By Bassey Ubong
The word scam has a recent history when compared with fraud and deception used to describe it.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines scam as “fraudulent or deceptive act or operation” and traces its history to 1963, while fraud and deceit are traced to the 14th century AD by the same dictionary (which means fraud has a long history!).
Scam has gained currency and momentum with digital trends and social media. Despite the glamorous garb it wears, scam refers to no more than the old words all of us know – lies, stealing, cheating – all three on a sustained basis for personal gain.
The benefit may be material (the major purpose) or non-material, such as inflated ego or to grab attention. Somehow it helps when such glamorous words are used for how would one dare to say a United States President has a questionable first degree, or did set up a university to collect millions of dollars from innocent students and closed shop in a short while, or traumatized women for fun? Donald J. Trump has been linked with the three, although he won big during the 2016 elections.
Back in Nigeria, the tongue must be heavy to tell anyone certain actions claimed by bigwigs were contrived, never happened, or were outright false meant to hoodwink people.
Professor Wole Soyinka wrote a novel with the title “Season of Anomy” and published it in 1973. Nigeria has witnessed several seasons of anomy such as bloody coups d’etat, the Civil War, natural disasters, insurgency, hire wire political games, and others. We can describe the 2022/2023 General Selections as a season of anomy of the most spectacular kind in the history of the Nigeria Project.
Among the several things the exercise threw up, the games played with politicians, ‘Independent’ National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the Judiciary as the primary and principal stakeholders and capers left ordinary Nigerians with dry tongues. Professor Soyinka, the celebrated writer, found himself a victim of the season when he confronted opposition politicians and threw his heavy weight behind his tribesman at present in the eye of the storm.
But the most outstanding of the fallouts should be the tenacity of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar on the issue of the certificates forgery scandal and by extension the qualification of the supposed ‘winner’ of the 2023 Presidential selection race who today sits in Nigeria’s number one public office.
His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar has put up relentless post-election fights before, 0but the fights were based on election results. In all the cases, INEC and the Judiciary have exercised tenacious control of everything, from the flag off to the tape in the race.
Although the two agencies of government hold the key to the door of Aso Rock Villa, the decision on the eventual occupant has remained skewed towards the Judiciary of which Chidi Odinkalu, in the “Platinum Post” online newspaper, insists has sold election results from 1979 till date. Odinkalu in a whimsical and painful note concluded, “Election petitions have become a huge drain on judicial bandwidth and wellbeing since 1979.” What a pity.
None of the judicial abracadabra left Nigerians baffled as the decision to push the names of two Senators onto the list of contestants when they filed no papers to contest. As usual, the judgment went the Israeli system – keep mum when guilt stands like an elephant which stands in shrubs till the short and fickle memories of people gobble up something new.
The trending certificate brouhaha made some of us to ask ourselves whether scammers (soft word or innuendo for deceivers and thieves) have something common among them and in fact whether these human acts have been subjected to deep research. Academic papers and books have dwelt on the art, acts, and science of notable scammers, but this short piece mentions just one case, which this writer regards as representative and comprehensive.
In a blog post on 8th July 2022 with the title, “Why do they do it? We drive into the minds of scammers,” Rachel Uda provides extensive analysis of the work of Dr. Thomas Plante of Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, United States. A professor of psychology, Thomas Plante submits after research what in his opinion drives scammers and some of the key characteristics of what can be described as a trade.
The Professor believes self-interest and lack of “moral and religious brakes” drive scammers. Such brakes would have the capacity to stop these persons from compulsive lying, cheating, and stealing, all of which inform the minds of scammers.
The Professor sees scamming as a mental health issue in the class of anti-social personality disorder. Those involved have a drive to defraud people and systems on a routine basis and find nothing wrong with their actions despite visible pain inflicted on people and systems of which they are aware of.
A deeper review of the psyche of scammers reveals a wondrous orientation. They expect the society to show understanding to them, rather than anger and disgust . The reason lies in the fact of it being a mental health issue.
This should remind us of Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni withheld his assent to a bill which recommended capital punishment for persons proved to have been involved in homosexual acts. The President told the press that such persons required pity rather than punishment, because they were (and for those who sustain the orientation) are sick! I want to believe the President preferred psychiatric action. But in Nigeria, and I believe in Uganda, psychiatrists are as few as teeth in the mouth of nonagenarians.
Professor Plante emphasized the issue of lack of moral and religious brakes, because the deficiency in the psyche of scammers kills in them any feeling of remorse. He found out from his studies a problem in the structure of the brain of the average scammer. The part associated with empathy has low gray matter, which implies the probability of some persons being hard wired for fraud, lies, deceit, stealing, and related antisocial behaviours. And the stunning brazenness of the acts of scammers may be part of the brain structure! What a pity one must say, and on a sad note the researcher said nothing about possible corrective measures.
As a layman in neuroscience, I am unaware of the possibility of say surgery to make a victim have less inclination to steal, to deceive, and to lie. Scammers often succeed, which makes most people in the society to look at them with awe and mystique, which fuels their desire to go further.
We can put forward other ideas scammers here as rationalization or justification scammers may have.
First, a scammer – the compulsive type – should believe he or she has special endowment in the area of capacity for prolonged deceit. This aspect has to be linked with the gullibility of the specific society, and in the case of Nigeria, no one should doubt the tendency of Nigerians to believe next to everything, sometimes to drive away boredom or socioeconomic worries. The gullibility of Nigerians can be extended to include laziness of a people with respect to refusal to search for facts. It shocks when educated people with access to internet and social media spread falsehoods, except where information sources for their reasons withhold facts.
Second, a compulsive scammer has to believe in his or her capacity to convince everyone to accept their own position. This can be done by force of argument or violence by word or deed. It should remind us of the fallacy of the big stick in logic. In truth, those who use this fallacy aim to muzzle dissent and insist on acceptance of their wrong positions.
Third, a compulsive scammer should have resources beyond the intellect to be able to stop persons who strive to unmask them. This itself implies greater effort to accumulate material resources along with connections, as we term it in Nigeria. Which person of modest means can arrange 49 Senior Advocates of Nigeria said to charge a minimum of N120million for each case each of them appears in? Decades ago, I went to court to withdraw a case of rent default on my father’s property. The tenant preferred to hire a high profile lawyer who left my pupil lawyer intimidated to the point I knew as a lay person the case would go to the defence long before judgement.
Fourth, an ‘accomplished’ scammer has to have the mind and stamina to ride out a storm. Where possible, the scammer goes dirty to scare opponents on a temporary or permanent basis. No one can say Mr. Peter Obi would want to engage in fisticuff the way it appears Alhaji Abubakar appears ready to. After he spat fire and issued several threats in the early post-election days, Dr. Datti Ahmed has gone to sleep of sorts. He whimpers these days through his twitter handle. Alhaji Atiku has the financial muzzle to finance legal expenses in Nigeria, United States, and I believe any other place he can obtain helpful information.
At the end of the day, one thing I have tried and failed to explain has to do with justification for forgery of certificates and other documents relating to one’s identity when one knows of the stark possibilities of exposure. No one should be surprised if high profile clergy men and women cannot defend the academic qualifications they claim. Such persons I want to believe feel no butterflies in their stomachs when anyone says something about forgery of certificates. Some may look at people in the eyeballs and say, “Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm.” Who would like to dare and in fact bother if his/her Pastor claims nonexistent academic qualifications? Many followers would tell you to focus on the spiritual abilities of the Pastor, rather than “paper qualification.” Religious organizations, like their temporal counterparts, are afflicted with uncountable scammers.
Why should anyone craft his or her own National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) discharge certificate when thousands of above-age graduates are excited to participate in the scheme? Are people desperate for the extra money a job offers to the point they are unwilling to let one year go? A one-time Minister of Finance lost her job when the forged NYSC discharge certificate she presented blew up in her face. I believe if someone did some work, her certificates may have been found to be forged. These are serial scammers which our society has been afflicted with and suffer from.
And have we forgotten the University of Toronto case in which Nigeria’s youthful Speaker of the House of Representatives and the country’s number three citizen, Salisu Buhari, battled and failed to save his exalted seat? The university with an impeccable image said after several permutations and combinations of the young man’s name their registers failed to identify his name in any Department of the institution! His bell tolled and he crashed, but hundreds of thousands of high profile Nigerians continue to swagger with horrible certificate skeletons in their closets. One day for the thief, one day for the owner of the farm.
Citizens of Nigeria, yesterday we faced University of Toronto and truth prevailed. Today, we stand eyeball to eyeball with Chicago State University. In the first case, good sense of judgement carried the day when the youth wept profusely, showed some remorse and tender his resignation. In the trending case, we have to let the decision lie in the uncertain palms of the Judiciary. We watch and wait, although we will do nothing if the case goes the way it will please the Judiciary. But we believe somewhere along the line falsehood caves in for the long term good of the society and impressionable youths in particular. And Nigerians should be willing to accept the end game, if, in truth, those who fought made genuine mistakes when the certificates tendered were in actuality genuine.
Dr Ubong, a writer and public policy analyst, lives in Uyo.