Corruption and the 419

Nigeria is a bit infamous for being the scam capital of the world and I’m sure everyone’s received an email from a Nigerian prince claiming to need US$10,000 fronted to him with promises of returning millions. Locally referred to as “419”( 419 is supposedly the section number in Nigerian law in which scams fall under) scamming and all types of corruption are prevalent and endemic. The greatest scam I received was from the Akampka station worker representing the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development.

As part of my workplan I was to assist in the formation of community based organizations(CBO’s) in two of the local communities, Agoi Ibami and Owai. It was relatively easy to gauge interest and select the leaders of the communities but their capacity was so low it took far longer to improve their basic skills before formal registration. We spent a lot of time writing their constitution, voting in members and explaining the roles of each (Chairman, Financial Secretary, etc), and training members in basic skills (bookkeeping, computer literacy, etc). The group was finally prepared to formally register with the government and CERCOPAN would even assist them with the registration fee.

I was directed to the Ministry of Youth and Sports and met Kejin John, the manager for group registration. He was very welcoming at his office and wrote out all the prices for registration. He was adamant that no extra charges should be added to what he had written on the paper. It was very straightforward: N15,000 registration fee and cost of transport to the village for CBO inspection. He immediately called the station worker for our region. He informed the worker that he had detailed me on the necessary steps and he didn’t want any “funny business” and he “would be watching”. As soon as he hung up the phone he told me that the man can be “tricky” but I should stick to what he told me in his office today.

I contacted the officer, Mr. Simon, immediately and told him we were ready to submit our constitutions. He told me to bring down the chairman from each CBO and he would take their constitutions and then later come for a site “inspection”. I arranged for a meeting in Calabar the following week and he explained things exactly how Mr. John had explained them. It was a good sign, I was beginning to have some faith this would be a painless process. We paid our registration fee, obtained our receipt and awaited his phone call.

The week passed. And another. Sometimes he would answer his phone and give me a ridiculous excuse and other times he wouldn’t answer my calls at all. He was very non committal about when he could come and always had an excuse. Finally after about three weeks he agreed to come to Owai for the CBO inspection. He showed up two hours late and got into a big fight with the driver about the price but he made it. He did this very annoying thing when I called him where he would blatantly lie to me when telling me where he was so I really thought he was going to be there quickly and then about an hour in I realized he never going to fess up about where he actually was. I mean, come on, just tell me you’ll be three hours late so I can do something else. Anyway, he made it but his true colors were beginning to show. We took the ride into Owai and the people there had gone all out for a welcome ceremony. The Chiefs’ council was gathered , meat was presented to Mr. Simon, and the members of the community took turns saying how grateful they were and how they were hoping this registration would lead to the participation of Owai in government aid and other programs. Mr. Simon then met with the CBO and didn’t do anything he said would be part of the “inspection”. In fact he just thanked them and that was it. No inspection of their attendance sheets, critique of their financial records, explanation of the benefit of registration…nothing. I have come to expect very little from government workers here so I thought, “Whatever, this is no different, I’ll just have to explain it to them later”. We left Owai and the next week we had a similar reception in Agoi. Only this time I sent one of our employees to pick him up on the motorcycle.

When our community assistant, Manson, returned with Mr. Simon, I could tell something was up. He took me aside and said that Mr. Simon was complaining the whole time about me and that I prevented him from “chopping money”(embezzlement). He told Manson that he can usually collect N20,000-N30,000 from each community group. He complained that his manager had told him to be careful but he had called the chairman and told him to “have something prepared for him”. What a bastard.

Mr. Simon led the same kind of charade in Agoi Ibami, doing no bit of “inspection” by any stretch of the imagination. He enjoyed a meal of rice and porcupine but other than that he was in and out in a half hour. He told me that he would be in touch with the official certificates.

Weeks passed. He continued to mislead me and say “okay, I’ll be coming by the office tomorrow” for literally days straight. It was comical if it weren’t such an important document. The CBO registration would allow the groups to open bank accounts and apply for funding as well take part in any programs the government offered. I finally was down in Calabar and I called his manager, Mr. John, and told him my struggles. He told me to come into his office first thing the next day.

The next day I was just about to leave the office when I ran into Mr. Simon. I wanted to really dig into this guy and tell him how much of an irresponsible asshole he was. However, I try to just turn the other cheek and in this case it really wouldn’t have done any good.  I simply shook my head and accepted the certificates.

I immediately called Mr. John and told him everything was fine, I had received the certificates this morning. He paused, took a deep breath, and told me to come to his office immediately. I was first annoyed because I had finally obtained the certificates after weeks of hounding Mr. Simon. I didn’t possibly want to complicate things by going into his office, did I?

I arrived at the office and Mr. John was in the parking lot waiting for me. He asked to see the certificates and I presented them to him. He took one look at it and said, “These are fraudulent certificates…please, come in”. 419!!!

When we reached his office Mr. John explained that he had immediately investigated the status of our registration and saw that registration fee had never been collected because it would have showed up in their files by now. He then held up the certificates, pointed to his signature and that of the commissioners and said, “And these signatures are forged.”

I felt a deep rage and somehow wanted to arrange for Mr. Simon to be escorted back to the villages to explain himself and see the village mob him. I couldn’t believe that he could be so heartless. It’s not even him chopping money, it’s the fact that the group would have thought they were registered only to not exist in the official system. So if they by some miracle got some massive grant and the funder checks their status in Nigeria you can imagine what the funder would think; probably a 419. And the way that he accepted the meat and drinks in Agoi and Owai. The people at those ceremonies were almost pleading with him to help them in any way possible. This guy was officially the jerk of the year.

As if this story unraveling wasn’t enough to deal with at 9 in the morning there was even more to come. Mr. John said that Mr. Simon was in the next room with the commissioner and we were summoned. I was shocked when we entered the room and I saw Mr. Simon there with his head down. I introduced myself to the commissioner but was immediately cut off by Mr. John ranting and raving about Mr. Simon’s behavior.

I was very aware of Mr. John’s desire for me to have a positive experience in Nigeria. I thought he probably knew this was going to happen but was disappointed that it actually did. He immediately started to just assault Mr. Simon with accusations and played heavily on shame. He had shamed the country, the department, the state, his workforce, this office. He even asked Mr. Simon, “what village are you from?…’Obubri’….YOU HAVE SHAMED OBUBRI!”…It was ridiculous but I was quite content to see him getting reamed out. It was all a bit surreal though and the situation became very Nigerian when Mr. John’s phone kept ringing, with the ringtone playing the song “Afternoon Deight”. I literally started giggling as he repeatedly fumbled with his phone while shouting at Mr. Simon, all with the song playing at what must have been the maximum volume as it impressively competed with Mr. John’s shouting for airspace.

After about 5 minutes the commissioner spoke. He asked Mr. Simon a few basic questions about the case, “Did you forge the receipts? Have you spent the money? Did you forge the signatures?”. After this the commissioner turned to me. He started speaking then hesitated. He looked me up and down and asked, “I’m sorry sir, do you speak and understand English?”. Now this I found hilarious. I told him, “Yes, I am from America, I can understand you perfectly”, and left it at that. I can understand where he’s coming from because Cross River has a lot of Chinese companies here for natural resource extraction(quarries, timber) and most of them have dozens of Chinese that speak no English.

The commissioner then explained that he would personally see that the groups are registered, we would not be charged any more fees and offered his sincerest apologies. As for Mr. Simon, I couldn’t believe they didn’t talk about sacking him. First it was talks of suspension, then it was even lowered down to a possible transfer. Wait, this guy is going to keep his job?!

When I left the office I realized that I’d learned 419 the hard way. I had put my trust in the government and it failed me dramatically. I learned that you can’t deal with one single official, you have to deal with as many higher ups as possible. In the end we got the registration and everything was fine. And then, about two months later…

I was waiting for a bus or taxi to take me up the highway to return to Iko Esai. It’s a funny system here as there are bus parks but you have to wait an indeterminate about of time. Sometimes a bus will fill up in 10 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. The alternative is waiting at the side of the road on the freeway leading out of town. There are two main routes and you signal for them by either pointing your finger in front of you (Akwa Ibom) or pointing backwards (Ikom). A taxi stopped and low and behold, in the front seat, Mr. Simon. The driver was already asking me where I was going but I was distracted by Mr. Simon. He tilted his head in recognition then smiled and said , “Hello..Mr. BenJee…how are you?!?”….at which point I lost it and started yelling, “I will not ride with this man, he is a thief!”. There were several people waiting for transport and one of them asked what he did. I announced in pidgin that he cheated “inside”(isolated) places and stole money from poor people. I said I would not ride in a car with him and used all my pidgin insults I knew. Mr. Simon was shocked but then acted as if he didn’t know me.  I shouted a few more obscenities and as the car drove off. When it left I couldn’t believe how upset I was. People were staring, a mixture of humor, confusion and shock. I realized that I never had the chance to say anything to him the day he was “sentenced” at the office. I was so angry at him but at the same time immediately dismissed him from my life. I was shocked that after a few months he would think he could just bump into me in public and be like, “It’s cool man, my bad”….I don’t think so pal. He didn’t even apologize for his actions or make any kind of plea. Just a heartless bastard.

I kinda looked around at the crowd and realized that I was still standing there waiting for a ride. People continued staring and it was mostly old ladies exchanging looks of, ‘did that really just happen?’. Now I felt pretty awkward but the same person who asked me what the man did to me repeated the question… I turned to her and shrugged, “Well….basically….he 419’d me”.

 

From left to right: Mr.Simon, Hon Ayitu of Air Green Foundation (Agoi Ibami), Mike Joseph of Owai Community Development Association (Owai)

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One comment

  1. This is an awesome story on so many levels. First, I am really fascinated, maybe jealous, of all the meetings & picking ups you do. It seems very official, almost movielike. Second, the Afternoon Delight ringtone is ridiculous. Especially for this situation… a guy completely taking the other guy to task. Awesome. The English thing is funny too, but not as funny as me imagining you lose your shit then calmly explain to someone in their lingo that you just got pscrewed over. Great entry.

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