Back in the 1980s, my father, an economist for the Zimbabwean government, told me about a Nigerian civil servant who managed to redirect a whole oil tanker to some country in Asia, pocket the money from the sale of crude oil, and disappear from the world. I thought of this story, which I dismissed at the time as nothing more than a tall tale (a whole oil tanker, come on), when I read, this morning, about the Nigerian scammers who succeeded in stealing a massive amount of money from Washington’s Employment Security Department. I then googled the words “stolen,” “oil tanker,” and “Nigerian” and… wow.
Three top Nigerian naval officers were arraigned in a military court today over their alleged involvement in the disappearance of an oil tanker that had been impounded for smuggling stolen crude oil.
This happened in 2003. Nigerians do not mess around. The criminals of the most populous black country in the world are on a whole other level.
You will never find a single Zimbabwean crook or corrupt official who can dream as big as that. My culture is way too timid. Even our food is bland. We are happy with a cup of tea, two plops of cubed sugar, and butter on a thick slice of bread. If you were to say to the most accomplished Harare tsotsi, “Hey, I got an idea, let’s steal an oil tanker;” or, “Hey, we should try scamming millions from Washington’s Employment Security Department,” he would look at you with the saddest of eyes, and then visit your family, and, over tea and biscuits, explain how he’s very worried about your mental health. “It’s serious,” the tstosi would say to your amai and baba. “He needs help right now. Maybe he should, you know, return to kumusha. Simple rural life might help his condition.”
And so, despite the misery and confusion the scam has caused, I can’t help but be awed by these Nigerian thieves. How in the world did they get it into their heads that defrauding a major American government institution was something that could be done?
The New York Times and Seattle Times have previously reported that a U.S. Secret Service alert issued last week identified Washington as the top target so far of a Nigerian fraud ring seeking to commit large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs. Commissioner Suzi LeVine said she couldn’t speak to the details of the investigation, but said that the Secret Service alert wasn’t directly shared with her, but that the agency received it through other sources.
To get a sense of my awe (which may appear to some to be in poor taste), I want to end the post with a passage from a 2013 Salon interview of the famous Zimbabwean actress Danai Gurira. It concerns her role in the movie Mother of George (she plays Adenike, a Nigerian).
The difference between the Yoruba and the Shona — Shona weddings don’t look like that, with the beautiful cloth. All the components of the marriage, they pray for her and bless her, the groom has hands put on him by the elders, it’s gorgeous! And we don’t have any of that! What’s wrong with us [Zimbabweans]? We have a little traditional marriage in a living room with tea and cake after. We’re very, very different. The Yoruba are probably more colorful among Africans. And [for the Shona] the British have still not left and that affects us a lot.