrests
Hushpuppi is not the first Nigerian ‘big boy’ to be arrested and will likely not be the last. In the past one year, many rich, influential young men of Nigerian origin have been arrested by foreign crime agencies in connection with fraud.
In August 2019, the FBI arrested a Nigerian business tycoon, Obinwanne Okeke over an alleged conspiracy to commit fraud running into the sum of 12 million dollars. Okeke, known as Invictus Obi is a prominent young business tycoon that has once been listed by Forbes as one of Africa’s 100 most influential youths.
Obi had previously been seen as a shiny example of the Nigerian youth; suave, rich, and engaged in meaningful business. He was nominated for the All African Business Leaders Award for Young Business Leader (West Africa), the most prestigious award for African businessmen/entrepreneurs in the region. He had also been praised by some of the most influential people in Nigeria, including former vice president and opposition leader, Atiku Abubakar. His arrest sent ripples of shock through the Nigerian society. Thought to be a legitimate business tycoon, Obi’s arrest exposed him as a suspected secret internet fraudster, or ‘Yahoo Boy’ as the Nigerians call it.
Following Invictus Obi’s arrest, the FBI unveiled a list of 80 Nigerians indicted in a massive fraud, targeted at American individuals and companies. According to the FBI, the defendants allegedly laundered the funds through a Los Angeles-based money laundering network. Some of the names on the list were found out to be people with links to influential people, including politicians in Nigeria.
Invictus Obi’s arrest was not as shocking as that of Hushpuppi’s friend, Ismaila Mustapha, also known as Mompha, but no less intriguing. Mompha, a Bureau de Change operator with a flamboyant lifestyle that appeals to young Nigerians, was intercepted by law enforcement officials in November 2019 while on a trip to Abuja, Nigeria. A 14-count charge of laundering N33 billion was immediately slammed on him. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC alleged that Mompha laundered the funds through a firm, Ismalob Global Investment Ltd, between 2015 and 2018.
Mompha was eventually released after a 100-million-naira bail.
The Hopelessness Feeding a Dangerous Trend
Endemic poverty, political corruption and rising unemployment have been fingered as the root causes of the dangerous trend of money worship among Nigerian youths. Successive military and civilian regimes have failed to address issues of infrastructure, security, and economic development.
With over 91 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty, according to a 2019 report from the World Poverty Clock, a Vienna, Austria-based data lab, Nigeria has been declared the poverty capital of the world.
In June 2019, the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced an unemployment rate of 23.1 per cent, at the same period Ghana’s rate was at 6.8 per cent. This would get worse with the COVID-19 pandemic, with a projection of 33 percent in 2020, according to the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige.
Despite repeated promises by President Muhammadu Buhari, security has not improved significantly under his rule with Boko Haram and bandit groups carrying out successive killings in the North-East and the North-West. Few hours after the president asserted that his government had degraded insurgency and banditry, Boko Haram executed two members of the Nigerian security forces and filmed it. On the same day, bandits carried out a gruesome attack that killed a village head in Buhari’s home state of Katsina.
Despite billions of dollars sunk into Nigeria’s power sector, constant electricity continues to elude Nigerians. This has made it difficult for entrepreneurs to keep cost low and grow fast.
Nigeria’s lingering problems are not reflected in the lifestyle of its political elite, many of whom have often been accused of corruption.
“Nigerians are frustrated by the failure of government to meet their needs. They feel the government has abandoned them and they are forced to turn to themselves. They see the politicians living in luxury despite widespread poverty. This has led to the situation of hopelessness that is fuelling these electronic crimes,” Political analyst, Epa Stevens told Today’s Echo.
With the rising number of hopeless, unemployed Nigerian youths, many are forced to adopt the ‘get rich or die trying’ mentality. They hail anybody with a display of wealth without bothering about the source and they rather aim to get their own slice of the pie instead of needless probing.
A source who craved anonymity, told Today’s Echo that most Nigerian youths no longer see electronic fraud, known as ‘Yahoo Yahoo”, in Nigerian parlance, as a crime.
“Electronic fraud is now an open secret in Nigeria. Everybody knows somebody that knows somebody that is doing Yahoo Yahoo but nobody cares anymore. In fact, many of these boys have become heroes to the young people on the street. Even when they are arrested, they are seen as victims of the system and not criminals. You can’t blame them, the government has neglected us all,” the source said.
Ruining Opportunities for Honest Nigerians
Nigeria’s condition is not in in total gloom. Buoyed by their vibrant disposition and enterprising spirit, many young Nigerians are taking their destiny in their hands and creating enterprises. They continue to be hampered by the problems but remain undaunted.
However, Nigeria’s infamous reputation as the source of internet scams is constituting a stumbling block to these honest Nigerians.
Muyiwa, an engineering contractor who supplies and installs electric equipment for Nigerian power plants told Today’s Echo that his foreign business partners always demand for a down payment whenever they realize he is a Nigerian.
“It is very frustrating. While my counterparts from other countries are given all sorts of discount, I am made to scale difficult huddles simply because they don’t trust a Nigerian,” Muyiwa said.
The endemic unemployment has stimulated the Gig economy in Nigeria and launched a new set of self-employed Nigerians who are into freelancing. They collect remote jobs from anywhere in the world and execute them without leaving their desks. Writers, programmers, graphic artists, digital marketers, and other professionals are expanding their scope to deliver bespoke services to foreign clients. Nevertheless, freelancers have also been victims of Nigeria’s poor reputation.
Emeka, a programmer who writes games for clients in the US and Europe says he has lost many clients after their discovery that he is a Nigerian
“Is it a crime to be a Nigerian?” Emeka asked, his frustration visible on his face.
“There was even one taunting me yesterday, saying she suspects I may be a fraud just like my brothers. But the few that have decided to trust me are always happy they did,” Emeka added.
The menace of quick money has crept so deep into Nigerian pop culture that Nigerian music artistes often encourage it in songs with praises to enigmatic figures with names like Hushpuppi, Investor BJ, Mompha, Baddy Osha, and Sati Ramoni. While many Nigerians see them as some kind of Robin Hoods, the mentality they instigate has become a menace that is stifling opportunities for the majority, who may never be able to make money by honest means if this trend is not checked.
“What we need is a complete reorientation,” says Epa Stevens.
“Nigerians need to know that they stand more to gain by denouncing fraud rather than encouraging it or condoning it with the excuse of government failure. Yes, we know the government has failed us, but we also need to take our destiny in our hands and engage in honest enterprise. That is the only way we can salvage our battered reputation. If we start to condemn every internet fraudster in our society for what they are, things will eventually get better.”
Nevertheless, the spectre of unemployment and poverty hangs on the Nigerian youth. There may never be an end to the multitude of Nigerians engaging in vices like electronic fraud, drug trafficking, and prostitution if there is no significant improvement in their socio-economic conditions.