Operatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States went to town recently with the names of some 77 Nigerians they nabbed over financial crimes in that country. While many compatriots agonise that these criminals are hideous ambassadors of their nation, not a few have argued that scams of this nature have their ancestry in the colonoial days and, in many cases, have tentacles in mysticism. Over time, scams in Nigeria began as small time trickeries and pilferings; they graduated to crass stealing of the people’s commonwealth and now they have grown up to become cross-continental grand larceny.

One of those with this submission was Stephen Ellis (13 June 1953 – 29 July 2015), a British historian, Africanist, human rights activist and Desmond Tutu Professor of Youth, Sport and Reconciliation at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the VU University, Amsterdam. He was, according to his biographers, “a member of various editorial boards, including that of the Journal African Affairs, of which he was a former editor. His research was mainly concerned with contemporary Africa, such as developments in Liberia, Nigeria, Madagascar, South Africa, Sierra Leone and the global impact of Africa.”

In his most recent book, This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime (posthumously published in April 2016), Ellis, as written by many reviewers, investigates how Nigeria became a breeding ground for illicit trade, large-scale corruption and organised crime. He shows the stages as colonial (when an educated elite in the civil service and nationalism started emerging), the independence periods when a new political elite came up and high level corruption ravaged the land and the age of globalisation, aided by the information super highway. In the book, Ellis demonstrates that the means of communication to make the fraud possible changed from street trick, African mesmerism, activities of fraudulent pastors , letter writing through Post and Telegraphs and scam emails, (now graduating to cyber/fraudulent bank tranfers).

Proffesor Stephen Ellis.

Who would have thought that the first person to be tried under the 419 criminal code was not a Nigerian but a Ghanaian? That was a fact! This, according to Ellis, happened on 18 December 1920, when a certain, Mr Crentsil, a former employee of the colonial government in Lagos, then Nigeria’s capital, wrote to a contact in the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Crentsil, who was almost certainly originally from the Gold Coast although living for many years in Nigeria, as the historian narrates, launched into a long description of the magical powers that were in his possession and that could, on payment of a fee, be used to the benefit of his correspondent. Crentsil signed himself “P. Crentsil, Prof. of Wonders”. He seems to have written numbers of similar letters to various people, writes Ellis.

He reveals further: “According to the evidence at hand, ‘Professor’ Crentsil has to be regarded as the first known exponent of modern Four One Nine (419) fraud in Nigeria. In December 1921, Crentsil was charged by the police with three counts under various sections of the criminal code including section 419, the one to which Nigerians make reference when they speak of Four One Nine. Crentsil was lucky, however: a British magistrate discharged him with a caution on the first count and acquitted him on the two others for lack of corroborating evidence, as a result of which ‘[Crentsil] is now boasting that he got off owing to his ‘juju’ powers’, reported the chief of police in Onitsha Province. The same officer stated that he had known Crentsil for some years, during which time the ‘Professor’ ‘had slipped though the hands of the police so often that I shall soon, myself, begin to believe in his magic powers”’.

The book reveals further that Crentsil’s case was not unique, adding that the early colonial archives reveal many cases of people from outside Nigeria soliciting money from Nigerians using what colonial officials regarded as false pretences. “Many such solicitations seem to have been from India. In time, the colonial authorities became sufficiently concerned by the number of letters addressed to Nigerians from outside the country soliciting money in this way that they started to intercept items of what they called “charlatanic correspondence”.

The Director of Posts and Telegraphs, as the historian reveals, specified that this category included adverts concerning “medicines of potency, and unfailing healing power, lucky charms, love philtres, magic pens with which examinations can be passed, powders and potions to inspire personal magnetism, remove kinks from hair—or insert them—counter-act sterility and ensure football prowess”. Nigerians who responded to offers like these by buying mail-order charms “were continuing an old tradition of communication with the invisible world, now by means of new techniques. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs recorded 2,855 such items in the years 1935-8, 355 in 1945, 5,630 in 1946 and 9,570 in 1947, the amount of money returned to senders was some 6 £1,205.11 Many of these offers of magical powers were made by foreigners writing to Nigerians.”

The situation was so bad that in 1922, the Colonial Secretary in London, Winston Churchill, wrote to Sir Hugh Clifford, the then Nigeria’s Governor General advising him to ban certain types of letters called ‘Charlatanic correspondences’. What brought that about was that J.K Macgregor, who, for 36 years, was the Headmaster of Hope Waddell Institute in Calabar (where Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was educated) had discovered hundreds of letters written and received by his students “ordering all sorts of books, charms and even potions from England, America and India in particular.”

Stephen Ellis situates what happened during the period within the context of traditional religion or mysticism. In his words: “Many of these offers of magical powers were made by foreigners writing to Nigerians. In view of the tradition of religious communication through juju-type objects, it is difficult to say whether Nigerians who offered mystical services for a price were vulgar charlatans, as the colonial police thought, or people who really believed themselves to have gifts of prophecy.

What we can say, though, is that their activities can be understood within an established repertoire of techniques for communication with the invisible world by “creating” good fortune. The only true proof of such powers is their effectiveness. If a man buys an amulet and wins a football match, or a woman buys a fertility charm and becomes pregnant, they may think that the medicine worked. The person who produced it gains in reputation.”

There were also cases of Nigerians who lived large and gave an over bloated and false impressions of themelves outside these shores. This historian calls them confidence tricksters. Ellis cites the example of one Prince Modupe, also known as Modupe Paris and David Modupe, who spent years in the USA under a variety of fantastical guises. “In 1935 he was recorded in Los Angeles presenting himself as a graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, although that institution had no record of him. In March 1947, he appeared on the bill at the San Francisco Opera House under the name His Royal Highness Prince Modupe of Dubrica. Seven months later he was still in San Francisco, now claiming to be the Crown Prince of Nigeria and representing himself as a successful businessman. He managed to obtain a variety of commercial contracts. He seems to have been a professional confidence trickster.”

Elli reveals another Nigerian operating in this field as one Prince Peter Eket Inyang Udo, a businessman who lived in the US and Britain for some 17 years. In 1949, the US consul-general in Lagos reported the existence of one “Prince Bil Morrison”, in fact a 14-year old boy living in what was already a lively and cosmopolitan city. Morrison specialised in writing to correspondents in America to solicit funds. The police remarked that this case was just “one more in which generous, but possibly gullible, American citizens have allowed themselves to be taken in by African schoolboys.” The US consul-general reported to Washington: “These young Nigerians are stated by the Police to be excellent psychologists”, noting that their practice of writing to people in the USA and Canada for money was “widespread”.

This present darkness. A history of Nigeria’s organised crime by Stephen Ellis

That time, mysticism was a great factor and this manifested in the tricks played by those who wrote letters abroad or received same from India for talisman or those who operated as money doublers. It was (and still is) a belief that people cannot be rich by a dint of hard work but by the backing of some supernatural forces.

Still in the realm of religion or mysticism, Ellis documents the case of one Rev RNY Bassey who, in 1948, was claiming to be the local superitendent in Nigeria of the Federated Full Gospel Assemblies of the USA. He, as colonial authorities maintained, “appeared to specialise in making contacts with religious groups in Canada and the USA., adopting their names and representing himself as the leader of their African branch.” The book, This Present Darkness, quotes a section of the Nigerian Catholic Herald of 22 February 1952 of “false appeals for help by a number of Nigerians under pseudo -titles such as ‘Reverend Father’, ‘Reverend Brother’ and ‘Superior General’. There were said to be “hundreds of Nigerian appeals addressed to charitable institutions and private individuals.”

Ellis records another report in the 1950s of one Christorpher White, using the cover of mystical power to defraud a Henry Nwafor, a trader whose brother was sick. White, the spiritual leader, took Nwafor to a house where a guttural voice asked him to bring a sacrifice to Jupiter, a healing spirit. Nwafor paid 65 pounds and 15 shillings, a cock, brandy, gin and palm wine. Only later did Nwafor realise, as Ellis writes, that the so called voice of Jupiter was projected through a secret pipe into the room where White had left him, allowing a scamming accomplice outside to project his own voice. Nwafor dragged white to court.

Ellis writes further that to modern eyes, these cases may seem to be examples of bare-faced deceit. He offered a caveat, though, that if any researcher dismisses such behaviour in this way, he may risk missing some further factors important for understanding the context in which this kind of trickery emerged. For example, Ellis says it is striking that no known reports of fraud and misrepresentation of this type emanate from Northern Nigeria. “They all relate to Southern Nigeria, usually originating in communities characterised by a relative lack of central authority and codified religion but, under colonial rule, influenced by new structures of political authority, Christian religion and missionary education. These new structures had created new realms of risk and self-fashioning for people adventurous enough to explore them, bringing unheard-of possibilities for individual destinies. The combination created new possibilities for self-advancement that were without limits beyond those defined by the colonial law code—itself poorly known, and not generally seen as legitimate.”

Ellis argues that concerning claims to possess mystical wealth-creating powers by “Professor” Crentsil and others, these belonged to an existing repertoire of behaviour. Southern markets often contained “money-doublers”, people claiming a mystical power to increase a client’s money. The money-doublers, as Ellis puts it, usually occupied a place in the market next to healers who claimed equally extraordinary powers over the human person, and also near the herbalists, who used a pharmacopoeia of plants and animal body-parts to effect cures, and the diviners who could discern a client’s destiny through a process of dialogue akin to psychotherapy. A mid-twentieth century writer recorded that itinerant medicine sellers were known as ‘Ajasco Boys’, and money-doublers as ‘Black Boys’. Ellis, through his research works shows that there were occasional cases of money-doublers being prosecuted under the colonial law-code.

The professor of history goes further to reveal how corruption or fraud reared its head during the times of nationalist politics. He particularly mentions a colonial official who had worked in Nigeria before taking a post at the United Nations in New York, who wondered:

“What happened to the Ibo adventurer who called himself Prince Orizu? Orizu seemed to have no difficulty in getting a write-up in the New Yorker or the New York Times every now and then”. The person in question, as Ellis writes further, ‘‘was also known as Dr Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu, the name under which he was convicted by a magistrate in Nigeria in September 1953 on seven counts of fraud and theft of funds ostensibly intended to fund scholarships in the USA. Educated in the USA, Orizu had collected over £32,000 in the previous three years. He was a stalwart of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the well-known nationalist political party founded in 1944, and a member of the Regional Government. He went on to make a distinguished political career, becoming President of the Senate after Nigeria’s independence. It has been alleged that Orizu’s conviction for fraud was a miscarriage of justice.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that modern politics, which emerged in Nigeria only in the 1940s, offered opportunities for a type of self-fashioning comparable in many respects to that practised by fabulists and fraudsters like Crentsil, Modupe and others I have mentioned.”

Stephen Ellis is not particularly sparing of the early Nigeria’s nationalist triumvirate (Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello), claiming that the aspiration to become rich was not just their personal traits, nor even of the political class as a whole, but a general tendency throughout society. Of Bello, Ellis writes: “When he was touring villages, he used to have his flowing robe stuffed with bank notes which he then distributed among those whom he judged be deserving a special reward.” This generosity on the part of a politician can hardly be considered an act of corruption.

Ellis then descended on Zik, claiming that in 1955, a commission, headed by Stafford Foster-Sutton, Chief Justice of Nigeria, probed him (Zik) the former for his alleged involvement in the affairs of African Continental Bank (ACB), even when he, as the financial institution’s major share holder, was Premier of Eastern Region. The bank allegedly made low interest loans to Zik’s group of companies. Ellis writes further, quoting the Secretary of the Colonies in Westminster that during 1955, 877,000 pounds of public money was invested in the bank and other large sums deposited with it, out of Marketing Board funds made available to the Finance Corporation established by the Easter Region government. Ellis did not go beyond the accusation of Zik using his influence to make his company prosper- not that he dipped his hand in government kitty. The professor is quick to refer to an analyst who argued that Zik did no more than just to follow “normal acceptable procedures for European owned banks and found plausible Zik’s claim that he was the victim of an effort by British banks to stymie the emergence of Nigerian enterprises.”

The critical axe of Ellis swirled again and landed on Awolowo’s lieutenants in Western Region where “in 1953, the police received information from a whistleblower that confirmed their suspicions of abuse inside the National Bank of Nigeria, an institution in which the Western Regional Production Development Board and the Cocoa Marketing Board had deposited large amounts. The bank’s directors were leading members of Action Group, and they acted in collusion with its leader, Chief Awolowo. Awolowo and his colleagues were alleged to have obliged senior staff members to swear an oath of political allegiance.” Still, Ellis does not prove stealing but influence.

Ellis mentions the Finance Minister, Festus Okotie-Eboh, who combined that role with being the treaurer of NCNC, Zik’s party. An American diplomat, according to Ellis, described the minister as “an inveterate ten-percenter…a super salesman who attracted much foreign investment to his country and was spurred to do so because he operated on a straight commission basis.” Apart from the NCNC allegedly receiving part of the cake, Okotie-Eboh was alleged to be Sardauna’s bagman “who profited from the deals.” That period, Ellis writes that a Polish-British sociologist, Stanislav Andreski, came up with the word, ‘kleptocracy’ to describe this type of politics in Nigeria and, by extension, called Okotie-Eboh a “super kleptocrat.” In the words of Andreski, “Nigeria is the most perfect example of kleptocracy since power itself rests on the ability to bribe.”

Corruption on international scale through the banks was recorded in the Second Republic when a British bank, Johnson Matthey, in cahoots with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) repatriated heavy foreign exchange money from Nigeria. The deal allegedly involved Alhaji Umaru Dikko. That financial institution caved in as a result of unsecured loans to Nigeria. The Margaret Thatcher administration, through the Bank of England, therefore, bailed the collapsed bank out with £100m in 1984. It was the first of such intervention in the history of banking in the UK, writes Ellis. In order to prevent a recurrence, Thatcher’s government minted the Insolvency Act in 1986. Another direct negative result of the scam was that one of the directors of the bank, Vasant Advani, ran to Nigeria in 1986, returned to the UK in 2008 to treat his cancer. There, the long hand of British justice caught up with him and he was, in 2011, at the age of 67, sentenced to 16 months in prison. On the side of Nigeria, no bank chief involved even got a slap on the wrist.

Corruption on international scale graduated to scam mails of which Ellis provides specimens in his book: “We are pleased to inform you of the result of the STAATSLOTERIJ NL Email Winners International programs held on 7th day of September ….Your email address have [sic] been selected as one of the lucky winners in the 3rd category, therefore you have been approved for a lump sum payout of 920.000.00 Euro (Nine Hundred and Twenty Thousand Euro).”

The email writen informed the Professor that, without even buying a ticket he had been randomly selected by the Dutch state lottery to receive a huge sum of money. The scammer contines:

“To file and claim your winning, please contact our claim-processing department for the processing of your winning particulars with the contact information’s [sic] below.”

The name of the contact-person is one Gert Gilbertson. His phone number, as Ellis writes, is supplied, but closer inspection reveals this to be a mobile number, not a fixed phone line. He continues: “Gilbertson also has an email address: contactgertgilbertson@gmail.com. This doesn’t look like the address of a state lottery company. Then there are the small grammatical errors that draw attention to the fact that this message may not be quite as official as it purports to be. So there are plenty of clues that my email message is a hoax. This mail could have been written by anyone with a computer and a reasonable command of English. Ever since money was invented, no doubt there have been dishonest people perpetrating advance-fee frauds like this—requesting payment upfront for goods or services that do not exist or that they have no intention actually to deliver. However, in our own time the mass sending of letters, message and emails seeking to defraud the recipient has become closely associated with Nigerian scammers, generally regarded as leaders in their field. Such practices constitute what Nigerians call a Four One Nine, so called by reference to article 419 of the country’s criminal code, which concerns fraud.”

This experience made Ellis to quote Colin Powell, the urbane former Secretary of State of the USA who once said: “Nigerians as a group, frankly, are marvellous scammers”, adding “I mean, it is in their natural culture”. While the professor says this is an outrageous slander on many millions of decent people, he still adds that it is the case that Nigeria “has gained an international reputation as a superpower of crime.”

Professor Ellis shifts his gear of narrative to a different sector of crime. Another that rose to international status, a precursor to the sex workers who now travel from Nigeria to Italy was recorded in 1939, when Prince Eikeneh, a Ghana based Nigerian businessman, complained in writing to the colonial government in Nigeria about the number of Nigerian girls “who were coming to Ghana to work as sex workers.” He, as Ellis writes, pointed finger at a Warri-based Madam named ‘Alice’ who carried them to Ghana, promising them that they were going to get married or learn a trade.

On the factors that contributed to crime in Nigeria, Ellis, in an essay in his own book argues: “Nigerian society until Independence was not generally known for dishonesty or law-breaking. To put it simply, I believe that much of what is now regarded as Nigerian crime originates in politics, and politics has polluted society. Referring to the 419 frauds with which I began this paper, we may note how these became widespread in the 1980s when the collapse of the oil price led to many civil servants losing their jobs, with the consequence that those who had some knowledge of official procedures of tendering and quasi-official practices of money-laundering could use their knowledge to perpetrate frauds.’’

He added: “Many forms of crime for which Nigeria has become notorious, including 419 fraud, oil smuggling and drug smuggling are thus rather new. However there are other forms of serious crime that have deep historical roots. I am thinking here of people-trafficking. I have recently had access to Dutch police archives concerning the trafficking of girls and young women from Nigeria for the European sex industry. This trade bears some of the hallmarks of a much older history of slave-holding and slave-trading: it is relevant to note that Nigeria was a leading supplier of the Atlantic slave trade for centuries, and that the Sokoto caliphate was one of the world’s last great slave states, until little more than a hundred years ago.’’

He then concluded: “This legacy has an effect on popular ideas of bondage that, for example, has an effect on the well-known trade in Nigerian prostitutes in Europe. Nigerian crime has historical roots, some of them shallow, others much deeper. Whether the perpetrators regard themselves as professional criminals, or merely as business people, their activities take place in a world shaped by histories of colonialism, slavery, evangelisation and the relative failure of nationalism. Welcome to the twenty-first century.”

This story is published in the hard copy of TheNEWS, September-October, 2019 edition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s