sakawa! no, really! sakawa!

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.

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21 comments

  1. latif · · Reply

    the government should act fast, because kidds dont go to school but do sakawa

    1. Well i think the youth in Ghana dont like to School, but want Fast money.. and I guess coming out of UCC with 2nd class Upper, And still not been able to find a better is a problem.. Man got to Survive.. After going to school for so many years.. You come back and Start all over again from the Scratch. People do Drugs, and the Government know them personally.. Why cant they stop them.. At least.. hahahaha..School. hmmmmmmmmm

  2. ISSAH ABDUL IKAD · · Reply

    The should avoid the use of foul means to acquire wealth and concentrate on their education for a better Ghana.

    1. Well I think, When everything is OK, that is when everyone wont think of doing things this way.. There are Armed robbers everywhere, Hackers and other people on the Internet that do other things that are more serious than SAKAWA.. Lets talk about something that we can stop, not what the Youth has created. Can you Stop someone from doing something that he has created??? Question for you.. ??? It becomes part of you.. Don’t you know.. If you learn how to Hack Or Crack. No matter how long it takes, You can so still show that you still got this skill..

      1. u are right bro that is OK ..that is true ..i love what u are saying OK they cant stop the internet fraud OK cos is the game for the youth it was said many years ago that this Sakawa is going to be here in African and Ghana and Nigeria are the general OK

  3. ISSAH ABDUL IKAD · · Reply

    The youth should avoid the use of foul means of acquiring wealth for a better Ghana

  4. wel;l if they dont kill and also use the money to better the lives of others then i dont see what is wromg with that.

  5. US Citizen · · Reply

    You are the government, do you not vote? It is up to you to change this concept in your society. Lead by example, simply finding a means to the end is not an end in and of itself. Your own government enslaves you, with a minimum wage less than 3.00 USD a day. And assuming you vote for them, whose fault is that. You need to act within your own bounds to facilitate change. Words without action, even at the individual level, are worthless. Talk is cheap, actions pay wages.

  6. US Citizen · · Reply

    Also, I will vote against any politician here, that wants to do business with Ghana and Nigeria.

  7. I WANT TO ASK?IS SAKAW DO BLOOD MONEY.HOW TO FIND THEM. THANKS

    1. No is not, Is just using the brains God gave us, to Acquire something at least 2 better our lives.

  8. Graham Tagoe · · Reply

    This is not good.
    But I thing if the is
    more work in Ghana
    to employ our youth
    this SAKAWA thing
    is going to stop.

  9. US Citizen · · Reply

    I do not know what it takes to live there. And feed one self and family, it may be much cheaper than in US. But to work all day for less than 3.00 USD, sound like a very small wage to survive on. One here would die on street with only that much.
    Not to mention, does a day’s wage, mean sun up to sundown? Or are there hour caps?
    You can only work someone so long and then the amount of production coming from them becomes less and less.
    It is what is called ‘diminishing returns’.
    I do not know, but if kids are driving fancy cars, even if they have got them through deceit and easily made through their activities, 3.00 a day will be a hard enticement for them to change their ways.
    The root of this problem relies with the parents of the child as well (or lack there of). It is a multifaceted problem. One that requires and high values from parents and enforcement, as well as making life more tolerable within the system.
    I do know if I ever caught my son or daughter doing these things, well, I would hate to be them.
    I have been poor, and I have had wealth, but at no time, did I ever compromise the values I was raised with.
    One, I believe, has to know both sides of that, in order to understand the true lesson of blessing vs. adversity, and the character it builds.
    All things cannot be had with wealth and power, that is a fallacy.

  10. I think the govt is to be blame for these sakawa.Becos the doesnt meets the needs of the people

  11. Jonathan Dotse · · Reply

    From reading the comments I’m guessing the entire point of the post was missed.

  12. Francine Moore · · Reply

    Hopefully,

    They have good sense to target whites only and not their brothers and sisters.

    1. hahahaha, how far.

      1. whites are greedy cos they have sense to get what u have from u and this is the retaliation time to get back what we lost to them OK even DR KWAME NKRUMAH will love this cos is the law of Moses do me i do u and GOD love Moses too ..so i think the gov should embark on this so that the youth can get money to continue their education and do any business that they want to do with what they get from the white (mugu)

  13. Well sakawa, as anyone will call is not that, Sakawa is an Hausa term, which was used in Nima way back, when Online Shopping Began, now what the youth are doing in Ghana is totally Different.. Listern to this.. The internet is there and Is been used for everything.. Now, there are lots of people the do things on the net, Like the Hackers, and they are very Dangerous, I think no one can stop them, If you get him then you get him, but to stop it, I don’t think it will work..Look at this, When it started it was not like this.. It started from somewhere and has gotten to this.. What the Ghanaians are doing is a Surface as compared to what the Nigerians are doing.. And the Ghanaians Are learning from them. Is always said that, they bring in the ‘FORMAT’ ideals and how things should be Executed. If you want to talk about Sakawa, and how to Stop it, Then i think the Government will have to Stop with every other thing in the country and focus on it, And we all know that is Impossible.. Well what I will say is that, 90% of the youth in Ghana, Are doing this, the youth are the Future leaders, and if 90% are doing this.. How long do you think it will take the government to Stop this.. And when there Is a new Government everything goes back to Start again. There is nothing Anyone, Or the Government can do about it. You cant close down all internet cafes, They have internet at homes.. So what are you talking about.. You can’t also track the IP.. There are more going on with this Thing you call Sakawa, than what you know.. Well All i say is.. IT CAN’T BE STOPPED. JUST THAT WHEN SOMEONE IS CAUGHT HE USED BE DEALT WITH ACCORDINGLY. PEACE TO NAME, PEACE TO THE GAME.

  14. ESTA GENTE VIENE EN PERSONA A EUROPA SON CONTACTOS PARA TERMINAR LAS ESTAFAS QUE HACEN ATRAVES DE LA RED SON SUMAMENTE LISTOS LLEVO CONVIVIENDO DOS AÑOS CON UNA DE ESTAS PERSONAS TIENE DOCUMENTOS FALSOS Y DESAPARECE CUANDO LE DA LA GANA, DICE QUE SE TIENE QUE DESPLAZAR POR NEGOCIOS SUS CONTACTOS SIEMPRE SON DE RAZA NEGRA A QUIEN LLAMA SUS HERMANOS, HE COMENTADO EL CASO HA LA POLICIA Y LES HE ENVIADO DIVERSOS DOCUMENTOS PERO HASTA LA FECHA NO HAN HECHO NADA

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