By Tope Fasua
I lived in London in 2006 when the largest to date cash robbery in that country – and perhaps in the world – happened. It was the robbery of the Tonbridge, Kent facility of the Bank of England by a team of blaggers (that’s how they call thieves in Britain), which included fighter Lee Murray, Lea Rusha and a couple of Albanians. £53 million was hauled from that facility after they tied up the workers there.
Emir Hysenaj, one of the Albanians, was the inside man who provided the logistics and coordinates. I remember the situation very vividly till date. and even then, I knew it was a matter of time before the gang was caught and the plot unraveled.
Britain is not where you could walk into a bar/pub and spend £2,000 ‘declaring’ drinks for everyone, without being surveilled and picked up within a short period of time. No one sees that kind of cash, and many people are snoops. No one spends lavishly as we do here in Nigeria.
And so, under two days, arrests were made in Forest Hill, London. The money was just too much to handle. The robbers abandoned one of the vans they used in a hotel in Ashford, with £1.3 million in it. This was discovered on February 26, 2006, while the robbery took place on February 23. By February 27, 2006, the truck used for the robbery was discovered at Elderden Farm in Welling, owned by a car dealer, John Fowler.
Earlier, on February 25, 2006, the gang leader, Lee Murray, was arrested in a shopping mall in Rabat, Morocco. However, even though all the parties involved have been apparently jailed, with a few of those arrested acquitted, more than £32 million from the entire haul of £53 million is yet unaccounted for to date.
Before the Tonbridge incident, the largest cash robbery was thought to be that of the Northern Bank in Belfast, wherein in 2004 the sum of £26.5 million was stolen. But some pundits put the largest-ever theft of cash at $1 billion, stolen from the Central Bank of Iraq in 2003, upon the invasion of that country by the almighty USA. That one did not need robbers, since the Americans had deliberately sent that country back to the Dark Ages and so any and everyone did what they liked.
Also notable was the Brinks-Mat gold bullion robbery, which took place at the Heathrow International Trading Estate in London in November 1983. £26 million worth of gold bullion, diamonds, and cash was moved in that robbery when six robbers attacked the facility. In the year 2000, police foiled a £350 million diamond heist at London Millennium Dome, which would have set a record.
Later in 2015, over the Easter holiday, some thieves abseiled down a lift shaft at Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Limited and made away with approximately £200 million worth of diamonds, rare jewels and gold. The perpetrators were rounded up within a month. They were all British.
The Americans are no pushovers. There was the Loomis Fargo bank heist in 1997, where $25.9 million was stolen, and the Dunbar Armoured robbery in Los Angeles in the same year, where $29 million was hijacked, among others. Elsewhere in the world, there was the Agric Bank of China fraud worth $9.5 million; the NOKAS cash-handling facility robbery in Norway, where $13.5 million was stolen in 2004; the Bank Central burglary in Fortaleza, Brazil where $55 million was stolen in 2005; the Swiss Post heist of 1997, where $55 million worth of unregistered and uninsured cash was stolen in 1997, and the heist at Harry’s, the Parisian jeweler, where $108 million worth of goods were hauled in 2008.
But like in many things amazing and fantastic, Nigeria is struggling to take the cake. How can we forget Chief Emmanuel Nwude, Ezenwamadu, who sold a non-existent airport for $303 million to Bank Noroeste, Brazil, in the year 1997?
Nwude extracted $242 million from that bank by the time the bubble burst. The Nwude’s case, I believe, is still on, decades after. It just may never be concluded. Nigeria has also developed a reputation with the ‘419’ culture, and of late, ‘yahoo-yahoo boys’, business email compromise (BEC), benefit frauds and whatnot, with guys like Hushpuppi, that Special Assistant to the Ogun State governor, and many more putting us on the ignoble map. The crises of leadership over the years resulted in a rudderless population busy engaged in anything just to find some money.
In spite of all this, what could probably be the largest imagined heist of all times has landed in Nigeria. I first got to know of this incidence through one of Simon Kolawole’s writeups, which I read several times with mouth agape and then shared. Thereafter, I decided to use my knowledge of banking operations and Nigeria’s banking history to interpret the events, and was I wowed!
The story goes that sometime in 1993, under the reign of the great king General Sani Abacha, one Prince Isaac Okpala approached the government and promised to build three spanking new oil refineries in Nigeria. Abacha said, ‘Ok, I have no objection, go ahead please’.
Nigeria could never have too many refineries. Of course, our refineries were already giving us loads of issues by then. The company Prince Okpala ran was called Petro Union Oil and Gas Limited. The Prince (please take your mind away from the Nigerian Prince taught in financial markets today as part of anti-fraud training and let us assume he was a real prince), promised to bring in much foreign investment for these three refineries.
He said he had foreign partners and mentioned Gazeaft UK Limited – a company that he happened to own and control. Next, was that he appointed one Gladstone Kukoyi and Associates, Chartered Accountants and decided to show ‘transparency’ that he already had all the required funds needed to build all three refineries sitting coolly in his Gazeaft UK Ltd account, by writing a single cheque of £2.5 billion in favour of this accountant – Mr Kukoyi. No, he didn’t want the money in his own account as that wasn’t transparent enough. The accountant deposited the cheque in his own account with Union Bank at Broad Street, Lagos. Recall that Nwude of the Brazilian Noroeste Bank fame was later (or once) a director at the same Union Bank, but there is no connection with this other caper. Anyway, come along with me.
The timeline for this £2.556 billion transaction goes as follows:
June 7, 1994 – Barclays Bank Cheque Number 01040 deposited into Kukoyi’s account with Union Bank;
June 29, 1994 – Union Bank writes to Petro Union that “CBN has instructed to proceed and forward an application for the approval of said amount”. This is interpreted by Petro Union to mean the cheque had cleared and that Petro Union was now free to start withdrawing in order to build their refineries;
Sometime in early 2005 – Petro Union petitions Union Bank at EFCC asking that they should have access to their £2.5 billion, which they believe cleared since 11 years! It is unclear what happened in the 11 years, in between, and how many times the client wrote to Union Bank or what Union Bank’s response was in that interregnum;
May 10, 2005 – EFCC writes Union Bank Plc, stating that the cheque was deposited at UBN Broad Street Branch in 1994 and if unpaid should be returned;
2012 – Petro Union sues Union Bank and Central Bank of Nigeria, asking to be allowed access to the £2.556 billion;
March 12, 2014 – High Court Justice Kafarati awarded a case against Union Bank – and CBN. He asked that funds be returned to Petro Union with 15 percent interest compounded since 1994. Union Bank appeals the judgment;
June 6, 2018 – Appeal Court upholds the High Court’s decision, saying Union Bank’s appeal lacked merit, and basically threw out the case;
December 16, 2019 – Supreme Court also struck out Union Bank Plc’s appeal and affirmed the initial judgment. By now Union Bank and CBN, and indeed the whole of Nigeria is owing Petro Union £15 billion;
January 17, 2020 – UBN invited management and directors to meeting and got them arrested by EFCC;
The case is still on. The drama is still on, as the directors of the company are shuttling between EFCC and the courts. The progenitor, Prince Isaac Okpala is now dead, but his adult children are on the case and need their money urgently.
What Could Have Happened
In 1994, I was a clearing officer at Citizens Bank Ltd – now defunct or somehow submerged into Heritage Bank. I had finished my National Youth Service at University of Calabar as an Administrative Officer in 1992 and hustled back to Lagos in search of a good job in the financial sector. I was lucky to get one at Citizens Bank, where I knew nobody. I was assigned to the Clearing Unit, where I would eventually take over as the ‘clearing guru’ (apologies to my Ogas back in the day). But I sort of mastered the manual process then, very much unlike today when everything is digitized.
The clearing officer basically collates all third-party cheques drawn on a bank in a certain jurisdiction, as well as cheques deposited by customers of the bank, and takes them to a ‘clearing house’ then located at the Central Bank, where they would be routinely exchanged.
A good clearing day is a day when the value of cheques you took to clearing was more than what you brought back. Consistent net negative clearing balances meant the bank was hemorrhaging customers and liquidity. And then, there were all sorts of frauds.
Forged cheques would be deposited, and if a bank is not careful, it would give value and allow a fraudulent person to withdraw all the funds. There was cheque kiting, meaning that some people specialized in writing cheques on accounts that have no funds in the hope that they somehow get value and walk away. Some put pressure on bank management to grant them early value on spurious cheques and if they are lucky, the bank is cooked.
Then there was cheque suppression. This is a scenario where someone deposits a cheque in their account that should be presented to another bank but never gets to the bank.
On the other side, there is no funds, and if the cheque actually gets presented through clearing, the other bank will simply bounce it. The trick is never to allow the cheque get presented to the paying bank.
As a young clearing officer, I was approached several times by the teaming population of bank fraudsters in Lagos, to switch cheques. The scared look on my pimply face probably never encouraged them to push further. It was, however, normal to hear that one of your colleagues in the clearinghouse was busted over the weekend because he had acceded to some fraud syndicate.
Some got away with the frauds. Most were impressionable young men and women who would capitulate if they didn’t have serious home training and internal resolve. Or good luck.
It was the days of 80 commercial banks, in various states of disrepair. It was the days of finance houses who ran Ponzi schemes. It took five full working days for a local cheque (drawn in Lagos and paid into a Lagos account, to clear.
For ‘upcountry’ cheques, it took a whole 30 working days, and later 20 working days. This means, if your friend gave you a cheque drawn on his account in Ibadan, and you pay into your Lagos account today, just come back in like 45 days’ time to get value. Life was slow. Life was sweet and blissful. All these digital kids of nowadays will rue their fates for not having lived in our time. Yinmu.
What is being hung around the neck of Union Bank Plc today is that the cheque was never returned to Petro Union. Where is the cheque? Petro Union says Union Bank received value for the cheque, but never allowed them to make withdrawals and build three shiny new refineries for Nigeria. Union Bank, on its part, cannot find the cheque. Upon being contacted, Barclays Bank said that the Gazeaft UK Limited account upon which the cheque was drawn, had been closed five years before the cheque was ever written (in 1989).
Clearing a foreign cheque by the way, was a different kettle of fish from the ‘local and upcountry’ I described above.
To clear a Barclays cheque into a Union Bank Nigeria account, you had to receive the cheque and probably dispatch same to your correspondent bank in London – usually Bankers’ Trust or Citibank. They will then present in their local clearing and hope to get value. You will then keep calling them to know if the cheque had properly cleared. They will confirm through telex! That could take two or three months!
So, the questions that unravel this case and make me think – using my forensic mind (and I am indeed a qualified forensic auditor under the auspices of ICAN) – that this is an attempted bank heist and may well be the largest ever in the history of human beings and in the history of heists, especially if it comes through, is that:
1. Did a foreign cheque clear under a month in 1994? Could we say the period between June 7, 1994 and June 29, 1994 (17 working days) was enough to clear a foreign cheque in 1994?
2. What was the rationale for transferring such a humongous amount into the account of a relatively unknown accountant in order to show ‘transparency’? Most people I know will rather have the money within their control. What if the accountant died? I’m not sure anyone will transfer a tenth of such funds to Accenture or PwC just for keeps.
3. Who keeps £2.5 billion, I mean BILLION pounds, sitting in an account waiting to build a refinery?
4. In building huge projects like refineries, who advanced the full amount from the beginning? Even financiers would rather walk with you in the transaction, disbursing funds on a needs basis as you achieve each milestone.
5. How did Petro Union manage to have £2.5 billion (Great British Sterling Pounds) sitting coolly in their account in 1994? The company was never a big player in that sector. I doubt if Royal Dutch Shell or any of the seven ugly sisters could claim to have such idle liquidity – or to be able to raise such an amount from investors in a jiffy and without any proposal or documentation for use of funds.
6. If the funds were borrowed – and indeed to build a refinery, an investor will have to raise money from banks, private equity and all sorts of parties (see Dangote, the richest black man in the world for instance) – how come the big banks of the world have not chased their money to Nigeria? How can financiers release billions of dollars for the funding of a project and as alleged, watch CBN and Union Bank simply appropriate the funds? In my view, there are a thousand ways to catch a thief. No thief succeeds in covering all the tracks.
7. It is also instructive to note that this company – Petro Union – has no footprints in the business space. For a company that could be sitting on £2.5 billion way back in 1994, one would expect them to have done some big projects. None showed upon my scouring the internet. As a fact, Petro Union does not have a website, which could be put together with $200 today. A company without a mere website is chasing a deal of £2.5 billion, or £15 billion!
8. Even if Barclays Bank is claiming that the Gazeaft UK Limited account had been closed five years before the cheque was issued, but Petrol Union and co claim that is not true, the simple thing for them to do is produce a statement of account where the £2.5 billion was debited into the account of Gazeaft UK Limited.
9. Why is Petro Union – which is now being run by the children of Prince Isaac Okpala – and as contained in their last statement, now saying if Union Bank and CBN could ‘apologise’ for what happened they will be okay and probably walk away from it all? Who walks away from £2.5 billion at the sound of a nice ‘sorry’?
Commonsense Over Law
I have always had issues with some decisions that judges take, and how lawyers sometimes reason. We are in our own era of lawyering, as against seeking and obtaining justice. From the calculations of compounded interest on the judgment sum till date, Union Bank and CBN now ‘jointly and severally’ (including all of us) owe Petrol Union the sum of £15 billion sterling and counting, based simply on the ability to reproduce a cheque. All the SANs in the world have lined up to feed from this high drama and intended largest-ever heist in history; another act of ignominy that will place us further on the dark map, as if we haven’t seen and heard enough. What could be deciphered by commonsense often gets complicated and made into a huge mountain once we start plodding through the ‘law’, especially in this country. We also know how infamous some of our judges can be, as some can send the innocent to the gallows and free dangerous menaces to society, for the love of money.
Sense of Proportion
What makes this more interesting for me is the lack of a sense of proportion. The heist may not be as ridiculous sounding if it was £25 million or £2.5 million, and indeed they may have well gotten away with everything. I just checked the historical perspective of Nigeria’s external reserves and as at 1994, Nigeria probably had less than $1 billion in reserves as a country. Then in comes some singular person with a single cheque for $2.5 billion. If CBN wanted to confiscate and spend the money as alleged, the CBN will still invite the company and slam money laundering charges on them while the money gets forfeited. So, the CBN and Union Bank know that it will be unjustifiable to simply keep quiet and share monies belong to Mr Okpala and sons. The truth is that Union Bank slept on the transaction, or there were insiders in Union Bank who ‘died’ the cheque, which was never presented at Barclays London. If Nigeria was to truly refund 15 billion pounds or $21 billion today, we may as well fold up and go home, and change Nigeria’s name to Federal Republic of Petro Union, or United Republic of the Okpalas. This is one country-wrecking, continent-liquidating caper. All blaggers, scammers and schemers in the world, must be lined up, hands behind their backs, heads popped forward, watching intently as this family attempts to pull this off in the country know for the highest rapidity of fast financial magic.
Catch Me If You Can
The cheque kiting and suppression case reminds one of the prolific conman, Frank Abagnale who was so prolific, he has become a living legend. In those analog days, Abagnale simply created his own cheques, using his artistic prowess. He preyed on the trust that permeated the system in those days. But even he will marvel at the size of this one. Abagnale basically ran peanuts in a clever way. One is also reminded of the P@ID case… and I always told people that from the name of the company alone, Michael Quinn (now late) and Brendan Cahill – both Irishmen – set out to simply dupe Nigeria. Process and Industrial Development was the name of the company, so they simply played a cynical game on the country because the acronym is actually PAID. They intended to get PAID by Nigeria for doing nothing – or just to teach us a lesson in how not to be sloppy with taxpayers’ money. We think our boys are the only smart ones going around duping vulnerable, brokenhearted old women and scamming benefit schemes in America, but these white guys are far worse and more calculating. At $9.6 billion, the P@ID case is larger than this one but is a contract scam. Also, with the court judgments, this £2.556 billion matter has now ballooned to £15 billion sterling. This one takes the cake for a scam wrought on the banking system but when we consider that there is a judgment from the Supreme Court, which has acted alongside other lower courts, like man was made for the law and not the law made for men, we have to say to the Okpalas, Tuale!
Fasua, an economist, and former presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), lives in Abuja.