How does Nigerian Politics Influence Your Inbox?

You may never have heard of Nuhu Ribadu, but you will likely feel the impact now that he has been unceremoniously dumped from his job as head of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission in Nigeria.

Just watch your e-mail inbox. Until he was suddenly sent on a training course this summer, Mr. Ribadu was Nigeria’s anti-corruption czar. He had the distinction of being the first government official to go after ordinary conmen and to win mass convictions for the e-mail scams that have put Nigeria on the map in the online world.

It is uncertain whether his replacement, Farida Waziri, will display anywhere near the vigour or the bravery that Mr. Ribadu displayed in tackling what has become a multi-million-dollar industry in the oil-rich, but governance-poor West African nation. Then again, that might help her escape the fate of Mr. Ribadu.

Whatever the official reason for his demotion and that of 139 anti-corruption officials he trained, the reason put forth in numerous media reports is that his investigations had moved too high up the political ladder and were focusing on allies and associates of the current Prime Minister, Umaru Yar’Adua.

Targeting conmen who made their money off gullible foreigners was one thing, but zeroing in on corrupt officials involved in even larger scams was something the government could not tolerate. And so Mr. Ribadu had to go.

Nigeria didn’t invent the advance fee fraud, better known as the 419 after the section of the Nigerian criminal code that prohibits making money through fraud. By some accounts it existed in the late 1600s and was known as the Spanish prisoner scam. You will recognize the elements. The mark is approached by someone who claims to be in correspondence with a wealthy person who has been wrongly imprisoned. All the mark had to do to win a handsome reward was to provide money to bribe the guards.

You would think that no one could be taken in by such transparently false stories. But you would be wrong. While estimates are hard to come by because many victims are too embarrassed to complain after the fact, Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations, a company in the Netherlands that has been tracking these scams for more than a decade, estimates that $4.3-billion was lost to such frauds in 2007.

Closer to home, the RCMP received 169 complaints for what they call the “West African Letter Fraud” in 2007, involving losses to the victims of $5.5-million. In the first seven months of 2008, they received another 94 complaints amounting to losses of $2.8-million.

Not all of the perpetrators are Nigerian. However, Ultrascan believes that the bulk of the estimated 300,000 people working this scam are Nigerians, either working from their home country or abroad. Which is why it matters to Canadians what the Nigerians are or are not doing to crack down on advance fee fraud.

Nigerian politics may seem complicated and even uninteresting, given that the country is so far away. But e-mail fraudsters have forged a direct link between what is happening there and your e-mail inbox and, if you are truly unlucky, your bank account.

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