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Opinions of Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

Sakawa in Benin, 419 in Ghana, Suicide in USA

‘State-sponsored’ Sakawa in Benin, 419 in Ghana and a Suicide in USA

If you have ever regretted doing anything in your life, then you are a perfect specimen for a typical ponzi fraud or any 419 experiment. And if you would do things differently given a second chance, then you are as vulnerable as the victim of any cheap money scam. These schemes need not appear too clever or too simple to fool an unsuspecting simpleton. Otherwise, at least one person in Benin’s 9 million population should have been wise enough to see through the fraud behind the ponzi scheme operated by the Investment Consultancy and Computering Services (ICC). Sharp and responsible-looking officials of the company had posed for photographs with the country’s leader, President Thomas Yayi Boni. They had widely circulated free calendars and other marketing material displaying images of the president alongside directors of the company. They had also granted interviews on state television to explain their agenda. Company director, Guy Akplogan, had proclaimed on prime time television that “We are God’s people.” They had scored high marks on corporate responsibility: feeding orphanages, making fat donations to Christian groups, financing water projects for the poor and building hospitals and clinics to benefit a poor population most of whom live on less than $2 a day. Who would doubt the credibility of a company like this?

So, when ICC opened its doors for the mostly poor workers of the country to save their hard-earned-money, promising 50 to 100% interests on their investment, thousands poured through their doors. In typical ponzi fashion, they collected some $180 million from the poor folks and froze their operations, depriving poor breadwinners and their extended families of their daily bread. Victims have been demonstrating in the country’s capital, Cotonou, protesting and demanding some form of restitution from the government. So far, no compensation has been paid, but some government minsters and key ICC officials have been reprimanded. The Interior minister, Armand Zinzindohoue, has been sacked while 13 of ICC’s officials are serving jail terms. Benin’s principal state prosecutor, Constant Amoussou, has also been jailed. Majority of Benin’s parliamentarians, including some members of President Boni’s government, have signed a letter calling for the impeachment of the president and demanding that he is tried before the country’s Supreme Court for ‘favouring the activities’ of the fraudsters. Some insist that the president, himself a banker, should have known better, while government has largely explained the president’s association with ICC as a routine event that fell within protocol.

Experts believe that the situation has the potential to threaten the country’s young democracy. And that suspicion is not unfounded at all. With more than a quarter of the working population affected, with some threatening suicides and deaths from hypertension, a massive demonstration, the kind that ousted a military government in 1989, is possible if measures are not taken to address the situation. Greed may be a factor in this ICC ponzi affair, but in a country as poor as Benin, it would be redeeming to be greedy in the midst of deprivation, especially when a ‘state-sponsored’ venture promises to turn poor lives around.

Meanwhile in Ghana, internet scam and other 419 schemes continue to taint our national pride. What started as friendly exchange of letters to penpals abroad has today grown into a big industry that employs some of the most ‘ingenuous’ minds around. These penpals, mostly white friends in rich countries abroad, sent their poor friends pens, pencils, and sometimes money, mostly as kind gestures. They were not intended to be sponsorship packages, but their poor friends in the sahara who were smart enough to cook up the most depressing stories about their poverty, often managed to squeeze out some juicy sponsorship packages from their white friends. The very lucky ones got huge financial favours that sometimes provided capital for family businesses. Those in school often got their school fees paid over a long period. Usually, the friendship was ‘consummated’ when their white friends paid them a visit in their poor countries or sponsored them to fly abroad on a visit.

This was no sakawa. The motive, however, was not genuine friendship, at least not from our side of the Jordan. Today, the internet has made this penpal game more lucrative and very dangerous. Various schemes are used to dupe unsuspecting friends abroad of several thousands of dollars every year. Last week, we read that an American divorcee committed suicide when he realised that his would-be lover from Ghana, who had promised him a rich life after marriage, had turned out to be a scam. His Ghanaian lover had squeezed about $50,000 from him, as seed money to unlock several millions they would enjoy as a couple and live together happily ever after. He had often had to borrow money from his son, dishonour important commitments such as mortgage payments and empty all his savings to finance the deal. As typical of these scams, his lover never showed up on the appointed day.

What does a buffoon look like? Nobody has the word ‘twit’ or ‘nincompoop’ tattooed on their forehead. In the usual scheme of things, we would all be gullible enough to credit the obvious-looking fool with basic intelligence, or some degree of commonsense. A strange person drops a mail into your inbox, narrating the sweet story of a deceased rich father who left behind a rich inheritance, including several millions of dollars. Since the father was a former military leader in a war-torn African country, the writer has had to relocate to a neighbouring country. To get his father’s millions, the writer would need some money to pay lawyers and other expenses that come with international transactions. There would be beautiful photos of a voluptuous girl attached to the mail. There would be telephone numbers provided. Sweet-sounding ladies are standing by to talk sweet words to any doubting Thomas. Anybody who is ready to help her could also benefit from her love and affection, in addition to the millions. This is the bait. Anybody who tries to get a penny from those millions is game.

The American fell for a story like this. What was he thinking? That millions of dollars could rain into your accounts just because you parted with pennies? Was he too gullible? Don’t judge him yet. Wait until you hear this story. Just before I crossed over to Canada, a law firm I briefly worked for sued a Nigerian Estate agent in London. We might call his scheme a ponzi housing fraud. He sets up offices at vantage points in the city, decorates them with photos of clean and posh houses that are for rent, and those that had been bought, and plants notices inviting landlords to do business. The offices are manned by smart and professional-looking men and women who are adept at persuasive communication. He would drive a client in a posh Mercedes Benz car to show you ready-to-occupy houses. He greets you in the name of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ, to show his devotion to God. You are already family before the deal is signed. After he has shown 20 to 30 people the same houses and handed over fake keys, he bolts away with the lumpsum he has collected. He had rented the houses for this purpose, and he is never coming around again. He relocates his office to another city and starts the ponzi all over again. And he always succeeds. How do you see through a scam like this?

He did not make an appearance at court. He simply doesn’t care. The name on the complementary card is not his real name. He would be using a different name at his new location. He had given his name as Godfrey Cheduream Elechi. He may well be Emeka Orji. This is how criminal minds work. They have time to plan their schemes to fool their victims. Their unsuspecting victims would not ordinarily plan to investigate their actions, since there are genuine businesses that are conducted in pretty much the same way. Scammers do not look any different from the rest of us. They are the same faces we see in our churches, job places, clubs, and on the streets. There isn’t any art to see their minds construction on their faces.

But we do need to master a certain intelligent art to live in the midst of people with this kind of thinking. Can’t I buy a computer with my own hard-earned money, get a free email account from yahoo or hotmail, or even rocketmail, without fearing that I could lose all the money I have saved over a lifetime? Why must life be so precarious because there are scammers whose job is to make us pay a punitive price simply for being hardworking and law-abiding? Why must it be possible for a fraudster to hack into my credit card details and go on a shopping spree in New York while I live in Johannesburg? He buys expensive items I am only allowed to dream about. He never worked a day for it. It is just too unfair. How long can we allow marriage scam and 419 victims to commit suicide while the scammers play ‘catch me if you can’?

The sad thing is that most of these scammers do not die early; they live for a long time to develop more networks to harm people around them. While this is a global problem, we in Ghana should do more to salvage our image. It looks as if every 419 scam on the internet is cooked from Ghana. Or is it that the scammers are from different parts of the sub-region who have adopted Ghanaian names, because of our ‘good’ nature? It’s about time we kicked arses.

Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa, Canada quesiquesi@hotmail.co.uk

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