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Nigeria: Hushpuppi, ‘419’ and the perceived glorification of fraud

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Thursday, 15 April 2021 19:37, updated on Monday, 19 April 2021 12:27

Screen shot of photo from Instagram account of hushpuppi. He was arrested in Dubai in 2020 on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity. 

Nigeria's social media ‘celebrity’ Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, popularly known as Hushpuppi, was arrested in Dubai in June 2020 on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity. But his illegal activities are rooted in a culture where many young people see fraud as the only way to make money.

In the pretrial, he pleaded not guilty to all four counts and risks 20 years imprisonment if convicted. The 37-year-old, who described himself in his Instagram biography as a ‘real estate developer’, gained popularity by flaunting his wealth to his over 2.5 million followers.

When he was arrested by the FBI — who collaborated with Snapchat, Instagram and Apple — Hushpuppi and his accomplices were found to be in possession of:

  • $40m cash;
  • 13 luxury cars worth $6.8m;
  • 21 computers;
  • 47 smartphones;
  • and a list of two million names of victims.

Hushpuppi has hired top criminal defence lawyer Louis Shapiro to defend him at the jury trial which was suspended due to Covid-19, but is scheduled to continue on 4 May 2021.

Postal fraud begins in Nigeria

In Nigeria, Hushpuppi’s country of origin, fraud is popularly known as ‘419’ or ‘yahoo yahoo’. The country has long been associated with fraud, which can be traced back to the 1980s when Shehu Shagari’s administration failed to properly tackle high levels of unemployment and poverty, stemming from the economic crisis as a result of declining oil prices.

Cue the postal fraud era.

An example of mail fraud from the time was ‘advance fee fraud’. This involved asking an investor to pay a fee upfront or in advance before receiving something of greater value.

During the 1980s, variations of these letters starting coming from Nigeria. They began as letters mailed to potential victims and evolved into e-mail scams, as it drastically cut the cost of sending.

In the 1990s, cybercafes emerged across the country, giving the general population access to email. Individuals formerly involved in postal fraud now found there was a larger market with emails. They became known as ‘Yahoo Boys’ since their main tool of operation was Yahoo Mail. It is from this that the term ‘yahoo yahoo’ became commonplace in reference to cyber fraud.

Abumere Igboa, head of cybersecurity at Stanbic IBTC, says that for some disenfranchised youth, “Cybercrime creates an atmosphere that makes it seem that it’s a career. Once you can use a computer, you can make a career earning money and wealth, although they are illicit funds.”

The term ‘419’ refers to scams involving someone overseas who offers payment for help to transfer money out of their country; and although this particular version of fraud originated in Nigeria, it is now practised globally. The number ‘419’ comes from the section of Nigeria’s Criminal Code that outlaws the practice.

Abumere Igboa, head of cybersecurity at Stanbic IBTC, tells The Africa Report that the problem of fraud has not significantly decreased in the 18 years he has worked in the field.

Fraud in Nigerian pop culture

Nigerian artistes have often been chastised for what is seen as the glorification of fraud in their songs. Examples include:

  • Yahooze by Olu Maintain: Although Olu Maintain has said in several interviews that his 2007 hit track Yahooze is not a tribute to ‘yahoo yahoo’, his lyrics tell a different story: “If I hammer [do fraud] … Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, boys dey hustle. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, gbogbo aye [everyone has fun] … Champagne, Hennesy, Moet, for everybody.” Here he is saying that ‘fraud boys’ work hard so they can play hard (and expensive).
  • Maga Don Play by Kelly Handsome. This 2008 hit describes a ‘maga’, somebody that is being duped/tricked who then turns to fraud for success: “I don suffer, every day and night our boys dey for system. Now I don hammer [I have done fraud], Baba God don bless me.”
  • Living Thing by 9ice. Released in 2016, the song seems to disassociate cybercrime from petty theft with this catchy phrase sang repeatedly: “Ki n sa ti l’owo [let me just have money], Ole lob’omo je [only stealing ruins a good name], Ki n sa ti l’owo, Wire Wire [wire transfers, online moving of money], Ki n sa ti l’owo…”

These artists portray the sentiments of many Nigerians who deem cybercrime as an informal way of making money.

According to Abumere, the main reason why internet fraud continues to be rampant is because family and friends of the fraudsters do not reprimand them. Youth who are still in school take large amounts of money home to their parents, and though it is rarely acquired through legal means, they are celebrated for it.

Some Nigerians perceive the fraudsters to be hard-working people, and certainly not like common thieves or armed robbers.

Ghost, who is part of the Nigerian rap duo ShowDemCamp, says: “A lot of music is driven by what goes on in people’s society and their norms.” Thus, these songs are simply a reflection of reality. He adds: “People in the streets singing about the reality of what goes on around them isn’t glorifying them in any way … beyond freedom of speech, it’s a documentation of what goes on in people’s lives.”

Fraud: A Nigerian problem, or a social media problem?

The problem of fraud is certainly not a Nigerian one, but the glorification of the practice might be. Ghost disagrees, he does not see it as glorification, rather as a portrayal of reality. He says: “to not give a picture of what is really going on would be doing an injustice to the people living that life.”

Abumere says social media is not the reason for fraud: “A few contributing factors, including the bad economy, security concerns, infrastructure challenges, lack of jobs and a poor educational system.”

He says that for some disenfranchised youth, “Cybercrime creates an atmosphere that makes it seem that it’s a career. Once you can use a computer, you can make a career earning money and wealth, although they are illicit funds.”

Social media allows fraudsters such as Hushpuppi to flaunt expensive lifestyles, which might influence youth in a country with high levels of poverty and unemployment to do the same.

“We now see the likes of Hushpuppi who go on social media and display their wealth. These are the people younger ones look up to,” says Igboa. That said, it is important to note that social media was also crucial in Hushpuppi’s arrest.

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