For those who do not know, Aba, the commercial hub of Abia State, is home to many things – the good, the bad and the ugly. Ingenuity could be said to be the city’s middle name. There is nothing under the sun that cannot be made in Aba, except human beings.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo attested to this when he was on a working visit to the city last year. Though inhabitants of the city are industrious, they are in love with cheap things and equally believe in fast returns on investment.
There was this old time story of a trader in Enyimba city, as Aba is otherwise known, who bought goods and displayed them in his stop for sale and never sold a single one. But the moment he put the same goods on the street and with bell in one hand auctioning the goods with this song, “Aba n’acho mgbe okpuru ahia, one, one kobo” (meaning Aba people want it when it is very cheap). He sold all the goods within a twinkle of an eye.
That is Aba for you; that is the Enyimba spirit and that perhaps explains why residents always fall victims of various fraudulent money doubling schemes. From the MMM and Tweenkers Ponzi schemes to the present “Ego Mbuta” (money in quantum), several thousands have at any given time fallen victims to professional fraudsters.
In September this year, a syndicate made up of mostly weird women came up with a well-coordinated Ponzi scheme never heard in the history of the commercial city. Some of the names of the outfits are Unique Sisters, Merit, Unstoppable Ladies, Raising Life, Adorable and Grace. Others include Glorious, Loveable, Christian Ladies, Hope, Faithful and Humble. As deceitful as these names sound, by the end of October when their operators closed shops, over 1, 000 people, mostly women, have been duped of several millions of naira. It was gathered that some of the victims, who could not bear the loss, have died.
Aware that ‘investors’ know the financial havoc the MMM and Twinkers Ponzi schemes caused to inhabitants of the city, the syndicate came up with new tricks by ensuring that operators of the present scheme were all women who were generally believed would not have the temerity to dupe their “customers”. Again, apart from the initial mouth watering rewards, the operators sent flying dummy that the scheme was an empowerment programme sponsored by an unnamed politician and back rolled by some commercial banks. This coordinated falsehood removed any veil of doubt on their victims and they (victims) became easy prey.
Take this: The mode of the scheme is called ‘hand’. In unique sisters ‘company’ as in many others, a “customer” is expected to pay in N40, 000, “one hand” and after one week, he or she would receive N70, 000 or some household items equivalent to the amount and some cash. A ‘customer’ who so wished may “play” as many hands as 100 and that is how he will be paid at the end of one week.
There were some other companies that demanded N41, 000 to pay back N70, 000, while others collected N39,000 to pay N60,000. But Unique’s was so enticing and attractive to everyone because of the N40, 000 to get N70, 000 that people who were initially patronizing other companies trooped to Unique.
Booming empowerment of doom
The saying that it is not because of the benevolence of the butcher that he gives people meat but because of his desire to make profit certainly rings true of these schemes. The operators of the fraudulent schemes that no government agency checked were paying people initially. However, it got to a point that people who were lucky to have received initial payment with which others were lured, began to attribute it as act of God, who in His infinite love and mercy, had decided to use the schemes to bless them this Christmas.
The operators of the schemes had such convincing powers that they penetrated many churches and members became victims.
After operating for about one month and some people smiling to their banks on other peoples’ money, on a certain day in the last week of October, the swindlers closed shops, trapping several millions of naira belonging to their victim. The empowerment programme suddenly turned to doom, causing trouble in hitherto peaceful homes, putting husbands and wives asunder.
Hell let loose
On a certain Monday in October, the bank manager of a branch of one of the commercial banks in the city noticed an unusual crowd outside the bank. On enquiry, he was told that one of the women who operated the wonder banks had refused to pay her “customers,” but instead came to the bank to make some transactions. So, the crowd traced her to the bank and threatened to lynch her.
The bank manager, playing safe, was said to have invited the police who came at took the woman to the Central Police Station (CPS), Aba. The crowd that had by then grown out of control trooped to CPS demanding repayment or refund of their investment. Hell was let loose, the crowd prevented human and vehicular movements along the Aba Area Command’s premises. The surging crowd even prevented some police officers from gaining access to their offices
Victims recount ordeal
Mrs. Ihuoma Joseph is one of the victims who claimed she put all her life savings to the “company” called Unique Sisters. According to her, she is yet to believe she has been defrauded.
She said: “When we started with them, the company was at No. 5 Nicholas Street, Aba, but they have now disappeared. I am involved, my brother’s wife and my elder sister are also fully involved. My own is nine hands which is 40,000 multiplied by nine, which is N360, 000. My brother’s wife and my elder sister’s are two different cases. We are deeply involved because the money we gave her is the only money we had.
“The transaction method is called ‘hand’. In unique Sisters where I was a customer, one hand is N40, 000. That N40, 000 is expected to yield N70, 000 for whoever that is paid within a period of seven days. There are some other companies that demanded N41, 000 to pay N70, 000, others also collected N39,000 to pay N60,000. But Unique’s was so enticing and attractive to everyone because of the N40, 000 to get N70,000. The thing got so big that people that were initially patronizing other companies trooped into Unique.
“The company and the woman who coordinated things tricked us that they and other companies involved in the empowerment scheme will close by second week of December and people pumped in money the more, but they hurriedly closed in October.”
Pastor Chibuike Ogbonna, though not a victim, said: “Such fraudulent schemes thrive in cities like Aba because of greed and love for wealth. Somebody brought the unbelievable story of this empowerment scheme to my church and I blatantly urged my members to desist from it because experience is the best teacher. They nearly penetrated my church as they did to most others in the city, but I stood in the gap because I knew the scheme would never go far before fraud comes up.
“People should be careful in the kind of things they get involved in. When shall our people learn to differentiate between fraud and favour? They see everything as favour from God to make money. A woman who is my neighbour collected all the money in her account, the one in the family’s joint account and paid those fraudsters. As I speak to you now, the man has invited her people because initially he thought his wife was defrauded of the little money in her account, but he never knew that the woman made away with everything meant for next year’s family budget, including children school fees.
“This thing happened last year when a Ponzi scheme called MMM almost made people mad. Here, they are again trying to cheat the law of labour before wage. Anyone who tried to cheat the law and wants wage without labour is also a criminal and should not be pitied. How can someone collect N40, 000 from you and pay you N70,000 in just one week? Where is she getting the fund? The mathematics is simple, she is defrauding others to pay you and one day, you will also be unlucky and get defrauded.”
Another victim, who gave her name simply as Eunice, said: “Somebody brought the story of the scheme to my church and told us to join, that it is very lucrative. I withdrew my business capital and deposited with them. Nobody suspected it could turn out to be a fraud. Now, over 20 of my members deposited N40, 000 each. When we got to their office after seven days, it was under lock and key. We were stranded until somebody told us that the woman had been arrested by the police.”
A pregnant woman, who is one of the victims and who refused to give her name, said it will only take insanity of the highest proportion for her to ever get involved in problematic issues like the wonder bank again and begged the police to push their matters to other organizations that handle issues of fraud like the EFCC even after refunding the victims.
“After what happened in MMM and Tweenkers, I feel silly to have fallen for this again. I don’t know how I got involved in this in the first place. The past week has been the worst in my entire life. I come here every day, I get pushed, harassed, embarrassed, shouted at and thank God you just saw one of the police officers spraying water on some people at the gate to make way for their van to come in. This is what we are facing”, the woman said while sobbing.
A lawyer told this writer of how his client was duped over N10m by the operators of the scheme. According to him, his client had travelled on a business trip and before he could come back, the wife had withdrawn over N10m from one of his accounts and gave to the fraudsters and the issue is causing a serious problem in the family.
After the operators of the schemes had hurriedly closed shops, some of them were said to have hurriedly left the city. When their victims got to know about this, some of them were said to have contributed money and went to a neighbouring state where they consulted a powered native doctor who used black magic to mysteriously bring back some of the women.
One of the women could be heard from a distance at the CPS angrily saying: “Loveable (one of the operators) thinks she can take our sweat (money) and disappear just like that? She is just waking up.
“The spiritualist we visited in Calabar told us that she will surely bring herself to us in three days and so it happened. She was called out in a mirror; she revealed her location in Ghana and was commanded to return. Some people who saw her the day she returned said she looked confused and was wondering what she was doing inside Aba.
“They can run, but can’t hide. They must remain alive to pay us our money.
Even death will never accept them until they pay everybody the last Kobo they took.”
Some of the operators are said to be in police net and have promised to pay back. The promise to pay the investors has turned the Aba Area Command into a Mecca sorts of as those defrauded troop the place on daily basis hoping to be paid.
Before the assumption of office of the new Abia State Commissioner of Police, Chris Ezike, the police in Aba, having arrested some of the operators, began a sort of repayment of money to the victims. Those who deposited N100, 000 and above, were paid between N40, 000 and N50, 000 after so much efforts. This, of course, depended on how intimate you are with any serving policeman in the area command. It was a case of sowing like lords and reaping like beggars, some of the victims said.
After struggling for days without being paid, Mrs. Pauline Eziokwu said she would never forgive herself for getting involved in the wonder bank mess. “I can’t forgive myself for the embarrassment brought upon my person. On daily basis, we come here to beg some people to give us our own money back. As you can see, police are trying to help, but you know them and their style of help. This is leading to nowhere because many may get nothing,” she said
However, after visiting the area command, Ezike, who said activities of the wonder banks operators have led to the defrauding of over 1,000 people in Aba, set up a panel that will determine the actual number of people that were defrauded. He urged all those that were duped to meet with the panel and get documented as to know which of the fraudulent organizations they deposited their money with.
He equally warned his men against extortion of the already defrauded people and urged victims to ignore any policeman who asked them to bring money in order to help them get their stolen money back. He said after investigations, the operators of the wonder banks would be arraigned for forgery, conspiracy, fraud, obtaining under false pretences, illegal operation of financial institutions and stealing.
When contacted, the Police Public Relations Officer in the state, Geoffrey Ogbonna, confirmed that some of the operators of the wonder banks have been arrested by the police and are currently repaying some of the victims.
“We have got some of them. They are paying their debtors whose cases are still fresh. What they were actually doing before they got into what they are in now was to rob Peter to pay Paul. How can someone pay N40, 000 and get N70, 000 in return within a short time? Someone is being robbed to pay someone. It is important to make some recoveries anyway. The reality is that the operators have been arrested and there are recoveries,” he said.
Despite what the police are doing, there is little hope that many will get back their money.