‘Good morning!’ the headline greeted one cheerily. It then asked the question: ‘Are we now in the next life?’

The writer, an anonymous Ghanaian wit, was referring to the fact that the world was supposed to have ended on the previous day, 21 May 2011. That was the ‘prophecy’ made by an 89-year-old preacher who operates in Oakland, California, in the USA, called Harold Camping.

Almost all the mainstream media in the Western world had published something about what Camping called ‘The Rapture’, which was supposed to occur on 21 May 2011. On that day, the good Christians – led, of course, by the faithful followers of Camping – were to have been spirited into the air to meet the Lord Jesus Christ. He would catch them unto Himself and fly with them ‘home’ to Heaven. Meanwhile trumpets would sound like universal sirens to announce the beginning of the end of the world.

The beginning? Yes. First would come ‘The Rapture’. The end of the world itself would occur on 21 October 2011, when the ‘sinners’ or ‘unbelievers’ left behind on the earth, would be struck by ‘Armageddon’. That would mean the destruction of the earth, preceded by a pestilence of locusts (assisted, no doubt, by armies of whining mosquitoes and itch-spreading sand-flies, as far as Africa is concerned!) famine, floods, fires, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, plus everything horrible that can happen to humans (And poor, dumb animals too, for that matter).

Now, ‘Prophet’ Harold Camping is a former civil engineer, and he gains credence from many people by deploying mathematical terms that seem to lend a scientific ring to his ‘prophecies’. He has a wide audience, for he runs ‘Family Radio’, one of the extreme right-wing radio networks that have succeeded in hijacking much of America’s political discourse. It is on such stations that irrelevant non-issues, such as the alleged ‘Muslim faith’ secretly held by President Barack Obama and Obama’s alleged birth outside the USA, are aired. (Those who believe this are called ‘birthers’ and they maintain that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be president because he is ‘not a US citizen by birth’, although Obama has, unusually, published his actual birth certificate for everyone to see.)

Any crackpot notion that comes into the head of a journalist or politician is given air time on such radio stations – so long as the speaker is against ‘socialist’ ideas like free health care, cheaper life insurance and state-assisted mortgage repayments, but supports tax cuts for the rich, or the withdrawal of food stamps and other social security benefits. It is these stations that have given power to bigoted right-wing ‘pundits’ like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Thus, when Harold Camping announced that the date for the end of the world would come in two stages in 2011, he had a ready audience that stretched – according to an article on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website – ‘from the Bay Area [in California] to China.’ Camping’s claim is that he has scrutinised the Bible for almost 70 years and developed a ‘mathematical system’ to interpret the prophecies hidden within it.

‘One night a few years ago, Camping crunched the numbers and … found [out that] ‘The world would end on May 21, 2011’, the website reports. The surprising thing is that Camping’s claim was believed by his followers, even though this was not the first time he had prophesied the precise date Judgement Day would occur. He’d made exactly such a prediction before: Only that the earlier date was to have been 6 September 1994!

On that appointed day, scores of Camping’s believers gathered inside the Veterans Memorial Building in Alameda, California to await the return of Christ.

Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven. But when there was no sign of Christ’s return, was Camping abashed or repentant? No! He merely shrugged off the non-fulfilment of his prophecy as the result of ‘a mathematical error’ he must have made.

Everyone can make a mathematical error, right? So he spent the next decade poring over new calculations. And bingo! His new numbers game came up with – 21 May 2011.

‘Because I was an engineer, I was very interested in the numbers,’ Camping boasted. ‘I’d wonder, “Why did God put this number in, or that number in?” It was not a question of unbelief, it was a question of, “There must be a reason for it.”’

If Camping had been preying on the public mind in this fashion in Nigeria, and thereby gaining a reported US$80 million in donations, the world’s media would have accused him of doing a ‘419’. In neighbouring Ghana too, he would have been charged with doing what is popularly known as ‘sakawa’. Both terms apply to fraud by devious and/or false pretences.

In a typical 419 – or ‘advanced fee fraud’ – for example, a person who happens to have obtained or ‘hacked’ one’s email address, sends one an email, politely apologising for writing to one out of the blue. A vague suggestion would then be thrown into the air that one’s name had been suggested by a mutual friend, who had attested to the fact that one was a trustworthy person, who could be relied upon to carry out any business transaction with complete integrity, and, of course, also, in the  strictest confidence.

The writer would then outline his proposal: Millions of dollars belonging to someone who had completed work on a contract in Nigeria, but had died in an air crash before he could collect his payment, was waiting to be transferred abroad. If the recipient of the email supplied the writer with his/her bank details, the writer, who was the only authorised paymaster – would transfer the money into the supplied account. The contract price was US$40 million and the recipient’s share would be US$5 million, while the writer would pocket US$35 million!

Fair enough, wasn’t it? US$5 million without sweat. If one was a fantasist, one’s mind would immediately go to the mansion one dreamt of. Or the Ferrari/Maybach/Rolls Royce/Bentley car one lusted after. Or the beautiful young lady with long eyelashes and perfect, white teeth…

Apparently, about 25 per cent of the recipients of such emails do decide to co-operate with the writer of the email, in order ‘to find out’ what would happen. So much so that the US Secret Service runs a special operation to track those who set such traps for American citizens. Once they ‘bite’, the receivers of 419 emails are suckered into a series of carefully-wrought deceptions, all aimed at emptying the money in the bank account(s) provided.

Sometimes, the stories told by the email writers are extremely imaginative. ‘I am the concubine of the late, lamented Saddam Hussein’, an email may begin. And it will tell you that before the Americans invaded Iraq, Saddam, aware that he might be forced to go and live in exile abroad, had packed huge quantities of foreign exchange into a big chest/shipping container/articulated truck, whose hiding-place was only known to the writer. If the recipient of the email decided to ‘co-operate’, by providing a bank account into which the money could be paid, his or her share would be US$7,500,000…or whatever, depending on the sum the writer chose to name as the amount waiting to be transferred.

The Nigerian and Ghanaian Governments are clamping down hard on those who use the Internet for fraudulent entrapment of this type. But is the US government also looking into the activities of people like Harold Camping? After all, Camping’s website solicitations are alleged to have attracted US$80 million in support of his ‘message’. Is he not a threat to gullible people worldwide? And yet, in the US, he will be protected, on the grounds that he is exercising his constitutional right to practise ‘freedom of religion’.

Strangely, not all the coverage of his activities in the mainstream media of the world denounce him as a fraud. On the Internet, however, he is being subjected to a great deal of ridicule. For instance, after Camping’s latest prophecy had failed to materialise, a message about him on Twitter (the social network on the Internet that is the rage in many parts of the world) read:

‘Knew Camping didn’t believe his own prophecy when he rejected cash offer for his car and house!’

Another message said:

‘If the Rapture is happening Saturday, why is the guy still soliciting donations on his website?’

By the way – after his 21 May 2011 debacle, Harold Camping did not clamp up. Rather, he came up with another new date – ‘The Rapture’, he said, would now occur on 21 October 2011. The earlier date had – you’ve guessed it – been the result of a numerical error, he said.

Yeah, right. That is what is called an open-ended proposition par excellence. Everyone can miscalculate – to the power of infinity! – when it comes to mathematics, no? Yeah!