Hustler’s literature shines a light on the world of internet fraud in Nigeria

The Hustler stories have become a genre in world literature since the mid-1960s. It is an expansive genre, but one that deals broadly with the shortcomings of any given political economy from the perspective of characters who position themselves as both victims and villains.

There have been revolutionary accounts of scammers in the United States – like The autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) written by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, and Donald Goines Dopefien (1971). In recent times, critics have described the work of African American writers in this area as a type of detective story. They carry expressions of people’s response to inner-city problems such as deindustrialization and police repression. The books represent individuals who operate outside of what American society might consider acceptable, just to survive.

Nigeria has made its own contribution to this field with its stories of political and religious turmoil, accounts of sex workers and many more on hawkers, destitution, petty theft and internet fraud. Notable examples include Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo Traffic (2008) and Igoni Barrett Blackass (2016). Other African entries include South African novelist Niq Mhlongo Dogs eat dogs (2004) and that of the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou Black Moses (2017).

African scam stories represent how people survive on the fringes of postcolonial African economies. The Nigerian email fraud story is a distinct type of African con artist narrative, depicting characters engaging in cybercrime trying to get recipients of scam emails to part with their money – referred to as locally “Yahoo Boys”. The stories show how people try to overcome geographic and economic disadvantages by creating alternative networks.

In a recent article, I analyzed some of these wire fraud novels – and one in particular, I don’t come to you by chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani – to show they fit the literary canon of scam novels and to find out what they have to say as a critic of the Nigerian state and its economy.

Between afropolitans and scammers

In my study, I examined the accounts of Nigerian scammers in relation to another common trend in African literature today: Afropolitanism.

Afropolitanism describes the experience of African subjects who achieve the status of global citizenship. They do this by connecting with other non-African expressions of identity, community and a sense of belonging.

The accounts of con artists and Afropolitans highlight the possibility of migration as a means of moving socially. But while the privileged Afropolitan has a real chance to migrate, the African con artist can only access them through a backdoor channel.

For example, at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah, Ifemelu’s migration to the United States is done through a legally documented process. In contrast, the prostitutes of Chika Unigwe In the street of the black sisters pay a pimp to get them from Lagos to Antwerp.

Hachette Books (2009)

However, instead of physical migration, e-scammers in the Nwaubani neighborhood I don’t come to you by chance resist bad economic conditions by creating an alternative digital universe. Which they navigate by email, to access the capital’s global locations.

The accounts of Nigerian scammers establish the practice of electronic fraud as an alternative economy and show how and why such economies emerge. They can also be a powerful critique of the exclusion of young Nigerians from the postcolonial economy.

I don’t come to you by chance

The protagonist of Nwaubani’s book, Kingsley, turns to electronic fraud as a way out of poverty.

After independence in 1960, Nigeria continued to adopt the colonial model of an extractive economy, with its dependence on crude oil. Following the fall in world oil prices in the 1980s, Nigeria adopted a neoliberal economic policy called the Structural Adjustment Program. But this failed to improve the lives of ordinary citizens and encouraged them to engage in capitalist activities.

Read more: Meet the ‘Yahoo boys’ – Nigeria’s undergraduate crooks

Kingsley aspires to perform traditional family chores opara (firstborn son), which includes the care of his siblings and his widowed mother. He applied to work in Nigerian oil companies but none employed him. So he joins his uncle, Cash Daddy, in the informal economy of online fraud. He declares :

I was not a criminal. I entered [internet fraud] so that my mother can live comfortably and that my siblings have a good education.

Electronic fraud and the Nigerian state

But by embracing electronic fraud as an alternative to his economic exclusion, Kingsley is recreating the same operating economic landscape he seeks to avoid.

In one of his scam letters, he exploits the decadent image of Nigerian political economy and positions himself as a victim. He claims to be the widow of the former Nigerian head of state, General Sani Abacha, describing the persecution of the widow’s household after her death:

I have been plunged into a state of utter confusion, frustration and despair by the current civilian administration. I suffered physical and psychological torture from the security agents of the country …

What Kingsley did above was weave his personal experience of economic deprivation into a scam email. Terms like “desperation” and “psychological torture” are used to gain pity from the target of the scam and gain their trust. But they are both true about Nigeria’s economic uncertainties and Kingsley’s economic vulnerability. In this way, readers are introduced to the degenerate world of Nigeria’s postcolonial economy, a world that is emasculating the postcolonial subject.

In another scam email he writes:

There is a lot of corruption in Nigeria and people do all kinds of devious things.

Kingsley’s class escalation maneuvers are therefore a by-product of a failed Nigerian economic system in which a parasitic state exploits the masses. It does this by privatizing government assets and converting the common wealth to its advantage, excluding most citizens.

Kingsley’s story forms a critique of Nigerian economic culture in which he is first allowed to starve and then thrive.

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