When we lose it all -By Pat Utomi

Filed under: National Issues |

Professor Pat Utomi


In recent weeks, I have recorded an episode of Patito’s Gang on social media and identity theft. Part of the motivation was a spate of fraudulent activities that have come to my notice in which my identity was stolen. This is not a new phenomenon, the attempts to steal my identity for fraudulent gain. A few more being uncovered has left me sad that in the many years since Advance Fee Fraud (419) stole the soul of a generation, many have yet to be wiser to the real cost of this eclipse of values and triumph of a culture of integrity shortage, for sustainable progress for all, including those perpetrating this awful breach of trust.

How does one persuade a generation that they import blight into their future when their actions lead to the perception that the national character is flawed with in an integrity deficit? The conclusion I reached a long time ago is that strong preaching, good example by the few and committed showcasing of the benefits of acting honourably can help with change that can reverse current conditions of deprivation, by the change of culture, but that is often not enough. In my experience, it is the institutions acting to set boundaries to conduct that matter most. This is why a brief listing of some of my run-ins with identity stealing and institutional response is worth pointing to.

About a year and half ago, I sent out my last tweet to date. I had enjoyed the direct contact medium. Powerful as a tool of relating with many while keeping it personal and very human, I was charmed by the medium, and began to get ranked amongst known Nigerians with the biggest following on that platform. Travelling about that time, in Dubai, a text from a friend brought my attention to comments I had ostensibly made on some national issue. I had been out of touch on that trip and did not know such an issue was in play. On further probing, I found a significant number of tweets put out by people who had cloned my identity on Twitter. Similar was the case with Facebook. A recent statement by a former finance minister disclaiming articles credited to her was déjà vu for me who has read many statements ostensibly made by me. Reading those posts in my name was more unsettling than the peculiar experience of reading my obituary following an automobile accident in 1991. It was therefore natural for me to react by withdrawing from most social media platforms. As I review those decisions, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the cost of identity theft, weak institutions and paths to containing these big blockages to growth and development.

When recently my attention was drawn to a Facebook page erected as mine from which fraudulent solicitations were being made, I could not but contact Facebook. I could also not but recall the streams of telephone solicitation by some of the criminal elements requesting phone numbers of well-known people while posing as me. At least eight ministers in the last administration, three Speakers of state Houses of Assembly and five governors managed to reach me about such calls. I contacted the vice-chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission three years ago but got no satisfactory outcome. I even learnt from an old schoolmate who had served as Inspector-General of Police, Ogbonnaya Onovo, that a number from which those calls were being made had been registered in my name. Infuriated, I called the NCC EVC but I still could not get the appropriate institutions to bring any desirable outcome. I turned to one of the security agencies to track the same number from which they solicited money from then Governors Godswill Akpabio, Chibuike Amaechi and a senator who lost N1m, donated to a book launch I was supposed to have. The number was tracked to a location in Delta State. Even with the electronic tracking to a location, there was still failure to arrest.

That continued to show how institutions do not finish the job. I wondered if it was that they did not see the huge upside in doing the needful and how that could turn this tide of national under-performance by making examples of those arrested. Just as the arrest of the kidnapping kingpin, Evans, may have had a useful demonstration effect and moderated the tendency, arresting the people abusing my identity could have done much for the reduction of the uncertainty thrown into the environment by such crimes. As I found years ago, when another one of such people hacked into my email and caused my account manager to transfer monies from my account to another bank while I was abroad, the will to prosecute is low.

A quick reaction from my colleagues led to a trap and the arrest of the culprits at the other bank after they came back to withdraw further money. To my chagrin, my bank was not interested in prosecuting even after they lost money by paying back into my account the money fraudulently transferred.

The cost and trouble of prosecuting and liability for conducting transactions in a manner vulnerable to fraud were among the reasons I heard were responsible for reluctance to prosecute. That, however, had the consequence of weakening institutions and making for higher transaction costs. Since I wrote the 1998 book, Managing Uncertainty: Competition and Strategy in Emerging Economies, I have made quite an effort to persuade business leaders of the importance of their thinking of the need to act collectively to build strong institutions because of how high transactions costs affect their competitiveness. Sadly, short term thinking gets in the way of many understanding the point made so stoutly by Nobel laureate Douglas North in that 1990 classic on, Institutions, Institutional change and Economic Performance.

The bottom line for today’s Nigeria is that many will not engage in economic transactions or hedge, at high costs, because of the uncertainty created by identity theft. I wish all will act strongly and collaboratively because our economic recovery and growth may depend very much on curbing the rampant identity theft in our milieu. The investments we need will require trust of entrepreneurs and theft of their identity can only heighten uncertainty. If we could have a task force on identity theft, we may better understand why many business abroad would not do card transactions involving Nigeria and how it hurts our trade possibilities.

Utomi, political economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship, is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership