• Friday, June 21, 2024
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BusinessDay

The Big Looters Club

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Uncle, welcome!”

That was Luka, my friend Jumbo’s nine-year-old son. I waited for his usual greeting in full. A ritual, a game we play. Nothing came.

“Don’t you want to greet me the usual way?”

“No, sir.”

My face must have registered my disappointment. He relented.

“Excuse me, sir. . . . Uncle O.J., you’re the best, I like you, and when I grow up I want to be just like you.”

“That’s my boy! Give me five! . . . Now, where’s Mummy and Daddy and Little Sister?”

“But I don’t really mean it this time.”

“O-Ohh! What do you mean?”

“I don’t feel like that today.”

“Am I not the best anymore?”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t you like me anymore?”

“No, sir.”

“Don’t you want to be like me when you grow up?”

“No, sir.”

My world was spinning out of control.

“Do you want to be like your daddy instead?” His father was a pilot, six foot two and hefty as a jumbo jet.

“No, sir.”

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to join the Big Looters Club.”

At that point the Jumbo Jet himself strode into the room. “There’s no such club, Luka,” he said quietly. “O.J., how are you, man?” He shook my hand in that big bear style of his.

“Oh yes there is, Daddy,” said Luka, determined to keep the limelight. “There’s the London Club, the Paris Club, and the Big Looters Club. They are friends, they work very well together. That’s what it says in the Wikipedia.”

“Didn’t I tell you not to believe anything you read in the Wikipedia?”

“Daddy, it says they keep their money in the Bank of England, the Bank of America, and the Bank of Switzerland.”

“A sorcerer’s triangle, eh?” I asked.

“An isosceles triangle,” said Jumbo.

“A new triangular trade, perhaps?”

“Yeah, but who’s the slave?”

The young man stood puzzled, his eyes moving from one to other of our faces, till his father came to his rescue.

“What sort of money?” he asked.

“I don’t know. It says millions of dollars, pounds and euros. Sometimes billions.”

Jumbo plunked down on the sofa and began to light his pipe. “Who are these people, anyway?” He’d made up his mind to humor his son.

“It says they are leaders of the world, presidents and prime ministers and government officials from different countries.”

“Where would they get that kind of money?”

“It says they stole it. It says this is money for the poor in their countries. Money for water, light, medicine, food, roads, schools and playgrounds.”

I was getting agitated, and trying to hide it. Jumbo’s agitation was palpable. He got up and walked to the window.

“Now, tell me,” he said, as casually as he could make it, “does it say anything about Nigeria?”

“No, it doesn’t mention Nigeria.”

Jumbo looked at me. His face was blank. I don’t know what my face looked like. No one likes to be mentioned unfavorably in the Wikipedia, that winner-take-all blog that typifies the best and the worst of the Internet. Jumbo heaved a heavy sigh. “Thank God!” he said, and dropped like dead weight into his sling-cloth easy chair.

The silence was getting oppressive. I had to say something.

“You seem to remember everything you read,” I said.

“Yes, our teacher says I have a photographic memory.”

“But tell me, Luka, would you really like to steal money?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just bored. That’s why I don’t like long vacation. There’s never anything to do”

“What does that have to do with the Big Looters Club?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We never go anywhere. Last year Daddy promised to take us to Yankari Game Reserve and Ogbunike Cave and Obudu Cattle Ranch.”

“No, I didn’t,” said Jumbo.

“Yes, you did! And when I reminded you yesterday you said there is no money.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did! . . .You also promised to take us to Port Harcourt and Calabar and Accra and Nairobi and Cairo and Dakar.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did! . . . All my friends travel all over the world all the time.”

“No, they don’t.”

“Yes, they do! . . . One went to London, two went to Nice, three to Shanghai and four to Hawaii, and five went singing and dancing all the way to Langtang.”

“Langtang? Is that China or Plateau State?”

“I don’t know.”

“You forgot those who went on pilgrimage,” said his father.

“Yes, Ahmed and his family went to Mecca, and Chris and his family went to Jerusalem.”

“Where did you and your family go?” I asked.

“We went to the village.”

“That’s good. That was fun, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Uncle. But the road was very bad, there was no water so the toilet couldn’t flush. The water from the stream was not good to drink, and there was no light.”

“But still you enjoyed the holiday in the village with Grandpa and Grandma and the children in the village.”

“Yes, Uncle. It was very exciting. We caught some fish and trapped an antelope. We planted cassava and harvested palm fruits and coconuts.”

“So why are you complaining?”

“Uncle, what I really want is to fly somewhere. I want to see the world too. All my friends have wonderful stories to tell about the countries they visited. All of them have big mansions overseas, and plenty of money to buy everything they want.”

“What sort of business do their parents do?”

Luka thought for a moment. “Their parents work for the government.” He glanced around the room, as if afraid someone else might be listening, then made a face and stage-whispered, “I think they are members of the Big Looters Club.”

“Why do you think so?” Jumbo asked.

“I don’t know . . . they are always traveling overseas. Especially the father. Wikipedia says they deposit the money they stole in numbered accounts. Daddy, what’s a numbered account?”

This thing was getting deep. I looked at Jumbo and cleared my throat, but Jumbo paid no attention.

“Well, Luka,” he said, “a normal bank account has both a name and a number. If you forget your number, the bank will use your name to find your account, and you can withdraw money from your account. But a numbered account has only a number and no name. If you forget the number the bank will not let you withdraw any money from your account.”

Luka took a long minute to digest this piece of information. Finally he said,

“Why not just put your money in a regular account?”

“Well, since it is such a very large sum of money it is easy for International Police detectives to see that it was probably stolen. With a numbered account they can’t see who stole the money unless the bank tells them—and the bank won’t tell.”

“What happens if you never ever remember your number?”

“You lose your money,” Jumbo said.

“All your millions and billions?”

“All your millions and billions.”

I cleared my throat again. Jumbo paid no attention.

“Has anybody ever lost all their money?” asked Luka.

“What does Wikipedia say?”

“I don’t remember. But . . . but I think you should tell your best friend the number just in case you forget.”

“But suppose your best friend goes and takes the money?”

“My best friend will never do that!” Luka sounded angry, as if someone had just slapped his face.

“Well,” his father said in a conciliatory tone, “best friends sometimes do things like that.”

“But the bank won’t give him the money because they know it isn’t his.”

“The bank will give the money to anyone who has the number.”

“OK, then, you give the number to your wife and children.”

“That makes sense, Luka. But I’m told that people with numbered accounts don’t usually give the number to their family for fear they might go secretly and take all the money.”

“So, what if you die?”

“If no living person can come up with the correct number, the bank chops the whole money.”

“All the millions and billions?”

“All the millions and billions.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Such banks don’t care. Besides, they know it’s stolen money, so it’s one criminal cheating another.”

“But Daddy, why would anyone need such a large sum of money?”

“Luka, I’ve asked myself that question many times and never found an answer. Even if you are the biggest spender on earth, you can only spend a tiny portion of such a large sum in your lifetime. When you die the bank swallows the rest. And your country loses out.”

Father and son paused, exhausted by this rubbing of minds. I seized my chance.

“So, Luka, do you still want to join the Big Looters Club?”

Luka hesitated. “I don’t think so. It’s stealing. And I think it might be dangerous.”

“So . . . what do you want to be when you grow up?” Without another word, Luka ran to the piano and started hammering out a tune.

“Save our ears-o!” his father yelled. “Why not try the violin?”

As if reminded of something he’d forgotten, Luka scampered upstairs. On the violin he’s an angel, on the piano he’s a hack . . . And in a minute, the sweet strains of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings started streaming down. . . .

Onwuchekwa Jemie