Cybercrime is so pervasive in Nigeria that the most common form online email scam is known as the Nigerian Con, or 419 (referring to the section of Nigerian penal code that prohibits it). We've all seen them: the notes from bankers, deposed ministers, widows and businessmen promising millions in return for "facilitating a transfer of funds," which inevitably involves giving the scammer access to a bank account or putting up some money in advance. In Nigeria, it's known in the youth culture as "Yahoo-yahoo," and the marks are referred to as "Maga."
Yahoo-yahoo is popular among the young (mostly young men) because it offers the prospect of easy money. Also, access to the Internet in cybercafés is unusually costly, and scams are one way to make it worthwhile. Cybercriminals enjoy a certain street-cred, and are sometimes celebrated in the youth culture in the same way that gangbangers are romanticized in American hip-hop.
No one is more active against cybercrime than the legitimate IT industry in Nigeria, who ends up being tarred with the same brush as the criminals. Most of the big online businesses like Amazon and eBay won't ship to Nigeria; PayPal won't process payments; and most ISPs block or carefully scrutinize IP addresses originating in Nigeria.
Recently, a supergroup of popular Nigerian musicians got together to release a song and video called "Maga No Need Pay." It was sponsored by a consortium of government and regional authorities, national and multinational businesses and NGOs, combining social and commercial objectives. The theme of the song is anti-cybercrime, pointing out the many ways that it undermines Nigeria's society, economy and reputation.
The appeal to pride is explicit, and seems most likely to resonate. Though it is the most populous country in Africa, blessed with natural beauty, rich culture, long history, and oil wealth, Nigeria is commonly regarded as violent and corrupt. The country's ailing President went AWOL for weeks, prompting demonstrations in the streets and a political crisis. It does not help that the notorious and rather ridiculous "underpants bomber" who tried to down a commercial airliner over Detroit on Christmas happened to be Nigerian.
All of this undermines the promise of a country that could (and should) someday become not only a regional power but a real player in the global economy. More than half of Nigeria's population is under the age of 15. Access to technology via Internet and mobile devices is spreading rapidly, laying the groundwork for a new source of economic vitality. The country is endowed with natural wealth sufficient to meet its needs, but has been hamstrung since Colonial times by poor governance and lack of social cohesion.
Foreign influence has not been very helpful, and in all likelihood perpetuates many of the problems. The hope for Nigeria rests with efforts from within to reform the government, develop a skilled workforce, and build a platform for economic growth broader than the current base of oil and resource-extraction.
The IT industry, both foreign and domestic, is critical to that effort. But they too need to get their house in order by stemming the tide of cybercrime. Initiatives like the one that produced "Maga No Need Pay" are cause of hope. And, it' a pretty catchy tune!