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Legitimate business, fraudulent income: How Obinwanne Okeke reverse-engineered the fraud model

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Legitimate business, fraudulent income: How Obinwanne Okeke reverse-engineered the fraud model

“The real billionaires in Nigeria are very quiet. People don’t know them.” This statement is common refrain in the Nigerian informal conversations circle. It is really not far fetched. A toxic political environment, high level of insecurity, and a history of documentation challenges is more than enough incentive for wealthy people to hide their identity. More often than not, the source of their income is more usually illegal.

“Behind every great fortune is a crime” – Balzac, French Novelist

Illegally obtained wealth, is not a unique to Nigerians neither is it a rarity in any part of the world. In many cases people simply keep quiet about it, until it becomes glaring to all. In spite of our unsavory labels, the foreign governments that deal with Nigerians around the world are not blind to this reality.

However, a long and incriminating history of rogue behavior by Nigerians across the world, corroborates a global narrative that Nigerians are criminals.

The story of Obinwanne Okeke is an outlier for one major reason. Obinwanne is a young man with a brilliant academic and career trajectory. By the virtue of being foreign educated, Obinwanne is a privileged Nigerian. At 28 year old, he had excited big media organizations such as the BBC and Business Insider, made the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Even prestigious academic institutions were not left out, as he was one of the speakers at the London School of Economics Africa Summit in Israel.

The ‘what’ of the Invictus Obi scenario is not new, the ‘how’ is

High level financial fraud by Nigerians isn’t new, nor is their complexity or intensity. In December 2013, Tobechi Enyinna Onwuhara after a financial fraud history of over $38million was sentenced to 70 months imprisonment in the United States. He was a fugitive for four years, and was featured in “America’s Most Wanted”. The case was investigated by the FBI, United States Secret Service, and the Alexandria Police Department, the U.S. Marshals Service and Australian Federal Police. Onwuhara was eventually found in Sydney, Australia and helped coordinate the recovery of evidence and the defendant’s extradition to the United States.

In 1995, former Union Bank director and advanced fee-fraud artist Emmanuel Nwude defrauded Nelson Sakaguchi, a Director at Brazil’s Banco Noroeste based in São Paulo, of $242 million. Nwude posed as the then Nigerian Central Bank Governor. He allegedly sold a non-existent airport to Banco Noroeste, an incident that has been listed as the third largest crime in banking history. 

Mobsters, politicians and drug dealers raise their capital base from from brutal dog-eat-dog scenarios, as depicted in Hollywood movies, then go through painstaking life experiences just to build a good reputation.

Obinwanne’s tale is different. He employs reverse engineering – first, acquiring a legitimate business persona, then afterwards committing the crime: a legitimate business, with a fraudulent source of income.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has compiled a long list of evidence against Nigeria’s Obinwanne Okeke. If found guilty, he is likely to spend time in the United States as a convicted felon. On a lighter note Obi will have also violated the old Nigeria corrupt practices rule: not being quiet about his wealth.

What’s new, and what’s not news…

After news of his arrest, first social media responders went to the website of Invictus Group (his company website) to glean information into what he had been doing. The information showed that Obinwanne, through Invictus Group has businesses in Energy, Real Estate, and Construction, operating in three African countries: Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia. These vague descriptions are the signatures of companies operating in Nigeria and more likely many other African countries. In these amorphous spaces, business can be capricious. In less than a week, a documented Tech company, may begin exporting Cassava peels to China.

It also not new that these company descriptions lack a clear evidence for the size of income they declare, nor show any specific value they created to get it. Or at least some percentage of the value created. Obinwanne Okeke has fallen victim to the most unlikely outcome of a rich person with ill gotten wealth: to be caught outside Nigeria. Or more precisely, to be caught in the United States, and perhaps more intricately, by the FBI.

The most insightful information about what Obinna Okeke’s arrest reveals is the extent of record access that the United States government has. Also, how the Federal Bureau of Investigations has ramped up its attack on fraud across its borders. The most intriguing example is the case of Onyeka Opara, a Nigerian apprehended and extradited from South Africa to New York. Commenting on the case, FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said: “Today’s extradition shows that defendants who allegedly target American victims from a distance are nonetheless subject to the reach of American justice. FBI New York Cyber Crime agents and our law enforcement partners will search out suspects in these cases, even reaching internationally, to stop the next victims from losing their money.”

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Tahir Sherriff is a freelance writer, researcher and reporter with a focus on development and social change. He is also co-founder of W45, a media development agency.

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