Over the last year, Ghana has experienced a wave of anxiety about sakawa – internet fraud. The fraud has been going on much longer, but there is a noticeable uptick in the level of public hysteria at the moment. As with many worrying things in Ghana, it’s popularly attributed to Nigeria’s bad influence on ‘the youth’. Sakawa has a variety of meanings, ranging from defrauding people the old-fashioned way to online identity theft.
Principally, sakawa seems to manifest in Ghana at the moment in a less sophisticated version than the Nigerian ‘419’ scams (where people email you asking for your help accessing a billion-dollar inheritance and ask for your bank account details so they can share the money with you). Here, it is said to consist mainly of young men in internet cafes going on social networking sites like myspace and befriending older women in rich countries, or alternatively pretending to be young women and befriending older men.
Once they establish a relationship with someone online, the story goes, they either get the person to send them gifts by mail, or money by Western Union. This would seem mainly to involve criminal stupidity on the part of the sender. Who is actually responding to these requests? How bored/gullible must they be? And do they know they are responsible for a miasma of post-modern Ghanaian angst? However, where the fraud involves the recipient picking up funds (as reported in the paper last week) from Western Union using the aforesaid false online identity, it also involves actual fraud on the Ghanaian end, both on the part of the recipient and the Western Union employees who are said to accept their false identity documents for a share of the profits.
There’s also another version of sakawa where the defrauding party tries to get the credit card details of their mark, and uses them to order things for delivery to Ghana. There is even an urban myth that a child managed to get a BMW delivered to Tema port last year, and drove it away, but it’s hard to believe. Any time I try to use any of my bank cards to do anything here, including take money out of an ATM after calling repeatedly to warn the bank I’m about to do so, my account gets blocked. Credit cards are still almost unavailable in Ghana, so when they are used from here, the assumption is that it’s fraudulent and security measures are activated. Ordering objects on Amazon, for delivery to my address in England? Impossible from a Ghanaian IP address. The entire Amazon account shuts down automatically, and to add insult to injury they don’t even let you know they’ve done it for a week. So if these sakawa kids have figured out how to get credit cards to work online from Ghana, I want to know their secret.
Which leads us to the most interesting feature of sakawa – the strategies these kids use to make the fraud more likely to work. These involve practices prescribed by juju priests: the rumours say that the sakawa kid will go to the priest and he will say, ‘you must sleep for a night in a coffin, then sacrifice three chickens, then give me five cedis’. If the person does all this, their fraud will be successful. If not, they are disregarding the prescription of a juju priest, which, as everyone knows, is an unwise thing to do. It usually involves you getting turned into an animal of some kind, or running naked through the market square (a common feature of sakawa stories, along with the sleeping-in-a-coffin idea). There are also rumours about human sacrifices being made – but those are not sakawa-specific. It was rumoured politicians in marginal constituencies were making human sacrifices during the run-up to the last election.
In what seems like no time at all, sakawa has gone from a rumour to a full-fledged genre of urban myth here. The president has pronounced sakawa to be a danger to the nation’s reputation, the chief of police has announced that measures will be taken (according to café owners in Accra, both undercover and uniformed policemen are now frequenting their cafes to keep an eye out for people committing fraud) and everyone has a sakawa story.
It’s not that sakawa stories are necessarily untrue – in fact having looked at some browser histories in internet cafes, it’s clear that a significant proportion of people’s online activity involves looking up the profiles of American and European men and women in late middle age, and communicating with them. And most of the clients of internet cafes are young men and boys. So there is something going on, but this is no indication that it is a) succeeding or b) of a scale fit to generate this level of hysteria.
To test the level of rumour, I’ve started asking random people what they think sakawa is. They can all identify it, but people from the non-internet generations (roughly, anyone over 40 here) have only the haziest idea of what it is. They can identify that it happens on the internet, that it is a feature of the continuing degeneracy of ‘the youth’ and that it is an issue of national importance. But what it is, precisely, remains largely undefined.
Sakawa is thus becoming a catch-all term for crime, witchcraft and general dodginess. At a conference recently, the director of a child protection NGO told me that her friend’s daughter had ‘nearly been taken as a sacrifice for sakawa’. Apparently she was on her way to school and a man pulled her into a taxi, with two other young girls, and tried to drug them. The friend’s daughter escaped, but the other two were taken off to an unknown fate. How did your friend know it was for sakawa, I asked? Oh, of course it was for sakawa, she replied. What else would it be? I suggested a more mundane but equally criminal explanation, but she was not having any of it. This was juju, and juju it would stay.
Passing through Nkrumah Circle on Friday, I saw a crowd peering in fascination at something in a corner. I stopped, thinking it must be either the football or some dying animal. It turned out to be a poster about sakawa. Posters are one way of marking cultural milestones here. If something is important, there is often a poster about it on sale. Footballers’ new cars, footballers’ new houses, and Obama’s visit have been recent poster topics. And now sakawa. So here are the bits of the poster that don’t involve beheadings or nudity:
So there you have it. Don’t do juju and try to buy a car online, or you will end up turning into a beagle. Don’t say you weren’t warned.