Skip to main content

UNDERWARE: UNDERstanding West African culture to pRevent cybercrimEs

Project Lead:

Professor Monica Whitty - WMG, University of Warwick


Professor Tim Watson - WMG, University of Warwick

Professor Carsten Maple - WMG, University of Warwick

Professor Tom Sorrell - University of Warwick, Politics and Philosophy

Deliverables from the project:

Project Outline:

The overall objective of this project is to gain a greater understanding of West African culture in order to:

  • Scientifically evaluate current methods employed to prevent and deter cybercrime that emanates from West Africa
  • To develop and test new methods to prevent and deter cybercrime (that emanates from this region)

In this project we will conduct a literature review on scholarly and grey literature examining cybercriminal culture in West Africa; West African culture in general, and research on deterrence and prevention programmes for cybercrimes.

In addition, we will run a workshop, where we will invite academics from West Africa to present their research on cybercriminals in the region as well as a number of law enforcement officers to speak about the problems they face and their views on the way forward in dealing with cybercrimes.

Potential attendees to be invited include members of the RISCS community as well as other academics that have expertise in this area; employees of intelligence UK agencies; UK law enforcement officers, policy makers and members working in relevant areas in industry. They will be invited to ask questions of the speakers and make comments on the presentations.

The findings from this project will be written up and made available to the RISCS community and GCHQ. We also intend to develop research projects based on these findings (which we will seek out funding; for example, official development assistance - ODA).


The research will have both short and long-term benefits. Short-term benefits will be new insights and knowledge of cybercrime from a West African lens.

Uniquely, this understanding will be from a multi-disciplinary perspective. In the short-term the findings will also benefit our students (in both our undergraduate and postgraduate courses), and the RISCS community (to inform current research and help develop new research projects).

GCHQ, governments and policy makers, will also benefit, as our initial findings will inform their programmes to deter and prevent cybercrimes emanating from West Africa.

The long-term benefits will be:

  • The development of research projects using the knowledge gained
  • The development of preventative programmes
  • The knowledge generated from this research will also contribute to improving market understanding for the Cyber Growth Partnership and TechUK in West Africa
  • This increased understanding will, in turn, improve export opportunities for UK industry in the cyber security sector


There has been much concern over the years about the amount of cyber dependent and cyber enabled crimes that emanate from West Africa. This includes financial fraud, drugs and human trafficking, and terrorism (Quarshie & Martin-Odoom, 2012).

Nigeria, for example, has been ranked as the leading state in the region for conducting malicious internet activities (Aransiola & Asindemade, 2011; Longe & Chiemeke, 2008; Quarshie & Martin-Odoom, 2012). Also, money acquired from mass marketing fraud and drug trafficking is believed to be used to fund terrorist groups and their activities (FATF, 2013). The cybercrimes that propagate from these countries have become a global problem, affecting individuals, organisations and countries, especially in western societies (Anderson et al., 2013).

There has already been some scholarly work on understanding cybercrime perpetrators that originate from West Africa; however, in the main, this work is descriptive and rudimentary. Cybercriminals tend to be young men and often operate in gangs, referred to in Nigeria as Yahoo Boys and in Ghana as Sakawa Boys. They tend to be lavish with their money, living decadent lifestyles (Ojedokun & Eraye, 2012). Videos, akin to ‘music videos’ are used to recruit cybercriminals (Oduro-Frimpong, 2014). In a study conducted by the Youth against Cyber Crimes and Fraud in Nigeria (2008) it was found that one out of every five youths in most cities in Nigeria is a cybercriminal. In Nigeria, the majority of cybercriminals are thought to be students at universities (Adeniran, 2008; Tade & Aliyu, 2011). Tade (2013) argues that peer influence is a reason given by many as to why they become cybercriminals.

There has already been some research conducted on the strategies the criminals use to commit these crimes that can provide a foundation for further work too. Aransiola and Asindemade (2011), for example, asked two of their research assistants to develop a rapport with Yahoo Boys (for research purposes), with 40 agreed to be interviewed for the study. These cybercriminals outlined the following strategies employed to commit their crimes including collaboration with security agents and bank officials, local and international networking, and the use of Voodoo. Tade (2013) points out that many cybercriminals in Nigeria believe that the use of ‘spiritual elements’ in conjunction with internet surfing will increase their chances of success. He contends that these criminals believe they can cast a spell on their victims, hypnotising them to give up their money.

He describes the culture below:

‘…a typical Yahoo Boy approaches an [sic] herbalist to make success-enhancing charms to boost his chances of having more victims to defraud. He is given fetish materials whose application in the process of surfing the internet amplifies the success rate. This is, however, dependent on strict adherence to the instruction of the juju man. They may also approach a yahoo plus pastor who will prepare anointing water which they have to drink and bathe with for enhanced “luck”… The charm becomes the mystical medium through which the desire of the Yahoo Plus Boy is actualised on the victim. (p. 699)’

These findings highlight some stark differences between Western and West African cultures, which might be important to understand in greater detail when developing prevention and deterrence cybercrime programmes and strategies.

It is well-known that corruption is common in policing, the political system as well as in everyday culture in West Africa (Agbiboa, 2015; Bersselarr & Decker, 2011). This means that many cybercrimes go unreported in their countries (Boateng, Lange, Isabdija & Budu, 2013).

There is however a shortage of academic work available on how corruption might enable cybercrimes, and how this corruption affects policing between western countries and West Africa when dealing with crimes across borders. Gaining a greater understanding on the culture of corruption and how it enables cybercrimes, is critical to prevent and deter the cybercrimes that emanate here and affect Western civilians. Understanding cultural differences could also potentially improve the implementation of cyber security aid and training that is delivered to West Africa.

One of the deterrence strategies taken in western countries ( such as the USA, UK and Australia) is to identify a ‘kingpin’ fraudster and build up a high profile case to prosecute either by extradition or within the fraudster’s home country (see for example, BBC News, 2016; Department of Justice, USA, 2016; GhanaWeb, 2014; Patrick, 2016). How effective a deterrent prosecuting ‘kingpin’ cybercriminals, however, is unknown.

Tade’s (2013) work reveals the competitive culture between well-established cybercriminals and trainees. His work suggests that sentencing cybercriminals might not be as effective a deterrent as is currently believed. One of the Yahoo Boys he interviewed discusses the in-fighting amongst criminals and the desire to be the more successful fraudster:

You know in this business there is no permanent boss. I may introduce somebody into the business and suddenly he hits more than me and commands more respect, and intimidates me in clubs carrying my babes! I need to find better means to get more money. Yahoo plus will make that happen faster. I need to win back my respect in the league.’

More research is required to examine the effectiveness of high profile trials and whether they deter current and potential future fraudsters.