One nation under MMM
Around 11pm on the 23rd of June, I decided to go to bed. I had voted ‘Remain’ in the UK European Referendum earlier in the day and the first exit polls showed Remain was ahead by 10 points. So, imagine my complete shock when my wife woke me up the next morning to tell me that ‘Leave’ had won. It’s not just that the result surprised me, what annoyed me the most was that everything I read in the media and heard from my circle of friends and colleagues told me Remain was going to win.
Having learnt the lesson that surprises can happen when you go to bed at night, on the night of the US election in November, I took no chances – I stayed up till 3am and saw North Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin fall to Donald Trump, handing him the US presidency. Overall, 2016 was an interesting year across the world to put it mildly.
But it’s not only when you close your eyes at night that you are asleep. If we define being asleep as being oblivious to something big and important happening around you, then it is possible to be asleep for months and even years. In a country like Nigeria where it is hard to get hard data on anything, the possibility of dozing off for years is very high. You only wake up when it’s too late.
The country is currently sleeping on MMM – an old Russian Ponzi scheme that has been updated for Nigeria. In just one year, over 3 million Nigerians have signed up to it. By Nigerian standards, it is a phenomenal achievement to acquire more than 3 million customers in one year of operation. When I first heard of MMM earlier this year, I slept on it by dismissing it as your regular Ponzi scheme. Here we are today and the thing is going from strength to strength. The question is why? What is it about this obvious Ponzi scheme that has sustained it this far?
One thing that Brexit, Trump supporters and MMM have in common is that they were all outside the mainstream of accepted behaviour for the most part. The entire establishment and media were for remaining in the EU. People who supported Brexit were either racists or those looking for a reason to lash out at the ennui of their lives. It was not ‘normal’. So it was with Trump – given the man’s behaviour and comments while campaigning, how could any reasonable person support him over Hillary Clinton? How can any person who was expensively educated put money in an obvious Ponzi like MMM?
What makes MMM particularly dangerous is that those who are currently cleaning out from it are NOT poor people. I’ve heard staggering tales of oil company workers who are deep inside the MMM vortex. People are even taking loans or pooling funds in a co-operative to join the fun. People who put millions of naira into MMM are not poor people. They are upper middle class or rich folk. They are also plugged into the internet which is not a past time of poor Nigerians per se. This is the biggest danger about MMM that is yet to come – poor people haven’t joined in yet. It is when they join that the scheme will come crashing down and leave sorrow, tears and blood in its wake.
Simply dismissing MMM as a regular Ponzi is not going to work. The marketing is very clever. Those who participate in it are able to assuage their conscience by telling themselves they are providing ‘help’ to people in need. It is an interesting type of help given that you earn 30% in one month for providing it. The members of MMM have also lately launched a blitzkrieg of publicity to normalise the activity in the eyes of ordinary Nigerians – donating to IDPs, hospitals and the like. It’s all part of the ‘help’ they are providing. MMM itself doesn’t even collect the money. You are told who to send ‘help’ to and you follow the instructions (this explains why it is almost impossible to shut it down – the transactions are simply people sending money to themselves).
The context of Nigeria’s economy cannot be separated from the scheme. It is not just that Nigeria’s economy is in a recession. The larger problem is a sense of hopelessness. Hence the middle class are escaping to Canada while poor Nigerians are crossing to Europe via Libya by the thousands practically every day. This is all the fertiliser that MMM needs to germinate and flourish in Nigeria and it is.
MMM is a problem to be solved. However, like Brexit and Trump, it won’t be solved simply by demonising those who participate in it. Many of them actually know it is a Ponzi but want to cash in before it comes crashing down. For the most part, they are rational actors. Ordering a crackdown by sending policemen (who are probably also invested in MMM) to harass a few people is not going to solve this brewing social problem.
At the entrance to the town hall of the ancient Dutch city of Gouda is inscribed one of my favourite sayings – Audite et alterem partem- To wake up from this sleep, we must at least hear the other side.
We need to understand what is so seductive about this scheme so we can properly counter it, before the poor decide to join the party.