A few years ago The New Yorker magazine chronicled the true story of a Massachusetts psychotherapist who had fallen prey to a Nigerian 419 e-mail scheme. (The name 419 comes from the antifraud section of Nigeria’s criminal code.) The story was simultaneously horrifying and fascinating.
How had an intelligent person been taken in – to the point of self-destruction – by so obvious a fraud? The answer, it seems, was fairly simple: greed.
And now, for those curious to know something about the other side of the equation – who are these ruthless, anonymous cyberscammers? – a debut novel supplies a few clues. Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has created Kingsley Ibe – loving son, self-sacrificing brother, disappointed lover, and savvy 419er – who is the protagonist of I Do Not Come to You By Chance.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Kingsley. His utopian, bookish parents raised him better.
Kingsley’s father is a poor but honest retired civil servant. His mother is a small-time entrepreneur who would rather starve than pocket a crooked cent. And they’ve inculcated their children, especially opara (eldest son) Kingsley, with their values.
But nothing seems to be going right for Kingsley. Despite high marks and a degree as a chemical engineer, he can’t find a job. His girlfriend, the lovely Ola, decamps as soon as she meets a man who can afford to buy her a Dolce and Gabbana wristwatch and Gucci slippers.
Then his father dies and as opara, Kingsley needs to find a way to pay the all-important school tuitions of his younger siblings. So he turns to 419 schemes.
It doesn’t happen immediately. First, he goes to his Uncle Boniface simply to ask for help. Boniface, once the ill-educated lout of the family, has since reinvented himself as Cash Daddy – king of the 419ers.
Cash Daddy, his considerable girth stuffed into Versace jeans and Yves Saint Laurent shirts, swaggers about town these days, hollering at retainers, savoring beautiful women and fast cars, and consorting with buddies with names like World Bank International and Pounds Sterling – men who, Kingsley notes, all suffer from “elephantitis of the pocket.”
It’s a fairly overwhelming scenario and all Kingsley has to do to partake of the seemingly limitless wealth around him is to use his education to draft e-mails urging anonymous suckers – mugu, they call them – to believe that he is the distressed and wealthy widow of a deposed Nigerian official who needs help transferring funds out of the country or the nation’s minister of aviation offering a remarkable investment opportunity in a new airport.
No one will buy it, Kingsley thinks at first. “Who on this earth was stupid enough to fall prey to an e-mail from a stranger in Nigeria?”
Then the replies begin to come. Someone in Auckland, another in Cardiff, then a woman in Wisconsin. “Soon we were on first-name terms. It was almost like staying up to watch a dreadful movie simply to see what happened at the end.”
Kingsley, of course, has enough conscience to worry about the mugu who soon begin bankrupting themselves to invest in his transparently fraudulent schemes.
But Cash Daddy reassures him that his sympathy is misplaced. “Don’t think America and Europe are like Nigeria where people suffer anyhow. Over there, their governments know how to take good care of them. They don’t know anything about suffering.”
“I Do Not Come to You By Chance” is a sly twist on an old-fashioned morality tale and its refusal to tidily reward the good and punish the bad will alternately horrify, amuse, and bemuse its readers. But at the same time, its breezy tale urges a degree of compassion for the struggling denizens of a realm not governed by law. Cash Daddy is not the best product of such a system – but neither is he necessarily the worst.
As a narrator, Kingsley infuses his own story with humor, warmth, and no small amount of rueful regret, bemused himself by the place in which he finds himself – hemmed in by a family full of characters, surrounded on one side by aunts “each of whom aspired to a higher standard of obesity than the previous one,” and on the other by Cash Daddy who “could probably talk a spider into weaving silk socks for him.”
As a 419er, Kingsley is certainly no hero. But, then again, neither are his victims.
To keep the story behind this book in perspective, it may help to remember the statement issued by the Nigerian Embassy in Washington several years ago. “There would be no 419 scam,” the Nigerians pointed out, “if there are no greedy, credulous and criminally-minded victims ready to reap where they did not sow.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.