I have never been to Nigeria and know no Nigerians. The proposition arrived in the post on Tuesday, addressed to "the president" of Granta Publications, which is where I work as the editor of Granta magazine. The letter was smartly typed, headlined "Confidential Business Proposal", and began: "Having consulted with my colleagues and based on the information gathered from the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I have the privilege to request for your assistance to transfer the sum of forty-five million, five hundred thousand United States dollars (45.5m US dollars) into your account."
The writer, one Albert Katnka, described himself as an accountant with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. He and three other civil servants in Lagos had a problem. Five years ago, a foreign contractor had paid the $45m as a bribe (or "an over-invoiced contract" as my new friend Albert put it). The money was sitting in a frozen account at the Central Bank of Nigeria. Albert and his colleagues needed to export it, but, alas, as Nigerian civil servants they were forbidden to operate foreign bank accounts. If Granta would agree to receive the $45m in its London bank account "then the total sum would be shared as follows: 70 per cent for us, 25 per cent for you, and 5 per cent for local and international expenses incidental to the transfer".
The business would take only 30 working days to complete. It was "risk- free". All I had to do as the next step was to fax Albert requesting a "foreign contractor application form". So I did, and the same day saw a couple of pages from Nigeria crawling out of our fax machine. The form from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation looked convincingly official, and even if one of its clauses seemed rather too blatantly designed for bribery ("As agreed in article 9.5 of our supplementary contract agreement, please remit to our account specified above, the total sum of US$.... representing full and final payment of the above stated contract"). But then Nigeria is Nigeria - so rampantly corrupt, for all I know, that bribery has been codified and formalised on government stationery.
With the form came a letter marked strictly confidential. Albert said he was happy that I was "capable of handling a deal of this magnitude" and told me the project had been "conceived in a grand conspiracy with a network of high government officials", viz Albert and his three friends who were handily placed in the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Finance, and the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation. If I filled in and returned the form, they would make sure that my company was incorporated in Nigeria and registered as a major foreign contractor. Then the finance ministry would swiftly approve the transfer of funds, after I and a "government-appointed attorney" had signed the "fund release authority". I was to rest assured that once the $45m had entered my account, all documents relating to the deal would be destroyed.
Signing the release authority seemed the only snag. I would be expected to come down to Lagos for the signing ceremony. I didn't fancy that, but here Albert had already anticipated my fear of Lagos central jail. If I couldn't make it to Lagos, the government-appointed attorney could sign on my behalf. "Whichever option you choose," Albert wrote, "we do expect you to assist us in paying the lawyer."
I suppose this is the scam. The $45m does not exist, but you make this discovery only after you have sent a couple of thousand dollars for the lawyer and Albert has disconnected his fax machine. According to Patrick Hosking, this paper's city editor, Nigerian scams are so widespread and notorious that the Department of Trade and Industry regularly issues warnings about them. Many businesses in what is still known as the developed world have been stung by their own cupidity.
Perhaps Albert's project will work with someone else; perhaps it has already worked several times over. He is certainly investing time and money in postage stamps and faxes. He must look through lists of small British companies and send hundreds of letters. I can already see him and his briefcase dodging through the shimmering traffic of Lagos, on his way to the post office with another bundle designed to crack what is left of the idea of honest British business.
HAVING a haircut the other day in central London, I saw the hairdresser next to me handling a swatch of hair. It was about a foot long and light brown and seemed to be precious to him. He took it out of his drawer a couple of times and ran his fingers through it, almost lovingly. He said it was a hairpiece for a woman customer. I asked how much it would cost. "Oh," he said, "about pounds 500. It's real hair you see." It had come from a head either in India or China and had probably been dyed. He said he had handled more expensive pieces - he spoke like an expert on the Antiques Road Show. Tina Turner's, for example, came in at about pounds 700 each.
In Rohinton Mistry's new novel, A Fine Balance, there is a character who makes his living in Bombay by collecting hair for export, and who eventually murders beggars to scalp them of particularly long and luxurious tresses. Fiction, of course, but perhaps Tina Turner should read it. From my memory of the book, the mark-up from Bombay dealer to London salon looks to be at least 70,000 per cent.