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419 Cases, Other Scams in Nigeria Date Back to the 1920s

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Financial crime notoriously called 419 in Nigeria, has its roots in colonial times, as early as 1921.

Employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States recently went to the city with the names of about 77 Nigerians who were caught for financial crime in that country. While many compatriots torment themselves that these criminals are hideous ambassadors of their nation, quite a few have argued that scams of this kind have their ancestry in the colonial days and in many cases have tentacles in mysticism. Over time, scams in Nigeria began as small-time trickery and theft; they graduated to blatant theft of the Commonwealth of the people, and now they have grown into cross-continental grand theft.

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

In his latest book, This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organised Crime (published posthumously in April 2016), Ellis examines how many reviewers have written about how Nigeria has become a breeding ground for illegal trade, large-scale corruption, and organized crime. He shows the phases as colonial (when an educated elite in public service and nationalism began to emerge), the independence periods when a new political elite emerged and high-level corruption devastated the country and the age of globalization, supported by the information highway. In the book, Ellis shows that the means of communication to facilitate fraud have changed from street tricks, African mesmerism, activities of fraudulent pastors, letter-writing by post and telegraph, and fraudulent e-mails (now ascending to cyber and fraudulent bank transfers).

Professor Stephen Ellis

Who would have thought that the first person to be tried under the Criminal Code 419 was not a Nigerian, but a Ghanaian? That was a fact! According to Ellis, this happened on December 18, 1920, when a certain Mr. Crentsil, a former colonial government employee in Lagos, the then capital of Nigeria, wrote to a contact in the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Crentsil, who almost certainly originally came from the Gold Coast, although he lived in Nigeria for many years, as the historian tells us, began with a long description of the magical powers in his possession, which could be used for the benefit of his correspondent against payment of a fee. Crentsil himself signed “P. Crentsil, Prof. of Wonders”. He seems to have written a number of similar letters to various people, writes Ellis.

He further reveals: “According to the available evidence, Professor Crentsil is the first known representative of modern Four One Nine (419) fraud in Nigeria. In December 1921, Crentsil was charged by the police with triple charges under various sections of the Penal Code, including section 419, which Nigerians refer to when they speak of Four One Nine. However, Crentsil was lucky: a British judge immediately dismissed him with a warning and acquitted him for lack of evidence, so ‘[Crentsil] now boasts that he quit because of his “juju” skills,” reported Onitsha Provincial Chief of Police. The same officer explained that he had known Crentsil for several years, that during this time the “professor” had slipped through the hands of the police so often that I myself would soon begin to believe in his magical powers.

The book further reveals that Crentsil’s case was not unique, and adds that the early colonial archives reveal many cases of people outside Nigeria requesting money from Nigerians by using what colonial officials considered false pretexts. “Many such requests seem to come from India. Over time, colonial authorities became sufficiently concerned about the number of letters addressed to Nigerians from abroad who solicited money that they began to intercept elements of so-called “Charlatan correspondence”.

The Director of Posts and Telegraphs, as the historian reveals, explained that this category included advertisements of “potency remedies and inexhaustible healing power, lucky charms, love filters, magic pens to pass examinations with, powders and potions to inspire personal magnetism, remove wrinkles from hair or ensure sterility”. Nigerians who responded to such offers by buying mail order trailers “continued an old tradition of communicating with the invisible world, now using new techniques. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs registered 2,855 such mailings in 1935-8, 355 in 1945, 5,630 in 1946 and 9,570 in 1947, the amount returned to the senders was about £6,205.11 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.”

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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 largely and gave an over-bloated and false impression of themselves 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 specialized 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 organized crime by Stephen Ellis

At that time, mysticism was a big factor, and this manifested itself in the tricks of those who wrote letters abroad or received them from India for talismans or money doublers. It was (and still is) a belief that people can be rich not through hard work, but through the support of some supernatural forces.

Still, in the realm of religion or mysticism, Ellis documents the case of a Rev RNY Bassey who in 1948 claimed to be the local superior of the United States Federated Crusades in Nigeria. As the colonial authorities claimed, “he seemed to specialize in making contacts with religious groups in Canada and the U.S., adopting their names, and representing himself as the leader of their African branch. The book, This Present Darkness, quotes a passage from the Nigerian Catholic Herald of 22 February 1952 with “false appeals to a number of Nigerians under pseudo titles such as “Reverend Father“, “Reverend Brother” and “Superior General”. There are said to have been “hundreds of Nigerian appeals to charitable institutions and private individuals”.

Ellis notes another report in the 1950s by a Christorpher White and uses the cover of mystical energy to cheat a Henry Nwafor, a merchant whose brother was ill. White, the spiritual leader, brought Nwafor to a house where a throaty voice asked him to make a sacrifice for Jupiter, a healing spirit. Nwafor paid 65 pounds and 15 shillings, a tail, brandy, gin, and palm wine. Only later did Nwafor realize, as Ellis writes, that the so-called voice of Jupiter was projected through a secret wire into the room where White had left him so that a fraudulent accomplice could project his own voice outside. Nwafor pulled White to the court.

Ellis further writes that for modern eyes these cases may seem like examples of outrageous deception. However, he offered a reservation that if a researcher rejects such behavior in this way, he might run the risk of missing some other factors that are important for understanding the context in which these kinds of tricks arose. Ellis, for example, says that it is striking that no known reports of fraud and misrepresentation of this kind come from northern Nigeria. “They all refer to Southern Nigeria, which has its origins in communities characterized by a relative lack of central authority and codified religion, but under the colonial rule are influenced by new structures of political authority, the Christian religion, and missionary education. These new structures had created new areas of risk and self-creation for people who were adventurous enough to explore them and opened up unimagined possibilities for individual destinies. The combination created new possibilities of self-realization that went beyond the bounds of the colonial code of law without frontiers – themselves little known and not universally regarded as legitimate”.

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