Nigeria is notorious for its email scammers—known as “Yahoo boys”—and it’s a reputation the government is eager to shed.
Last December, the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) announced a crackdown specifically on young men suspected of internet fraud. “We have declared a total war on Yahoo boys, who have done nothing but give Nigeria a bad name at home and abroad,” one government operative told the Lagos-based newspaper The Punch. So far, “Operation Cyber Storm” has reportedly led to more than 150 arrests.
This ongoing debate over Yahoo boys collided with the Nigerian music world in early April, when the popular singer Simi told her 4.4 million Instagram followers that internet fraud was wrong, and that Yahoo boys shouldn’t listen to her songs or watch her videos. Not long after, Afrobeats star Naira Marley offered a different take. On April 19, the UK-based, Nigerian-born singer/rapper wrote in an Instagram post, “If u know about slavery u go know say yahoo no b crime [sic].” Facing backlash, Marley elaborated in an Instagram live session several days later. He urged Nigerians to “pray for internet fraudsters” rather than condemn them, and argued that Yahoo boys pump money into the economy: “Where the fuck do you think it’s coming from? You think it’s coming from the government?” This prompted some Nigerian social media users to call for an EFCC investigation into Marley’s ties to Yahoo boys.
On May 9, Marley capitalized on the controversy by releasing “Am I a Yahoo Boy,” featuring the massive Nigerian rapper Zlatan. The upbeat song and its accompanying video playfully respond to Simi, at one point outright stating that Marley is not a Yahoo boy but he does have a Yahoo email address (which is how the scammers got their name in the first place). Marley even says, in Yoruba, “They want to treat me like they treated Fela.” It’s a heavy but still timely comparison. Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s most famous musician and an outspoken government critic, was jailed in the ’80s for 18 months—on what Amnesty International called sham currency smuggling charges—by the same military leader who today is the country’s elected president. The day after “Am I a Yahoo Boy” dropped online, the EFCC announced that it had arrested Marley (real name: Afeez Fashola), Zlatan (Omoniyi Temidayo Raphael), and three others for their alleged connection to online fraud. Zlatan and the three others (about whom little information has been reported)—Tiamiu Abdulrahman Kayode, Adewunmi Adeyanju Moses, and Abubakar Musa—were released five days later on “administrative bail.” EFCC spokesperson Tony Orilade confirmed their release to Pitchfork but said an investigation into the four was “ongoing.” In a separate statement, Orilade told reporters that Marley was not released due to “overwhelming evidence” against him.
On May 16, the EFCC revealed its charges against Marley. According to a Lagos Federal High Court complaint provided to Pitchfork, Marley twice “conspired” to use others’ credit card numbers, had at least three credit cards that weren’t his own, and possessed five allegedly counterfeit cards “with the intent to defraud.” The 11 counts carry a potential sentence of seven years in jail if Marley is found guilty. He appeared in court on Monday, May 20, pleading not guilty. He released a new song, called simply “Why” and accompanied by an image of him in handcuffs, on May 30. Later that day, he was granted bail, and the trial was set to begin on October 22.
“Naira Marley does not practice fraud, neither does he facilitate it,” reads a statement attributed to Marley’s management. “He’s being used as the poster boy for fraud… Naira did not publicly [defend] those who commit fraud, he expressed his view on the situation, which was simply his opinion.” According to the statement, Nigeria’s government was trying to prosecute Marley “based on a cheeky song” and on unspecified “items” found on a laptop that Marley, a UK resident since the age of 11, had borrowed so he could record and upload music and videos while visiting his native Nigeria.
On May 19, Zlatan, who still has not been charged, released a new single, “4 Nights in Ekohtiebo.” The title plays off the name of the street where the EFCC is headquartered. The lyrics are mainly sung in Yoruba, reportedly including a line that translates to: “My people know me, forget the fact that they tried to give me a bad name.” Marley’s team has not responded to Pitchfork’s requests for further comment. A representative for Zlatan said Zlatan was not yet ready to talk. And Orilade, the EFCC spokesperson, has not answered when pressed by Pitchfork on the nature of the government’s evidence against the two rappers. Ibrahim Magu, acting chairman of the EFCC, said in a public event last week that the agency was not targeting musicians, according to The Punch. Magu said that “the EFCC does not go after an innocent person.”
When the EFCC originally arrested Marley, Zlatan, and the others, the sole evidence cited by the agency was unspecified “intelligence reports.” But the EFCC said that during the arrest it “found and recovered a number of items, including laptops, from the suspects.” The detainees, the government said at the time, “have so far volunteered useful information about their involvement in the alleged criminal activities, even as investigations continue.” The EFCC has not elaborated on what that information has been. Marley’s management, in its statement, argued that the MC was in jail not for cyber crimes but for his lyrics and comments—in other words, the basic human right to free speech. The whole thing vaguely recalls the way that rappers’ lyrics have been used against them in U.S. courts as evidence of their misdeeds, instead of what they really are: creative expression. “As an artist, music is Naira’s avenue of expressing himself,” reads the statement. “He is not a ‘Yahoo Boy!’”