Tabloid newspapers and magazines around the world have a distinctive feature; sensationalized headlines and sleazy celebrity news stories. In Nigeria, they are no different. However, in addition to their use of extremely bad English, a noticeable trend in our tabloid magazines and newspapers is a growing penchant for a peculiar brand of classified advertisements placed by the all-powerful and all-knowing unorthodox trado-medical practitioners cum spiritual problem solvers.
A typical example of such classified advertisements promises the curious reader instant solutions to all of life’s problems ranging from the regular (money, marital and health problems), the vain (stretch marks, weight-gain problems, small breasts and penises) and the spiritual (witchcraft attacks and eternal bad luck).
These advertisements offer a wide range of esoteric solutions such as “medicine for good and resourceful future”, “daily contribution boxes and invocation of money”, “medicine to stop eating in dreams”, powder to travel overseas”, “to collect gift from white men and women”, win contracts, court case and elections”, “for political appointment, quick riches without harms (sic), “visa approval”, “commanding tone’, “poison detector”, “promotion at work” (sic), “gaining good husband” (sic), “to regain your husband or wife back” (sic), “do as I said” (sic), “memory honey and biro to pass exam”, “protection of properties against armed robber and thief” (sic).
Equally as esoteric are the names the advertisers go by; “come for quick riches & quick success: “Alfa Lateef herbs & spiritual healing centre”, “Baba Ajanaku healing and spiritual clinic: home of breakthrough & success”, “The most powerful herbalist: Chief Ametutu”, “The wonderful man who know (sic) your future: Dr. Mallam Yahaya”, “Old woman with old power: Mama Ijebu”. Perhaps, it is merely a co-incidence, but a startling observation in their stated addresses is that quite a number of these advertisers have their offices (?) located around bus stops.
One would ordinarily expect that these rather outlandish names and the equally outlandish panacea they promise would instantly sound an alarm to any discerning mind that these people are con-artists. Another obvious clue would be their preferred choice of advert slot in the print media; a non-descript 5/3” ear-piece insert. A man who promises a panacea to all of life’s problems and riches beyond measure should be able to afford a full-page advert slot, you would think!
Apparently, when life throws its challenges at us (especially the brand of challenges peculiar to Naija, bite me Akunyili!), a discerning mind is the first thing that goes out the window! A story in the Sunday Punch Newspaper of September 12, 2010 serves as a reminder of just how gullible we can be. A young lady, worried about her family’s objection to her choice of fiancé, came across an advert in a tabloid magazine placed by a woman who called herself “Mama Ijebu” with the rider “old woman with old power”. The young lady, obviously taken in by Mama Ijebu’s promise of a solution “for you to marry the man/woman of your choice” called a telephone number on the advert and was instructed to pay N6,000 as consultation fee. Long story short, the young lady ended up losing N3.6m to Mama Ijebu (who eventually turned out to be a man) and her (?) accomplices.
Similar experiences abound of hapless folks, blinded by greed or plain cluelessness, who got scammed when they responded to such adverts. Others less lucky have lost life or limb to these con-artists. If the situation were not so tragic, it would have indeed been comical. However, the proliferation of such adverts peddling services that border on plain criminality in print media platforms calls for serious attention from law enforcement authorities, the print media itself and the society at large.
When an advert placed in a newspaper or magazine offers the reading public an array of charms for and ability to “collect gift from white men and women, Spiritual invocation of money, holy ghost money bag and spend money and get it back”, “win contract, political appointment, court case and elections”, “seek appointment, powder to travel overseas and get visa approval”, “memory honey and biro to pass exam”, “, do as I say ring, love me only ring, ask without refusal and commanding tone”, it does not take rocket science to figure out that a scam is afoot. It is instructive to note that Mama Ijebu and her accomplices were eventually smoked out by the police acting on a tip off.
However, inspite of the exposure of the activities of these con artists, their adverts still continue unabated in the print media. This calls into question the print media’s sense of responsibility towards the reading public. The fourth estate of the realm proudly cherishes its role as a societal watchdog which keeps errant public office holders and unscrupulous corporate entities in check. Should this role not extend to protecting the reading public from the activities of con artists who peddle their illicit trade on a legitimate platform provided by the print media? I had a colleague call the advert desk of one print media house to make some enquiries. In response to a question whether the background of advert placers is investigated by the media house prior to accepting and publishing their adverts, the answer was no. The media house expects the reader to confirm the authenticity of adverts placed in its newspaper and accepts no liability for scam adverts.
While not trying to downplay the need for the reading public to be circumspect about such adverts in newspapers, the obvious criminality in the services and products these adverts purvey should make print media houses circumspect about accepting them for publishing in their newspapers. Where they publish them and a reader falls victim of the scam advert, the newspaper should be liable in negligence to the reader for the loss occasioned to him.
I am not aware of any instance where Nigerian courts have held a newspaper liable to a reader who fell victim to a scam advert, and perhaps the argument could be made that the tort of negligence would not apply in such a scenario. However, in my opinion, the assertions by Lord Macmillan in Donoghue v. Stevenson that “The categories of negligence are never closed” and Lord Wright in Bourhill v. Young that “Negligence is a fluid principle, which has to be applied to the most diverse conditions and problems of human life” provide enough latitude to ground a tort of negligence in the conduct of a newspaper in publishing a scam advert which occasions a loss to a reader of that newspaper.
The rationale behind the tort of negligence is that ideally, one should always exercise care and diligence in one’s acts or omissions knowing that the possibility exists that injury could be occasioned to one’s neighbour where one acts otherwise. The tort is premised on a duty of care owed one’s neighbour, the breach of that care and consequential damages arising therefrom. In determining whether a duty of care is owed, the question usually asked is; who is my neighbour? The answer; my neighbour is any person who would be directly injured by my act of commission or omission, surely would apply where a newspaper, publishes an advertisement which is overtly a scam, without taking into consideration, the possibility of the reading public (construing same to be genuine simply because it appeared in the legitimate platform provided by the newspaper) responding to such advertisement to their detriment.
I sense that if the publication of these scam adverts continue unabated and gullible readers continue to fall prey, someday, one of them might feel aggrieved enough to institute a negligence suit against the media house whose newspaper published the scam advert. When this happens, if counsel’s legal argument is insufficient to ground liability, perhaps, the litigant can resort to the use of a “win court case” charm to emerge victorious against the media house. Now, that would be a fitting poetic justice.