The 419 Scammer as Afropolitan

James Yeku
Jul 5, 2018 · 4 min read

In the opening sections of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s novel, I do Not Come to You by Chance, the protagonist, Kingsley asks Cash Daddy, “Uncle Boniface, are you actually asking me to join you in 419?” Boniface’s response is a torrent of laughter that compares only to the generosity of his empire of scam emails and fraudulent rewards.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s novel is a provocative examination of the practice of unsolicited e-mail scams that underscores the moral contradictions of a young, educated Nigerian, who submits to evil and greed to take care of a dying father.

While apparent in Kingsley’s struggle is the novel’s renewal of the moral frameworks of African oral performances, what the narrative of scam and its associated economies of avarice renders visible is the complicated ways the 419 scam-machine terrorizes even its actors, while uncovering the greed that operates in multiple ways to critique the global neoliberal economies of the West.

Nwaubani’s novel clearly highlights the ways the individuals known globally as Nigerian 419ners constitute a coterie of criminals whose nefarious activities, bothering largely on Internet scam, perpetuate invidious narratives about the country. Colin Powell’s famous sweeping generalization that “Nigerians as a group, frankly, are marvellous scammers” may reflect this general mindset in the West about the country, yet Nwaubani’s characters not only serve to satirize everyday existential anxieties of postcolonial Nigeria but also enflesh the moral ambiguities that animate the scam culture itself.

The ironic and funny ending of the novel is significant in the satirical agenda of the narrative. Kingsley, supposedly desirous of a break with a life of scam, sets up an internet cafe that has an appearance of a legitimate business. Instead, he takes his scamming enterprise to a larger scale that intensifies fraudulent interactions with “one of his foreign investors” as he tells Augustan, his mother, who is completely fooled by her son’s purported departure from crime.

I do Not Come to You by Chance is significant in the conceptual framing that links the 419ner to Afropolitanism because of the manner in which it embodies Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “-scapes,” which like culture, are fluid and constantly shifting elements — functioning in the global exchange of ideas and information.

The numerous emails in the novel and financial exchanges mark critical flows of ideas, technologies, and capital between the scam artist and multiple locations abroad. As the novel concludes, Kingsley makes plans to travel overseas for an MBA — a degree that ironically signifies the Western legetimization of his financial but criminal genius.

While analyzing the representation of the scam artist in scam-baiting communities such as the famous 419 eater, it is necessary to consider the complex ways an Afropolitan identity may be attributed to the scam artist, without extolling his criminality.

With conceptual gaps such as the commodification of identity that trouble the Afroplitan — numerous articles such as this and this unpack some of these arguments — we can think of two kinds of an Afropolitan identity. The celebrated hero of traditional Afropolitanism and the 419ner, an Afropolitan antihero whose astute use of emails and access to multiple locations and spaces cannot be denied.

The advance-fee fraud operates through a logic that demands the scam artist to seek assistance for the transfer of capital from metropolitan centres of Euro-America through the agency of Western bank accounts and citizenship. One major reason the Afropolitan can be read through the figure of the 419ner stems from Taiye Selasi’s original account of the Afropolitan itself.

Selasie’s article presents a muted recognition of the same idea of mobility and flows that I do Not Come to You by Chance graphically renders visible through the movement of emails, persons, and capital. As the email medium portrays, much of the mobility of the scam artist is digital. There is a sense, then, as the recent example of the Nigerian-Canadian playboy of Yorkville shows, in which the 419ner also has access to multiple passports and locations, while clearly maximizing digital flows.

The 419 scammer is not an Afropolitan antihero because of his immersion in a western education and worldview that enables him to manipulate digital media. He is one precisely because of his capacity for mobility in the Net’s rhizomatic pathways and his tendency for a multiplicity of identities — whether national or personal. These ideas, ‘mobility’ and ‘access to multiple nationalities,’ are two major features of the Afropolitan, evident in the original essays of both Selasi and Mbembe.

Selasi, for instance, writes that the idea of home for the celebrated Afropolitan, is provisional and indeterminate, and is the space “where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends” and the cities around the globe in which they live and work, with no sense of a single geography, while at home in many such spaces. As the capacity for the mobile plays out metaphorically in this construction of an Afropolitan identity, we could think of what it means to be mobile in a digital sense, something Susanne Gerhmann has excellently outlined in her essay on cybermobility and Afropolitanism.

It is probably provocative to hint at a negative comparison between scam artists and the “Afropolitans.” Some may even call it sensational and logically unsound.

That being said, the reality is that the real scam would be a dangerously fixed conception of Afropolitanism that, refusing to be disturbed and complicated, prefers only to be romanticized and celebrated. Thar would be troubling.

James Yeku

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James Yeku completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Saskatchewan. He is Assistant Professor of African Digital Humanities at the University of Kansas.