'Cybercrime is not Nigeria's middle name'

Afonapi Emmanuel and Oseni Bukona, who live in Lagos’s Ajegunle slum, with their

Afonapi Emmanuel and Oseni Bukona, who live in Lagos’s Ajegunle slum, with their mentor ’Gbenga Sesan from Paradigm Initiative Nigeria

’Gbenga Sesan wants the world to know that cybercrime is not Nigeria’s middle name.

He doesn’t deny there is a major problem, in fact, he goes so far as to call it a “national disaster”. But he is determined to help Nigeria move on from it.

His project, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), aims to inspire and teach the young people of Nigeria how to become legitimate computer-literate entrepreneurs especially those in the country’s slums most at risk of becoming ‘Yahoo! Yahoos!’.

“Nigeria is not supposed to be a technology savvy country but we’ve got a cybercrime problem,” he says.

“How do you explain a country with not as many internet users as the West, as being the source of probably the highest number of cybercrime incidents?”

Sesan, an opinionated, long-time blogger and self-made IT guru who lectures around the world, pinpoints the fallout from Nigeria’s massive unemployment rate as a catalyst for the proliferation of the 419 (advance-fee fraud) over the past decade. It’s estimated that around 60 million out of 150 million Nigerians are unemployed. And even though the country’s universities are churning out an increasing amount of graduates only 10 per cent of these are finding “gainful employment” within two years.

“So that’s a minimum of 40million young people out of work, which means only one thing: restlessness and crime.”

Sesan believes these problems ferment in Nigeria’s ever-swelling slums and he has directed one of his campaigns, Ajegunle.org, towards the vastest slum in Nigeria (and possibly all of Africa).

Lagos’s Ajegunle (which ironically means ‘residence of wealth’) is home to about three million people. The disadvantaged community has generated the odd success story, including several of Nigeria’s most famous football stars, such as Emmanuel Emenike, and it also the birthplace for many of the country’s latest dance crazes, but poverty, prostitution and crime are far more synonymous with its name.

“Lagos is a very unfriendly city when it comes to the cost of living, so people come to this area of town. It’s cheap to live there, but infrastructure is near zero.

“It has two problems: first it’s a slum and, second, it’s a slum in Lagos so it’s an expensive slum. It’s very hard to move on from there.”

“It’s also got a perception problem in terms of crime and prostitution. There’s a place called Good News Street, part of the headquarters for prostitution in the area - and probably all of Lagos. People would say that it’s also a base for cybercrime but I don’t have any proof in numbers.

“Growing up in Ajegunle can put a cap on your vision for life, kind of. Education problems; population problems; your parents tell you: ‘You’ve gone through school, that’s enough.’ ”

Sesan, 34, from somewhat of a humble beginning himself, the son of a teacher and a nurse, certainly identifies with the youth of the area, not just their problems but also their potential.

His career developed alongside Nigeria’s crouching-tiger online boom, starting his own business teaching people to design websites, working his way through various key roles to become the country’s IT Ambassador to the UN.

The former electrical engineering student refers back to one moment in his life to remind himself why he didn’t continue on the big-money IT career trajectory.

“Computers were premium objects when I was at school. We had two donated to the school – it was a big deal, we went out to greet the trucks.

“I went to use the computers and the teacher looked down on me. I was really tiny. He laughed and he said ‘you can’t understand how to use them, they’re called com-put-ers’. I cried, obviously.

“The first option was to give up. But I said, whatever these things are, I will learn how to use them and make sure no other young person experiences the same embarrassment I did.”

Through Ajegunle.org Sesan is nurturing and in some cases redirecting the IT potential of the area but he has no interest in playing cyber cop.

“I don’t ask people if they are in to cybercrime because I don’t want to get them into trouble. But I’m careful. I don’t want to train them and see them go into crime.”

“I tell them: the same skills you are using to scam people, to create false websites, you can use these skills to earn money legitimately. The amount of hours you invest in looking for someone’s credit card information, you can use that to do some online research to get information for your project.”

“We teach them tools like Excel to make them money instead. We then try to attach them to internships so they can understand the world of work.”

Sesan is realistic about the scale of the three-million-strong Ajegunle community’s problems, realising that his organisation can’t reach everyone but optimistic about what his team of ‘role models’ projects into the population.

His course covers not only IT skills but it also focuses on the student’s entrepreneurial side too.

Oseni Bukona, 23, is not a cybercriminal, but her sights were set very low before she began at PIN.

“Before I got help, I was just sitting at home and doing nothing and it was very difficult,” she says.

“A lot of people in Ajegunle don’t have the money for schools – it’s very expensive.

“They were able to train me and I was even able to train people, which is what I’m doing now.”

Oseni has a small soap and cream making business, where she can use her newly honed skills. In 10 years’ time, she aspires to open a research centre focussing on new technology. She wants to create, not copy, and wants to “carry people along” on the road to success, a much-ignored element in modern Nigeria, she says.

Likewise PIN has helped Afonapi Emmanuel find a new market for his traditional art. The 26-year-old sculptor from Ajegunle, who was unemployed before the course, sees a more prosperous future for himself now.

“This course is kind of rebranding me. I discovered that the internet is a place to showcase my work – I didn’t have to wait to get it in a gallery like I thought I would.”

He dreams of selling his art outside Nigeria and one day travelling and working abroad.

Ajegunle.org is slowly yet surely beginning to bear fruit that can change the lives of not just the students.

“People have grown from zero dollars a day to three dollars a day,” Sesan says. “For someone who was living on their parents’ meager income to someone maybe even giving their parents money will change the whole picture. When one person earns money in Nigeria, four people benefit.”

As might be expected local companies are skeptical about employing youngsters from Ajegunle.

Sesan says: “There so many graduates looking for jobs, applying to the big companies. Why should they take somebody from Ajegunle, which is the most notorious slum in Nigeria, who doesn’t have a university degree?”

There is also an inherent psychological wall for Ajegunle alumni to climb before breaking into the mainstream.

Yet, there are success stories emerging.

As a result of her placement one recent graduate gained a 50,000 Naira (US$330) -per-month job in the private sector – a good wage in Nigeria.

The ex-student called Sesan in tears, still suspicious of making money online, telling him: “I don’t want to do something wrong”. She needed concerted reassurance that she got her coveted position legitimately; because she was the best candidate.

Nigeria’s cybercrime woes are compounded further by a lack of legislation and ignorance about the law. 

“Your neighbour suddenly buys a car and you ask how he afforded it and he says: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll teach you’. So he takes you to a place where there are computers and he tells you to send a few emails and one day you get money. You don’t know it’s a crime.

Many young people don’t know it’s a crime.”

And the crux of the matter is that, according to Nigerian law as it exists currently, sending the email to commence the cybercrime (“I am a rich Nigerian prince etc) is not illegal.

“There is no law at the moment that criminalises cybercrime – but it’s not deliberate. The internet happened to Nigeria before we knew it so our Evidence Act doesn’t allow digital evidence. You can’t bring an email to court and say that this guy has emailed me and defrauded me.

“It’s only criminalised when there is a financial transaction involved.”

Another one of PIN’s campaigns involves an online petition to have this law changed by 2015. Previous attempts, in 2007 and 2011, failed.

The economic cost of cybercrime to Nigeria is immeasurably high, crippling its castrated E-commerce industry further. Try paying for a service online or even using your credit card in Nigeria and this becomes self-evident.

But the problem outdates the internet so a larger cultural change is required.

“Nigeria has a history of scams,” says Sesan. “In the days of letter writing, people used to write letters to foreigners to scam them. The same when fax came, when email came. Cybercrime is just an adoption of a new tool for an old crime.”

Changing this culture, and de-glamourising it, forms the bases of another of PIN’s campaigns.

ISSPIN (Internet Safety, Security and Privacy Initiative) broadly targets the ‘maga’ (fool in Yoruba) mentality of the young cyber thieves, whereby the victim of the crime is seen as just a sucker on the path to wealth.

A host of Nigerian music artists collaborated to produce a hip-hop song called ‘Maga Don’t Need to Pay’, trying to reverse the quick-scam, easy-money myth.

A measure of the campaign’s importance in Nigeria is judged by the organisations who partnered with PIN to create it, namely Microsoft and the World Bank.

A coordinated effort from the private sector and governments are crucial if Nigeria is to regain its online reputation.

“There are smart young Nigerians using the internet positively but there’s no way to tell the world that unless we take it seriously.”

“The first thing we wanted to do was to get the discussion on the table – the elephant in the room. We knew it was a problem, the 419. But we didn’t talk about it.”

Most of all Sesan laments the years of lost potential in what is one of the most IT-embracing populations on earth.

“If the number of people who commit cybercrime in Nigeria were to be involved in outsourcing then our sights would be not just on Ghana and Kenya.

“India would be scared: ‘Oh, my God, they’ve got 40 million people who are into the outsourcing business.’ ”

Steve Madgwick