Five Nigerians have gone on trial charged with defrauding a Brazilian bank of US $242 million to build a ficticious airport.
Prosecutors described the case, which opened at the high court in Abuja on Thursday, as as the world’s “single biggest advance fee fraud" scam.
The five defendants include a housewife, a lawyer and Emmanuel Nwude, a businessman said by the prosecution to be a former director of Union Bank, the second largest bank in Nigeria.
All are accused of tricking an employee of Banco Noroeste in Sao Paulo, the commercial capital of Brazil, into paying out US $242 million of his bank's money to finance the construction of a ficticious new airport in Abuja.
They allegedly did so by promising to pay the Brazilian bank employee a personal commission of more than US $13 million on the deal.
Over a period of four years, from 1995 to 1998, he transferred $242 million at their behest to various bank accounts around the world.
Appearing in court in handcuffs, all five pleaded not guilty to 86 charges of fraud.
They were remanded in custody until Wednesday when presiding judge Lawal Gumi will consider their applications for bail.
Nuhu Ribadu, head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which is prosecuting the case, described it as “the most important case” the body had handled since it was set up over a year ago.
He said this prosecution signified the determination of the commission to battle advance fee fraud and other economic crimes for which Nigeria has become globally notorious.
Ribadu noted that the Banco Noroeste fraud had also triggered trials in Britain, Switzerland, Brazil and the United States.
He said that this illustrated the “truly global network” of the crime, quite apart from “the staggering sum involved.”
President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose election to power in 1999 ended a decade and half of corrupt military rule, has pledged to tackle the international fraud rings that emerged in Nigeria prior during that period.
Their activities have turned Africa’s most populous country into a haven of money laundering and other financial crimes.
Transparency International, the global anti-corruption body of which Obasanjo was a founding member, ranks Nigeria among the most corrupt states in Africa.
Nigerians have developed a dubious reputation as expert fraudsters able to wheedle cash out of greedy individuals around the world with the promise of fabulous gains for services which are never delivered.
These brass-necked conmen, known locally as "Four-one-niners," typically e-mail unsuspecting individuals offering them a fat commission for allowing large sums of hot money to be laundered through their bank account.
Once they have obtained sufficient information to gain access to the victim's account, the fraudsters simply withdraw any money already there. In other cases they seek to obtain fees and expenses in advance for services which are never delivered.
The nickname "four-one-niner" derives from section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code which outlaws fraud.
The conmen started outin the late 1980s using mailshots and faxes to snare unsuspecting foreigners, but the scale of their operations has mushroomed with the rise of the internet. This allows them to e-mail spam messages to million of people around the world.
These bogus messages often claim to come from the relatives of wealthy people, such as the late president Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, (now renamed the Democractic Republic of Congo), former Liberian president Charles Taylor or commercial farmers in Zimbabwe.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions