The Nigerian 419 Scam

I missed this delicious novel when it was published half a year ago: all the more reason for praising it now. In these days of declining readership, writers need all the publicity they can get—particularly writers who are not Western. It is a credit to Hyperion that it took a risk on publishing I Do Not Come to You by Chance, a rollicking story of corruption in Nigeria today, particularly the 419 scam that has made so many Nigerians rich and so many victims around the world destitute and, sadly, victims of their greed.

You all know the context. An email arrives asserting vast profit (typically in the millions of dollars) if you will simply advance a few thousand dollars in order to help facilitate the sender’s needs to help unclog the legalities of the Nigerian banking system. Then, if you were naïve enough to bite, requests for additional funds arrive. Is it possible that there are still people out there unaware of this incredible scheme? Well, yes. The last time I was in Nigeria, a friend took me to an Internet café where I saw dozens of young men sitting in front of computers late at night. When I asked my friend why the place was so busy, he answered, “The Nigeria scam.” Nwaubani has taken this phenomenon and developed it into a fast-paced narrative, completely believable and more revealing of life in Nigeria today than anything I have read in years. Her knowledge of commerce (and fraud) is remarkable. Better yet, she knows how to structure a complex and believable narrative. Clearly, she’s a young writer to watch.

The main character, Kingsley Onyeghalanwanneya Ibe, is a young man with a newly-acquired degree in chemical engineering, but like so many Nigerians these days, the university degree has not led to a job. Like his parents, he’s moral and disturbed by the corruption all around him at every layer of his society. His mother keeps assuring him that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be hired by one of the Nigerian oil companies, but nothing ever happens. He’s had numerous job interviews, but they’ve gotten him nowhere.

After a series of upheavals in his life (his father dies, his girlfriend leaves him because he hasn’t found a job), Kingsley makes a plea to his mother’s younger brother for financial assistance to help defray his father’s funeral expenses. Boniface, his uncle, is the black sheep of the family. No one has communicated with him in years because of his shady financial dealings.

When Kingsley finally decides to visit his uncle (known as “Cash Daddy”), he’s overwhelmed by the ostentation, the opulence he sees everywhere. Dozens of cars, hundreds of pairs of shoes, electronic gizmos everywhere, and a veritable army of assistants who answer his every beck and call. No matter that Cash Daddy doesn’t even have a secondary school degree, that he’s uncouth, that he is surrounded by prostitutes (in spite of having a legitimate wife). He’s rich and willing to help dozens of relatives and hers who call on him for economic assistance. His wealth has not curtailed his generosity.

Why should it? As Kingsley learns after he agrees to work for his uncle, there are suckers everywhere just waiting to be duped out of their lifetime savings. Cash Daddy has assistants who make false passports, phony government documents, you name it—whatever is needed for the occasion. Once he begins working for his uncle, Kingsley muses of his contacts, “Did they really expect to receive so much money without doing anything substantial? Thankfully, there were the few who made all the efforts worth it—the true believers who swallowed hook, line, and swindler.”

Nwaubani clearly had great fun writing her novel. The book is charged with colorful characters, witty remarks, and clever puns. Of the young man whom his sister intends to marry, the narrator remarks, “When he began a five-word sentence, I could have walked up the flight of stairs, gone to the bathroom in my bedroom, turned on the tap, washed my hands, turned off the tap, descended the stairs, sat down, and he would still not have finished speaking.” Of Cash Daddy’s latest prostitutes, Kingsley states when he realizes that they are not Nigerian women, “Apparently, the local market was no longer sufficient; my uncle was now hiring expatriate genitalia.”

To be sure, Cash Daddy becomes larger than life. He shares numerous similarities with Nigeria’s last military dictator, Sani Abachi, but without his penchant for violence. Wisely, Nwaubani has kept her novel in the comic mode, though there are obviously darker overtones concerning the perils of international corruption. Furthermore, with all of Nigeria’s serious problems—written about by two or three generations of Nigerian novelists—the humor of I Do Not Come to You by Chance is a refreshing antidote.

Chinua Achebe wrote recently that Nigeria’s problems are so vast that there is serious work for everyone. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has highlighted some of the same issues through humor, giving her fellow countrymen and the rest of us something to laugh about.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance
Adaobi Nwaubani
Hyperion, 402 pp., $15.99

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.