Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Subscribe in a reader
419 Cases, Other Scams in Nigeria Date Back to the 1930s
Silhouette of a criminal in the net
Financial crimes, notoriously called 419 in Nigeria, have their ancestry in the colonial days, as far back as the 1930s
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).
Professor 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.” 

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post