The FBI's dramatic arrest and indictment of 80 mostly Nigerian cybercriminals in California last week made headlines globally. Closer to home, it has prompted concerns among Nigerians who are worried about the impact the busts will have on how the world views them and their country.
Previously, Nigerian criminality existed in the popular imagination somewhere between mildly serious and an internet joke.
Now, with the FBI's takedown of an intercontinental Nigerian criminal network responsible for millions of dollars in annual losses, some think that the country and its citizens risk facing an unprecedented international backlash.
A new era of travel restrictions?
Unsurprisingly, ease of travel is at the top of the list of concerns raised.
Nigeria is one of the world's most prolific exporters of skilled migrant labor with one of the world's least powerful passports, giving holders ready access to just 52 countries. Fresh visa restrictions are the last thing educated Nigerians need.
At 35%, Nigeria already has the world's highest UK visa refusal rate. It also ranks highly in US visa refusals with a 57% refusal rate.
After indefinitely suspending interview waivers for visa renewals earlier this year, the US Embassy in Nigeria no longer gives visa interview appointments according to local reports. The embassy's Public Affairs section has denied blocking interview appointments but has provided no further comment on the issue.
Many believe that the headlines and pictures showing the arrest of several hitherto shadowy Nigerian cybercriminals will significantly worsen the situation.
They fear that the indictment and prosecution of an organized Nigerian-American crime syndicate will give President Donald Trump scarcely-needed motivation to impose a Yemen-style US travel restriction on Nigerian citizens.
It will be recalled that shortly after taking office, Trump imposed total visa bans on seven countries in Africa and the Middle East including Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and Somalia. Some Nigerians who are American residents even fear becoming collateral damage within a new narrative of "Nigerian crime gangs."
This fear is driven in part by the experience of some innocent Hispanic teenagers who found themselves embroiled in deportation proceedings after being wrongly accused of being members of the fearsome international gang MS-13.
A sophisticated operation
Some also believe that the indictments present a risk that existing negative Nigerian stereotypes may now transcend education and income barriers.
The FBI has opened a wider window on Nigeria's internet crime problem to the world, depicting a sophisticated operation involving people with professional web development experience and organizational process knowledge.
These are not the crude "Nigerian Princes" of the popular imagination, sitting inside crowded Lagos cybercafes sending out poorly written emails. They are highly educated and well-traveled individuals, one of whom has appeared on a Forbes 30-Under-30 list.
When the implication of this sinks in, the rest of the world may well stop segmenting Nigerians and simply lose trust in them collectively.
Outside of Nigeria, the "Nigerian" identity risks becoming subsumed by the "criminal country" single narrative that once prevented Italian immigrants in the US from moving up the social ladder.
Unlike the early 20th century Italians, Nigerians have very little with which to counterbalance negative global narratives.
Italy was a global hub for art, tourism, history, religion, and food. Nigeria is a barely functional African state that struggles to fund its budget and police its borders. Adding a mafia-lite dimension to Nigeria's already poor global image risks turning Nigerians into international pariahs, which is bad news for a country that is highly dependent on remittances.
In 2018, Nigeria received over $25 billion in remittances, a figure which exceeded the country's federal budget of $23.7 billion for that year. In the context of Nigeria's dwindling oil receipts and 70% debt service-to-revenue ratio, the picture becomes even bleaker.
A full fledged-pariah state?
As the world tackles the threat of a terrifying new Nigerian bogeyman, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) will come under pressure to demonstrate enforcement of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations.
Predictably, the remittance sector will come under even stricter international scrutiny than at present, even though Nigeria's internet fraudsters mostly moved on years ago.
The indicted cybercriminals typically moved the stolen funds through the Nigerian banking system, instead of parallel systems like bitcoin and gift cards (which are themselves popular with other Nigerian internet scammers). This will likely attract the attention of the US Department of Justice.
At risk of removal from the SWIFT network, which connects banks across borders and effectively underpins international trade, Nigerian authorities will almost certainly do whatever they can to restore some semblance of global confidence in their KYC and AML enforcement.
On the whole, individual Nigerian citizens and organizations may well suffer localized backlash due to last week's indictments, but the Nigerian state itself is unlikely to suffer much. This is because unlike the North Korean regime, Nigeria's government neither plays an active role in cybercrime nor is it openly hostile to the international community.
The EFCC has already started collaborating with the FBI to arrest indicted suspects in Abuja with extradition to the US in view.
Going forward, the Nigerian government is best served playing a compliant and competent role in the prosecution of this case. Ultimately, that could be the difference between becoming a full-fledged pariah state and merely remaining a poorly-regarded one.
The state will always be fine, but the citizens? Not so much.
By David Hundeyin
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