419 and the Rest of Us

419 Fake money“If you wish to be anybody nowadays, you must dare some crime that merits banishment or imprisonment” -Juvenal

Four One Nine are numbers that sting every flesh. Almost everybody is aware of the number 419 but very few know its origin. Some think 419 is a telephone code number, others assume that it is the name of a club for notorious tricksters while some simply take it to mean the number of criminals involved in fraudulent deals abroad.

But the fact is that 419 refers to a section of the Nigerian criminal code numbered 419. It says: “any person who, by false pretence and with intents to defraud, obtains from any other person anything capable of being stolen or induces any other person to deliver to any person anything capable of being stolen, is guilty of felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years. If the thing is of the value of five hundred pounds or upwards, he is liable to imprisonment for seven years. It is immaterial that the thing is obtained or its delivery is induced through the medium of a contract induced by false pretence.”

All of a sudden, this section of the criminal code, which was tucked away and remained virtually unknown to the general public, is dominating the headlines. The fraudsters operate in simple ways.

A fraudster contacts his victim with some (fake) business proposals in the name of a DEAL, the outcome of which would yield huge fortunes. The victim is always asked to contribute some token amount before the deal could be clinched. After the contribution that would be the last he would hear of the fraudster and the mouth-watering deal. Like a drunk, the victim bursts out and narrates his pathetic story to whoever cares to listen or lodges complaints with the law enforcement agents. The suspect would have been gone, his business address, on investigation, would be discovered to be nonexistent.

Banks too are other free shops for 419 practitioners where they connive with some bank officials to defraud the banks large sums of money. Many foreign investors, bankers, businessmen and companies are victims of these “fast” Nigerians and now fear associating with anything NIGERIAN, even with their long time associates in business. Now, why do some unpatriotic Nigerians keep breaking records in the world with dubious activities? Why do they want this mother and giant of Africa to continue being a laughing stock? Many analyses attribute the cause to the economic situation in the country like inflation, unemployment, poverty, deprivation and lack of contentment.

Whatever we may say or do, the fact is that 419 is a phenomenon which cannot be easily erased from the society for as long as the standard of living of the citizenry is not improved by the people who have the power to improve it.

Most crimes are committed simply for lack of something to do. Successful criminals in Nigeria are now justified, putting a mansion here and there, riding the latest cars in town and doling money like “kosai” which have become the vogue among the fraudsters after they had “made it.” The society appears to accept them without bothering to question the sources of such exhibitions of opulence by the new moneybags. And like imbeciles, instead of our noble people, Malams, pastors, and eminent personalities within the society to enquire into the source of such wealth and to preach against it if dubiously accumulated, they encourage it by queuing up with other shameful beggars to get their share of the “haram” cake.

The 419 phenomenon is practised not by tricksters and fraudsters alone, but almost by the WHO IS WHO in the society. The lecturer has his con way of extorting money or gratification from his students. The fake Malams, pastors, herbalists would, with their sweet tongue and oratory, tell their victims that they can enrich him in a day with their prayers, divine water and herbs and that the victim should part with some of his belongings to them. And after meeting their conditionality, the victim ends up in abject poverty. An ordinary peasant worker who is double-minded, kind in words, but a tie in his conduct, would praise-sing people with choice adjectives to deceive them into giving him anything, just like some Nigerian musicians.

A businessman has artistry in bribing and corrupting the custodians of the law so that his nefarious activities are not nipped in the bud. Police, immigration and customs men are also experts at frightening their victims with jail sentences, or meting out deadly punishments on them until their pockets are dried. The senior officer in the civil service tells his innocent subordinate or unemployed person to pay the bribe so he could grease the palms of those in-charge, and ends up giving nothing. The politician has the tongue to deliver promises in his bid to ensnare a 419-gullible electorate into voting him after filling their ears with a bagful of lies and deceit and ends up enriching himself and looting the masses’ treasury after their electoral supports.

And for the military men, they know how to play the great 419 by staging demonstrations worse than that of students in the name of coups, claiming that they are doing so to give us good government, but end up doing worse. There are thousands upon thousands methods of fraud and deception we engage in daily, a thousand of methods of cheating creditors, business associates, subordinates, neigbours etc. with some perpetrators among us who have achieved names flaunting their loots in bright colours, while the fresh fraudsters always disappear quickly into thin air, until they establish the name and base in society. Whenever the arm of the law is about to pounce on them, their powerful accomplices in the society free them.

This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in New Nigerian May 10, The Democrat June 1, 1992,


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Yushau Shuaib