Parts of the echo chamber expended much effort in colouring the distinction between “criminals who are Nigerians”, and an offshore process that, on the strength of this, seeks to demonise “every Nigerian as a criminal”. The facts, of course, don’t support this conclusion.


“American authorities charged 80 people in relation to a huge internet-fraud operation. Most of the accused live abroad, the majority in Nigeria. Eleven people were arrested in Los Angeles County. The people are accused of conspiracy to defraud people out of millions of dollars, through romance scams and confidence tricks aimed at the elderly, the indictment said.” Thus wrote The Economist on a developing news story that arrested the imagination of our talking heads all of last week.

Reactions were as multi-themed, as they were all over the place. Of the many threads, three are worth reflecting on a wee bit more. Arguably the least acceptable of the many directions in which the conversations have headed is where the focus has been on – the ethnic colouration of the people charged with these crimes. Without doubt, Igbos make up the bulk of the names on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) charge sheet. But if this proves anything at all, it is that for low-level crimes, ethnicity compensates for a natural trust deficit. And more than in any profession, lawbreaking requires considerable levels of trust amongst its practitioners. This fact is evident as much in the domestic sex-trafficking industry with its epicentre in Edo State ― and where, in addition, a good helping of the fetish is thrown in to help cement the different relationships.

This tendency of criminals from the same nationality to come together in advance of their trade is as evident in the Albanian gangs roaming across Europe (strengthening their credentials through a growing notoriety for blunt-force violence), as it is in the Cosa Nostra (Sicilian Mafia), the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and the Neapolitan Camorra. In this sense, our Igbo brethren have conducted themselves in keeping with the rules of their trade. No plaudits, here, though! As criminal organisations move up the production possibility frontier, however, they acquire a strong need to collaborate across specialisations and geography. If nothing else, the need to launder the proceeds of crime imposes on the narrower, ethnocentric, crime gangs an objective constraint, which must be transcended. At these critical inflection points in the growth of their “businesses”, reliance on ethnic relationships for the guarantees needed to function is always not enough.

It is a measure of how successful we have been in this enterprise that Nigeria Incorporated is, today, a vast criminal enterprise, whose captains are the nation’s leading examples of “successful lives” — and they are Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Kataf, Ogoni, Tiv, Itsekiri, Esan, etc.


This leads us to the second important thread from last week’s conversations. Parts of the echo chamber expended much effort in colouring the distinction between “criminals who are Nigerians”, and an offshore process that, on the strength of this, seeks to demonise “every Nigerian as a criminal”. The facts, of course, don’t support this conclusion. Indeed, few things are more obvious than that the conclusion in the argument that “Okechukwu is an advance-fee fraudster. Okechukwu is a Nigerian. Therefore, Nigerians are advance-fee fraudsters.” is non sequitur.

But only up to a point. We only need to remind ourselves that the Nigerian state is one example of criminality traversing ethnic and geographic boundaries in order to invite a caveat in this matter. In order to successfully rape the state, a profusion of competences is called for — the ability to win (or suborn electoral processes); control over the authoritative allocation of values; access to and unmediated use of the banks, as also the media channels, etc. And now we know that these competences are diffuse across our diverse ethnic and geographic spaces. It is a measure of how successful we have been in this enterprise that Nigeria Incorporated is, today, a vast criminal enterprise, whose captains are the nation’s leading examples of “successful lives” — and they are Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Kataf, Ogoni, Tiv, Itsekiri, Esan, etc. A key consequence of this — that across domestic sub-cultural spaces, including in our places of worship, we no longer find major malfeasance (insider abuse, connected party activities, for example) a threat to our social fabric — feeds the so-called offshore criminalisation of the Nigerian.

Is there, also, a causal relationship between this second thread and the first one? In other words, how much of the failure of our state is responsible for the recourse to low-level international crime by our youth? We could go on and on debating this. But there is no question that, irrespective of how we choose to organise ourselves, there will be criminal elements amongst us. How we respond to these threats as a people is what matters the most.

The righteous indignation associated with this, and the speed with which most commentators distanced themselves from the notion of “Nigerians as criminals” was all for the good. But it does not absolve any of us of responsibility for fixing this space.


This leads us to the third aspect of the conversation. Because of the racketeer-influenced and corrupt organisation (RICO)-like nature of the Nigerian state, it has struggled to enforce its own laws against all manner of rule-breaking conduct — including low-level infringements as the motorised rickshaw’s preference for driving against traffic. In result, the most prominent rulings on domestic corrupt practices have been obtained in overseas jurisdictions. Consequently, because our domestic enforcement mechanisms are not trusted by other jurisdictions, the latter have all of two choices in their interactions with us: Either they exclude Nigerians from coming into their countries (through onerous visa requirements, for instance); or they strengthen enforcement protocols at the point of entry and during the average Nigerian’s stay in their spaces, which then begin to look like racial profiling.

Much of the discussion on social media was taken up by this latter consideration. Not surprising, given how worldly the average Nigerian netizen is. The righteous indignation associated with this, and the speed with which most commentators distanced themselves from the notion of “Nigerians as criminals” was all for the good. But it does not absolve any of us of responsibility for fixing this space.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.