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How Emmanuel Nwude sold an imaginary airport for $242 million

From 1995 to 1998, Emmanuel Nwude and his accomplices completed the third biggest private scam in documented history.

Emmanuel Nwude pulled off one of the world's most daring scams until he was caught  [theelitesng]

The only thing standing between your bank account and a zero balance is a hard-working hacker, the right software and a VPN to disguise the location of the numerous young fraudsters who have made cyber-crime into an art and an industry.

As intimidating as it may sound, years before the internet swam its way into Nigeria on the back of telcos, a Nigerian bank official secured a bounty that would inspire the most reserved yahoo boy to shoot a series of music videos.

In a series of events that is credited as the third largest financial crime in world history, Emmanuel Nwude, a director at Union Bank, defrauded Nelson Sakaguchi and the Brazilian bank, Banco Noroeste Brazil of the sum of $242 million with a scheme that, in retrospect, seems like something out of an episode of Impractical Jokers.

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According to a Newswatch editorial dated Monday, July 7, 2003, Nwude was, at the time he was caught, one of the wealthiest Igbo businessmen in Nigeria.

Popularly known as the Owelle of Abunuga, Nwude is said to have owned a 10-storey building in the heart of Lagos. In a manner consistent with his wealth and flashy luxury, he lived on the top floor of the building while the bottom floor housed a commercial bank.

Every metre of space in between those two floors was dedicated to his private concern, Euro-Holdings.

Nwude was said to own buildings across Nigeria and cities in the United States. He was also reported to be a major financier of the People’s Democratic Party and as Newswatch reported, a close ally of former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar.

Anyone who wondered about his wealth would have found a simple convincing response. Nwude owned millions of shares as the singular largest equity holder in Union Bank. Until 2001, he was also a member of the board of directors of the bank.

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It was in this capacity that Nwude pulled off one of the most daring and outrageous schemes that the world has ever seen.

According to Nuhu Ribadu, who was the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) at the time of his conviction, the swindle took place over a four-year period starting in 1995. His main tactic was impersonation. Nwude posed as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor at the time, Paul Ugwoma.

His accomplice, Ikechukwu Anajemba posed as Rasheed Gomwalk who was the CBN's Director of International Remittance. Anajemba’s wife, Amaka posed as Gomwalk’s wife, completing the unholy trio.

Anajemba would die in 1998, as the proceeds of the scam were finally delivered, leaving his wife to take his share.

Together, the trio and a host of ancillary accomplices presented a proposition to the head of International Finance at Brazil’s Banco Noroeste Brazil, Nelson Sakaguchi.

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Using false correspondence and Nwude’s access to confidential, high-level documents, they convinced Sakaguchi that the Nigerian government was seeking investors to build an airport in Abuja, the new capital.

If Sakaguchi could provide the first investment of $242 million, they said, he would be entitled to a commission of 10%.

The deal had not been presented as a corporate offering so Sakaguchi did what he thought he had to do; he illegally dug into his bank’s funds and began to make a series of payments to accounts around the world.

He and Nwude agreed that he would pay some of the $242 million as cash and the rest in some form of facility.

Between 1995 to 1998, Sakaguchi transferred $191 million in cash to Nwude and his accomplices. The rest was conveyed as some form of outstanding interest.

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During this period, Nwude and his accomplices spent lavishly. Amaka, Anajemba’s wife, became known as a socialite, erecting massive edifices in her hometown of Enugu and mingling with Nigeria’s political class.

The fraud was only discovered in 1997 when the victim bank was the subject of a buy-out by the Spanish bank, Santander.

At a joint board meeting in 1997, an official from Santander inquired about why a large sum of money, two-fifths of Noroeste’s total value and half of their capital, was sitting in the Cayman Islands unmonitored. This discovery led to extensive criminals investigations in five continents.

The effect on Banco Noroeste was fatal. The owners had to pay the missing $242 million out of their pockets for the purchase to go ahead, but that narrow escape did not secure its future. In 2001, Banco Noroeste collapsed.

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Nwude and his accomplices enjoyed their loot for years, but in 2003, a trail created by years of reading the fine print and making connections from the Cayman Islands landed in Lagos.

Newswatch reported that Nwude was picked up in June 2003 at his residence in Ikoyi, Lagos. Seven of his exotic cars were also taken to the premises of the EFCC on 15, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi.

So began a series of trials with the CBN and the newly created EFCC on the one hand, and Nwude and his accomplices on the other.

In February 2004, Amaka Anajemba, Nwude, Emmanuel Ofolue, Nzeribe Okoli, and Obum Osakwe, with Ikechukwu Anajemba post-humously mentioned, were all charged in the Federal High Court, Abuja with 86 counts of "fraudulently seeking advance fees" and 15 counts of bribery related to the case.

They all pleaded not guilty.

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Their trial only got more eventful from thereon out.

By early 2004, it almost appeared that judicial bureaucracy had brought the trial to a stalemate. In a report dated Tuesday, July 20, 2004, the BBC reported that the presiding judge, Lawal Gumi, declared that the elements of the crime had not taken place in Abuja, and as such, he lacked the jurisdiction to hear the case.

"It is my considered view that the appropriate place for the trial of the accused on those charges is the high court of Lagos. For these reasons… I do decline and strike out the case from my list," Gumi is quoted as saying.

Nwude and his accomplices were released, only to be re-arrested outside the court and taken to Lagos.

The next year, with the trial nearing a definitive conclusion, underhanded tactics began to play out.

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Nwude allegedly attempted to bribe the EFCC head honcho, Ribadu, with $75,000 in cash. He was charged with additional counts for his trouble, in addition to a five-count charge for an incident where a prosecution witness was almost kidnapped.

In September 2005, a bomb scare during the trial caused the courthouse to be evacuated and the trial adjourned.

Resolution finally came in its first form when Amaka Anajemba admitted to helping her husband. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and ordered to repay $25.5 million.

Weeks after, Sakaguchi, the object of Nwude’s fraud offered first-hand testimony in a Lagos high court.

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With little room to manoeuvre, Nwude and Okoli pleaded guilty to the charges against them. They had conceded grounds in hopes of getting a lenient sentence. That did not seem to matter much as Nwude was sentenced to 25 years and Okoli to 12 years, according to Reuters.

Reading his final judgement, Justice Joseph Oyewole was reported as saying, "The activities of the accused persons not only led to the collapse of a bank in a foreign country but also brought miseries to many innocent people."

The next Monday, according to IRIN News, Ribadu made the refund of $17 million to William Richey, a lawyer representing the defunct Banco Noroeste. Nwude’s assets were confiscated and he was charged with paying a fine of $10 million dollars to the national government.

For most who followed the trial from the pages of newspapers and television screens, the victory was somewhat short-lived as Nwude was released in 2006.

In the months after, he instituted many fundamental rights cases against the government for the recovery of some of his property, on the grounds that he had acquired them before the fraud.

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Nwude’s fraud put Nigeria in a delicate situation. With the advanced free fraud of the 1970s and 80s and the internet scams of the digital age, it is easy to see why the country suffers such a bad reputation in the international community and Nigerians are portrayed first as enterprising fraudsters before anything else.

For every Nwude who was caught, there are 100 affluent Nigerians enjoying the fruit of ill-gotten gains in peace and tranquility. It is easy to assume that the long arm of fate will catch up with them at some point. In truth, that is only a hopeful conclusion.

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This article was originally published in 2017.

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