In a move that threatens to make emptying your spam folder much less amusing, the Nigerian government recently launched a big crackdown on so-called "419" scammers.
The 419 scam, named for the section of the Nigerian legal code outlawing it, reportedly rakes in billions of dollars annually. It works thusly: You know those weird, obsequious, all-cap business proposal e-mails you delete (e.g. GREETINGS OF THE DAY TO YOU KIND SIR: I AM THE WIDOW OF FORMER ASSISTANT UNDERSECRETARY OF PETROLEUM DEVELOPMENT PETER KUMBAYA-MYLORD-KUMBAYA AND IT IS MY GREAT PLEASURE TO WRITE TO YOU AND PRESENT MY BUSINESS PROPOSAL FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION)? It turns out lots of people actually believe the e-mails are real.
The 419 is an advance-fee scam, meaning "guy promises to send you $800,000 if you send him $1,000 to take care of the paperwork necessary to obtain the money."
But the 419 will forever be associated with Nigeria because it's the best-known Nigerian export: corruption.
Operation Eagle Claw, the crackdown on Nigeria's 419ers, won't stop all would-be con artists from walking into Internet cafes and trying to bilk gullible, greedy foreigners, but it's a hopeful sign. It suggests Nigeria's elected leaders might finally be coming to grips with their country's notorious culture of corruption that threatens its long-term survival as a nation.
Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. It's the continent's second-largest economy. And its military often provides the bulk of the soldiers participating in international peacekeeping missions in sub-Saharan Africa. In all the ways one measures these things, Nigeria stands as sub-Saharan Africa's most important country, along with South Africa.
But Nigeria has nevertheless been coming apart for years.
Despite its vast oil wealth, Nigeria's leaders have proven incapable of governing. A 2008 Brookings Institution study of developing nations ranked Nigeria among the world's weakest states, just above places like Somalia, Iraq and Sudan – countries annihilated by war.
Nigeria ranks so high on the list because of its top-down corruption. Nigeria's political and business elite have enriched themselves with oil money and ignored the people.
The most notorious klepto in Nigeria's history is its late military dictator Sani Abacha. He's believed to have looted between $3 billion and $4 billion from the treasury before his death in 1998. (Note: You know there's an accounting problem when you're off by $999,999,999.)
Abacha's been dead for a while, but he set a standard for corruption that the country hasn't recovered from. To this day, a tiny handful of business people and well-placed government officials are loaded, while more than 80 percent of Nigeria's 154 million people live on less than $2 per day. Corruption is everywhere in Nigeria because the only way to support your family is to hustle for scraps.
It's not a shocker, but Nigeria's poverty and corruption have stirred violent unrest. For years, rebel groups have been attacking oil installations in the Niger River delta. They're furious that billions of dollars of oil is being pumped from under them while they lack water, sanitation, schools, roads and electricity. Adding insult to injury, oil industry pollution has killed off much of the delta's fish reserves – the best source of protein in their meager diets.
To their credit, Nigeria's leaders seem to have realized the rebels, despite their violent acts, had a helluva point. Rather than continue to fight them, Nigeria offered them an amnesty. For laying down their arms, they were promised such things as education and jobs programs – i.e., the stuff governments are supposed to provide already.
Along with the 419 crackdown, state and local governments are starting to bring in outside auditors to help slow official theft and bribery. If successful, not only will less government money end up in the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats, but Nigerian entrepreneurs will have a better chance of succeeding on their own. When corruption goes down, prosperity levels rise.
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