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Reform in a country of cons

National GovernmentAfricaGovernmentOrganized CrimeHeads of State

ABUJA, Nigeria - "GREETINGS: IN ORDER TO TRANSFER OUT (USD 36MILLIONDOLLARS) FROM OUR BANK. I HAVE THE COURAGE TO ASK YOU TO LOOK FOR A RELIABLEAND HONEST PERSON WHO WILL BE CAPABLE FOR THIS IMPORTANT BUSINESS BELIEVINGTHAT YOU WILL NEVER LET ME DOWN EITHER NOW OR IN THE FUTURE. ... "

Flattered? Interested in doing business? The author of this e-mail hopesso.

For more than two decades, Nigerian scam artists have circulated letters,faxes and e-mails like this one in hopes of swindling gullible and greedyforeigners out of millions of dollars.

Often posing as legitimate businesspeople, such as the bank official inthis e-mail, the con artists request help transferring millions of dollars outof Nigeria in return for a hefty commission.

The recipient is asked to provide funds for various fees, as well aspersonal information such as Social Security numbers and bank account details.Once those are received, the victims discover they have been conned out ofhuge sums of money.

The advance fee fraud scam is known internationally as "419" fraud afterthe section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlaws it. Although the U.S.Secret Service estimates that its victims worldwide lose hundreds of millionsof dollars each year, the Nigerian government has done little to stop it.

Until now.

This month, five Nigerians have gone on trial in Nigeria's high court fortaking part in what prosecutors say is the world's largest 419 scam.

The defendants, including a housewife, a lawyer and a well-knownbusinessman, are charged with tricking a Brazilian bank employee into paying$242 million of his bank's money to build a fictitious airport in Nigeria bypromising him a personal commission of $13 million.

For Nigeria, more than a group of con artists is on trial. Unofficially, sois the country's reputation.

The widespread 419 scam has helped seal the West African country's image asone of the most corrupt places on earth. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who waselected in 1999 after 16 years of corrupt military rule, pledged to tackle theinternational fraud rings and clean up government graft that thrived duringthe lawless years of military dictatorships.

"We will wage war against those who systematically destroy our economy,"Obasanjo told the National Assembly last year. "There will be no hiding placefor these criminals who tarnish Nigeria's image."

Obasanjo's main weapon in this fight is an organization called the Economicand Financial Crimes Commission, which he launched last year to battle 419scams, along with money laundering, drug trafficking, credit card fraud,bribery, smuggling, tax evasion, counterfeiting and intellectual propertytheft.

In the first year the commission has arrested about 200 suspectedcriminals, including dozens of 419 kingpins, frozen their bank accounts andseized more than $100 million in cars, homes, cash and other assets. Amongthose arrested was a member of the National Assembly.

The commission made a point to shackle the suspects in handcuffs and paradethem in front of the television cameras.

"It was a massive, huge thing to do," says Nuhu Ribadu, executive directorof the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission. "We don't have a culture ofbringing people to justice, especially the rich and powerful."

Since the 419 scam started in the early 1980s, its perpetrators have beenworshipped as national heroes. They flaunted their wealth, their mammothhomes, their luxury cars, their European villas and their apparent immunityfrom the law.

"We were lost in a jungle," Ribadu says of those years. "You could dowhatever you wanted and nothing would happen to you."

Despite the high profile arrests, the commission has yet to win aconviction in a case against the 419 kingpins, Ribadu says, which makes thecurrent case so important.

On most days his commission appears in the headlines of Nigeria'snewspapers, uncovering some new form of corruption. In the past month, herevealed that 70 percent of the foreign goods entering Nigeria are smuggledin, often with the assistance of customs officers. He announced he wouldlaunch an investigation into whether oil companies were complying with thenation's ill-enforced tax laws.

On a recent afternoon, Ribadu sat behind a large wooden desk in his office,a converted house near the presidential offices in Abuja, the nation'scapital. On his desk were two telephones, two cell phones, both jingling, andan answering machine indicating that a number of messages awaited him.

"I want to be in the vanguard of change," Ribadu says, adding that ifNigeria doesn't change its ways it will end up "like so many other failedAfrican states."

Many critics would say Nigeria is already a failure. Blessed with some ofthe world's riches oil deposits, fertile soils and an ambitious, educatedpopulation, Nigeria should be a leader on the continent. Instead, the nation'slong line of corrupt leaders has squandered its wealth, making it one of themost destitute nations Africa.

Nigerians have come to depend on bribery and corruption to oil the wheelsof government, commerce and society. It is such an accepted practice thatbribes - referred to as a "dash" - are regularly demanded for everydayservices, including guaranteeing luggage is loaded onto airplanes, passingthrough police check points and entering lines to buy fuel.

"We have seen a lot of backsliding in Nigeria," says Peter Eigen, directorof Transparency International. Disappointingly, Eigen says, the NigerianNational Assembly has blocked passage of tougher anti-corruption laws andafter five years in office Obasanjo has little to show for his anti-corruptioncampaign.

But Ribadu's efforts to change Nigeria's culture have not gone unnoticed.The daily newspaper This Day named him "Man of the Year," noting "his abilityto work conscientiously and effectively in the face of serious handicaps andoverwhelming danger to his person."

Criminals threaten Ribadu daily by telephone and e-mail. Attorneys for theaccused drop envelopes stuffed with cash on his desk, hoping to get theirclients out of jail. Instead of accepting it, which would be common practicein Nigeria, Ribadu has the lawyers arrested.

Shunning bribes in Nigeria only makes his work riskier. He does notsocialize in public anymore, he says, afraid for his and his family's lives.

Such fears are not unfounded in Nigeria. In December, gunmen fired on aconvoy of a government official who was recently singled out by TransparencyInternational for her work tackling corrupt practices in the import and exportof counterfeit drugs, cosmetics and food products. The bullets narrowly missedher.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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