The con that knows no borders

March 2013 Nigeria

By BARRY WEISLEDER

Book Review: Will Ferguson, “419” (Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2012, 399 pages).

How are the sins of imperialism visited upon the common people of the “rich” countries? One way is “419.” That is the law against fraud in the criminal code of Nigeria. It is also the title of the Giller Prize-winning book by travel writer Will Ferguson, which won best English-language novel published in Canada in 2012.

A retired Calgary teacher, Henry Curtis, is persuaded by an internet con man in Lagos to liquidate and transfer all his assets, supposedly to aid the escape of a death-threatened petroleum heiress, and to gain a mega reward for his efforts. Curtis dies in a suspicious car crash, leaving his wife destitute, and launching his reclusive freelance-editor daughter Laura onto a quest for the truth, and pursuit of the purloined funds.

This is no morality play about Third World gangsters ripping off innocent, middle-class North Americans. “419” transcends such parochial resentments to provide a critical intercontinental perspective on exploitation and the desperation it breeds. The author shows what the system is doing to Nigeria and to Africa through an intimate portrayal of his characters’ lives. Quite disparate beings, they are linked in a web of dispossession, intrigue, and revenge.

Laura is moved by vengeance to risk her own safety, but succumbs to pity. Nnamdi is a Niger Delta fisherman’s son who tries to survive as a “mechanic” on the fringes of the oil black market. He exemplifies the destruction of Igbo culture in the whirlwind of rapacious “development,” and armed resistance, as Nigeria teeters on the brink of civil war.

Amina, “the girl in indigo,” is a pregnant refugee on a lonely journey, from the arid Sahel to a southern metropolis teeming with poverty, crime, and despair.

Winston is an educated hustler who fabricates identities, and pitches windfall schemes to foreigners by appealing to sympathy and greed. He sees himself as “Entrepreneur, Nollywood director … but not as a criminal.”

Michael “Ironsi-Egobia” is a heavy-set, sweaty man who coughs blood into a handkerchief. From behind his large polished wood desk in the bowels of a warren of courtyards and dingy offices, he runs a protection racket, ruthlessly exercising powers of life and death over all who fall into his wretched domain.

From this least appealing of characters comes a frank account of the 419 enterprise, refracted through his worm’s-eye view of political economy. “It is not a game. It is a business, and do you know what that business is? Retribution,” intones Ironsi-Egobia.

“Where would England be without Africa? England without Africa is England without Empire. The crowns of British royalty glitter with blood, with rubies and emeralds wrenched out of Africa.”

“If we Nigerians are good at thieving, we learned it from the British. We may plunder bank accounts; they plundered entire continents … we will take back our share of what was stolen. … Where does the money from Delta oil fields flow? Into off-shore accounts, into foreign banks, back to the descendents of slave traders.”

Nnamdi’s people, whose fishery has been despoiled, whose children cough blood from the gas flares and the oil pollution in their midst, point to those responsible. “They were all Shell Men; it didn’t matter whether they were oyibos (whites) or Igbos, and it didn’t matter what the colour of their coveralls was or which particular tribal markings were sewn onto their chest pockets: Chevron, Texaco, Mobil, Agip, BP, Exxon. Total from France, Eni and Saipem from Italy. Even the NNPC, Nigeria’s own National Petroleum Corporation. It was all Shell.”

The main characters of “419” converge in a tragedy in which no one triumphs.

While the author usefully dissects the familiar e-mail scam, he doesn’t offer much sympathy to North Americans who naively believe that they could win the jackpot promised by 419 scammers and evade prosecution by domestic authorities for money laundering. Perhaps it’s the Irish rebel in him that tilts his concern towards the neo-colonial masses trying to survive conditions of growing danger and barbarity, under the thumb of Big Oil.

Will Ferguson does not indict the capitalist system, the biggest con that knows no borders. But he does artfully connect the e-fraud to the legacy of imperialist domination of Africa, and to its ongoing exploitation, replete with the prevailing environment-be-damned corporate attitude.

As today’s murderous scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources intensifies, this novel makes the regional context more accessible to a broad Northern readership. The fast pace, at least in the second half, makes this a compelling entertainment, as well as an informative read.