Last week, I was just on my own on WhatsApp when I was suddenly flooded with various testimonies about a new breed of young, daring, defiant and inexcusably lavish-living high school teenagers, who have now come to be known as the “benefit boys”. Second after second, stories and accounts of their deeds infiltrated social media. One story reported that they asked their school principal to employ someone else to cut the grass they were asked to, volunteering to pay for the service instead. On first thought, one might make an excuse of how it would afford them more time to prepare for their senior secondary school examination. Besides, I do not really buy the idea of using students as manual labourers. Another story described how benefit boys gifted their school principal a pair of Nike Airforce sneakers. Well, schools have been shut for over four months, perhaps, the gift is probably just because they missed their good man. Trust me, all of these testimonies made me picture them as good students until some new testimonies began to surface. At this point, things started not to add up any longer.
Soon, videos of students going live on Instagram while in class, videos of students misbehaving, taunting and even flirting with both male and female teachers saturated the internet space. Then, I thought to myself, “This definitely must be trending on Twitter already (the hive of “Nigerian intellectuals”)”. So, there I went. Behold! It was the top trending topic. Not many bothered to speak ill of these kids. It was just tweeps heavily riding on the trend for more likes, retweets and followers, by making jokes and memes. My curiosity still would not let me rest. So, in a bid to really know who these benefit boys are, I decided to consult Google.
The Covid-19 pandemic is far beyond just a health crisis, it has affected and is still affecting affairs worldwide. In response to the hardship unleashed by the virus, the United States launched a bailout initiative it addressed as “benefits and grants” for those whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, a group of hackers stole millions of Americans’ identities and used them to fraudulently file for unemployment benefits. In May 2020, the Secret Service investigated and linked a substantial amount of this fraud to a ring of suspected Nigerian hackers who allegedly used bogus unemployment claims to steal hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ dollars initially intended to help the unemployed Americans.
Apparently, the ring of fraudsters who hacked into the American system to steal details of Americans, filed for unemployment benefits and swindled the United States and her nationals of millions of dollars meant for the unemployed are the ones we now hail as the “benefit boys”. They are the ones storming the streets with flashy cars and concrete-shaking music, rocking luxurious designer brand clothings, wielding sophisticated phones and gadgets, and ultimately disturbing the internet by showing off their exquisite lifestyles, all to the admiration of people who celebrate them without questioning the source of their suspicious wealth.
While this (fraud) is not new, I am sincerely appalled at the level of appeal and glorification it got, especially on social media. I mean, a lot of things that became normal in the society today started as jokes and jest. Although, some people argued (and it was quite evident) that some of those videos were comedy skits. But, we cannot overlook the fact that the skits basically mirror the society. It then begs the question; are there no other things we can make jokes about without promoting fraud, moral decadence and illegal acts? How is the misbehaviour of a group of people supposed to be concerned about their forthcoming examination intended to make us have a good laugh?
These acts we are promoting and trying to make “normal” by way of jokes and hilarity is consuming our youths and destroying the leftover of the international reputation we have, denying honest and hardworking Nigerians of opportunities in the international community. Even in virtual settings, individuals on digital forums like Fiverr, Freelancer and Upwork are often skeptical about associating with Nigerians. Worse even, we are making the virtue of hardwork lose its appeal and become increasingly pointless.
This act is everywhere and has found its way into every part of the society. The benefit boys and other fraudsters are around us, but we celebrate them. We felicitate with them when they acquire new gadgets and cars, even when we know they have no legal source of income. We are even complicit to the crime by keeping silent about this menace and still making jokes.
What then would be the lot of those who decide to engage in legitimate trade in years to come? Should we waiting for the chickens to come roosting? I hope your answer is as good as mine.
Bolaji Damilola AWEDA, Nigeria.