This was originally published on forbes.com on August 28, 2011.
I cover a pretty wide variety of tax issues. I am driven by the raw material that the system feeds me. I try to at least look at most federal original source material and have taken to poking around in the states a bit more, where I find somebody suing Rite Aid over a twelve cent sales tax overcharge, who coincidentally works for a law firm specializing in class action law suits. I find in the process that I start feeling responsible for certain issues. Like the tax implications of marriage equality.
Frankly, Patricia Cain covers that issue better than I do, but I don't think she is as funny as I am. At any rate my concern for the good name of Nigerians did not spring out of review of original source tax material. I wrote a fairly silly postabout an e-mail I received. It got me a few sharp comments, which I reflected on. I changed the post a bit including the title, but I felt I owed them a bit more. So I wrote a post which is sumarized here:
The body of original source tax material is rich in matter for reflection. I was able to quickly lay my hands on a case that I had noted some time ago. The case is almost as old as I am. It concerned a New York physician, named Curtis H. Muncie who went to Mexico with several thousand dollars which he exchanged for a receipt and a check, both of which turned out to be bogus. The events took place in 1947 and the case was decided in 1952. The tax issue was somewhat interesting but the point of the case relative to Nigerians was this comment by the judge:
Dr. Muncie was the victim of the ancient "Spanish prisoner" swindle and under the laws of Mexico, Mexican Penal Code, sections 386 and 387, dealing with fraud, the facts set forth above constitute a theft of the petitioner's money.
So you might ask why we talk about Nigerian 419 fraud rather than Mexican 386 fraud. Good question. You see in 1947, the internet service in Mexico was really lousy. I think they must have been on dial-up. Anyway the internet service was so lousy that they actually ran the scam using snail-mail. Even with stamps at three cents, the costs would add up. You had to really qualify your prospects as they say in marketing so it was only a select few that were solicited rather than just about everybody.
I seem to have struck a nerve. There has been quite a bit of commentary on my piece, which is an indication of how bad the maligning of Nigerians has been. It is bad enough that when someone mentions internet fraud, the next thing that pops into people's minds is Nigeria. What is much worse is that when someone mentions Nigeria, the next thing that pops into many people's minds is internet fraud. I recall being in a cab with a friend of mine. We started chatting with the driver who mentioned he was from Nigeria. Right away my friend starts talking about 419. At any rate here is an example of the response. In a post titled Nigeria: The Need for Improved English Education, Akin Akintayo wrote:
When Peter Reilly who contributes to Forbes.com first wrote about the letter, he noticed a subtle change in the tone of a 419 letter from that of persuasion preying in the greed of the victim to fearful threats and is was only normal for him to default to stereotype with the headline Nigerians Switching From Greed to Fear .
It took one well-placed comment by a Nigerian resident in Nigeria to get Peter Reilly to change the title of his blog though the underlying URL still registers the original title; he then went one step further offering insightful research about the original of fraudulent scams and the resolution of some interesting cases.
In the comments under his first blog he engaged the commenters and it appeared he was contrite enough to write the follow-up blog Fraud Has No Nationality- Apology to Nigeria in what I felt was a display of maturity and interesting raconteuring, you had to hear him out.
There was even a video response. In the video, Chika Uwazie talks about the need for Nigerians to do positive branding, which is what gave me an idea.
It is very hard to directly combat a negative stereotype. One of the problems with directly combatting a negative stereotype is that in the process you reinforce it as our late President may have done in 1973, when he said "I am not a crook". Pointing out that other people engage in the stereotypical activity, as Ms. Uwazie does in her video is a valid argument, but it also may be counter-productive. The game of nationality maligning is not like the game of tag we played as kids. The way we played whoever was "it" would tag someone else who was then "it". There was a rule against "tag backs" so that the former "it" could not be immediatly tagged. There is no such rule in the game of nationaltiy maligning.
So here is my idea. Make lists of 419 reasons to like Nigeria and Nigerians. Do not even mention that the list is in any way a response to internet fraud. Do not say anything about internet fraud. If enough people do this and it might not really be that many, then when someone puts "Nigeria 419" into a search engine he or she will be swamped with positive messages about Nigeria. My woeful ignorance will probably make my own attempt in this regard quite unsatisfactory, but stay tuned for the next part of the series.