Overview and History of Sakawa Subculture

Overview and History of Sakawa Subculture

Sakawa is a Ghanaian subculture where participants manipulate others to obtain money by using internet fraud and spiritual influence. (Oduro-Frimpong 2014 ,Warner 2010, CSO Online 2018).  Participants of the Sakawa subculture are mostly unemployed, low-income young men living in low-income areas (Oduro-Frimpong 2014, Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W. 2015, Vice 2013, Boateng et al. 2010). Sakawa branched from its predecessor, ‘pen pal scams’. Pen pal scams were purely internet based and originated from Nigeria; it involved young low-income men cunningly obtaining money from others (mostly foreigners), by luring them to, for example, invest in businesses that do not exist (Vice 2013).  After pen pal scams were introduced to Ghana, they became very common as the number of internet browsing spots (internet cafes) in low-income neighborhoods in Ghana increased exponentially in late 2000s. Around this time, pen pal scams begun to have a spiritual component to them and the term ‘Sakawa’ was invented and is widely used to describe this advanced internet fraud which was backed by spiritual rituals  (Oduro-Frimpong 2014). Because the practice was considered immoral and mystical, the media, especially the news and films, were the only means individuals who were not part of the subculture gained some knowledge about Sakawa practices (Oduro-Frimpong 2014, Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W. 2015). These avenues reported on how the participants engaged in internet fraud and the different kinds of occultic rituals they performed, including lying in a coffin or murdering a family relative (Oduro-Frimpong 2014, Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W. 2015). Additionally, films like Sakawa Boys (2009) highlighted the success of Sakawa participants in internet fraud after performing the cultic practices which enabled participants to move up the social class ladder and buy expensive property (Oduro-Frimpong 2014, Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W. 2015, Awiah, 2015a). Because of the ritualistic nature of the practice of Sakawa, those who gain wealth by participating in this subculture are marginalized and labeled as deviant. Moreover, the portrayal of Sakawa participants in film and in the news as ‘quick money makers’ caused a moral panic around young men from low income areas who became wealthy relatively quickly. Yet, by engaging in this subculture, participants challenge the traditional notion that there are only few opportunities for poor folk from deprived communities to gain wealth.

On this page I will discuss the history, elaborate on the main themes of the subculture and finally, discuss how those who participate in the subculture rationalize their involvement with Sakawa.

 

Poster showing rituals of Sakawa Boys featuring a man with his mouth open with US Dollar bills spilling out, a snake, a group of men partaking in Sakawa rituals with snakes and other occultic items

Poster showing rituals of Sakawa Boys. (Image obtained from Oduro-Frimpong (2014)

History of Subculture

This subculture is believed to have stemmed from the pen pal scams that started in Nigeria (Vice 2013). The pen pal scams reportedly started in Ghana in the 1980s after about 62,000 Ghanaians who unlawfully migrated to Nigeria were evicted to their homeland, Ghana (New York Times, Sheila Rule 1985). These scams were mostly practiced in low-income communities and it involved asking pen pals from western countries for money directly or formulating a story about a business (which did not exist) and asking pen pals to invest in the business. After pen pal/internet fraud spread, the tactics of the frauds became well known and it became harder to make money from the pen pal scamming. So, the frauds began to seek protection and ‘good luck’ from traditional priests, this was when Sakawa was born (Vice 2013).

Sakawa is a portmanteau of the two Hausa words ‘saka’ (to put it in) and ‘wa’ (to [have] put something in) and is used to refer to the use of occult religious rituals assigned by voodoo priests to back internet fraud to get real and fast results (Oduro-Frimpong 2014, Warner 2010, CSO Online 2018). The subculture is mostly made up of young men from low-income areas like Nima. According to research conducted by Boateng et al., 85% of cyber-crime suspects are mostly young men aged between 21-35 (2010). The practice of Sakawa grew to its highest peak in 2009 when internet was more accessible to low-income folks because of the spike in the number of internet browsing spots or internet cafes (Oduro-Frimpong 2014).

To a non-participant, the practice of Sakawa seems dark, confusing and inapprehensible, thus movies and news reports about the subculture played an important role in understanding the subculture (Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W., 2015). Non-participants were eager to learn about the subculture because of its sudden popularity. Movies like Sakawa Boys (2009), Agya Koo Sakawa (2009), and The Dons of Sakawa (2009) which, according to its producers, chronicled the real lives of participants of the subculture, were bestsellers in the year of their release  (Vice, 2013).

Image of the front of a Ghananaian newspaper "Daily Graphic" with the headline story "Sakawa Scare" obtained from "Sakawa Rituals and Cyberfraud in Ghanaian Popular Video Movies" by Joseph Oduro-Frimpong (2014)

Sakawa in the news 
(Image obtained from Oduro-Frimpong, 2014)

In these films, those who participate in Sakawa are portrayed as unemployed young men living in deprived communities living on very little. The men are mostly bread winners of their family but are not respected because they are jobless. After partaking in internet scamming and cultic rituals like failing to shower for three months, killing a family member or lying in a coffin for days, the participants gain lots of wealth and become respected members of their family and their community. They then buy expensive property, provide for their family, and raise up the class rank in their community. However, if they fail to complete the occultic practices assigned the participants die or become mentally ill.
In the late 2000s when Sakawa became very popular, news outlets began reporting on the cultic practices perceived to be connected with the subculture. They often described those who participated in the subculture as jobless men who were looking for any means to make some money and described the practices of those in the subculture with words like “bizarre” and “weird”, deepening the moral panic around the practice.
In that same year, news outlets like the “Daily Graphic” published a story titled ‘Sakawa Scare’ that discussed that the youth were quitting school and involving themselves in this subculture. News stories like this one fueled the moral panic that existed around the subculture.
Together, film and the news promoted the narrative that Sakawa was evil and deviant, rather than discussing the high unemployment that existed in areas where these ‘deviant’ youth lived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rationalization and Themes of Sakawa Subculture

Rationalization of the Subculture

“I know it’s wrong, but it gives me a lot of money,” an interviewee of the BBC who practices Sakawa (BBC Africa 2015).

Those who participate in the subculture know are aware that it is an illegal practice but partake anyway because it is a source of income. They rationalize their involvement by comparing what they do to how corrupt politicians steal money from the state/country or how colonizer’ stole from the participants’ African ancestors. According to some participants, they know that partaking in the subculture is wrong, however, they believe that what they are doing is not more illegal than what corrupt politicians or the colonizers did. Thus, to them, in comparison with what colonizers or corrupt politicians do, Sakawa, is not too wrong.

For me, I am just struggling…Obasanjo and his boys [the state] are stealing so much money while the rest of our society is falling apart. That’s the real 419…I would not be here sending these emails looking for rich greedy foreigners [the imperial West] if there were opportunities here in Nigeria. How much do I really get from this anyway? The people getting rich from this are the same people at the top [the local bourgeoisie] who are stealing our money. I am just a struggleman (Smith 2008: 38).

A Sakawa boy sitting on a bed, with a luggage full of Ghanaian Cedi bills sitting on his side, while counting Ghanaian Cedi bills and holding an item used for rituals obtained from yen.com.gh

A Sakawa boy counting Ghanaian Cedi bills and holding an item used for rituals obtained from yen.com.gh

Themes of the Subculture

Sakawa and Resistance:

Those who practice Sakawa are mostly jobless and come from deprived communities in Ghana. They join in the practice to resist or move away from the reality that there are not job opportunities in the low-income communities in which they live. Thus, practicing Sakawa and gaining the money allows them to debunk the reality that people from low-income areas cannot make money because they do not have many opportunities. Furthermore, Sakawa participants are resistant to the ‘traditional’ method of making money that dictates that a person needs to find a job and work for years to make the kind of money Sakawa participants make. For example, the lyrics of the song  Yahooze by Nigerian singer, Olu Maintain, include “it’s all about the Benjamins baby”, which suggests that for those who participate internet scamming, or specifically Sakawa, obtaining money is the ultimate goal.

Sakawa and Gender:

Sakawa is mostly practiced by men because they are perceived to be the breadwinners of their family. For example, these films about the subculture including Sakawa Boys (2009), Agya Koo Sakawa (2009), and The Dons of Sakawa (2009) all have male lead actors playing the role of Sakawa participants. The plot of these movies show that participants often have dependents and partake in the subculture to get rich to take care of their dependents. The portrayal of men taking care of their dependents through Sakawa affirms the patriarchal structure which is common in many Ghanaian societies; men are considered the breadwinners while women are seen as dependents. The label “Sakawa boys”, which is often used to describe participants of this subculture is in itself gendered.

Sakawa and Social Class:

Most participants in Sakawa are usually poor folk from low-income areas (Awiah, 2015a). Partaking in Sakawa allows participants to rise swiftly up the social class ranks and gain respect from their family as well as their community because of the wealth they have obtained (Halawayhi 2014). Thus, those who participate in the practice have a higher social capital and benefit from belonging to a higher social class.

Selected Media and Scholarship

Sakawa in the news

Various new stories about “Sakawa Boys”. Yen.com. (n.d.)

Selected Scholarship

Articles

Awiah, Dominic. 2015a. “The Luxurious Life Of Sakawa Boys.” Graphic Online.

Awiah, Dominic. 2015b. “The Confession Of Three Sakawa Boys; We Want To Stop But ….” Graphic Online.

Boateng, Richard & Longe, Olumide & Mbarika, Victor & Avevor, Innocent & Isabalija, Stephen. (2010). Cyber Crime and Criminality in Ghana: Its Forms and Implications. Journal of Information Technology Impact, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2011 pp. 85-100.

CSO Online (2018, February 26). Sakawa boys: Meet the professional internet fraudsters of Ghana. CSO Online.

Halawayhi, F. (2014, November). “Livelihood Strategies in Ghanaian Slums: The Case of Effiakuma in the Sekondi-Takoradi Metropolis.” International Journal of Innovative Research and Development (IJIRD).

New York Times, Rule, S. 1985. “Ghanaians, Expelled By Nigeria, Return Home To Start Over.” Nytimes.com.

Oduro-Frimpong, J. (2014). “Sakawa Rituals and Cyberfraud in Ghanaian Popular Video Movies.” African Studies Review, 57(2), 131-147.

Taylor, L. (2009, July 6.) “Sakawa! No, Really! Sakawa!” Linnettaylor’s Weblog.

Warner J (2011). “Understanding Cyber-Crime in Ghana: A View from Below.” International Journal of Cyber Criminology (IJCC). ISSN: 0974 – 2891 Jan – July 2011, Vol 5 (1): 736–749.

Books

Book cover of "Racism, ethnicity and the media in Africa: Mediating conflict in the twenty-first century"

Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W. (2015). Racism, ethnicity and the media in Africa: Mediating conflict in the twenty-first century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Description of the book from the publisher’s website: “In today’s Africa racism and ethnicity have been implicated in serious conflicts – from Egypt to Mali to South Africa – that have cost lives and undermined efforts to achieve national cohesion and meaningful development. Racism, Ethnicity and the Media in Africa sets about rethinking the role of media and communication in perpetuating, reinforcing and reining in racism, absolute ethnicity and other discriminations across Africa. It goes beyond the customary discussion of media racism and ethnic stereotyping to critically address broader issues of identity, belonging and exclusion. Topics covered include racism in South African newspapers, pluralist media debates in Kenya, media discourses on same-sex relations in Uganda and ethnicised news coverage in Nigerian newspapers.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book cover of " A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria"

Smith, D. J. (2008). A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Description from the publisher’s website: “E-mails proposing an “urgent business relationship” help make fraud Nigeria’s largest source of foreign revenue after oil. But scams are also a central part of Nigeria’s domestic cultural landscape. Corruption is so widespread in Nigeria that its citizens call it simply “the Nigerian factor.” Willing or unwilling participants in corruption at every turn, Nigerians are deeply ambivalent about it–resigning themselves to it, justifying it, or complaining about it. They are painfully aware of the damage corruption does to their country and see themselves as their own worst enemies, but they have been unable to stop it. A Culture of Corruption is a profound and sympathetic attempt to understand the dilemmas average Nigerians face every day as they try to get ahead–or just survive–in a society riddled with corruption.

Drawing on firsthand experience, Daniel Jordan Smith paints a vivid portrait of Nigerian corruption–of nationwide fuel shortages in Africa’s oil-producing giant, Internet cafés where the young launch their e-mail scams, checkpoints where drivers must bribe police, bogus organizations that siphon development aid, and houses painted with the fraud-preventive words “not for sale.” This is a country where “419”–the number of an antifraud statute–has become an inescapable part of the culture, and so universal as a metaphor for deception that even a betrayed lover can say, “He played me 419.” It is impossible to comprehend Nigeria today–from vigilantism and resurgent ethnic nationalism to rising Pentecostalism and accusations of witchcraft and cannibalism–without understanding the role played by corruption and popular reactions to it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A song about Internet Scamming

Olu Mantain – Yahooze (2007)

The visuals and the lyrics of this song depicts the life of internet scammers after they become wealthy.

Documentaries

Vice Media – Internet Scamming in Ghana (2013)

This documentary looks at the history and current day practices of Sakawa boys in Ghana.

BBC Africa Short Interview – Inside the world of Ghana’s internet fraudsters (2015)

This BBC Africa News Story features a short video interview of a participant of the Subculture.

Works Cited

Awiah, Dominic. 2015a. “The Luxurious Life Of Sakawa Boys.” Graphic Online.

Awiah, Dominic. 2015b. “The Confession Of Three Sakawa Boys; We Want To Stop But ….” Graphic Online.

Boateng, Richard & Longe, Olumide & Mbarika, Victor & Avevor, Innocent & Isabalija, Stephen. 2010. “Cyber Crime and Criminality in Ghana: Its Forms and Implications.” Journal of Information Technology Impact, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2011 pp. 85-100.

British Broadcasting Network (BBC). 2018. “Inside The World Of Ghana’s Internet Fraudsters.” BBC News.

CSO Online. 2018. Sakawa boys: Meet the professional internet fraudsters of Ghana. CSO Online.

Halawayhi, F. 2014. “Livelihood Strategies in Ghanaian Slums: The Case of Effiakuma in the Sekondi-Takoradi Metropolis.” International Journal of Innovative Research and Development (IJIRD).

New York Times, Rule, S. 1985. “Ghanaians, Expelled By Nigeria, Return Home To Start Over.” Nytimes.com.

Oduro-Frimpong, J. (2014). “Sakawa Rituals and Cyberfraud in Ghanaian Popular Video Movies.” African Studies Review, 57(2), 131-147.

Peppeh, K. O., Mano, W. 2015. “Racism, ethnicity and the media in Africa: Mediating conflict in the twenty-first century.” London: I.B. Tauris.

Smith, D. J. 2008. A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, L. 2009 “Sakawa! No, Really! Sakawa!” Linnettaylor’s Weblog.

Vice. 2018. “Internet Scamming in Ghana.” Retrieved from Youtube.com

Warner J. 2011. “Understanding Cyber-Crime in Ghana: A View from Below.” International Journal of Cyber Criminology (IJCC). ISSN: 0974 – 2891 Jan – July 2011, Vol 5 (1): 736–749.

 

 

Content by Angela Frimpong