For over two billion people—comprising the populations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, and Singapore the number 420 has an inescapably notorious connotation: it is shorthand for a cheat. In Delhi or Lahore or Dhaka, the con man who signs a bad check, floats a Ponzi scheme, fixes a cricket match, or bilks the nation of millions is disparaged as a “420.” During General Pervez Musharraf’s military reign in Pakistan, a young protest artist, Asim Butt, organized groups of volunteers to stencil “Dictator 420” in bright red-and-black paint on the walls of Karachi under cover of darkness.
In Nigeria, the number 419 is similarly tainted, although in this case cheating pertains to a specific sort of swindle, one which the Western world is all too familiar with—e-mail fraud. The army of unemployed college graduates and their ringleaders who pose as online princes, bankers, lawyers, and other disreputables in order to gull foolish, greedy, and lonely folks in rich countries into wiring them thousands of dollars, are known as “419 men” or 419ers. “Chief Omenka is a 419 man and everyone knows it,” says Ifemelu, the heroine of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, referring to a thick-necked crook who seeks to launder his loot and his reputation by donating two vans to a local church. Another evocative name for 419ers is “yahoo-yahoo boys,” a nod to their fondness for Yahoo e-mail accounts. Their victims are known as mugus or magas, with Midwestern Americans reportedly making the choicest mugus. Although it’s the Yoruba word for fool, mugu handily evokes the old English word mug, slang for a dupe.
We have the British Empire to thank for this nomenclature. The numbers 420 and 419 refer to the sections dealing with fraud in the 1860 Indian Penal Code drafted by the Victorian historian and imperialist Thomas Babington Macaulay. While section 420 prescribes the punishment for “cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property,” section 419 prosecutes “cheating through personation,” and stipulates that the impersonations can be real or imaginary. Although this criminal code was first promulgated in British India—which included Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma—it was also enacted in several other British colonies, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Nigeria. After these countries won their independence, they continued to use Macaulay’s penal code as the basis for their national law. Over the years, each country has introduced amendments to suit its local needs, but the original codification is almost untouched.
Since cheating is as old as the hills and far more widespread, these two penal sections have passed into everyday speech and popular culture in a way no other section has. In 1886 twenty-one-year old Rudyard Kipling published a wry short story in the Civilian and Military Gazette titled “Section 420, I.P.C.” about a poor, old man named Suddhoo who is fleeced by a rogue pretending to have the gift of foresight and magical healing powers. Suddhoo, who lives in Lahore, is terribly anxious about his beloved son, who is gravely ill with pleurisy in Peshawar. (The story was later renamed “In the House of Suddhoo.”) The rogue knows Suddhoo is ready to be plucked. He pays a friend in Peshawar to send him updates of the son’s health through the newly established “lightning post,” or telegraph. Dazzled by the rogue’s foreknowledge, Suddhoo pays him hundreds of rupees for his son to be cured.
Over the years, references to 420 and 419 have popped up in Bollywood and Nollywood films, television serials, hip-hop hits, novels, and across social media. For instance, the Twitter account called @AsifZardari420 parodies the former president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, with tweets like: “What the heck is #TheBiryaniDay? Don’t you have other reasonable days to celebrate. From now, Start celebrating #Corruptionday #Pakistan.” Zardari, whose other nickname is Mr. Ten Percent, has long been charged with having a number of secret Swiss bank accounts, although he’s never been convicted for it—something that makes him even more suspect in the eyes of his compatriots.
In India, by far the most popular reference to Section 420 occurred in the classic 1955 Hindi film, Shree 420 (Mr. 420). Directed by Raj Kapoor, who also stars in it, it was made in the first decade of India’s independence and captured the hopes and fears of a new country setting out to meet its destiny. The storyline traces the arc of corruption and redemption of an endearing, Chaplinesque young man named Raju, who like the typical 419er of today, starts out as an unemployed college graduate. He is lured into working for an unscrupulous Bombay businessman who floats a fraudulent scheme to provide cheap homes for the city’s poor. Thousands of homeless people pay up, scraping together everything they have, handing over handkerchiefs filled with coins amounting to their life savings. Appalled at his employer’s callousness, Raju has a moral awakening and exposes him.
The film opens and ends with references to 420. As Raju heads toward Bombay with his tramp’s bundle and torn shoes, he reads aloud a road sign, “Bombay-420,” and doffs his hat to it. The symbolism is unmistakable: the big city as a site of greed and dishonesty. After he exposes the corrupt businessman—who wears a bow tie and waistcoat and is fond of making pious statements—Raju utters the memorable line that gives the film its title, “Yeh 420 nahin, Shree 420 hain.” (“These are not ordinary rogues, these are respectable rogues.”) The key word in his indictment is “Shree” or Mr., indicating that the real cheats are not small-time tricksters out to make a few bucks but society’s so-called respectable citizens, who hide their roguery behind bow ties and humbug. The film was a huge hit not just in India, but in Russia, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, where the Dari numerals for 420 are still used to describe someone who demands bribes.
Among the thousands who went to watch the film was a young Mumbai boy named Salman Rushdie, and he never forgot the experience. In Midnight’s Children, of the group of 1,001 children born in the hour of India’s independence with magical powers, 420 die of “malnutrition, disease, and the misfortunes of everyday life” within the first ten years of their birth—leading the narrator Saleem to ask the deep question: had these children been eliminated for being inadequate, and are they not the true children of midnight? It’s a harsh question and an unanswerable one, so Saleem moves on.
Rushdie would deploy the 420 trope to more powerful effect in The Satanic Verses, a novel as dazzling as it is bewildering. Among the many big ideas it tackles is the slippery one of boundary crossing and identity theft. The novel opens with a dramatic mid-air explosion of a hijacked aircraft, Air India 420. As its two adversaries, the earnest Saladin Chamcha and the charismatic but dodgy Bollywood star Gibreel Farishta plummet toward the English Channel, the latter begins to sing a song from the movie Shree 420. And then something extraordinary happens—both men get brand new identities. Saladin Chamcha sprouts the horns and hoofs of a devil while Gibreel sprouts an angel’s halo and loses his bad breath. Some profound identity swindle has taken place—much more than their credit cards have been swiped. Executing a metaphysical version of section 420 of the Indian Penal Code above the English Channel against the soundtrack of a 1955 Hindi film song is a maneuver only a writer like Rushdie could pull off.
False personalities are at the heart of the Nigerian 419 e-mail racket, a digitized avatar of an old scam. Over the years, African hip-hop hits have captured the glittering appeal of the material harvest of a successful 419 scam, everything from fast cars and bling to alcohol, pretty women, and lots of power. Sung in a louche mix of Yoruba, English, and pidgin, these songs have the swaggering bravado of a wolf in sheepskin drag. The infectious “I Go Chop Your Dollar” by Nkem Owoh was recorded as the title track of the 419-themed 2005 Nollywood film The Master. It quickly became an anthem for the yahoo-yahoo boys, and a snatch of its jaunty tune is enough to tell you why. “I go chop your dollar, I go take your money disappear,” go the gleeful lyrics, “419 is just a game, you are the loser I am the winner.”
Another song called “Yahoozee” by Olu Maintain has an equally irresistible beat, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell would learn—Powell danced to the song on a London stage at the 2008 Africa Rising Festival, happily unaware of the lyrics, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Boys dey hustle,” so that “Friday, Saturday, Sunday” are filled with “champagne, Hennessy, Moët.” Equally catchy is Kelly Hansome’s euphoric victory dance, “Maga Don Pay,” about a victim who’s paid up. On the video, a group of brightly dressed young 419ers cavort with women and champagne as the lyrics mock the moralists: “My maga don pay/Shout hallelujah!”
Hip hop’s cheerful celebration of the 419 lifestyle has triggered plenty of outrage. Determined to counter these songs, the Microsoft Internet Safety, Security, and Privacy Initiative for Nigeria hired a star group of musicians in 2010 to produce a song called “Maga No Need Pay.” The star group called themselves BLING—Brilliant Legitimate Inspired Nigerian Greats. Proceeds from the song went to rehabilitating cybercrime offenders. But worthiness does not a blockbuster make. Although the song itself is enjoyable enough, the earnestness of “Maga no need pay, I go hard for ma dough” lacks the hustler appeal.
A far more shaded view of advance-fee fraud is offered in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s 2010 comic novel I Do Not Come To You By Chance. The elegant title sounds like a line from a romantic poem but is in fact plucked from a real-life classic 419 e-mail: “Dear Friend, I do not come to you by chance. Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign businessman or company, I was given your contact by the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.”
Who on earth is stupid enough to fall for an e-mail like that? you might wonder. That’s exactly what Nwaubani’s young protagonist Kingsley thinks as he sends off thousands of emails to Cardiff, Auckland, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. But as he soon learns, all you need are a few fools to make a killing. Kingsley is the opara (first-born son) of a respectable family that expects him to provide for them. But the economic scene is depressed, and jobs are hard to come by. He ends up working for his uncle, a 419 godfather in enormous dark glasses and alligator shoes named Cash Daddy. Like most scoundrels, CD has a poisonous charm: “He could probably even talk a spider into weaving silk socks for him.” Although Kingsley occasionally has attacks of conscience and is disowned by his distraught mother, he simply can’t bring himself to give up the Rolex on his wrist, the six feather pillows on his bed, the five cars in his garage, and the Persian rug beneath his feet.
And so he ends up piously spouting the most convenient and commonly used moral justification of the 419 scam—it’s payback for centuries of slavery and colonialism, repatriation for an Africa pilfered by the white man. Without buying into the specious colonial-revenge argument, Nwaubani coolly opens up the ambit of what the term fraud constitutes by giving Kingsley’s mugus names like “Rumsfeld” and “Edgar Hooverson” while Cash Daddy’s headquarters is called the CIA. The less-than-subtle implication being that mendacity takes all forms and operates on a far more diabolical scale than a cyber café hustle.
No doubt Lord Macaulay would be startled to see how two sections of his penal code have become popular culture memes. In a way, Macaulay is indirectly responsible for providing the yahoo-yahoo boys with their killer app: the English language. Macaulay was the politician who proposed that Indians be educated in English in order to create a class of Indians who talked and thought like Englishmen. The British followed the same practice in Nigeria, where English is the official language. When Rushdie coined the phrase, “the Empire writes back with a vengeance,” to describe the rich outpouring of novels from the former colonies, he certainly didn’t have yahoo-yahoo boys’ e-mails in mind. But there’s no denying that empire has not only provided this hot scam with a name but the medium and mugus as well.