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No Punishment For The Well Connected

By Bolaji Ojo

Meet Fred Ajudua, Nigeria's most celebrated scammer

Last March, as Fred Ajudua sat in court on trial for 19 letter-scam fraud charges brought against him by the Nigerian police, half of the people from his home village of Ibusa traveled to Lagos to keep vigil outside the courtroom. Alfred Kasumu, a former professor of law at the University of Lagos, led a 10-man defense team. That week a two-page advertisement in a national daily detailed the 2,014 high school students and undergraduates to whom Ajudua had given scholarships in the previous year. The ad was signed by Nosike Ikpo, a former senator in Nigeria's extremely corrupt Second Republic.

Fred Ajudua understands how his society works and had prepared well for his days of trouble. Even before his incarceration, Ajudua, 34, a Lagos-based lawyer, was one of Nigeria's most famous letter-scam operators. Ajudua achieved celebrity status in 1993 when he engineered a public stock listing for FCA Finance House, a Lagos savings and loan company. He drove around in a police-led convoy. Nobody questioned the source of his wealth. As his entourage multiplied, Ajudua became a darling of the Lagos jet set. He received many honorary traditional titles and counted top military and police officers among his friends.

Ajudua was a smooth operator, probably one of the best. Victims were won over by his charm, his coterie of attendants and the ace in his arsenal: a trip to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for a peek at the check guaranteeing the promised money transfer. Nelson Allen, a Canadian who lost $285,000 to Ajudua and the only foreigner to have given mail-fraud evidence in a Nigerian court of law, told a stunned Lagos courtroom last January how he visited the CBN with Ajudua and met an assistant director of the bank who "opened a file on his desk containing original documents of the contract and check for $28.5 million." Other known Ajudua victims -- most prefer to lick their wounds in private -- include Technex Import and Export Co. of Germany, which lost $230,000, and a German woman who lost $350,000 trying to collect purported dividends left by her late husband.

The Ajudua saga epitomizes a corrupt system that appears indifferent to negative publicity. Despite Allen's damning testimony, Ajudua has yet to be convicted and, say observers, will most likely walk free. Asia, Inc. learned that strong pressure from his friends -- among them a brigadier general in the Nigerian army who gave Ajudua refuge during a desperate search for him by police -- resulted in Ajudua being arrested under Decree Two, an executive order that provides for the detention of people without trial or the possibility of inquiry by the judiciary. Many believe the government acted to keep police investigators away from Ajudua and move the case to the back burner of public debate.

Allen's decision to give evidence in Lagos, at the prompting of the Canadian High Commission, has nullified the standard argument of Nigerian officials that victims are reluctant to testify. So the government now seems to be following a different strategy. Alshory Algodji, an Indonesian businessman who almost fell prey to scam artists in 1993, told the Nigerian Embassy in Jakarta that he was prepared to give evidence in Lagos. Algodji even sent copies of the documents received from the con men directly to the Nigerian police. Two years later, Algodji is still waiting to hear from them.

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