August 2019 - The Original Hot Fraud Summer!
I was on summer holiday when I got a text on my phone. I'd won a million naira. Now, these were the days before the great devaluation. A million Naira was not chicken change. A million Naira was four thousand pounds. This was in 2006, 2 years before the great recession. I thought it might have been a scam for about five minutes, but I quickly convinced myself that it wasn't. Those only happened on the internet, this came straight to my Nokia. The number the prize came from looked like one of the ones my mobile network provider would use to tell me to subscribe to love advice or sports news. I bit the bait. I was 16.
I don't think I was greedy then. I certainly didn't need the money, but I understood the value of a windfall. I understood the ease of saving money you didn't need. My mouth went dry as serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline flooded my brain. How Fatima, Maryann, Faridah, Foluso and Ebube would tremble when they discovered I was Afam 2.0 - the Independent Millionaire. I also made a note of how I would ruin Chibuikem, who'd thought it prudent to share my adolescent journal complete with passages of my adventures in masturbation with my entire class. I think some people called me Bursts of Pleasure for one full term.
I followed the instructions on the text. First they asked that I buy them credit. I did. Not a lot, about N 5,000. Enough that my brain started sending me hot signals. N 5,000 at that time was probably all the cash I had. I decided to abort mission millionaire, Maryanne and Chibuikem be damned. But those were the beginnings of my troubles. They called me incessantly for 2 days. I was traumatised. They wouldn't stop. I begged. I pleaded. But they'd found their mark and they were refusing to release me. So I went to my brother cap in hand.
"Brother Gbaddy, save me!"
There's some magic that happens when a deep voiced Nigerian with the poshest British accent uses the full weight of his education to deal with another human being. Women fall at their feet and the gods weep. The men never called again and I learned a lesson. In this life, it is not your destiny to win any lotteries but the one of birth. I didn't even know then that I'd been the victim of Advance Fee Fraud, and I didn't need to be told about a Nigerian Prince to fall hook, line and sinker.
For Obinwanne Okeke, life's been a storm. He basked in the sunlight for a moment only to be shattered on the rocks the next. Forbes Africa launched his reputation as a wunderkind, a vanquisher of poverty. TEDX and the BBC cemented it. For a time he shuttled between his houses in South Africa and Nigeria. To look at him, as I once did in person, was to see a younger better Aliko Dangote. Obi's story fit the rags to riches trope more neatly and we loved him for it.
Now, his globe trotting business days are behind him, bound as he is by the FBI awaiting his day in court. It will be his second trial. The first trial ended the day news of his $12 million scam hit his native country. The detailed report of the investigation by the FBI left no room for doubt. The verdict was guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. In the blink of an eye Obinwanne Okeke, the young African entrepreneur, became InvictusObi, fraud par excellence. I do not think that this will be the last we hear of him. At the very least, when all of this is over, should he want it, there'll be a book deal attached to his freedom.
Before Obi became a foster child of the U.S.A, like most of us, he had another father. He was born to a household that was as large as it was humble. He was the 17th child and his mother was the 4th wife. His mother was a teacher who traded to make ends meet. When he talks about her, you can see his eyes light up. His love for her is no lie. Her main dream for him was that he get an education.
Obi's father died when he was 15. He misses him. Fathers are very often a strong resource that sons rely on. He says had his father been alive he'd have been able to seek his advice and prevent some mistakes. At 16, Obi was out of secondary school. A young entrepreneur with big dreams, he started his first business. He called it an IT company. He made business cards and this allowed him to do two things. The first was buy bicycle so grand he was the talk of his village in Anambra, the second was earn enough to fund a Computer Science degree at Monash University South Africa. The degree currently costs around $6,000 per year and I suppose takes at least 3 years to complete. It's here that the first suspicion of fraud sneaks in. How successful would a business have to be to yield profits sufficient enough to pay for an international education, and buy a bicycle?
With bills to pay, a degree to fund, and himself to rely on, Obi's entrepreneurial spirit couldn't die in South Africa. He started 2 businesses that he's spoken of, an entertainment outfit for students and a taxi company. By the time he was leaving he had 13 cars. He has never spoken of loans as a source of capital. He's only spoken of scrimping, saving, a bitter climb from rung to rung and partnerships formed with friends. All of this is now suspect. Bachelor's degree completed he flew his mother in for graduation.
For his Masters degree he set his sights on International Relations in Australia. His love for Nigeria and his quest to understand Boko Haram, the country's terrorism pest, led him to add Counter Terrorism to his degree. In hind sight his knowledge of Counter Terrorism could only have proven useful for the scams he'd one day run. In Australia he says he did all kinds of jobs to survive. As of February 2018, you would have needed to show evidence of about $14,000 separate from tuition and travel to get an Australian student visa; no small feat.
When he finished that he moved back to Nigeria and started the Invictus group in 2009. In the beginning it's said that his company had only one computer. He says his first project in Nigeria was low income housing. He doesn't say where the project was, but as with most of his independent moves, you have to ask where the capital for this came from. From there he expanded and grew his interests. By the time he made it into the Forbes Africa 30 under 30 list in 2016, he had 128 members of staff across 9 companies, and fingers in construction, oil, gas, renewable energy and agriculture. He had 2 houses, one in Nigeria and another in South Africa. He'd built a house for his mother. He scrubbed his story of any illicit under tones and took to the media to inspire a generation.
For me, April 2018 was Obi's most interesting month. Between April 11th and April 19th, Obi, posing as Unatrac's CFO authorised $11 million in payments from the company to a number of foreign accounts. On the 25th of April he walked into the BBC's headquarters in Oxford Circus, London and gave an interview so great that they called him a rising star. The only time he faltered was when the interviewer Veronique Edwards asked if he paid himself a salary. Washed by his charisma, she didn't press for the details of his excess which once led him to shower himself with champagne in a South African nightclub.
For Nigerians, August 2019 will be remembered as the hot fraud summer. Obinwanne's collapse from grace was the beginning. The news of 80 Nigerian indictments by the FBI for scamming was the sequel. The $17.5 million fraud by Jumia's sales agents and the confusion around its listing rounds out the trilogy. And all this happened in the space of 2 weeks.
None of this is new. Nigeria's culture prizes wealth over everything. The country's super wealthy are uniformly strange in that most, at one time or the other, have had to deal with allegations of financial impropriety from Nigeria's law enforcement agencies. If we were to point fingers we should look no further than our celebration of wealth independent of legitimacy.
With a fifth of the country's labour force unemployed and a fleet of 419 success stories, fraud has become a line of work that the young aspire to. It is perhaps even more attractive than banking, law, or even drug dealing. Nigerians in the diaspora will face even more scrutiny when they try to send money home. Nigerians in foreign schools will endure jokes about Nigerian princes and corruption. Visas, already a challenge, will become even more challenging. Stories of rejections will flood social media. Nigerians running legitimate businesses will find it even more difficult to build partnerships beyond our shores.
But be that as it may, the wealthy will continue to go unscrutinised. The fraudsters who make afrobeats hits and create unsavoury dance moves will continue to do so. Soon enough, we'll forget that this was the summer of hot fraud. And the worst outcome? 419 is not just the bit of the constitution that deals with these things, it's a career path more popular than banker or dealing drugs.