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Advance Fee Fraud, popularly known as “419” in Nigeria, is not news to an average countryman. However, what many are unaware of is the deeper dimensions it has taken in some parts of the country. While the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) may have secured many convictions in recent past, more than 90 percent of these illegal transactions go undetected by the agency. The number “419” refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud – obtaining by false pretence.

According to Wikipedia, Nigeria ranks among the top three countries in the world noted for email scams. The top three nations are the United States, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria (in that order). Similarly, other nations known to have a high incidence of advance fee fraud include Côte d’Ivoire, Benin Republic, Togo, South Africa, the Netherlands and Spain. Names like Ade Bendel, Emmanuel Nwude, Maurice Ibekwe and several others still ring a bell in Nigeria whenever issues relating to 419 are being discussed.

Every state in Nigeria has its own fair share of the activities of fraudsters. Edo State, the Heartbeat of the Nation, is known for many things. The state prides itself of some of the best sportsmen, politicians, academics, business moguls and the rest. While this may be true, a crop of youngsters is giving the state a different identity. What started in the late 1980s as pastime of some school dropouts and incurably criminally minded young men, has today become an industry for the unemployed and underemployed teeming population in Edo State.

Origin of 419 in the state
In the case of Edo State, 419 scam dates back to the late 1980s. Some university graduates who couldn’t secure decent jobs or travel to Europe, as it was the fashion then, found solace in this illegal resort. During festive periods, this crop of scammers would storm their villages in a display of wealth and affluence. Free monies were distributed to villagers, and idle youths who ended up in the farm or engaged in other odds and ends in and around the village. Eventually, young graduates became apprentices to some of the big names in the business who made it through 419. In time, the bug spread.

Modern day 419 undertaking in Edo State took a worrisome dimension at the beginning of this millennium, when drug trafficking and prostitution in Europe became less lucrative. In the 1980s up until late 1990s, an average family in Edo State, particularly the Binis placed high premium on travelling to Europe. Lands, houses and other valuable jewellery were sold so that families could sponsor a ‘messiah’ to Europe who would, in turn, bring wealth to others. As world economies began to dwindle from 2007, Europe became less attractive and attention again shifted to local 419. This time, some mysticism (juju) was introduced into it.

The new trans-border juju connection
Many of the young fraudsters who mainly reside in Benin City and Ekpoma have added new perspective to the business. Although many people often pay less attention to the heinous activities of these young fraudsters, our correspondent who has been monitoring the development can authoritatively report on some of these new dimensions.

In mid-2012, five young men from Ekpoma embarked on a long road-trip to neighbouring Togo. According to one of them, they went to the country to get some spiritual help that would strengthen their hands on the business. He further revealed that Democratic Republic of Congo and Togo have become the new ‘Holy Lands’ for 419 scammers from Edo. They go to these countries to source spiritual powers.

Said he: “A friend of ours in Benin City, who we often refer to as Boss, gave us the hint that Togo was the new destination. Each of us left Nigeria with about N100,000. Sadly, the money wasn’t enough as some of the things we were expected to buy for rituals, doubled. Our friends from Benin had to send us some additional funds.”

Speaking further, he said: “We spent over one week in a thick forest in Togo. We weren’t allowed to take our bath. The juju man said it was part of the rituals. I can’t really reveal the details of what really transpired there. They aren’t things you’ll want to hear.”

There are several other instances of some young men who have also visited local juju priests in South West states as well as Okene in Kogi State. In Ekpoma, for instance, two young men were caught recently having sex at night with mad women in Eguare Market. Upon interrogation, they revealed that it was part of a ritual they were mandated to carry out in order to be successful in their trade (419). There are also some reported cases of insanity in Ekpoma and Benin City of some young men whose spiritual adventure back-fired. Till this day, they still roam the streets.

Involvement of local cyber cafes and the police
In Ekpoma town, for instance, some well-known cyber cafes are the market place of these scammers. These cyber cafes are located mainly within Ujemen and Eguare towns. Managers of these cafes are always on the look out for police, who, ironically, have also turned these cafes into cash cows. One of the managers of these cyber cafes recently contested in the local government election. He is not short of exotic cars, and he makes a show of them.

Some of the cafes operate 24-hours as their ‘clients’ usually ply their trade at night, which is against EFCC’s order, banning cyber cafes from operating at night. More than 50 percent of those patronising these cafes in the city are young fraudsters.

The involvement of some police officers in aiding and abetting this trade continues to anger many residents in the state. It has become a problem in Benin and Ekpoma to drive flashy cars or walk around with one’s laptop. Police officers look out for such individuals to arrest. In some instances, the arrested fellow is brutally dealt with, spends a night in police cell and only to discover that he is innocent.

Some of these scammers are arrested by the police, but are let off under some compromising circumstances. The story now on the streets of Ekpoma is that there is no policeman who does not have personal car and owns at least a house. The presence of the EFCC is completely missing in Ekpoma town. In Benin City, EFCC operatives have made several arrests, but the arrested fellow always resurfaces within hours or a few days – and to resume his business.

While robbery, kidnapping and other vicious crimes continue in Edo State, scammers and fraudsters seem to be having a field day. Everyday, new people are lured into it, while anti-corruption agencies appear helpless. Many residents in the state believe that 419 has come to stay in the state so long as there are no decent jobs to absorb the growing number of youths.

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