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TESSY IGOMU gives insight into the enthralling lives of Nigeria’s foremost Ponzi scheme gurus, their sudden enrichment, lavish lifestyles and exotic collections, while referencing a gripping life of pain and yearnings of unlucky, high yield-seeking investors ensnared by their many antics

Currently said to be on the run, Bamise Ajetumobi, the founder of Imagine Global Solution Limited, a company that is into a micro lending investment scheme, was accused of expending $50,000 to acquire the citizenship of the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda for himself and his family in a bid to escape the long arm of the law and the wrath of angry and frustrated investors.

The anger of the high yield-seeking investors stemmed from the loss of an estimated N22bn invested in the company established by Bamise and his wife. As claimed by the aggrieved victims, Bamise promised a bogus Return on Investment of between 3.5 and 10 per cent monthly. The funds were said to have been invested in an array of business concerns that included forex, real estate, equities and bonds, among others.

On the company’s website, investors were asked to commit N100m in exchange for a return of between 10 and 36 per cent per annum depending on the capital amount, while a six-month investment was meant to attract six to nine per cent RoI.

However, accusations of lavish lifestyle, deceit and greed, among other factors, crippled Bamise’s capacity to fulfil his promise.

Demand for transparency and accountability to determine the safety of investors’ funds marked the beginning of the collapse of his business empire.

Based on reports, Bamise had within a period of less than five years allegedly amassed so much wealth to purchase property in upscale neighbourhoods in Lagos State and beyond.

Some of the choice properties include a house on Banana Island, classified as one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world; a plush apartment at the Oakwood Residences, 23 Cooper Street, Ikoyi, Lagos; and another at B4, Gate 3, Lafiaji Road, Victoria Crescent Estate, Olugborogon, Chevron, Lekki, Lagos.

An office located on the first floor of 83 Lewisham High Street, London, England, SE13 5JX, was also registered in the company’s name, among others. Bamise’s exotic cars were said to be worth millions of naira.

His wife, Elizabeth, was said to be one of the active members of Naija Brand Chic, a popular entrepreneur brand making waves on Instagram, and also owned a domestic staff hiring company known as Aymie Staffing Solutions.

While Bamise and his wife lurk in the ambience of his self-created safety net in another continent, frustrated investors in Nigeria and in the Diaspora, who are unrelentingly driven by a quest to bring him to justice, have reportedly sought the intervention of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the International Police to track them down.

PUNCH Investigations learnt that Bamise’s network of investors were diverse and included institutions like churches, banks, groups and individuals, who invested billions of naira.

Ifunnanya Ohi, a businesswoman, who has yet to come to terms with the loss of her funds, said she was convinced that the business was legitimate even though she had her doubts. The distraught mother of two said when she heard testimonies of consistent returns, especially from friends, she went ahead to invest the N500,000 meant for an association that she belonged to.

“I am still struggling to pay back the money. My business has almost folded up and the issue has put a strain on my marriage,” Ohi lamented.

Bamise’s anecdote, among other excoriating similar scenarios perpetrated by like minded individuals, depicts one of the many mind-boggling financial scams presently rocking Nigeria.

Out of the blues, perpetrators of these fraudulent schemes begin their ill-conceived plans as idealists that sell hope of a better tomorrow to people. Meanwhile, their primary objective is mainly to rob Peter to pay Paul.

For the avoidance of doubt, some of these Ponzi gurus obtain necessary legal documents and backed by an intimidating corporate image, they launch advert campaigns and explore targeted marketing techniques.

To further legitimise their operations and to gain access to millions of people, they offer partnership deals or financial compensations to celebrities for brand endorsements.

Some others even go as far as indirectly linking their companies to highly revered priests or academics to boost investor confidence.

Offering more returns for less financial commitment, gullible potential investors induced by recoupment testaments from early investors are swayed to make monetary commitments to the investment schemes promulgated by the Ponzi gurus.

However, the circle of investments, return on investments and reinvestments into their schemes continue unabatedly until they acquire their desired financial targets.

This propels them to launch their surreptitious plans that lead to systemic collapse, causing monetary losses that plunge unfortunate investors into untold agony.

This, however, expressly depicts what many have widely termed as Ponzi schemes.

History of Ponzi schemes in Nigeria

In Nigeria, Ponzi schemes date back to the 1980s and early 1990s with the famous ‘Umana-Umana’ investment platform that held sway in Port Harcourt and Calabar, the ‘Planwell’ scheme in Edo State as well as ‘Nospecto’ in Lagos.

In November 2015, the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox or MMM scheme, founded by Sergei Mavrodi, a convicted Russian fraudster, was launched and Nigerians were fleeced of billions of naira.

Others like Twinkas and Ultimate Cycler were later introduced between that time and 2016, but they all crashed like badly stacked packs of cards in 2017.

But as the unfolding huge financial investment losses illuminate the modus operandi of the unprincipled business persons, new strategies keep evolving and are being implemented to continually extort Nigerians.

This, to a great extent, beams the searchlight on or questions the roles of government institutions like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, Central Bank of Nigeria and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, among others, in curbing the fraudulent financial platforms.

Ponzi schemes in history

However, Ponzi schemes are not limited to Nigeria as developed countries have had their fair share.

One out of the many notorious scams was perpetrated by Charles Ponzi, who became so infamous in 1920 that in years to come, his second name was used to depict fraudulent investment schemes.

According to a 1998 report published by Smithsonian Magazine, Ponzi, a dapper Italian immigrant raked in an estimated $15m in eight months by convincing Bostonian lenders that he could make them rich with investments in international postal reply coupons.

Another was Bernie Madoff, an American fraudster and financier reputed to have perfected the largest Ponzi scheme in history, worth about $64.8bn. The scam was perpetrated over the course of at least 17 years.

Madoff was a prominent philanthropist, who served on boards of non-profit institutions, many of which entrusted his firm with their endowments. The collapse and freeze of his personal assets and those of his firm affected businesses, charities and foundations around the world.

Madoff lived in Roslyn, New York, in a ranch house through the 1970s. In 1980, he purchased an ocean-front residence in Montauk, New York, for $250,000.

His other acquisitions included a 55-foot (17-metre) sport fishing yacht named Bull, residence in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, home in France and an 8,700-square-foot house in Palm Beach, Florida.

His acquisitions were auctioned by the US Marshals Service in September 2009 and he was sentenced to 150 years for money laundering, securities fraud and several other felonies.

The schemes continue to ravage Nigeria

The Ponzi gurus in Nigeria, whose names never resonated before, out of the blues had sudden lifestyle upgrades, lived lavishly in expensive apartments with their families, and dressed in the best designer collections.

For these individuals, who are mostly male and in the age bracket of 21 to 65, more was never enough and possessed by money-minded forces, they went to the extreme to satisfy their monetary acquisitions.

Allegedly blinded by greed, overwhelmed by insatiable craze for a life of luxury and determined to sustain their lives of opulence, they threw hundreds of investors, who trusted them with their hard earned money, into excruciating financial losses.

Trailed by muddied reputation, some of the Ponzi scheme operators have fled the country, while others walk freely and a few are behind bars, but yet to be formally prosecuted.

In no particular order, these are some of the Ponzi gurus:

 Maxwell Odum, celebrated by Christ Embassy, lived large

Maxwell Odum, the Chief Executive Officer of MBA Trading and Capital Investment Limited, was regarded as the ‘golden boy’ of Christ Embassy International, a church headed by Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, which has a huge following, especially among Nigerian youths.

Described by many as a highly successful and respected forex trader, investor and entrepreneur, Odum towered high and was courted as a great philanthropist in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

Presently in hiding, he was accused of mismanaging N171bn belonging to over 70,000 investors.

Odum with Pastor Chris after donating 1in to the church.

Before the bubble bust, Odum allegedly lived flamboyantly on investors’ funds, invested so much in his appearance and was a big time spender.

From many of his Facebook posts, it was obvious he literally had a pact with expensive designer suits and posh automobiles.

In a post uploaded to his Facebook page on August 1, 2020, where he quoted from the Bible to encourage his followers and investors, Odum was stylishly dressed in an expensive white long tailed suit with matching bowler hat, and posed for the cameras by an exotic white sports car.

Investors alleged that Odum lived in affluence and owned several plots of land under development, especially on the Sani Abacha Road in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

In November 2020, he was accorded a celebrity status at Christ Embassy, where he was declared the highest partner/donor for the second year running during the Loveworld Pastors and Partners’ Conference after donating N1bn.

For parting with such a lump sum, the Love World News, a newsletter published by the church, reported that he received a plaque and “presidential handshake” from Oyakhilome, a gesture regarded as the greatest honour and a well deserved trophy.

Scammed out of funds

According to the company’s website, it has over 10,000 active investors, 10 business locations in Nigeria, presence in the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. However, its headquarters was actually located at the Blue Zodiac Complex, G.U. Ake Road, Eliozu, Port Harcourt.

MBA Trading targeted Nigerians across the country, but most of his victims were actually based in Port Harcourt.

Odum denied that the company was a Ponzi scheme and paraded it as a specialised financial establishment that could help investors to trade in forex that would yield 15 per cent return on investment every 30 days with a minimum capital investment of N360,000 and up to N5m.

Investors were hoodwinked into believing that the platform was government approved and certified by the necessary regulatory agencies like the CBN, SEC and the EFCC. This made eager investors to part with funds with a mindset to cash out big time.

Most of them claimed to have invested in the company because of some promotional publications made by major news outlets in the country, and also due to special appearances the founder, Odum, made with some revered actors like Ramsey Noah.

How it all started

Investors’ hopes were dashed after it was announced that MBA Trading had been acquired by another company, World Citizen Equity Partners, which was meant to inject more funds to grow the investment scheme.

PUNCH Investigations gathered that on October 30, 2020 after the acquisition was made public, the promised RoI ceased and investors were informed that the company was undergoing an automated system upgrade that would enable investors transact business independently without paying physical visits to the office.

Anxious investors were assured that the upgrade would take a month and that payments would resume fully on December 1, 2020.

Odum later lamented that banks and regulatory bodies were behind the delay and were frustrating the company’s efforts.

He further alleged that the firm had been defrauded by members of staff, but was quick to promise that it would add one month to investors’ existing plans to make up for the RoI that was not paid in November.

The company later insisted on refunding only the capital investment.

Tired of the litany of explanations, excuses and inability to pay, investors petitioned the Lagos State Police Command in April 2021, accusing Odum of mismanaging their funds.

It was later learnt that MBA Trading had been changed to Men in Business Thrive and Credit Cooperative Limited, and through online adverts, it was able to get new investors to put in their money, which was also never recouped.

Odum was arrested and detained by detectives from the Special Fraud Unit, Ikoyi, detained for about six hours and was released on bail on personal recognizance. He disappeared into thin air shortly after.

As allegations about Odum’s alleged fraudulent activities continued to mount, an ex parte motion was filed by the CBN before the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt on February 10, 2021, seeking an order to stop all debit transactions from the MBA accounts, where 125,397 investors deposited a total of N171, 128,219,041.

The suit with number FHC/PH/MIsC/35/2021 stated that investors from Port Harcourt made up 43.45 per cent of the total.

On February 11, 2021, the court ordered that all accounts maintained by MBA Trading in any Nigerian bank be frozen for a period of time sufficient for the apex bank to conclude its investigations into the company’s affairs. These included 39 naira bank accounts and eight dollar accounts.

While reacting to the court order, MBA Trading stated that since the matter was now sub judice, it would not make statements or take actions that would appear to interfere with ongoing investigation.

Even though MBA Trading has shut down its operational bases across the country, its Facebook page, @MbatradingCIL, remains active and its phone number was recently updated, prompting outrage from investors.

Protests had been staged several times by frustrated investors at Christ Embassy International, Port Harcourt, calling on Oyakhilome to compel Odum to refund their money. The EFCC offices have also not been spared visits by frustrated Nigerians caught in the loop.

Bamise Ajetumobi, Imagine Global Solution Limited

Like most male bankers, Bamise, whose anecdote was earlier highlighted, is suave and exudes an air of a trusted professionalism. His oratory prowess, outlandish love for God and a background in finance were what he leveraged on to gain trust and coarse investors into trusting him with their life savings.

Born in January 1986, the graduate of Banking and Finance from the Madonna University, Okija, Anambra State, was the Managing Director of Imagine Global Solution Limited, an investment platform.

Having worked in Zenith Bank Plc for eight years, he resigned in 2016 and on April 5, 2017, registered the finance start-up in Lagos and got it incorporated with registration number 1404605.

Bamise and his wife, Elizabeth, are presently on the run after allegedly defrauding investors of an estimated N22bn.

Good front

Fronting offices in London, South Africa, China, Ghana and Dubai, Bamise garnered so much trust among unwary investors looking for trusted investment opportunities.

According to its website, Imaginelenders.com, the company is a microfinance institution duly registered and licensed in Nigeria with a focus on fostering financial inclusion, by providing working capital funding to market men and women.

The company stated that its primary focus was to provide micro loans to the unbanked, small and medium scale businesses and low-income earners, and to also provide working capital and timely finance to help businesses take advantage of trading opportunities.

It also claimed to provide healthcare loans to the bottom-of-the-pyramid segment without collaterals.

Bamise also had a subsidiary company, TFS Finance Limited, which was CBN regulated to undertake the business of advancing short term loan facility, loan to finance local purchase order, lease for individual and corporate bodies.

IMG claimed that its business model was based on the TFS’s four key metrics.

To convince investors that they were real, Bamise and his wife were alleged to have presented themselves as devout Christians with genuine intent to change the face of the micro-lending sector. The couple traversed markets to give out loans to indigent traders and market women, and uploaded pictures, slides and videos of such ventures to the company’s social media handles to hoodwink investors.

On the IMG Facebook page are well-viewed, widely-shared and overly convincing public relations videos of how it has been boosting the businesses of poor traders. Also uploaded to the page are a series of training sessions carried out by supposed financial experts and motivational speakers at the company’s office located in Lekki, an upscale area of Lagos.

As it later turned out, the well-worded company’s policy statement was meant to create a perfect smokescreen for a big-time heist.

The company offered loans ranging from N10,000 to N100,000 on a 30-to-40-day cycle with interest rates that ranged from six per cent to 36 per cent, depending on the capital amount or as negotiated.

Ironically, Bamise’s first customers were his former colleagues in the bank and he was able to convince them to invest in lieu of getting 10 per cent monthly RoI.

Having seen how the RoI was being promptly paid, the ex-bankers became his foot soldiers and innocently spread words about the new ‘trusted’ investment platform in town.

Without much media publicity or branding, investors, especially those in the Diaspora, who were looking for where to invest back home, became attracted to Bamise and plunged their life savings into his investment scheme.

PUNCH Investigations gathered that prominent among those, who entrusted their funds to Bamise were branch managers of commercial banks, who convinced their customers to key into the scheme, and some prominent churches in Lagos.

Bumper pay

Realising that his investment platform had grown exponentially in little time and that investors’ funds continued to balloon, Bamise set out on an employment chase and convinced his old colleagues at Zenith Bank to join him. He allegedly dangled in their faces irresistible mouth-watering monthly salaries up to N1m.

With the margin between what they earned and that offered by Bamise too wide, the bankers ditched their jobs.

Unaware of the sword of Damocles that hung precariously over their heads, the ex-bankers also invested heavily in the scheme.

Bamise’s ostentatious lifestyle

As investors’ money with him allegedly grew in excess of $50m, Bamise became obsessed with lifestyle upgrades to fit his billionaire status.

And in trying to keep up with the Joneses, he allegedly went on spending sprees with investors’ funds and was said to have acquired a property on Banana Island; a duplex in Victoria Crescent Estate, Olugborogon, Chevron, Lekki; and Apartment 7 Oakwood Residence, 23 Cooper Street, Ikoyi.

Bamise with his wife, ElizabethAccording to the Nigeria Property Centre on its website, the average price of houses for sale on Banana Island is N700m; the most expensive costs N6.5bn, while the cheapest costs about N37.7m.

Findings showed that an apartment in Oakwood Residence costs N12m per annum, while a duplex in Victoria Crescent Estate falls within the range of N35m and N52m, depending on the type.

Houses were also alleged to have been bought in the United Kingdom and Dubai, while over $50,000 was used to purchase the citizenship of the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda for himself, his wife and two kids.

A dedicated member and worker at Pastor Sam Adeyemi’s Daystar Christian Centre, Bamise was said to be a major contributor to the church in recent times.

As the need to consistently keep up with his lavish lifestyle grew, Bamise ran into troubled waters and could no longer sustain the monthly RoI payment to investors.

The cookies crumbled under his watch and as pressure mounted from investors, he disappeared with his family.

The company’s website, imaginelenders.com, which has been disabled, boasted of a Nigerian investor base of 90,000. However, with several people claiming to have been scammed out of various sums ranging from N1m to N500m, it remains unclear how many were lucky enough to recoup their investments before the scheme nosedived.

Following the crash, a Lagos State High Court sitting in the Osborne area of Ikoyi and presided over by Justice Toyin Oyekan-Abdullai restrained all commercial banks in the country from releasing funds totalling N11.795bn to the couple.

Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group and other forums have been set up for Bamise’s victims, most of whom claimed to have lost between N5m and N1bn to work together in recouping their investments.

 

Well planned and perfected escape

Our correspondent learnt that Bamise and Elizabeth had long before now hatched and perfected what could be described as one of the biggest scams in Nigeria’s history that left investors stranded and had put in place a watertight escape strategy.

Though there were speculations that the couple might have fled to London, where a branch of the company was incorporated in August 2019, their choice destination appeared to be the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, alleged to be a hidden haven for those involved in dodgy deals and financial crimes.

Their passports, which surfaced online and which PUNCH Investigations was privy to, showed that Bamise and the children procured them on April 29, 2021, while his wife got hers on May 4, 2021.

However, as it stands, the fleeing family may end up as fugitives for a long time as Antigua and Barbuda may not offer them the convivial environment they crave to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.

This is because the country’s security agencies are ready to apprehend them once they are seen, based on the order of the Prime Minister, Gaston Browne.

Giving the directive in Parliament, Browne said, “I have already put systems in place to ensure that if he (Bamise) is not here yet, they could capture him on his way here, because Antigua and Barbuda is not going to be a refuge for scamps.”

Checks on his London office incorporated revealed that though it had been running for two years, it had been dormant.

According to the website of Endole, a UK based organisation that provides business information for risk, sales, marketing and research, the latest confirmation statement submitted by IMG on August 18, 2020, indicated that the company currently has two active directors, Bamise and Elizabeth, while a Briton, Mr Sanmi Oluwaseun Adegoke, who was a director between August 11 and October 10, 2021, had resigned.

The website revealed that Bamise’s wife was born in November 1983 and is a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda.

Endole stated that as at the financial year that ended on August 19, 2020, the financial statement of the company indicated the following: Total assets – £100, total liabilities – £0, net assets – £100, cash in bank – £100, employees – unreported, turnover and an unreported debt ratio of 0%.

On Imagine Global website, Zuriel Consulting Limited is listed as its secretary. When a call was placed to the firm, a young lady confirmed the information but refused to comment further on the issue.

Akor Philip Paul, Benignant Forte Nigeria Limited

Though Akor Paul was recently apprehended by the police after being on the run for months, he had been trending with investors calling for his head for allegedly mismanaging N10bn.

His company, Benignant Forte Nigeria Limited, has its headquarters in Jabi, Abuja, and branches in Onitsha, Abia, Lagos and Dubai.

According to its website, it is into real estate development, logistics, haulage, hospitality, agro-allied services and transportation.

Akor’s background showed that he was not born with the proverbial silver spoon.

The third of five children was born in Ajegunle, Ajeromi-Ifelodun Local Government Area of Lagos State. His father, Nathaniel, was a senior administrator at the Nigerian Ports Authority.

The native of Kogi State is a Sociology graduate from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna.

He also obtained degrees in Industrial Sociology from the IBB University, Lapai, Niger State, and African Politics, Art and Economics from Newcastle University, England.

On the profile page of Akor Philip Paul – Cosmopolitan, he claimed to have worked variously as a sales representative, marketing manager, site manager, office administrator, general manager, manager and group general manager at Chinmark Homes & Shelters Limited, a real estate and civil engineering firm.

Unfulfilled promises

From all indications and based on pictures uploaded to his Facebook page, Akor lived a lavish lifestyle, bought expensive wristwatches, clothes, shoes and automobiles.

In one of the posts, he stood by a white classic automobile in a vast compound.

His wife, Tabitha Princess Kofi’s Facebook page further gave a glimpse into their lavish lifestyle, especially their palatial residence with intricate designs, posh furniture and fittings. It also revealed their taste for good fashion.

To promote his investment scheme, Akor made use of artistes, popular skit makers and comedians. One of those, who vibrantly promoted the scheme and was also its brand ambassador, was Anita Asuoha, the comedienne known by the stage name, Real Warri Pikin.

PUNCH Investigations learnt that Akor, who described himself as a profitable salesman and cosmopolitan, reneged on promises to pay investors RoI of six to 15 per cent, but got married to Tabitha Edet on July 3, 2021, with a cake alleged to have cost N4.5m, while N45m was also alleged to have been used for wedding preparations.

Evidence of payment for the wedding cake and pictures were displayed on the Facebook page of the Chief Executive Officer of Fab Que, Queen Oluchi Duruibe, who was accused of promoting the fraudulent investment scheme as its brand ambassador.

According to a disclaimer post where she tried to distance herself from the company’s activities, Duruibe noted that Akor appeared to be running crowdfunding and did not have any intention of running a business that would yield daily returns to guarantee payment to investors.

It was reliably gathered that in June before the outlandish wedding, investors had started complaining about receiving their RoI late, but were told that the delay was due to network challenges.

The RoI payment was later stopped for old investors, while new ones that came on board through the company’s promo and who were unaware that the scheme had run aground were paid, while their capital was used to pay old investors.

Before now, Akor’s whereabouts were unknown, but on October 28, 2021 around 11.56am, he went live on Facebook, where he claimed to be sick and promised investors that they would soon be paid and in an ascending order.

Akor, who tried frantically to evoke pity by showing off treatment patches on his hand and chest, appealed for calm and assured investors that he was not on the run.

He came live again on October 31, promising to return to Nigeria to resolve the issue and liquidate the company’s assets to pay investors.

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