In the late 1990s, a Nigerian businessman named Emmanuel Nwude pulled off one of the biggest scams in history by selling a nonexistent airport to a Brazilian bank for $242 million. The fraud, which resulted in the collapse of the bank and the conviction of Nwude and his accomplices, is now back in the spotlight after UFC commentator Joe Rogan mentioned it during an interview with middleweight champion Israel Adesanya.
The Scam: How the Nigerian Man Sold a Fake Airport That Didn’t Exist for $242 Million
According to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the anti-graft agency that investigated the case, Nwude impersonated Paul Ogwuma, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) at the time, and convinced Nelson Sakaguchi, a director of Banco Noroeste, to invest in a new airport project in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
Nwude asked for a $10 million commission for facilitating the deal, while Sakaguchi agreed to pay $191 million in cash and the rest in outstanding interest for the airport that never existed.
The scam was carried out between 1995 and 1998, with the help of five other accomplices, including two lawyers who forged documents and certificates to make the deal look legitimate. Nwude also used his contacts in the CBN and the Ministry of Aviation to provide fake information and assurances to Sakaguchi, who never visited Nigeria or verified the existence of the airport.
The fraud was exposed in 1999, when Banco Noroeste was acquired by a Spanish bank, Banco Santander. The new owners discovered that half of the bank’s capital was missing and traced it to Nwude’s accounts in Switzerland and other offshore locations. The EFCC was then established in 2003 and took over the investigation, which led to the arrest and prosecution of Nwude and his co-conspirators.
In 2005, Nwude and his accomplices were convicted by Justice Joseph Oyewole of an Ikeja High Court on 25 counts of fraud and conspiracy. Nwude was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment and ordered to forfeit $121.5 million to Banco Noroeste as restitution. He was also required to surrender several properties in Lagos and Abuja that were acquired with the proceeds of the fraud.
The conviction was hailed as a landmark achievement for the EFCC and a deterrent to other fraudsters. However, Nwude did not serve his full sentence, as he was granted bail in 2006 on health grounds and later released after striking a plea bargain with the EFCC. He also appealed his conviction at the Court of Appeal, but his appeal was dismissed in 2013.
The Nigerian fake airport scam faded from public memory until recently, when it resurfaced in an unlikely context: a UFC podcast. On November 12, 2019, Joe Rogan hosted Israel Adesanya, the UFC middleweight champion and a Nigerian-born fighter, on his show JRE MMA Show #82. During their conversation, Rogan brought up the scam. People are remembering the moment from their conversation since he has a huge upcoming match on September 9th, against Sean Strickland.
The clip of Rogan and Adesanya discussing the scam went viral on social media, sparking reactions from Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike. Some found it amusing and praised Nwude’s audacity, while others criticized Rogan and Adesanya for glorifying fraud and perpetuating negative stereotypes about Nigerians.
The Nigerian fake airport scam is one of the most notorious cases of fraud in history, involving a staggering amount of money, a complex web of deception, and a daring con artist. The scam not only affected the lives and fortunes of the perpetrators and the victims, but also the reputation and image of Nigeria as a country.
The scam also demonstrated the challenges and opportunities of fighting corruption and crime in a globalized world, where money and information can cross borders easily and quickly.