It is 3.30 AM in Mamobi, a slum in Accra, an Internet café is still open and in it there are no less than 15 boys doing what do they best, sending bulk ‘formats’ and chatting with ‘clients’. In the far corner is a young boy about seventeen years old and goes by the name of Don Smoski. Don Smoski is a junior high school student who goes to school twice a week and is always found in various internet cafés in and around Mamobi, Nima and New Town. Of late Don Smoski has become wild browsing way into late nights and following-mornings because his previous ‘client’ whom he defrauded nearly $20,000 realised what was going on and quit sending him more money.
Every night before the internet café closes somebody exclaims eureka! He has got a money transfer control number from a victim. And make no mistake to presume Don Smoski’s activities are only limited to Accra because he has just returned from Banô, a hamlet in Benin where he must have gone to strengthen his voodoo. A catalyst every Sakawaist believes he needs to be successful.
Cybercrime or at least cyber fraud has numerous appellations in Ghana notable amongst them are; Sakawa, 419, Café and Game. The perpetrators pride themselves with names like Sakawa boys, 419 boys, Café boys or Game boys. This activity even though criminal has gradually rooted its prickly self into our moral codes. Alas, it is now an accepted alternative career for many people.
As it were, cybercrime has various facets; child pornography, terrorism, identity theft, fraud, etc. Whiles some say cybercrime is acts of criminal activity perpetrated with the aid of tools of technology mostly computers. I say cybercrime is a multibillion dollar phenomenon where crimes against persons, societies and humanity are committed through the Internet. Cybercrimes have led to the suicidal deaths of many victims and in the case of Ghana and Nigeria, the mystical demise of many perpetrators- later to be touched on.
The Cybercrime industry in Ghana now employs a well over 500,000 children and youths. This is because in every deprived and indigent community in Accra, 4 out of every 10 young men are happily and gainfully employed in cybercrime- sometimes they do something else at the same time like schooling.
I myself was born into poverty, my father moved to Accra in the late 60’s and met my mother, few years later they had my two sisters and then me and then my younger siblings. My father did menial jobs as he was not educated and so, we rotated from one poor community to another depending on where he got a new job or what the previous landlord said. I remember in my early years, when as children we would play games like ‘Charles Kayley’, ‘Aligoto’ and many others. Back then we were not exposed to video games let alone computers to even think of cyber-fraud. A child’s priority then was to go to school if his parents could afford and if they couldn’t you were just another “Kobolo” who belonged to the BBC (Beila Boys Company) - groups of youngsters who hunted small rats called Beila.
There was nothing really a child then could think of apart from going to school and looking forward to the weekend to play Charles Kayley and Aligoto or even listen to folktales told in the moon lit nights. Living in a poor home and all the evil challenges of poverty, even a child then like myself was susceptible to engage in cyber-fraud had it existed.
Sakawa is now a serious matter which if not strenuously handled by government and society, the future of our country would be jeopardized. In what way will the future of our country be jeopardized? Simple! Economic hardships are commonplace in our country forcing parents to turn a blind eye to their children’s involvement in cybercrime so long as it provides for them.
Like I mentioned earlier these people pride themselves and also, it has become acceptable in the societies they live in or operate from. Imagine an elderly man boasting to his neighbor and saying “my son has won café”, it is sad. Some of these illiterate parents simply do not know how their children ‘win’ the cafés; they believe it’s a game like the lottery. Some parents have been led to believe that their children are merely making pen pals online and when they get lucky these white folks who have plenty of money send them some of it.
Let us take the case of Musah for example. When Musah steals from a neighbor, he is chastised and beaten but when he engages in cybercrime, he is praised by the older ones who sometimes benefit from him and urged on by them. The Resultant effects are quite disastrous; Musah pays little or no attention to school because he now has an income source.
Musah is a 16 year- old boy who lives in Zongo (over-crowded poor communities) and has five siblings. His father is a Butcher in the Zongo community market and earns a little over 10 cedis a day. If Musah makes a break of 5,000 dollars in cyber-fraud he becomes the darling son of his home. He pays for their accrued rent, renovates the house and pays his and his siblings’ school fees. In this vein Musah’s parents’ hands are tied. He buys good-looking cloths and eats well in the time being but soon luck runs out on Musah and he does not make any more money, he has to work harder and that means spending more time at the internet cafés and less time in school. If this drags for six months or more, he may be expelled from school or he may stop schooling on his own accord.
But Musah’s parents have no say because suddenly their son has become a man who keeps his own counsel and after all, there is a notion that schooling is not the only tested and proven way of becoming successful. Musah is now painfully and gainfully employed. When you chance upon Musah in the internet cafés you may be shocked, he types faster than some secretaries I know even though he has no formal training in typing. There are a lot of Musahs out there in Accra. And a lot more stories. If a country’s remarkable number of youngsters engages in cybercrime fueled by the ‘get-rich-quick’ syndrome then indeed, the future of such a country could be jeopardized.
One time I visited Apenkwa Presby Junior High School in Accra to pay my younger brother’s school fees. I met the headmaster of the school and we conversed after I had paid the fees. One thing led to the other and then he raised the issue of the poor performance of his students. He mentioned that in the previous B.E.C.E. examinations, his school performed terribly badly. We then got to talking about causes and he mentioned the word ‘Sakawa’. I then thought to myself saying ‘I thought as much’. According to him, there are times police officers go to the school to arrest some of his students suspected to have defrauded someone through the Internet. And that he personally had to sack some students because they absented themselves for a very long time from school and it was rumored that those students had travelled to Benin to get supernatural assistance in defrauding a stubborn victim (as they put it). He told me “I was outraged when I heard it”.
Even those who are forced to stay in school perform badly in school work and this combined with the enormous collateral effects of Sakawa certainly are a recipe for disaster. The headmaster also noted that, some of these Sakawa students during launch time do not eat from the school canteen but rather an expensive restaurant nearby is where they all gather and eat to their maximum fill with all kinds of delicious meals. After our conversation I decided to eat from the restaurant the headmaster pointed out and indeed, what delicious and expensive meals (for a junior high student) they serve. These students are a bad influence on the other students. But nevertheless, there are some good and bright students who are committed to school, the headmaster commented.
Advance fee fraud, dating scams and credit card thefts are by far the main and rampant fraud perpetrated from the Ghanaian cyberspace but of late evolution has occurred, dating scams are but a means of acquiring victims or ‘mugus’ for a much more gainful fraud, like gold and money laundering.
More coming soon!