Will Ferguson’s 419 takes its title from those email scams most of us are familiar with by now, the ones offering us unclaimed lottery winnings or legacies from unknown relations or massive commissions for assistance in transferring billion-dollar estates. These in turn take their name from a section of the criminal code of Nigeria—where many of the scams originate—that governs fraud. Such scams have enjoyed a surprising degree of success worldwide, usually by appealing to a lethal mixture of compassion and good old human greed.
Ferguson’s novel starts out with a victim of such a scam who has just died in a mysterious car crash, and with the daughter who sets out to avenge him. What seems at first a simple revenge tale, however, slowly reveals itself as a chilling exploration of the complex social and political realities that underlie these scams, and of the people at the other end of them who are often as much victims as those who get scammed. Set mostly in Nigeria, the novel gives a vivid portrait of the many lives that intersect in such schemes and of the many layers of Nigerian society that inform them.
During the 1980s I taught in Nigeria with CUSO, during a period of relative political calm in the country and of great hope, fueled both by the resilience and enterprise of the people and by the great wealth being generated at the time from Nigeria’s oil boom. Shortly after my departure, a military coup brought that period to an end. Since then the country has known mainly setbacks, and has gradually deteriorated into one of the most dangerous places in Africa and in the world. Those setbacks have deep roots in the country’s history of British colonial rule, which tried to yoke together over three hundred distinct cultural and language groups under the umbrella of a single state and which left little behind in the way of infrastructure—either physical or political—when it decamped. They also have roots in the fluctuations of the oil market of the past decades and in the machinations of the multinationals that control it. Most of us will remember the case of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who for his efforts in trying to expose such machinations was executed in 1995 on trumped-up charges by the military government then in power.
419 gives us an inside view of how these sorts of malignant forces continue to play out at the level of individual lives, so that young men of intelligence and promise turn to 419 scams as the only hope of bettering their prospects and even those who try to get by through honest work find themselves caught up against their wishes in cycles of violence and criminality. As the novel moves toward its harrowing conclusion, the question of who is perpetrator and who is victim grows ever more murky and troubling.