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Reform in a country of cons



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

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

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

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

The advance fee fraud scam is known internationally as "419" fraud after the section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlaws it. Although the U.S. Secret Service estimates that its victims worldwide lose hundreds of millions of 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 for taking part in what prosecutors say is the world's largest 419 scam.

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

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

The widespread 419 scam has helped seal the West African country's image as one of the most corrupt places on earth. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was elected in 1999 after 16 years of corrupt military rule, pledged to tackle the international fraud rings and clean up government graft that thrived during the 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 place for these criminals who tarnish Nigeria's image."

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

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

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

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

Since the 419 scam started in the early 1980s, its perpetrators have been worshipped as national heroes. They flaunted their wealth, their mammoth homes, their luxury cars, their European villas and their apparent immunity from the law.

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

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

On most days his commission appears in the headlines of Nigeria's newspapers, uncovering some new form of corruption. In the past month, he revealed that 70 percent of the foreign goods entering Nigeria are smuggled in, often with the assistance of customs officers. He announced he would launch an investigation into whether oil companies were complying with the nation'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's capital. On his desk were two telephones, two cell phones, both jingling, and an answering machine indicating that a number of messages awaited him.

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

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

Nigerians have come to depend on bribery and corruption to oil the wheels of government, commerce and society. It is such an accepted practice that bribes - referred to as a "dash" - are regularly demanded for everyday services, including guaranteeing luggage is loaded onto airplanes, passing through police check points and entering lines to buy fuel.

"We have seen a lot of backsliding in Nigeria," says Peter Eigen, director of Transparency International. Disappointingly, Eigen says, the Nigerian National Assembly has blocked passage of tougher anti-corruption laws and after five years in office Obasanjo has little to show for his anti-corruption campaign.

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 ability to work conscientiously and effectively in the face of serious handicaps and overwhelming danger to his person."

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

Shunning bribes in Nigeria only makes his work riskier. He does not socialize 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 a convoy of a government official who was recently singled out by Transparency International for her work tackling corrupt practices in the import and export of counterfeit drugs, cosmetics and food products. The bullets narrowly missed her.

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