Olamide is only 17 years old, but not only does he have a lot of internet fraudsters in his circle of friends, but he is also considering trying his hand on the line of work too. For now, he helps his mom by hawking oranges, sold in packs of three or four. From morning till dusk, he chases after car owners who occasionally drive by the mini-campus of Olabisi Onabanjo University, a state-owned institution located in Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State.
But, like many youths of his age group in this community—including his immediate elder brother and countless students at his school, Methodist Comprehensive High School—he may not be sweating it out on the road for much longer.
“If I am introduced to it, I can do it too,” he says straightforwardly, referring to cybercrime. “I am only afraid of the dangers involved.” Explaining, he says he is both scared of getting arrested by the police and uncomfortable with the use of body parts and female underwear for rituals, as is now customary.
Another student of Methodist Comprehensive High School, Opeyemi, says the majority of the student population are engaging in online fraud one way or another. Some of his colleagues, aged between 15 and 18, were recently arrested after they drugged a relative and took him to a native doctor to enhance their business. Seeing how young they were, the doctor had notified policemen who then laid an ambush.
Students of Methodist Comprehensive High School are not the only ones that engage in the criminality; there others. Another one whose name pops up easily during conversations about yahoo plus (the combination of cybercrime and rituals) is Fowoseje Comprehensive High School. These students, townspeople say, are ill-famed for exhuming body parts from a nearby burial ground and selling or otherwise using them for personal gains.
Nigeria is notorious all over the world for an advance-fee scam, also known as 419 (derived from the country’s criminal code) or the ‘Nigerian Prince scam’. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, the country ranks third globally in cybercrime, coming after the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
With combined youth unemployment and underemployment rate of 55.4 per cent engulfing an enormous 24.5 million people, many young Nigerians have sought refuge in illegitimate means of making money including cybercrime. The practice is, however, more prevalent in some communities, compared to others. Ago-Iwoye is one of such communities, alongside neighbouring towns such as Ijebu-Ode and Awa-Ijebu.
Residents say the internet fraudsters, more popularly known as “yahoo boys”, are not difficult to recognise, considering their clubbing and gambling habits, as well as lavish, showy lifestyle. They also typically sag their trousers, wear black clothing, and have their skin tattooed. It is said that the best cars in town are driven by them—at times raced recklessly, and they own a good number of the finest houses around too.
Some do not bother attending school, and those who do are infamous for truancy and nonchalance. One automobile mechanic with a workshop in Ijebu-Ode who spoke with this reporter says the rise of cybercrime is responsible for youth apathy to work as an apprentice.
“Nowadays, young boys do not have enough patience for this kind of work,” he laments. “They are either rushing into the commercial bike-riding business or yahoo yahoo.”
Since the young yahoo boys cannot withdraw huge sums of money without raising eyebrows, they either connive with bank tellers to cash their loots or use proxies known as ‘pickers’ — elderly persons or business owners who are more likely to transact in huge sums.
Managers of hotels, such as Limelite and Dominion, are one of those profiting largely from the menace. Their prices are on the high side as the vast majority of their customers are internet fraudsters, who lodge there for safety and to socialise.
Certain landlords are also known to lease their apartments exclusively or mostly to the boys; and then there is a growing concept that has come to be referred to as “yahoo mechanic”, “yahoo traders” and so on. These mechanics and vendors transact mostly with yahoo boys, and get paid triple (or more) what their counterparts receive from other residents.
In November, operatives of the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested thirty-four (34) suspected internet fraudsters, aged between 19 and 37 years, from a building in Awa-Ijebu. Most of them claimed to be students of Olabisi Onabanjo University and the National Open University of Nigeria. Residents also say one of the arrested youths claimed to be a student of Methodist Comprehensive High School, and was later discovered to have recently graduated, still awaiting his ordinary level result.
The operatives recovered from them 300 SIM cards, different brands of cars, 18 laptops (out of which nine were Apple products), 50 mobile phones (out of which 21 were iPhones), as well as two bags full of fetish objects.
When this reporter visited the location of the arrest at Sawmill Road, the premises, previously only used by internet fraudsters, was deserted and under lock. Oluwaseun, a farmer who lives adjacent to the house, says though he cannot allow his own children to go into the business, there is nothing “new” in what the arrested youths have done.
“They are not thieves, only yahoo guys, that’s all. And internet fraud is not common only in this locality, yahoo boys are everywhere,” he says defensively.
“I cannot allow my child to go into it, but some parents do not mind. No good parents will, however, see all the wahala [mess] that is happening and still want that for his child. The parents of those children also know the stress they must have gone through, travelling here and there. So there is big trouble in it,” he adds.
Another resident living nearby speaks of a previous arrest involving another young boy, who already built for himself a big house. When he was quizzed, the EFCC operatives were amazed to find out he was only 17 years old. “They asked him what he did to get rich, and he said yahoo.”
Encouraged by parents
One reason the problem of cybercrime has continued to be on an upward curve in Ijebu North is support from the elderly, parents especially. Though it is not in all cases this happens, residents note, it is a huge factor. In some cases, one parent gives encouragement and the other does not. There are, in fact, reports about the existence of a certain Yahoo Mothers Association, whose members promote the welfare of their wards particularly by lobbying for the release whenever they are arrested.
‘Mr Dauda’, a resident of Ago-Iwoye and employee of Tai Solarin College of Education, says he knows some of the members of this association. He estimates that four out of every ten households have members who are actively involved in cybercrime, and some of them are supported by their parents.
“To show the level of commitment of some parents, they even take their children to those with experience to teach them,” he reveals. “They will say they are looking for owo lapi (money for a laptop) for the child who is learning yahoo to even have a computer to use.”
Another set of people who encourage yahoo boys, according to reports, is the police who often extort and accept bribes from them. “The yahoo boys are the police’s source of livelihood apart from their salary,” Dauda says. “Some do not have the backing of their parents, and those who do may not have influential parents who can bail them out, so they pay the police themselves.”
The people generally are also said to habitually protest against law enforcement agents who attempt to arrest the boys, giving such excuses such as, ‘They have not robbed anyone or committed any real crime’, ‘politicians and university professors are doing worse’, ‘their action is payback for the injustices of colonialism’, and so on.
The principal of a secondary school in Ijebu-Igbo, who prefers to have her identity undisclosed, also places some of the blame on teachers who secretly encourage and protect the students. School principals, she notes, are also apprehensive of their students, many of whom are also involved in cultism.
She, in fact, advised the reporter to be careful because some teachers may reveal the purpose of the investigative report.
“If you are going to other schools, you need to be very careful,” she advises. “If there is any teacher in the principal’s office, you tell the principal that what you have come to do is very confidential… because some teachers also support them. Before you leave, they would have signalled to the students to notify them about your visit.”
How it all started
Shedding light on the origin of advance-fee fraud in the community, Bola Adebajo, a senior lecturer at Tai Solarin College of Education, Omu-Ijebu, and resident of Ago-Iwoye, says it all started with the pioneer Vice-Chancellor of Olabisi Onabanjo University (formerly Ogun State University): John Olubi Sodipo.
Sodipo, he explains, hails from Remo, where cultism was highly rampant. When he became Vice-Chancellor, he brought with him casual workers whose children already were initiated into cultism, and they were easily offered admission. Soon, their population increased and they bound together to form fraternities.
“When Sodipo left after eight years, Bankole, who is from Egba, became the Vice Chancellor. He terminated the employment of some of the cultists’ parents, and so they complained to Tunji Oyeneye, their godfather. An election was held to replace Bankole, and this brought in Oyeneye as the VC,” he narrates.
Under Oyeneye’s administration, cultism became openly practised and influential, leading many students to join for a sense of belonging. After many of the cultists left the university system, they used the arms they already acquired and took to a life of crime. They were also used by politicians in the state as political thugs. When this lifestyle proved insufficient in sustaining their needs, advance-fee fraud came to the rescue, and then eventually those who practise it included rituals to boost their earnings.
The police react
Olu Monday, the Divisional Police Officer of Awa-Ijebu Division, declined to speak at length on the subject of cybercrime, passing the responsibility to the EFCC. “They are the ones who mostly handle cybercrimes. We don’t have the wherewithal to fully investigate these cybercrimes, because in most cases there are no complainants. And without a complainant, we don’t see how we can establish a strong case without scientific proof,” he explains.
“The EFCC has scientific means of verifying and links with the banks and CBN who know the inflow and outflow of funds into their account.”
He admits that internet fraud is more common in Ijebu North than Ekiti from where he was transferred, though reports are not formally made to the police. “I had never heard for one day about internet fraud case in Ekiti,” he says.
The EFCC Acting Head of Media and Publicity, Tony Orilade, could not be reached for comments at the time of filing this report as his phone was switched off.
All institutions have a role to play, says development expert
Abideen Olasupo, Executive Director of Brain Builders International, a youth-centred Non-Governmental Organisation that promotes entrepreneurship and empowerment, says the fundamental problem is with the various institutions making up the country, including the academic, family, religious and political institutions.
“Moral decadence starts from home. It is quite unfortunate that we have some parents who celebrate their rich children, regardless of where the money is coming from. This has really contributed immensely to the issue of internet fraud,” he observes. “Parents ought to be a source of motivation for the children to work.”
“Secondly, our religious institutions also celebrating mediocrity and crime. We find that just because of what they are going to get, they give people who they know engage in illicit affairs awards, and they don’t have the audacity to address the ugly trend.”
He says the government has a crucial role to play. The National Orientation Agency specifically, he notes, has not been up to the task. “They only address issues of national discourse when they get out of hand.
“They don’t have a strategy or framework of even activating the guidance and counselling unit of every primary school, secondary school and tertiary institutions. We cannot continue to complain about these younger ones doing the wrong thing if we do not have the capacity to guide them,” he adds.
Olasupo laments the poor working conditions, including extremely low remuneration, which graduates are subjected to, and says it is part of what is making young people seek shortcuts to wealth. He also advises the government to focus on true capacity building for the youth that will lead to sustainable financial independence, and not just give out a token in the name of empowerment.