FBI Indictment: The Log in Our Eyes

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The frontlines

By Joseph Ushigiale

One of the world’s greatest recorded heists until recently was The Great Train Robbery where a record £2.6 million was hijacked from a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London on the West Coast Main line in the early hours of 8 August 1963, at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledbun, near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England according to Wikipedia.

After tampering with the lineside signals in order to bring the train to a halt, a gang of fifteen, led by Bruce Reynolds, attacked the train. Other gang members including Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, John Daly, Danny Pembroke, Jimmy White, Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch and Roger Cordrey, as well as three men known only as numbers “1”, “2” and “3”. A 16th man, an unnamed retired train driver, was also present.

With careful planning based on insider information from an individual known as “The Ulsterman” (erroneously named as Patrick McKenna in 2014), the robbers escaped with over £2.6 million (equivalent to £53.5 million today). The bulk of the stolen money was never recovered. Though the gang did not use any firearms, Jack Mills, the train driver, was beaten over the head with a metal bar. Mills’ injuries were severe enough to end his career.

In Nigeria, especially after the civil war, with the proliferation of small arms all over, there also emerged some notorious bandits and gangs like Oyenusi and the great Sawabas and in the 80s, other criminal elements like Anini, Iyamu etc and their cohorts who terrorized and killed innocent citizens, dispossessing them of their properties in some instances.

Today, all that has paled into insignificance, no one needs to bear arms to commit such violent crimes for money. With the proliferation of the internet and technology, criminal activities have moved several notches up and gone digital. From the comfort of your home and anywhere in the world, you can comfortably carry out your criminal activities without detection at least in the interim.

The biggest story trending globally today is not that of a plane crash with hundreds of people aboard nor that another livable planet has been discovered after Mars. The biggest story rather is that of how over 77 suspected criminals of Nigeria descent successfully carried out what the US authorities described as the biggest advanced fee fraud in the US, history running in multi-million dollars from victims comprising of big corporations, vulnerable retirees and in some cases lovelorn individuals spread across the globe. 

According to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a 252-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed recently charged 77 Nigerian nationals with participating in a massive conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a variety of fraud schemes and launder the funds through a Los Angeles-based money laundering network.

The indictment was unsealed after law enforcement authorities, led by theFBI, recently arrested 14 defendants across the United States, with 11 of those arrests taking place in the Los Angeles region.

The FBI explained that “Two defendants were already in federal custody on other charges, and one was arrested earlier this week. The remaining defendants are believed to be abroad, with most of them located in Nigeria.

“The indictment alleges that the defendants and others used various online fraud schemes – including business email compromise (BEC) frauds, romance scams, and schemes targeting the elderly – to defraud victims out of millions of dollars.

“According to a criminal complaint also unsealed Thursday, co-conspirators based in Nigeria, the United States and other countries contacted the lead defendants in the FBI indictment – Valentine Iro, 31, of Carson, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, of Gardena, both Nigerian citizens – for bank and money-service accounts that could receive funds fraudulently obtained from victims.

“Once members of the conspiracy convinced victims to send money under false pretences, Messrs Iro and Igbokwe coordinated the receipt of funds and oversaw an extensive money-laundering network, according to the 145-page indictment, the FBI.”

Although the FBI noted that “The charges contained in the criminal complaint and indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in court.” The expose is already generating negative feedbacks for even hardworking Nigerians across the world where they are unfairly being tarred as criminals.

But is it not puzzling that we have to wait for the Americans to help point to the looming logs in our eyes? Are we so blind that we can not see what goes on in our immediate vicinities across the country daily? Given the clinical execution of these wire fraud investigations by the FBI,  what is the role of our law enforcement agencies in intelligence gathering and crime investigations?

It is about time, those in authorities especially in security circles jettison this knee jerk reactive approach of fighting both crime and corruption. In the case of the FBI, no suspect was arrested, tortured and forced to divulged information under duress. What they simply did was to follow the criminal trails, deploying technology and intelligence gathering to track these criminals.

In Nigeria, the footprints of these criminals are so easy to detect and do not even need the meticulous efforts of the FBI to track them down. Our politicians especially the National Assembly members earn more than the remuneration approved by the Revenue Mobilization and Fiscal Commission, the law enforcement agencies are aware, yet heavens are not falling as we keep moving on as if nothing has happened.

It is perhaps only in Nigeria, that a kidnap kingpin reigns  supreme for several years wrecking havoc on innocent law abiding citizens and ruining families and businesses undetected until he turns a billionaire from proceeds of crime. Yet, before his eventual arrest, he was walked the streets, transacting business in the real world as if nothing was happening in the full glare of law enforcement. From night clubs to wedding parties, naming ceremonies, house warming parties and you name it, advanced fees fraudsters are constant features and party bees at these functions and some of them are conspicuously present in very highbrow thrown by movers and shakers of society and here they always appear spraying dollars, pounds and different foreign currencies in the full glare of security operatives.

We celebrate criminals and their activities, they are glamorized in hits songs like 9ice hit track ‘Living Things’ where he paid glowing accolades to yahoo yahoo boys. Other musicians have also followed suit largely because some of these wire fraudsters not only patronize them, they often invest in their music too.

In this country, these same criminal elements turned billionaires overnight move in convoys, have a combination of military and police guards paid by tax payers providing maximum security for them and their families members. Is it that those approving the deployment of soldiers and policemen to guard these criminal elements do not know who they are?

Of course the recent case in point is the one that involved the killing of three policemen who went to arrest a kidnap kingpin Hamisu Bala Wadume and were waylaid and killed instead of being assisted by soldiers of  93 Battalion stationed in Takum, Taraba state. 

It became clear after the dust had settled that Wadume, in his confessional statement said Captain Tijani Balarabe has been on his payroll adding that he was able to escape arrest by paying his way through each security checkpoint with N20,000.

There is also the case of a soldier who shot and killed a motorcyclist in Abia state over N100; and recently in Lagos, two policemen were arrested for extra judicially killing a phone thief. So many cases abound which lay credence to the fact that the security agents who are paid by tax payers to protect them turnaround to become the greatest threats to their lives. That regrettably has become the bane of the Nigerian society where values are clearly eroded and we have become a country of anything goes.

Because we do not subject ourselves to critical thinking despite our peculiar circumstances, we tend to be complacent, shoddy and carefree in the way we live. In 2014, the World Value Survey ranked Nigerians as the happiest people on earth. According to the Punch Newspaper, Rod Dreher who was the brain behind the ranking, attributed the development to Nigerians being “super religious,” and having an unusual level of optimism even in the face of daunting odds.

Unfortunately, in 2018, another ranking by the World Happiness Report compiled by Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Nigeria ranked 5th in Africa and drastically slid down to the 91st position on the global happiness totem pole losing to Norway, Denmark and Iceland who came 1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively. 

It is such a great irony that Nigerians are adjudged the happiest people on earth despite the abject poverty and the myriads of developmental problems that confront the country. Nigeria’s myriads of problems and the attendant suffering it inflicted on her people did not fail to catch the Legendary Fela Anikulapo’s attention compelling him to release his blockbuster song ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’ released in 1978.

Nigerians are not only tolerant of their thieving and autocratic leaders, but they also endure excruciating sufferings that would ordinarily provoke outrage and public protests in other climes. Yet, as happy people, Nigerians love the good life, they celebrate success without questioning its source.

It is probably only in Nigeria that a school drop-out with no established means of livelihood can boastfully tell you that he would make it big. However, when he eventually makes it big, neighbours and family members would never bother to ask the source of such stupendous wealth. All they do is worship the money and celebrate the newly arrived millionaire.

Nigeria can boast of millions of billionaires in both Naira and foreign currencies, but the majority of these billionaires are either politicians, members of the armed forces, retired civil servants, advanced fees fraudsters and a sprinkling of genuine businessmen owning the wheels of production like Dangote, Otedola, Ovia, Adenuga, Elumelu etc.

Our society suddenly believes in reaping where you do not sow; it has jettisoned hard work choosing to settle for those with a penchant for ‘hitting money’, a term used for hot money derived from little or no work at all. Today, young men and women believe that, without hard work, you can still make it big in life and they have invented several ways to make that happen. Some of these disingenuous ways are the advanced fees fraud, ritual killing and sacrifices, kidnapping, armed robbery, prostitution, and human trafficking through Libya, Mali, Guinea etc, drug trafficking and you name it.

The situation is also not helped by the proliferation of both traditional/herbal practices that encourage these desperate youngsters to engage in occultic practices to invoke quick money and the role of prosperity churches that promise their followers heaven on earth. 

That is why you hear of people disappearing only to be found dead, dismembered and their body parts used for rituals in shrines located in remote forests. There are also cases of female panties, hairs, finger nails etc being procured for ritual purposes for the person to get rich without hard work.

In churches, you are told by pastors to sow seeds and expect ground breaking miracles the next minutes. Other ask you to bring all manner of candles, oils etc for spiritual cleansing in order for you to have a breakthrough in life or business. Some have gone to the ridiculous extent of drinking bleach in a certain country to cleanse them of their sins. Just recently, a Kenyan pastor invited an impostor whom he introduced as ‘Jesus’ and there was a procession to welcome the impostor.

What all these boil down to is the erosion of values in our society where money suddenly becomes the determinant factor of who you are in society. When people fail to live up to their moral rectitude of questioning or verifying the authenticity or genuineness of a sudden get rich quick source of wealth and choose instead to join in celebration of opulence, there is a problem and certainly the end result is what we are seeing today.

Policymakers must not wash their hands off with the usual refrain that they should face the long arm of the law, of course, that’s already the case. But the question is: so what happens thereafter? We tend to quickly distance ourselves from our citizens especially when things like these happen without realizing that, perhaps if their better conditions at home this won’t happen. Rather than throwing the baby with the bathwater, I see opportunities in this menace.

This latest heist presents a God-given opportunity for policymakers to take advantage of this and reshape computer education in our schools from getting our kids to focus more on practice rather than theory. The global knowledge economy today is worth billions and here is an opportunity for the fed government to tap into it. Surely, these smart kids can create cybersecurity products that can create a safer world devoid of advanced fee fraud, save the financial sector billions of dollars lost yearly to such fraudulent transactions, create a new narrative for Nigeria and Nigerians and capture the world’s imagination going forward.