A strange, violent ritual joins the Nigerian culture of computer scams to the babalawos—'prophetic herbalists' who prescribe murders in exchange for guarantees of wealth and success
Yahoo boys, babalawos, money rituals. If these terms don’t already mean anything to you, brace yourself—we’re venturing into hard territory.
Nigeria is a West African country with two-thirds of the US population packed into less than a tenth of the territory. And there, in recent months, a perennial cycle of violent rituals thought to bring wealth in exchange for human sacrifice has re-emerged.
One example last month involved a babalawo (prophetic herbalist) advising a “yahoo boy” (computer scammer) that his business would prosper only if he would “sacrifice one life which must be a sibling to him.” With his mother’s approval, he killed and chopped up his brother for body parts in a superstitious “money ritual.” Elsewhere, four other yahoo boys in their late teens slaughtered a girlfriend to burn her skull in a similar ceremony.
Like I said, hard territory.
These are just two examples of a widespread phenomenon that Nigeria has had to reckon with before. In 1996, the killing and dismemberment of an eleven-year-old street vendor even launched the Otokoto Riots. That was when Nigerians rose up in outrage at a web of rumors—some accurate, some outlandish—about rich cartels revealed to be driving a significant portion of the kidnapping, murdering, and ritual use of poorer people’s body parts.
In the mid-2010s, it was often hard for Nigerians to know whether a rise in the murder rate was a resurgence of these bizarre ritual crimes, or just men murdering women and girls with more mundane excuses. Back then, another common term for ritualists was “badoos” (“bad guys”, but in the sense of being dangerously street smart). But average youths certainly weren’t the only ones committing such heinous acts. Under the watch of a police force known for violence and corruption— ironically titled the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)—it has not been easy to organize all the region’s kidnapping, rape, murder, dismemberment, and organ-selling into neat categories.
The dehumanizing blame-game
Among citizens struggling to make sense of the slaughter, few quibble over terminology. Local op-eds often depict youths involved in the worst practices as depraved “devils”. There, they become lazy, greedy sociopaths whose deeds clearly attest to bad parenting and a lack of good religion. Locals blame Nollywood and social media influencers for spreading yahoo rhetoric, and Western encroachment for general materialist toxicity. And outside Nigeria and similarly afflicted coastal states like Benin and Ghana? A simplistic claim of “primitive” beliefs covers all.
And yet, what’s happening today in Nigeria is multifaceted and globally resonant. Far from isolated behavior, the trauma young men are inflicting on others and themselves through money rituals is but one brutal consequence of a series of global problems.
It’s easy to see the ritually burned remains of a murdered human being and imagine the perpetrators belong to another species.
But there’s far more power in refusing to disassociate, remembering that human beings, under specific pressures, can be driven to this sort of behavior—and much worse.
A multifaceted struggle
Money rituals don’t always involve slaughter and dismemberment. Put aside allusions to traditional African cosmologies and Christian prosperity gospel, and the gimmick even starts to look familiar. The term “yahoo boys” draws from cybercrime, originally referring to fraudsters who ran scams using the widely available free email accounts through Yahoo.com. But as they performed the “good life” in ostentatious material displays, “yahoo-yahoo” culture became synonymous with get-rich-quick scheming of all sorts—including a lot of gambles familiar to Westerners.
Still, there’s something “cleaner” in short-selling, crypto- or NFT cultures than in balabawos telling yahoo boys to perform grotesque stunts for profit. The former practices bet on economic downturns, or accelerating environmental ruin. But there’s a tangible horror to the idea of bathing in foul concoctions, eating fecal matter, raping family, collecting and burning semen from their female conquests, or committing cannibalism.
And that horror tends to distract us from the region’s more quotidian brutalities. More than two-thirds of Nigeria’s wealthiest state, for instance, live in informal housing. A 2019 report found that 40% of Nigerians (82.9 million) exist below the country’s poverty line. In Lagos State, much of that poverty came from an eight-year explosion, from 6.27 percent in 1996 to a whopping 53 percent in 2004, according to Nigeria’s Federal Office of Statistics. During COVID-19, the urban poor fell into an even deeper inability to meet basic household needs.
Regional animist beliefs exacerbate these issues of resource scarcity. Parts of West Africa still struggle with infanticide for children with disabilities or albinism, or in the case of twins or triplets, or if the child’s mother died at or soon after birth. In the 1970s and 80s, children were especially vulnerable to kidnapping and murder for ritual use. Then the sites of slaughter turned to family and women, with sexual organs regarded as potent ritual items. Among adults in general, albinism and other prominent physical variations also have a long history of marking people out as targets.
The rise of Christian missionaries played its role, too. As Jacinta Chiamaka Nwaka noted in a 2020 article for Africa Development:
In addition to being seen as an expression of resistance, occult activities can also be seen as a response to an undue emphasis among prosperity gospel pastors … on getting rich quickly, which blurs the distinction between what is genuinely extraordinary divine intervention and the mundane … In a bid to climb the ladder of affluence and success in the new way of the world … the challenges of life are invested with spiritual significance, leading to youth engaging with all forms of mysterious possibilities.from Jacinta Chiamaka Nwaka’s “The Return of the Gods? Trends and Implications of the Rising Popularity of Fetish Rituals and Occult Practices Among Nigerian Youth” (Africa Development 45.3 2020)
The magic of desperation, and precarity
Yet explanations for these sensational acts need not be so elaborate. On an everyday level, people in the highest-risk demographic for violent and impulsive action—young men—see others doing very well very quickly. In a highly resource-rich country with one of the worst levels of income disparity, they have solid reason to doubt that working hard in a precarious economy will yield anywhere near the same rewards bestowed upon people with nowhere near the same humility or long-suffering work ethic.
Why not entertain the idea that unseen mystical forces drive such strange outcomes?
Is that stew of impatience and envy really so incomprehensible to North Americans? In 2014, in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger adopted similar beliefs, according to his manifesto, in part after reading Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006), which promises that one can will the universe to manifest what one most desires. He bought a Powerball ticket with full conviction, lost, and soon after killed six others and injured four in a rampage that ended in suicide.
So, yes, it’s easy to view an issue like Nigeria’s yahoo boys and violent money rituals in even more dehumanizing terms. But even though many locals have leapt to the belief that youth today are worse than ever, we have in fact been here before—many times—as a species.
And not just among the very young and troubled.
Uncanny overlaps exist between some of QAnon’s wildest conspiracy theories—that governments are run by a cabal of pedophilic baby-killers, for example—and some of these West African beliefs that outsized wealth can be explained by sacrificial rites.
By the end of the 1996 Otokoto Riots, a range of properties in the wealthy Owerri district had been destroyed, because the murdered boy had been lured into a regional hotel owned by the father of the leader of the Black Scorpions, a cult responsible for many crimes against children. A quarter century on, districts like Lekki and Ikoyi are the newest abodes of the rich, and the subjects of social-media myths about the role of ritual slaughter in their inhabitants’ success.
Disparity can drive storytelling to extremes almost anywhere.
So if the actions of yahoo boys in West Africa are not incomprehensible, a difficult question arises: If Nigeria’s money ritual crisis is largely shaped by economic disparities and state corruption familiar to us all…
What happens next?
Recovering from widespread trauma is an issue that most nation-states have had to address. Memory houses exist in many countries for this reason: to preserve records of transgression and offer sites of ongoing education. Whether after a long war (e.g., Colombia’s) or briefer genocide (e.g., Rwanda’s), truth and reconciliation initiatives also prove essential. However, they require significant state follow-through to succeed. In Canada and the U.S., for instance, genocidal histories and institutional oppressions still require far more dedication to system-wide change.
But all of this overlooks the more obvious and immediate issue. Nigeria’s yahoo boys reflect a species-wide failure to recognize what happens in any society when the gap between rich and poor becomes too enormous. Some Nigerian entrepreneurs have called on their government to invest in vocational training to close the gap. The government itself sometimes creates new security organizations or promises reform to existing ones, like SARS. But only much deeper societal investment—in individuals, in households, and in local outreach programs—can deflate the power of magical thinking in these money rituals and their cultish salesmen.
So what can we do?
Beyond keeping an eye out for calls to action from NGOs dedicated to food security, protections for displaced peoples, and childhood education, we in the West must call for more sweeping reforms, starting right here at home. When we push for social funding in our communities, we become stronger advocates for outreach to relieve the pressures of intractable poverty. We can also ask our nations’ representatives to establish this as a standard for any nation’s participation in key international organizations—because we know exactly what human behaviors result when we ignore the disparity.
Global uplift is a practice that starts at home. When one human being transgresses to this heinous extent, or when whole cultures see such violence routinely, the problem is never strictly localized. In this case, we’re all living in a world where the rich-poor divide is on fuller display than ever. Money rituals are but one of many wide-ranging responses to a familiar problem: an unequal world, growing ever-more-unequal every day.
It’s not a horror, but a grief, that people exist who have done such horrible things to others. And it’s a grief that they will keep doing such horrible things until captured, killed, or rehabilitated.
Grief, however, can be constructive. And the wounds inflicted on and by Nigeria’s youth reveal the extent of work we still have to do—at home, as abroad—to build a better world.