Revisiting Nigeria’s Many Untold Stories and Why Starting with Hushpuppi’s is Not the Answer
On the 5th of August, 2021, Mo Abudu, CEO of EbonyLife Group, announced she had won the rights to co-produce a movie about Hushpuppi, the Nigerian Instagram celebrity facing criminal charges in the United States for money laundering. With a flurry of happy, dancing emojis, she explained that this was a dream come true for her. The movie would be based on a Bloomberg article, a long feature profile that details the beginning and end of the glamorous career of one of the most high-profile money launderers in the world.
Soon after her announcement came social media backlash. In response, Abudu took to Instagram again to explain that “there are things to be learned from good and bad stories”. She believes the film “gives us a real chance to tell a cautionary tale about a character formed by his environment and life choices” and that “EbonyLife is uniquely positioned to ensure the depth and authenticity of this film.”
As logical as Abudu’s reasons may be, a movie about Hushpuppi, at this point in time, is the wrong trail to blaze.
Nigeria has a reputation for being the abode of cybercriminals. It does not matter what the country ranks on the cybercrime index reports, Nigeria gets the bulk of attention. Nigerians are the ones cited in prints and have their faces on posters. Making a movie about something a people are unfairly renowned for unapologetically feeds into the stereotype. The West has created an image for Africa and we are, without a fight, running with that narrative. By choosing to tell this “cautionary tale”, Abudu takes a torch and beams it at something Africans are working to erase. It does not matter if Abudu’s account is correct or balanced or authentic, it remains an addition to an already crowded story.
Contrary to Abudu’s beliefs, having Nigerians on the production team in no way salvages the story. Before Hushpuppi’s arrest, he was followed on social media by millions of Nigerians who worshipped and envied him despite knowing the source of his wealth was questionable. Even now, that worship is yet to cease.
From that same Bloomberg article, we know that while the origins of BEC scams are unclear, most perpetrators can be traced back to Nigeria. And right now, news already abounds of a notable member of Nigeria’s law enforcement being party to Hushpuppi’s criminal activities. It is difficult to see how this does not feed into the worst stereotypes.
Abudu, by calling the movie a “cautionary tale”, clearly believes it will serve as a form of deterrence by serviceably discouraging Nigerians from embracing a life of crime. This is unlikely as conditions that push many Nigerians into crime still remain. Every day, more Nigerians join the 82.9 million who already live in extreme poverty.
Nigerians still wake up to a culture that criminalises poverty and celebrates ill-gotten wealth. The cost of living is too high, entire sectors are in jeopardy and many cannot find gainful employment; and if they do, they are overworked, unpaid or underpaid. It is also important to mention that the most important thing about effectual deterrence is the certainty of punishment. This comes even before severity and celerity of said punishment. This presents two problems: the nature of cybercrime is such that most perpetrators are rarely caught and Nigeria is a country lacking strong institutions or systems to bring people to book. Typically, anyone can get away with anything. Till this changes, till people know they will surely get caught, cautionary tales will do little or nothing.
If we want to take seriously the business of reclaiming our narrative, we should not start with a film highlighting our moral and systemic failures in a way that furthers an exaggerated problem about Nigerians. We should not add to an already obese conversation by compensating with moral lessons. We have other stories also deserving of screen time. We have a lot of literature begging for a chance in theatre. We have a history that half the population is unaware of. We can start with those.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her popular TED Talk said “many stories matter” and she was not wrong. We can choose instead to shine the torch on the many things we are, the many things we have done, the many things we are doing. We are a multifaceted people, why make one face our only face?
Arekpitan Ikhenaode is a writing fellow at the African Liberty.