The Netherlands is musing on proposals for a special police unit to tackle Nigerian criminal gangs. Investigative reporter EMMANUEL MAYAH travels there and meets a cell leader and other Nigerian career criminals waging an aggressive economic war against Europe. Some call it economic terrorism. But one crook, beating his chest, calls it a payback for historical wrongs.
A few streets off bustling Amsterdam Central is a posh bar curiously named Lost in Amsterdam. The neon sign does not say much. But it takes just a few minutes for the ambivalence of this leisure spot, which targets tourists and resident rich Africans, to sink in.
It is the night out for a gregarious group of Nigerians, almost all of whom walk with impunity in their footsteps. Normally, their boisterous nature would annoy an average Dutch audience, but soon it begins to get clear why this bunch of West Africans is always tolerated here.
In a little over two hours the group of six men, including this undercover reporter, burns cash in excess of 4,000 euros. The last bottle of wine is not even finished when the others move to another part of the city to continue the spending spree.
In pursuit of the good life, they chase after women, habitually writing telephone numbers on euro bills before handing them to the women of their desire.
One of the men jokes that it makes no sense carrying a business card. “Cash is my business … besides; using euros as my memo pads is the best first impression.”
Not only have these Nigerians, members of an underworld, conquered different women, they have also conquered different parts of Europe.
They have sojourned in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Germany, Denmark, Spain and Sweden – swindling banks, raking in millions of euros, in an offensive described as economic terrorism.
Two of them had been in prison elsewhere before settling in the Netherlands…
Four years ago, while working undercover on a human trafficking and illegal migration story, this reporter had been referred by his “travel agent” to a cybercafé opposite the public library in Isolo, Lagos where prospective emigres were, for a fee, taught skills in computer crime, basically to prepare them for a life in Europe.
At this shadowy academy, this reporter met 26-year-old Femi (not his real name). Called Femishow by his friends, he was one of the Nigerians drinking alcoholic milkshakes at the pricey “Lost in Amsterdam” in the Nieuwendijk area of the city.
Happy to hook up with a former ‘classmate’, Femishow gave a narrative of his journey to Europe.
When he arrived Schipol Airport in 2010, he was arrested for possessing no travel documents.
Femishow had acquired a Guinean passport in Lagos. With the fake passport, he travelled to Ghana where someone helped him to procure a visa for N700,000. Aboard the flight to Amsterdam, he made his way to the toilet and destroyed his documents.
He arrived the Netherlands without a nationality. Although the Dutch police knew he was a Nigerian, they could not prove it.
Femishow was imprisoned for four months. Upon his release, he was asked the standard question: “Do you wish to return to your country?” He was ready with his answer: No.
He was taken to a detention centre in Schipol for a month. From there he visited the asylum application centre also in Schipol. After several interviews, he was taken to an asylum camp in Dronten. Five months later, his asylum request was turned down, his stay in Holland officially terminated.
Rejected asylum seekers are left stranded on the cold streets. Without legal documents, they can neither get jobs nor easily move on to another country. Not Femishow. He had his friends waiting for him.
While at the camp, he was given free language coaching. With his smattering Dutch, he was prepared for the life ahead. Most of the Nigerian illegals take to crime, often drug peddling, to survive.
In May 2009, while trying to escape the Dutch police, one Azubuike jumped from the 9th floor of his apartment building in Bijlmer, southeast Amsterdam. His death sparked a protest against police high-handedness by the black community in Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, this reporter’s white friends warned him not to go to Bijlmer, a predominantly black neighbourhood. This place is the Hillbrow of Johannesburg or the Mushin of Lagos. This is where Femishow lives.
Bijlmermeer, ‘Bijlmer’ for short, or ‘the Bimmer’ for those in the know, is synonymous with crime, drugs, unemployment and illegal immigrants. It is home to 100,000 people of 150 different nationalities, mostly from Africa, and the former Dutch colonies of Suriname and Antilles.
Walking around, you see different faces of Nigerians, Surinamese and Somalis. You encounter a street market retailing garri, egusi, plantain, coconut, pepper and other foods from immigrants’ homelands. Reggae, salsa and Nigerian music rule the air.
There is no doubt who runs Bijlmer: Nigerians. They are loud wherever two or three of them gather. Other nationalities defer to Nigerians, who lounge around with beautiful Surinamese girls by their side and act as though they invented the automated teller machine (ATM).
Young men work as ‘look-outs’ and foot soldiers as money quickly changes hands on street corners. Bijlmer has an underbelly, and it shows. A police chief once described this notorious district ruled by Nigerians as a “national disaster area.”
In search of solution to the menace, a call was recently made for the establishment of a special police unit to handle Nigerian-related crimes.
Three parties in the Dutch parliament, the Christian Democrats, the conservative VVD and the populist Freedom Party, jointly proposed to the justice minister to create a permanent police unit to tackle Nigerian criminal gangs.
Outside Nigeria, the Netherlands is said to host the largest community of Nigerian fraudsters, especially internet scammers. Back in Nigeria, at the various backstreet fraud classes, where most youngsters learn the rope, the Netherlands is the destination choice for greenhorn crooks preparing to migrate to Europe.
Figures published in 2006 by Ultrascan, a Dutch private detective company, said there were over 800 suspected Nigerian fraudsters described as “hardcore scammers” working from the Netherlands.
The UK was second with 724 scammers, followed by Spain with over 500.
Aside hardcore scammers, “at least 1,400 Nigerians in Holland alone were involved with this type of scam,” Ultrascan added, to underscore the fact that the Netherlands was the hotbed for Nigerian con artists.
In 2006, Dutch authorities arrested 12 Nigerians, confisticating computers, fake travel documents and 25,000 euros in cash.
In a separate arrest, a quartet of Nigerian scammers in the Netherlands who had bilked mostly American citizens of more than $1.2 million (according to the United States Justice Department) were arrested and extradited to the U.S.
In March 2010, another Nigerian, Ugochukwu Enwerem, who collected over $9.5 million from victims, was convicted by a federal jury in North Carolina. He tricked them to wire money to him and his designees in the Netherlands.
Sophos, an anti-fraud coalition, said: “Over the last couple of years, we have seen more 419 solicitations with Dutch phone numbers than those of any other nation, including Nigeria, though the Dutch-based fraudsters are of course Nigerians operating primarily from Amsterdam.”
The term 419, a Nigerian penal code, also called advance fee fraud, is a Nigerian criminal patent and virus spread by virulent migrants across the world.
In terms of organisational structures, criminal enterprise and collateral damages, the Nigerian 419 groups are now comparable to Colombia drug barons and the Russian mafia.
Years back, a few Nigerian scammers brought down a Brazilian bank, Banco Noroeste, after one of its directors, Nelson Sakaguchi, wired a total of $243 million to the Nigerians. The scam, recorded as the third biggest in banking history, led to at least two murders.
A night out with the gang
Throughout the evening this undercover reporter was with the Nigerian fraudsters in Amsterdam, conversations and telephone discussions were carried out in lingo. They discussed activities of rival criminal cells in Amsterdam, Hilversum, De Hague, Rotterdam and across the border in Brussels.
They debated latest information from their intelligence network and plotted revenge on turncoats found snitching.
As the night wore on, and alcohol began to inflate egos, conversations became boastful and inevitably centred on associates who recently made a killing. One of the “hit men” is a Nigerian called Olu who came to Holland a refugee.
Known by multiple aliases in the cybercrime world, he returned to Nigeria a few years ago and built an eye-catching hotel in the Papa Ajao area of Mushin, Lagos.
Olu owns a country home equipped with a swimming pool and a tennis court in his native Ekiti State.
Early this year, he acquired and re-modelled a massive event centre in Lagos, equipped with 40 units of air conditioners. He added a mini-Disney playground for children. He also owns a clinic and moves about town in a convoy of exotic cars.
It is well known that a good number of Nigerian fraudsters rose from humble refugee status to become instant millionaires in the Netherlands.
Olu is estimated to worth over N2 billion, yet he is not considered one of the richest.
Nigerian fraudsters invented or modified popular fraud ploys like the Advance Fee Fraud, Red Mercury Scam, credit card fraud, lottery scam, solid mineral scam, the rich widow scam and God-knows-what-else.
But some of them made fortunes by attacking financial institutions in the Netherlands.
One of the most talked-about cases in Nigerian underworld discourse involved the Dutch bank, ABN AMRO. A Nigerian involved in the serial heist that climaxed in 2005 disclosed that his own cell defrauded the bank of 5.2 million euros before the game was up.
A Dutch investigative journalist, Anneke Verbraeken, believed that ABN AMRO lost much more than what was made public. She said crimes of such nature are hardly talked about because often times victims choose to remain silent and banks would not cry out either, not to shatter depositors’ confidence.
Investigations conducted in the Netherlands and neighbouring Belgium revealed that the Nigerians took time to weave an intricate web. Recruitment of members of the fraud gang began early at the asylum reception centre in Ter Apel.
At least that was where one of the Nigerians made the acquaintance of a Surinamese who would be offered employment years later by ABN AMRO.
While the technical details remain obscure, the Nigerians basically used the Surinamese insider knowledge and complicity to open dozens of bank accounts using fictitious names and forged documents.
Usually, they met outside the bank. The Surinamese supplied the information on new banking schemes the gang could take advantage of. The Nigerians rarely visited the bank premises. Documents for setting up new accounts, including passports, were supplied to the Surinamese at their meeting place.
Ordinarily, when a client presents a document like a passport to a bank, the bank verifies it, makes copies and returns the original to the client.
Because all the documents the Nigerians supplied, including job guarantees with fat salary contracts, were forged, they supplied only photocopies to the Surinamese who took them to his office and passed them on as papers he had treated.
When his supervisors demanded that certain information be cross-checked with certain employers, to verify if a prospective account owner actually worked with an organisation or earned the salary stated in his contract, the Surinamese reported back that he had done so.
Once an account was opened, the fraudsters applied for loans which they did not intend to repay. Then they just sat back and watched the loans roll in from dozens of accounts.
To obtain fatter loans, the same process was employed to open business accounts with the crooks claiming to be business owners taking out loans to finance the next profitable venture.
No one can really say how long the Nigerian-Surinamese scheme had been running before the crooks were found out.
Reluctantly but quietly the bank went to court. But it was difficult deciding how best to handle a bunch of Nigerians with doubtful identities who, for all intents and purposes, were ghost customers.
The majority of “bank passes” used in opening the accounts were traced to refugees denied asylum in the Netherlands who swapped them with the Nigerian syndicate for a token.
The prosecution applied the screw on the Surinamese hoping to get to the Nigerians through him. Four Nigerians were initially taken in but the prosecution had a tough time in the face of weak evidence.
Lawyers to the Surinamese argued that, like the bank, he was a victim of the hypnotic powers of diabolical Nigerians. He has been fired by his employers, but the judgment against him is currently on appeal.
Refugees enjoy many rights in the asylum camp. Bank accounts are opened for them through which they receive monthly stipends for their welfare from the Dutch government. For the many who are eventually refused stay, the Nigerian fraudsters solicit and buy their bank documents to clone hundreds of identities.
Femishow disclosed that the Dutch do not trust Nigerians but trust Surinamese, their former colonial servants; therefore, Nigerians find a dozen ways to co-opt and compromise Surinamese, often by first winning the love and confidence of their women.
This investigation by Emmanuel Mayah was first published in Trouw, a Dutch daily newspaper in The Netherlands