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In August, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) indicted eighty people for what it described as “the largest case of online fraud in U.S. history.” Seventy-seven of them were Nigerian. Separately, also indicted for computer and wire fraud was Obinwanne Okeke. He is accused of defrauding a subsidiary of Caterpillar of $11 million. Okeke was the head of Invictus Group, with interests in Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia. Forbes magazine named him as one of its top African entrepreneurs under thrity in 2016. The arrests reportedly took place in Alexandria, Virginia, near one of the Washington, DC, airports as the accused was preparing to return to Nigeria.
The arrests appear to have attracted more attention in Nigeria than in the United States. Nigerian social media by and large does not question the alleged guilt of those arrested, attributing almost super-human qualities to the FBI. The concern appears to be the damage the arrests are causing the reputation of young Nigerian entrepreneurs and fears that it will become even more difficult to obtain a visa for the United States. There has also been soul-searching about the role played by online fraud in Nigeria.
The BBC has published a thoughtful “Letter from Africa” by Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, “Why Nigeria’s Internet Scammers Are ‘Role Models.’” She briefly reviews the history of fraud in Nigeria since the 1990s, and describes a “training school” in Lagos for scammers recently raided by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. She turns to why Nigerians so much admire fraudsters: “Scammers establish legitimate businesses from fraudulent funds, and become respected philanthropists or politicians in senior leadership position…many young Nigerians consider scamming a career path and a valid source of income.”
There is little question that Nigeria is damaged by its international reputation for fraud. It contributes to the reluctance of international investors to acquire Nigerian partners. On the other hand, Nigeria has a population of some 200 million people, most of whom are poor and struggling to make a living. They pay a price for the criminality of a small class of privileged people involved in fraud. Presidential Spokesman Garba Shehu summed it up: “It is a big scar on all of us who go out of this country and are seen in this image that these our brothers have created.” Those arrested will be tried in the United States. If convicted, some could face sentences of up to thirty years in jail.