The recent news that the United States’ Department of Justice has indicted 80 individuals, 78 of whom are Nigerians, (mostly Igbo), for email scam and money laundering scheme of about $3bn, has expectedly led to the ethnicization of the issue. I had a very light-hearted chat on the issue with a friend who ‘theorized’ that the Igbo indicted by the FBI might have brought the whole thing on themselves by their decision to violate an assumed ‘zoning formula’ among those who operate from the other side of the moral divide. According to my friend, criminally minded people who want to operate outside the ‘zoning formula’ must lie low, be agents for the big guys in the zone because if they want to dominate the market, they will be denied protection of the ‘zonal leaders’. According to this purported zoning arrangement, drug trafficking and fake drugs are zoned to the Igbos; Internet fraud of all forms (Yahoo-yahoo boys, romance scam, credit card fraud) is zoned to the Yoruba, religious fanaticism and terrorism is zoned to the core North, militancy is zoned to the Niger Delta while prostitution abroad is zoned to Edo State.
It was a hilarious and light-hearted way of looking at a rather serious matter. And as if to validate my friend’s hypothesis of a subsisting zoning arrangement among the people who operate from the other side of the moral divide, a day after our discussion, a list of 23 Nigerians allegedly awaiting execution in Saudi Arabia suddenly began trending – most likely to counter the trending story that the Igbos give the country a bad name through their crimes. The list was made up of exclusively Yoruba and Muslim names (that could be either Yoruba or the North). I remembered my discussion with my friend at the Sports Club the previous day: if drug trafficking is dominated by the Igbo, why was no Igbo name on the list of those allegedly awaiting execution in Saudi Arabia? Again if internet fraud is a Yoruba thing, why are there no Yoruba names on the FBI list of sophisticated internet scam? May be my friend’s thesis needs further investigation.
The above may be on the lighter side but the controversy triggered by the FBI list revealed a number of issues:
One, I am always amused when the different ethnic factions of our keyboard warriors pretend that they or their nationality is an epitome of moral rectitude and achievements while others are assumed not to measure up. While the different ethnic, religious and regional factions of our keyboard warriors could be a nuisance, it is also clear that they do play roles in keeping the country together (or better holding it to the precipice) by ensuring that no one narrative is allowed to dominate the political space. We saw this clearly in the competitive trending of #IgboYahooBoys and #YorubaDrugDealers after the FBI story broke out. Various umbrella sociocultural organizations – Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Groups and PANDEF play similar roles through their countervailing functions and competitive grandstanding. Perhaps this may be one of the reasons some unruly and extremist groups are tolerated by mainstream members of their ethnic and regional groups. In fact when the story of the FBI list broke out, another friend from the South-west, sent to me a supposed press release from Ohanaeze condemning the FBI list “for not reflecting federal character”.
Two, in an article I published in this column on January 18 2018 entitled, ‘Fulani herdsmen and the logic of false consensus’, I discussed how occasions such as the FBI list are always used by various ethnic groups in the country as an excuse to gang up against one ethnic group, which would be profiled as the real ‘trouble with Nigeria’ or the reason the country has not yet sent a man to the moon. As I wrote:
“Many adults can remember the ‘class idiot’ in their primary and secondary school days. Virtually every class had its own ‘idiot’ – someone who was always the butt of jokes for either being an academic or social misfit or both. Ironically whenever the ‘class idiot’ decided to quit the school, another idiot would quickly be invented to replace him as the butt of jokes. The new class idiot would mostly likely be one of the victimizers of the former class idiot.
“We can use this class idiot theory to explain the profiling of the Fulani ethnic group in the light of the justified national outrage against the barbarous murder of many Nigerians in Benue State by herdsmen. In moments of such outrage there is often a tendency to forge a consensus that the country has found the solution to its political problems or rather the ethnic group responsible for why the country has not been able to transition into a proper nation-state.
“Whenever one ethnic group becomes fingered as the problem, the others unite against it – as in the class idiot case. But as always, that consensus is fleeting and the alliance that underpins it, brittle. It is like a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which allows the pretentious ‘super patriotic’ groups to vent in the open those spleens we reserve for one another in hush-hush tones or behind closed doors.”
Since the renewed herdsmen crisis, the Fulanis have been on the receiving end, sometimes dangerously so, as the others ganged up in a false consensus that the ‘trouble with Nigeria’ has now been identified. The FBI list of fraudsters therefore provided a big reprieve for the Fulanis. There was a brief attempt to pin the ‘problem of the country’ on Yoruba, when after Sowore was arrested for planning a #RevolutionNow protest, some groups from the North began claiming that the Yoruba were planning to topple the government of Muhammadu Buhari.
Three, the FBI fraud list also revealed a shocking prevalence of ‘bleaching complex’ in the country. Some Igbos in feigned or genuinely righteous indignation tried to distance themselves from what my friend Fred Nwabufo inappropriately called ‘Igbo Culture of Criminality’ (You have Igbo criminals, not ‘Igbo culture of criminality since no culture expressly extols crime ). No reasonable person will support crime of any sort. But it is no excuse for some people to try to bury their heads in shame or even deny their ethnic identity – just because some people from their ethnic in-group were indicted for committing crimes. In this context, while I am not a fan of Festus Kenyamo’s politics, I fully admire the response of the newly appointed Minister of State for Niger Delta,over his alleged close ties with one of those on the FBI fraud list, Jerry Elo Ikogho. Kenyamo was reported by the Sunday Independent as saying:
“We were born together in the same town at Ughelli in Delta State. His parents and my parents are close friends up till tomorrow. We were both raised in the Jehovah Witness’ sect. It is a whole family union”. He was further quoted to have described what happened to his friend as “very unfortunate because he is not from that kind of family. He is a homeboy. He grew up and did his youth service in Nigeria. I used to stay with him when I first came to Abuja. He is my brother and friend, though I am just a month older than him. Anybody can be in trouble. I am praying for him. If he has valid explanations I will help him legally. I can’t run away from him.”
While Kenyamo proudly stood by his friend- and wanted to hear his own side of the story first, some, in the light of the FBI revelation were almost denying their Igbo identity with the hope that they would be excluded from the collective tarring that followed the FBI revelation. It is only a sign of ‘bleaching complex’ (another name for inferiority complex). The truth is that even without those on the list ‘spoiling’ the names of Nigerians, your identity as a Black person (and all that the name connotes in the Western world) also spoils the name of the country. And that Black identity itself was spoiled by centuries of slavery, begging bowl syndrome by our leaders and inferior-rating of Africans by colonial anthropologists and by books like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).
Four, what the FBI list, the purported Saudi Arabia list of 23 Nigerians awaiting to be executed, and the profiling of the Fulani remind us, is that there is a ‘banality of crime’ in the country (to rephrase the German American philosopher, Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ phrase). And it truly reflects the federal character. Consequently it will be nice to see the various sociocultural and separatist groups in the country to also look at some of the internal contradictions in their ethnic homeland because the limitations imposed by such contradictions may be more debilitating than those inherent in interactions with other groups or the ‘injustices’ they inveigh against.