In early April CNN‘s website posted a video report on internet fraud in Ghana by its media partners, hipster producers Vice. The program focused on “Sakawa,” a form of internet scamming popular in Ghana, similar to the 419 scam originating in Nigeria. The Vice piece suggested that Sakawa, popular among young men, was out of control–that it had taken on the significance of a national crisis. The piece, predictably contained the usual stereotypes of Ghana and Africans. Since then the Ghanaian blogosphere have been in uproar. Reactions veer between denunciations of CNN and Vice–Global Voices Online summarized it here–to acceptance that Sakawa is a problem, i.e. “the big elephant in the room” (see, for example, the views of the blogger Sinaisix–blogging here.) American bloggers have also weighed in. Others have now drawn up a petition denouncing CNN. To make sense of  all this, we spoke to Jenna Burrell, an assistant professor at Berkeley’s School of Information, who does research on internet use among young people in Ghana, her opinion–Sean Jacobs

What are your general impressions of the Vice video piece on Sakawa in Ghana? What did they get wrong? What did they get right?

What the Vice video got right was the emergence of Ghanaian internet scamming as a subculture–the ‘sakawa boys’ with their particular styles of clothing and cars. They also got some things right about how sakawa is emerging as a pop cultural phenomenon, as a theme in popular Ghanaian movies and music. It also picked up a bit on this resentment of Western affluence and the history of Western exploitation of Africa that scammers sometimes speak about.

What the video got wrong I think was in the way it equated Internet scamming with ‘juju.’ Are young Internet scammers regularly using such practices, enrolling spiritual forces, to enhance their online activities?  It is really unclear at this point. The circulating stories, even what scammers themselves say about what other scammers are doing can’t just be taken at face value as the documentary seemed to do. The young scammers I spoke with in Accra just this past summer (June and July 2010) categorically denied using any such techniques–stating that their success was through telling persuasive stories (what they referred to as the ‘format’ of the scam) and through their persistence in pursuing scam targets.  I think the rumors and pop culture references to ‘sakawa’ are better understood as part of a longstanding debate about wealth accumulation and morality in Ghanaian society (more on this below). The stories (whether in rumors or in movies) are their own thing, not simply a mirror of scammer strategies.

If I might say it this way, I thought the tenor of the video got things very wrong.  It was self-interested, a nod-and-wink to the Western audience assumed to be looking on at this “bizarre” and exotic foreign Other. The video tried to temper this a bit with some comments on how such practices (as they say “if you think about it”) are no more bizarre than Western practices like communion or circumcision, yet still ultimately it was the circus sideshow freak approach (cue the video of the “juju priest” in grass skirt and talcum powder throwing eggs).  Why, for example, did the video start from an electronic waste dump site rather than somewhere like BusyInternet, Accra’s biggest Internet café where lots of different people are using the Internet to do things that don’t involve scamming?  Overall the video privileged visual appeal and spectacle over a balanced story.

I also think many Western media outlets, especially Internet-based ones, don’t have a firm grasp on the fact that their audience is going to be composed of people from around the world as the Internet becomes more widely adopted. This audience will include Ghanaians and other Africans connecting from the continent as well as Ghanaians in the diaspora. So news services are going to be held accountable by the people or societies they are depicting.


What do you make of the reaction of the Ghanaian media, diaspora and blogosphere?

Aside from the video which had a few of its own exaggerations, the CNN article (the text of it) I agree with blogger Kobby Graham and responses to the CNN post, that it simply wasn’t good journalism – full of factually incorrect statements. I was pleased (and not surprised) to see the Ghanaian presence online, commenting on this write up and giving voice to their resentment about Western media representations of Africa. The CNN article was even worse than the video as far as promoting the old, tired caricatures of Africa and Africans.  The write -up on CNN’s website did a disservice to the video by distracting all attention from generating a conversation about Internet scamming, sakawa, and youth culture in Ghana, a conversation worth having. There was much to critique in the video itself but it raised some legitimate issues whereas the article could be easily dismissed.

And of course, Ghana has a middle and upper class composed of people who work in banks, make money on import/export and selling in local markets, work in mining, in agriculture, for NGOs, and in various departments of the government.  There are lawyers, doctors, professors. There are Ghanaians working for Google in Ghana, for the various mobile phone networks, and for advertising and marketing firms. Certainly many of these people can afford cars and other luxuries through their legitimately earned incomes.  It’s pretty outrageous that such a thing has to be said, that the insinuation that such a society is composed of 1% criminals and corrupt politicians and 99% bagged water sellers can pass the editorial review at CNN.  Though this is precisely the sorts of demeaning and exaggerated representations that scammers play upon in carrying out their scamming strategies. Ironic? Yes absolutely.

Are Ghanianas in denial as the blogger Sinaisix suggests? There may be some ‘denial,’ among Ghanaians (and others) who convince themselves that the people who fall for these scams simply deserve what they get. There’s denial where Ghanaians suggest that its only Nigerians in the country who are doing this.  I’ve heard this before and I can tell you that its not. Scamming practices are carried out that play not just on the greed of foreigners, but under altruistic pretenses (i.e. a fake pastor posing to raise money for a church).  Romance scams seem to be especially devastating because they involve more than money, some documented cases have lead to victims committing suicide. Scams also definitely do damage to Ghana’s reputation and potential as a place for business investment as the Vice video noted.

The Internet scamming business in Ghana is something the government of Ghana urgently needs to find a way to address but without compromising the openness and accessibility of the Internet for the broader population. I’ve seen myself how over the past six years, with the rise of successful Internet scamming that the Internet cafes in certain areas of town are becoming a less and less welcoming and accessible space for Ghanaians who are interested in doing other things with the Internet. Furthermore Internet security measures are now blocking people in Ghana from a number of features and services on the Internet – they can’t use Paypal or create profiles on many of the popular dating websites. Accra has been removed as a destination from many of the travel booking websites. There’s a need for better consumer protection and fraud awareness services to protect Ghanaians (who also are victimized through Internet-based and other forms of fraud).  This isn’t just a story of the Western world getting their just desserts, there are repercussions that harm Ghana as well.

The Vice report suggests that Sakawa is now “used for everything involving money.”  Any sign of material well-being is sakawa. But the video also suggests sakawa is associated with popular critiques of colonialism or the government and the market’s failure to deliver to Ghanaians? 

Sakawa is now used as a vernacular term for practices that involve fraud or suspicious monetary practices–not “everything involving money.” There was a recent debate in the government when the ruling National Democratic Congress introduced their financial budget statement which the opposition dismissed as a, “sakawa budget.” So the term itself has become a flexible way to comment on what is perceived as suspicious or deceptive.

Some youth refer to their activities as a response especially to discriminatory foreign policies (in the difficulty young men in particular have getting travel visas to go to desirable migration destination countries like the U.S.). I was once told that the thinking was this, ‘If we can’t go to America, we will take money from the Americans.’ I don’t think one could say that Internet scamming is principally a political act, a critique of the history of Western exploitation. Furthermore, among young men who engage in Internet scamming, not all are driven to do so by poverty or unemployment. It’s a combination of a certain resentment about their exclusion from the global economy, but also peer influence (having friends already involved in it), and also the Internet itself as a particular type of mediating technology facilitates these activities.  Just as many Westerners have narrow perceptions of Africa, many of the young Ghanaians involved in scamming likewise have a pretty simplistic conception of Americans and others – as wealthy and/or greedy. A practice described to me by one of these young scammers was to cancel all e-mail accounts and phone numbers after receiving money from a scam and to never speak to that scam victim again (escaping the aftermath of the victims anger, fear or devastation). Compared to face-to-face crimes its perhaps easier to do fraud at arms-length with a victim who’s a sort of abstract entity.  So material properties and the mediating role of the Internet plays a role.

Can you tell us more about your own findings about Ghanaians’ internet use, especially about “rumors about Internet scamming told by Internet cafe users”?

Internet scamming came to be understood more publicly as ‘sakawa’ only recently.  Before that, back when I started my research in Accra on Internet café use it was more underground.  I talked to Internet café users back then, both scammers and non-scammers, and frequently heard their stories about the ‘big gains’ realized by other local Internet users.  I was told stories about young men getting the credit card of Oprah Winfrey, or using Bill Gates credit card to buy ten laptops. One young man commented on how such people, “don’t even notice the money is reduced.”  These stories (rumors in the way they narrated an event the teller had not directly observed or experienced) had a certain pattern, describing the scam victims often as these superhuman celebrity figures.  These rumors not only presented the promise of gaining money from the Internet, but also restored the morality of these practices in this way of characterizing scam victims as beyond harm.

The new popular discourse about sakawa in churches, in mass media, in movies, in the government I find reflects a new round of struggle over wealth accumulation and morality.  It goes along with a long-standing discourse in Ghana on the legitimate and illegitimate avenues to wealth and ways of managing that wealth. This is a historical thread you can trace back to the colonial era, first with the shift to a cash economy, the opening up to new forms of global trade that has made certain unexpected figures (such as young men) suddenly wealthy in ways society couldn’t quite understand.  So in the end, the rumors in various forms reflect something of the moral sensibility of Ghanaian society. In the way sakawa narratives in local movies play out, scammers eventually succumb to their own greed.  In ‘occult’ practices it is believed that scammers sacrifice a close family members – a wife, child, mother, or brother – through “blood money” as a necessary exchange for gaining wealth.  The justice of the cosmic order is reasserted in these stories. These stories take the victimization of a distant foreigner and make it a more immediate and personal threat. The fact that scamming may be carried out flagrantly doesn’t at all mean that it is an accepted practice in Ghana. Rather it reflects the way the institutional infrastructure (police force and court system) has not yet been able to put these activities in check. Among the young men I talked to this past summer who were engaged in scamming, many had had their activities discovered by family members and were facing ostracism and conflict as a result.

Why do you think people living in industrial countries fall for schemes like Sakawa and 411?

There’s more than one reason. Some are greedy and naïve and do, in fact, buy into these stereotypical depictions of Africa as believable stories that resonate with how they know things to be in that part of the world. They buy into the stories of corrupt politicians or of spoils of war stashed in a ‘third world’ and therefore unregulated country, of abandoned bank accounts, or smuggled gold.  There are others who are operating from more human and sympathetic impulses, lonely people looking for love (perhaps less sympathetically rather old men looking for very young attractive women). Also altruistic individuals who think they are contributing money to orphans or to a church. What is also interesting is, in many documented cases, how scam victims often get in so deep and are so committed to the scenario they’ve been presented, they seem not to be able to believe that it was entirely made up, refuse to accept that the person they thought they were dealing with doesn’t exist at all.

The piece suggests that Ghana’s discovery of oil will “make things more interesting.”

My hope is that Ghana’s political stability over the years will help smooth the transition into oil-producing country.  Unfortunately it seems that these sorts of highly technical resource extraction processes that involve significant foreign investment tends to generate what they call ‘enclave economies’ and the gains flow right out of the country to benefit mostly the big oil companies. I have one friend in Ghana who’s already been admitted into a Masters degree program in the UK on International Oil and Gas Management – so you can see youth on the ground (who are able) trying to align their futures with this change in the economic outlook of Ghana. Luckily Ghanaians are never hesitant to speak out to their representatives in the government and public political debate is lively and impressive. So I hope the citizenry is able to hold the government accountable and the government is able to get ensure a fair share from this investment benefits the country as a whole.