I live in a country where my mere existence as a young man attracts a stereotype from the police and other uniformed personnel. I have many anecdotes of getting stopped and frisked over suspicions of being an internet fraudster or Yahoo boy in local parlance. In a video essay I published on my YouTube channel about two years ago, not long after the historic 2020 #EndSARS protest against police brutality and misconduct, I recounted how I was stopped by a seemingly drunk officer with bloodshot eyes on my way to work. And despite showing him my work ID, he searched my phone looking for something to nail me with. I’ve had many more encounters since then.
There are routes I do not travel with my laptop not because I have anything incriminating on it. But because in the event a police officer looking for prey stops me and frisks my bag, he sees my laptop as prima facie evidence that I’m a Yahoo Boy. It’d be a great thing if as a Yahoo Boy, you indeed get arrested and charged to court. Rather, the police often would demand extortionate ransom instead of arresting you. And even if you’re not a Yahoo Boy but you happen to just own some pretty expensive phone or laptop, regardless of the proof you present to show you’re legit, they would still demand you give them something. Either way, you cannot win.
That’s how oppressive Nigeria is to young men. Many have been extra-judicially killed, maimed, and jailed on trumped-up charges by corrupt police officers because of what I call the Yahoo of the Gaps. As a play on the popular phrase God of the Gaps – an appeal to the transcendental to explain the lack of scientific evidence for a phenomenon – Yahoo of the Gaps works when cyber fraud is the default explanation for a young man who appears to do well for himself. And to be fair to the police, the sentiment pervades everywhere in society.
I made a post on X, formerly Twitter, on this some weeks ago. It best captures how pervasive this sentiment is in society:
Looking good as a man often comes with the Yahoo Boy stereotype and it’s becoming more dangerous. This isn’t even about the police. It’s everyone from okada* riders to market women. You don’t even have to do too much. Having a well-groomed beard or wearing knock-off Nikes or AirPods are enough for people to assume you are a big boy and when you haggle with them, they tell you you are bigger than that.
And there is the annoying “twuale*” panegyrics you get from jobless youth. They call you “chairman” and “boss” in hopes you give them some quick bucks as payment for their unsolicited eulogy.
Yahoo Boys dented the culture. Those fu*ckers.
If/when the revolution of the masses happens, the appearance of the Yahoo nouveau riche will be the first casualty. And that’s a scary thought.
To understand how this stereotype came to be, a quick look at the etymology of the contextual use of “Yahoo” and its variants – Yahoo-Yahoo, Yahoo boy etc – is necessary. Around the turn of the millennium, GSMs and the internet made an incursion into Nigeria. The Internet came first. As a young boy, all I heard older folks talk about was opening email accounts. Many of them bragged about opening two to three emails on different platforms. But for some reason, Yahoo was immensely popular. If you were in high school, being on Yahoo Messenger was a flex. Cyber cafes with Cathode Ray Tube monitors sprung up everywhere and they were frequented by young men who either were newly signing up on Yahoo or Hotmail or were simply checking their inbox. It was the same fervour my generation displayed when Facebook became popular around 2009/10. I recall going to cyber cafes with friends opening different tabs on the same browser for our individual accounts. Wild times.
But as Yahoo became more popular, it increasingly became synonymous with fraud. The early 2000s birthed the first generation of internet fraudsters we now call Yahoo Boys. The scam itself is called Yahoo-Yahoo. I suspect the Yahoo-Yahoo colloquialism has linguistic roots in Yoruba language’s penchant for reduplicatives.
Very quickly, being internet savvy made you suspect. At the time, the playbook of these so-called Yahoo Boys was to send emails to foreigners disguised as a widow or orphaned African prince who just inherited an insane amount of money. Sometimes, they say they want to give their potential victim all the money or a sizeable part of it provided the potential victim is willing to assist in transferring the endowment abroad. As ridiculous as that sounds, It seemed the scam worked a lot then and it created a cultural buzz.
The buzz internet scam created gradually crept into music. No other song more openly celebrated Yahoo-Yahoo than Olu Maintain’s Yahoozee. Released in 2007, it gained heavy rotation on radio and in nightclubs. Apart from the hedonistic and thieving theme of the song, it came with a dance routine – stick out your index and middle fingers on both hands and swing them to the rhythm of the song. A dexterous dancer would rotate those fingers around their head in a moment of rhythmic trance. The song was released in the era of Hummer Jeep and Olu Maintain made sure it was heavily featured in the song’s video, among other luxury cars, of course.
It is commonplace to hear proponents of Yahoo-Yahoo give tongue-in-cheek defence of the ungodly craft. They’ll argue that Yahoo is punitive karma for the slavery the white man subjected their ancestors to. But I wonder if that argument would hold if focus was shifted to historical inter-ethnic slavery in Africa. For instance, would Dahomey scammers be right to defraud Oyo people because some of their ancestors were enslaved by the Kingdom of Oyo?
They also like to argue that cybercrime has played a huge role in reducing cultism on university campuses. And objectively, that’s true. Before the Yahoo era, cultism was rife on university campuses in Nigeria. Sending your child to university brought stress and distress to you. You’d pray your child would never be forced to join a cult and never get killed by one. And truly, the more Yahoo metastasised, the more cultism tapered off. But that’s not exactly a good thing. Wouldn’t Nigeria be a lot better without cultism and cyber fraud altogether?
Seeing the international embarrassment Yahoo Boys were causing Nigeria, the police and anti-graft agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) began to clamp down on them. But the stereotype had already come to stay. And as a consequence, many innocent young men have suffered in many ways. In fact, a tactical unit, Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) joined in the “fight” against Yahoo-Yahoo. But they became very excessive and brutish. For years, they acted with no accountability as they arrested, extorted, maimed and even killed young men. They essentially did what they wanted because they had the guns. SARS was dreaded. And that fear was not based on guilt. It was based on SARS being guilty of Yahoo of the Gaps.
SARS’ highhandedness led to the historic #EndSARS protest in October 2020. And even after the regulations that came out of that protest such as the disbanding of SARS, the Yahoo of the Gaps has continued with other police personnel.
Here’s the thing. Policing in Nigeria is not based on intelligence. It’s based on oppression and stereotypes. Despite having policies against highhanded practices, these policies are often observed in breach. For instance, then Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced in 2020 that police personnel were banned from indiscriminate searching of phones and laptops. But of course, that has continued, unfortunately.
Nothing shows a more egregious level of Yahoo of the Gaps than what happened on November 1st. Two hostels were raided around 2 a.m. by personnel of the EFCC in Oduduwa Estate, in Osun state. 69 students of Obafemi Awolowo University, my alma mater, were arrested. The EFCC claimed the raid was conducted based on “actionable intelligence”. It’s impossible to think that all 69 students were involved in Yahoo-Yahoo. They must all have been arrested because they saw exotic phones, laptops, or cars in the hostels. Again, in Nigeria, the police pronounce you guilty by prima facie evidence. Not by actual intelligence gathering. It’s very possible there are Yahoo Boys among the arrested students. Already, 58 of them have been released while 11 are said to face fraud trial. If the raid was intelligence-driven like the EFCC claimed, what was the point of arresting the 58 who have now been released?
Nigeria being the poverty capital of the world doesn’t help matters. Appearing well-off amid people who are struggling to make ends meet naturally attracts simplistic judgements especially if you you are not in a traditional 9-5 profession. It’s hard for them to comprehend how the gig economy works. As long as they see you with a laptop, the assumption is you are using it for Yahoo-Yahoo. And truly, the Yahoo-Yahoo menace has assumed a dangerous dimension in society. But I contend it must be fought based on actual intelligence gathering. Members of the public can be excused for Yahoo of the Gaps. But more is expected of the police. The extortion, maiming, and arbitrary arrests must stop.
Okada* means motorcycle taxi in Nigeria
Twuale* is a Yoruba slang for showing respect usually for rich and important personalities.
Olayemi is the publisher of The Disaffected Magazine. He also hosts the Disaffected Nigerian Podcast. He enjoys everything from Evolutionary Psychology to the syncopations of Apala music to Fela’s discography. He fancies himself as an Amala enthusiast. His dream is to be a travel writer someday.