You may have never heard of them, but they definitely have your email address. They are the Yahoo-Yahoo Boys; the young Nigerian men who cut wide swaths of cash by preying on the naiveté of moneyed Westerners vis a vis their dreaded 419 emails.
Less affectionately known as "Nigerian scammers" or “email fraudsters” to those who don’t speak Naija slang, they have come to define a globally recognized Nigerian stereotype from the sheer volume of spam they produce. But if you check your spam folder right now you might notice that it is slightly lighter these days. That's because it's been a tough week for Nigeria’s most infamous internet enthusiasts. Due to the week-long strike action that took place in response to the government’s decision to remove a national fuel subsidy, it has become increasingly difficult for the Yahoos to extract funds from their “clients”.
The actions, combined with nation-wide #OccupyNigeria demonstrations, have brought the country's infrastructure to a standstill. From dawn to 4:00pm offices, banks, gas stations and shops have been shut down in accordance with the strike. During these hours, road blocks were erected by demonstrators and the movement of vehicles was not permitted.
Rolling blackouts, already a common occurrence, became more common. During an average week, Nigeria’s power grid suffers chronic outages, and as such, it is common for Nigerian homes and businesses to use petrol or diesel generators for power. But because both fuel and food prices have doubled since the subsidy was removed, many have had to go without power in order to eat. However, the inconvenience that has yielded the most concern among the Yahoo-Yahoo Boys has been the closure of Western Union outlets and cyber-cafes, which aside from a Blackberry are the most important weapons in a Yahoo's arsenal. Luckily for them, the lights are back on and wires have re-opened for business.
On Monday afternoon, the Nigeria Labour Congress called for a suspension of all action after President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the price of fuel would be lowered, although not back to the original levels. It remains to be seen what effect the NLC’s decision will have on the movement at large, but after the news broke thousands of #OccupyNigeria supporters took to twitter to denounce what they saw as a betrayal.
One activist I’ve been corresponding with, who wishes to remain anonymous, described the situation as follows:
“It must be noted that protests had started before NLC ordered civil servants to go on strike, and the agreement reached between NLC and government does not tally with the demands of the people. Civil society groups coordinating the OccupyNigeria were not represented at the meetings labour leaders had with government and our position still differs largely from that of government. NLC did not initiate the protest so NLC cannot terminate the protest. Questions have still not been answered on the massive amounts our political office holders earn as salaries and allowances, the exorbitant amounts spent on feeding, entertainment, transportation etc by the President and his very many aides. These are the issues that led to the OccupyNigeria protests and protest shall we until government tends to these issues.”
Clearly, for #OccupyNigeria, the battle has just begun, and how the Yahoos react in the days ahead may prove a useful measure of the movement’s potential. Being criminal opportunists, they are inherently reactionary towards anything that disrupts their ability to make money, and the demonstrations have definitely been disruptive. But some Yahoos have also joined the protests, which is indicative of the movement’s capacity for wide-reaching support, strike or no strike.
The Yahoos' disposition towards #OccupyNigeria is also worth paying attention to because 419 culture is essentially a street-level microcosm of the institutional corruption that has plagued Nigeria for the past forty years. And although the Yahoos are often blamed for distorting Nigeria’s image abroad, they've also become part of the cultural fabric.
There are countless films and pop songs dedicated to their exploits. So much so that in 2010 Microsoft established a “cybercrime rehabilitation project” in an attempt to combat the influence of Yahoo-glorifying rappers and convince young Nigerians that email scams aren’t cool.
Microsoft’s attempts to guide the youth, however admirable, are misplaced. The existence of the Yahoo-Yahoo Boys has far more to do with Nigeria’s disastrous transformation into a petro-kleptocracy than the questionable behavior of rap artists.
Before the 1973 Arab oil embargo on the US, the Nigerian economy was based primarily on the export of agricultural commodities. But when oil prices jumped, the country rapidly shifted away from agriculture to become a major oil producer. As petrodollars poured in, Nigerians began to abandon rural agriculture for the promise of gainful employment in the city. As a result, food production plummeted and unemployment spiked.
During the height of the boom the Nigerian government was collecting large amounts of revenue from the oil industry, and a number of politicians and officials amassed great fortunes by embezzling public funds. Using a variety of methods and schemes, this money was transferred to the safety of foreign banks with the help of American and European accomplices.
When the boom began to subside in the late ‘70s, many university graduates were out of work and had ample time to educate themselves on the comings and goings of their nation's body politic while looking for a job. It was common knowledge that these nouveau riche officials were stealing huge amounts of money, but when it began to be revealed that they had secured it through the help of unscrupulous Westerners, the 419 letter (aka Nigerian scam) was born.
Following its inception, knowledge of the 419 gradually expanded beyond unemployed graduates to include those ambitious enough to invest in fax machines or computers and set up offices. Once email was popularized, the 419 began to grow exponentially and with the advent of 24hr cyber cafes, it was anyone’s game. When GSM mobiles hit the Nigerian market, it went nuclear.
The 419 of today, however, has been completely severed from its roots. It grew from being a targeted ploy that capitalized on the recipient’s greed, into a dragnet of mass emails that drains the bank accounts of those unfortunate few who still don’t know any better.
Even the nature of the false premise has changed. Faced with competition from scammers based in China, the US, and the rest of the world, some Yahoos have substituted money with romance; trawling dating sites for lonely women who are willing to part ways with their savings in the name of love.
And so with the emergence of #OccupyNigeria, the Yahoo-Yahoo Boy is confronted with something of an existential dilemma. They were once able to legitimize their activities by pointing to government hypocrisy and post-colonial avarice, but if the tide shifts and their fellow Nigerians keep filling the streets, will they side with business-as-usual or join the revolution?
Keep checking that spam folder to find out.