Friday, January 16, 2009

Abati, Yahoo Yahoo boys and diarrhea

THURSDAY, January 8, 2009, must now assume a special place in the biography of our dear brother, , Dr. Reuben Moses Olubodun Adeleye Abati, Chairman of The Guardian Editorial Board. It brought out the good and the ugly in our beloved nation, Nigeria, and our people. In a manner of speaking, it was a day the social critic, journalist, columnist, dramatist, lawyer and the prolific writer that many love to hate, read his own obituary as it were. On a day that the wicked and evil ones set out to destroy his hard-earned name and reputation, Abati also got an idea about how much he is loved. He should count himself lucky, especially remembering that he added another year to his age just two months ago. Very few people are that fortunate.

But it was also a day that exposed the human frailty of a man who could fell the Iroko tree with his mighty pen! Abati's account of his taste of the bitter pill administered by the internet scammers, known in Nigeria as Yahoo Yahoo Boys, and his allergy to the pill was appropriately titled, The scam that failed in his column of Friday, January 9. Incidentally, this writer was among the recipients of the scam mail soliciting money on behalf of "a desperate" Abati!

True, the scam might have failed but the grammar-challenged fraudsters sufficiently "rattled" our dear Abati that he ended up needing "medical solution" for an "instant diarrhea" unleashed by the scam. By his own standards, our renowned wordsmith friend was rendered largely unproductive on January 8, 2009. He spent much of the day on crisis management and fire fighting, trying to minimise the damage intended by faceless "idiots," who had wanted to turn him into "a cash cow."

Having successfully hacked into his e-mail address, the thieves were soliciting N250,000 from Abati's contacts they could reach with his compromised e-mail address, under the pretext that (God forbid) his daughter had been involved in an imaginary accident and needed urgent medical attention. In their e-mail, the bold but unintelligent criminals "sent" Abati on a conference in India (thank God, not in restive Mumbai!). They had the audacity to supply a telephone number and an e-mail address for the execution of their criminal activity.

Needless to say that many unsuspecting people have fallen victim of similar scams, for which Nigeria has become notorious. The cost of this crime in goodwill, financial and human relations capital to the country and its citizens can only be imagined. The outside world today sees every Nigerian as a potential fraud; the nation is stigmatised and demonised as a country of criminals. Whenever and wherever crime is committed in the world, the first names that come to mind are those of Nigerians. The situation is such that criminal-minded nationals of some other countries even claim Nigerian nationality in perpetrating their nefarious activities.

The onus is now on the majority of innocent Nigerians to prove that they are not guilty like few of their compatriots causing the untold damage. Abati's experience only adds to the growing list of victims, both within and outside the country, and so much has been said and written about cyber crime. Some of the recent examples included those involving Prof. Pat Utomi, the News Agency of Nigeria and the Punch Newspaper, whose addresses were hacked into.

But given the magnitude of the damage caused the country, its image and people by this bunch of criminals, are Nigerian security and anti-crime agencies living up to public expectations? True, a number of arrests and prosecutions have been reported, but is that the best we can do? Granted that no country, not even the advanced, industrialised nations with their sophisticated anti-crime machinery, can ever eradicate crime, hence, the Bernard Madoffs of this world and his fraud network can boast an award-winning $50 billion in a string of bank hedges.

But one of the key functions of government is to protect law-abiding citizens from crime and criminals. Crime may be difficult to eradicate, but it can and must be curtailed, with criminals put in their proper place so that their nuisance value does not compromise the smooth functioning of society. Even by Nigerian standards, the anti-crime agencies ought to do better in clipping the criminal wings of the Yahoo Yahoo Boys before it is too late. For instance, an effective and efficient Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) could, through forensic investigation, track down, prosecute and shame the seemingly amateur scammers that caused Abati a traumatic diarrhea. It is possible for an achievement-motivated anti-crime agency to use the telephone number and other details left behind by the scammers in their track to nail them.

As with the nation's touted fight against corruption, more concrete prosecutions and convictions are required, not only to serve as a deterrent to the criminally minded, but also to convince the world and potential victims, whose scepticism is fast turning into cynicism, that something can be done. This, to me, is the only way to save the nation and its law-abiding citizens from avoidable "instant diarrhea" and further loss of hard-earned reputation, money and goodwill.

Citizen Abati might have stepped on some toes in his enthusiastic, free-wheeling but necessary writings. Still, we need him and others like him to remain well focused and undistracted in the unrelenting interpretation of the complex Nigerian polity and ceaseless interrogation of the leadership question in national governance, especially the fight against corruption and other prevalent crimes. With a flourishing but damaging kidnapping-for-cash enterprise in the Niger Delta and widespread corruption, Nigeria can ill-afford to be hostage to a treacherous band of internet fraudsters with all their apparent amateurism and grammar deficiencies. Whatever happened to Project Re-branding Nigeria?