Debate stock photo credit Gustavo Frazao

Feral Debate Nites (guest blog): 419

This is a guest blog from Bollo Brook Young Equality Campaigners 

If you Google ‘419’, you will quickly find out these three numbers refer to an obscure clause in the Nigerian penal code. Maybe not something you would expect to find young people in a youth centre in west London to be talking about. But for them, 419 has become slang for fraud. The reference is not by chance, ‘people think all Nigerians are proper fraudsters’, we’re told.

‘When I was joining my local Sunday league football team, I had to register my details. It’s meant to take two days, but for me it took two months, because I had a Nigerian passport. They didn’t believe my passport was real and they kept going back and checking it’. Ola was ten years old at the time. ‘If you go to Washington, at the airport, they show you a picture of a Nigerian passport as the fake passport picture’.

And it’s not just Nigeria. Aaden tells us that everyone thinks he’s either going to be a killer or drug dealer because of his Somali heritage. He’s extra confused by this, because his mother is Dutch. Nonetheless, the reputation sticks.

We’re talking about the reputation of heritage, about Africa and Europe with young people of Nigerian, Somalian, Kenyan and Jamaican descent. They’ve all got a story to tell.

And a lot of these stories speak to an inequality that these young people are keenly aware of. ‘If you look at what Boris Johnson did, taking taxpayers money and giving it to that woman [Jennifer Arcuri], that’s corruption, and he’s the leader of this country’.

And European institutions are often part of the problem. When you look at Nigeria, Ola reminds us, it’s places like Cambridge and Oxford that educate the sons of ministers and country leaders, who later go home to be unfairly awarded ‘whole oil fields and stuff’ under the veil of expertise conferred by these British pillars. And European companies knowingly buy public resources from these corrupt regimes, and ‘no one says anything.’

And you can’t really argue with their logic; Diezani Alison-Madueke, the now-indicted former Nigerian oil minister was a Cambridge graduate. Nigeria is now suing Shell for its part in paying $1m in bribes. (Although, for fairness’ sake, the Director of the LSE did feel obliged to step down when Gaddafi’s son gave a ‘rivers of blood’ speech in the Arab Spring. Turns out that engaging with, well, genocidal leaders may be a red line. But certainly not leaders capable of committing corruption on an economy-crippling scale).

‘It’s like, if that’s your hustle, that’s your hustle’ Feye says, and no one seems to look too deeply. ‘Because everyone is saying “Africa” is corrupt, but who’s saying Europe is corrupt? Who? White people are just as corrupt, everyone is just as corrupt. But Europeans hide it better’ Aaden adds. (In 2006, the US government tried to trace the origins of every reported online scam, themselves often called 419 Nigerian Princes scams. 61% were based in the US, 16% in the UK and only 6% in Nigeria).

‘Basically, wherever there’s power there’s corruption’ they stress. It’s a human thing. The only thing that makes it worse in some countries than others is the gulf between the poor and rich; inequality exacerbates corruption and corruption fuels inequality.

Whilst the UK has some institutions that may prevent the more obvious forms of corruption, other countries do not. We talked about the courts recalling parliament as an example of an English institute protecting against an abuse of power, and how independent courts can put a break on power running away with itself.

And yet, despite the nuances and complexities of the issue, and the complicity or effectiveness of institutional blockers and enablers, the consequences seem to be felt on a personal level for young people in London. ‘They think I’m a fraudster’ Ola says. Aaden adds ‘yeah, but they think I’m a drug dealer or killer too’. It seems if you’ve got dark skin, it’s hard to shake any rep in London.

The Equality Trust recognises the value of young people’s dialogue and creating safe spaces to discuss difficult topics. We support the Feral Debate sessions to foster the sorts of discussions that we want to see in the world. The contents of these discussions do not necessarily represent the views of The Equality Trust, nor would we expect them to. We welcome and embrace a diversity of dialogue and reflection.

This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.​