The story of how Ramoni Abbas, alias Hushpuppi, the alleged Dubai-based multi-million dollar internet fraudster made his money, is no longer news. But although he is now cooling his feet in custody somewhere in Los Angeles, California, USA, as he awaits his day in court, some men and officers of Nigeria Police Force now see his ghost walking about everywhere they go for patrol or mount a checkpoint.
This is because police patrols and checkpoints these days have become dreaded spots in the country as young ones, irrespective of their occupation, are forced to either part with some money in a bid to buy their freedom or, are taken to the police station and locked up over spurious suspicion and unsubstantiated allegations. Saturday Sun gathered that new cars, iPhones, expensive wears and the presence of Bitcoins in one’s wallet or possession are among the items that attract the prying eyes and wrath of the officers and men in police uniform to accuse one of being an internet fraudster. In their own thinking, only a fraudster could be in possession of any or all of these. The situation is that bad.
University student arrested and extorted N65,800
Olamilekan Adebayo, a student in one of the universities in Nigeria before the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home, shared his ugly experience with this correspondent. The young man who got a temporary job as an enumerator for public property in Ibadan, in a bid to drive away boredom while waiting for universities to resume studies, said he was coming out from a nearby eatery where had gone to buy snacks, in company of a friend, when they were accosted by policemen. They promptly arrested and took them to Moniya Police Station, Ibadan and charged them with internet fraud.
“They did so because we had on us iPhones,” he said. “In the course of interrogation they searched my phone, read all my WhatsApp chats and saw a crypto-currency wallet app with coins and dollar and concluded that they were right about their suspicion.” He tried to explain to them but “all they were concerned with is what I was doing with dollar. It was that dollar icon on my phone that they held on to as major evidence against me. We later bailed ourselves with N40, 800 each. We had to do that because they threatened to hand us over to EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission).
The men who insisted that he must go out and withdraw the agreed amount from a nearby ATM point seized his phone. He only got it back after doing so. But as if that was not enough a calamity, on July 16, 2020, he again fell into their trap when he went to a bank to request for a new ATM card. “I told them that I was just released from that same station and that I paid more than N40,000 before I could gain my freedom. But instead of listening to me, they slapped me, collected my ID card and my phones and asked me to write a statement. After forcing me to write a false statement, they asked me to pay N50, 000 to bail myself. But I refused because I didn’t have it.”
But when they resorted to intimidation by yelling and cursing, he had no choice than to borrow N25, 000 from a friend to bail himself. He stated that he was questioned several times on why he had in his possession, two phones and where he got the money to purchase the iPhone.
“They accused me of being a Yahoo guy, maybe because I wore jean jacket, black jean, and Nike slide,” he said. “I’m a government worker. I even showed them my ID card but they didn’t budge. I missed work for two days because of my arrest and that is a minus. I would have called someone from the office to help me but my phones and ID were with them. They seized them after my arrest.”
Another victim appeals to police conscience
Ikechukwu Anyanwu, another victim of police harassment, but from Ogun State said he was coming from his tailor’s workshop when he was accosted by two police officers. They asked to check his phone and wallet after accusing him of being involved in internet fraud. “They searched all the details on my phone thinking that I’m a Yahoo guy. But unfortunately they found nothing incriminating.” Police harassment on this score, he noted, is becoming too embarrassing such that “now, young men are afraid to move freely with their phones and other things.” He advised that doesn’t seem to be the proper way to ascertain if one is involved in internet fraud or not. “Even if they suspect someone, proper investigations should be carried out but not through unnecessary stop-and-check they do on the road,” he appealed.
Osaigbovo’s smartness saves him and his smart-phone
If in Adebayo and Anyanwu’s case, police accused them of being internet fraudsters, it was not so in Alfred Osaigbovo’s, who they nearly framed with the tag of a cultist. He was only saved from the consequence by his smartness. On the 8th of July, 2020, he travelled to Ekpoma from Benin City for a site survey. But on his way back, he ran into a roadblock somewhere after Ehor town. “We were asked to get down from the vehicle and stay behind our belongings. They searched the bags. After that, they asked to see our phones. If it’s locked, they’d simply request that the owner unlocks it. They go directly to apps such as WhatsApp, Email apps and search some keywords like PayPal, dollar and some other things. If nothing is found, they try to buy airtime with your phone. They tried all that on me but found nothing. But when they tried downloading a picture of a skull onto my phone in order to change my WhatsApp name, I noticed that and strongly objected. That’s how they gave me back the phone. If I had allowed that, they would have used it to label me as a cultist.”
A Nigerian returnee parts with N70,000
But ask Steven Chinedu, a young Nigerian entrepreneur, and he would tell you that the trend of tagging someone a cultist or internet fraudster and thereafter extorting some money from him, had been on long before the Hushpuppi story came to the fore. Though police harassment is alleged to have heightened in the wake of it, the truth is that they have been in pursuit of internet fraudsters popularly known as “Yahoo Yahoo Boys” ever before the world came to know about the alleged king of them all called Hushpuppi.
In Chinedu’s case, he had a sour taste of the experience when he boarded, at Young Legacy Park, Ilorin a bus heading to Lagos. But somewhere on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway their bus was stopped for checking by policemen manning a checkpoint. All the young men were asked to come down and bring out their phones.
“I never knew that was the order of the day because I just came into the country at the time,” he said. “I also never knew that looking good has become a crime. I was with an iPhone, a gold wristwatch, and a Nike airmax 270 shoe and with my AirPod as well. After the first policeman checked and found nothing incriminating on my phone, he asked me to go but one of the policemen insisted that I wouldn’t until he had done his own checking. That was how, after seeing the photos I took with my friends before I returned to the country, he accused me of being a Yahoo Boy. I believe that he did so because of the expensive phone and phone accessories in my possession.
“The other passengers started begging him on my behalf but he and other colleagues who were later attracted by the case refused. They threatened to report me to EFCC. They said that I would go to jail. I was scared and started pleading with them to release me. I was taken to Moniya Police Station in Ibadan. While there, they called a cameraman to take pictures of me and another other guy while we held our phones. It was then I knew they wouldn’t let us go easily. I was asked to pay N500, 000. I offered them first N30, 000 and later N50, 000, after much pleading. They refused and said that their boss has seen us. For that, they said that I would pay N100, 000. I told them I didn’t have such amount of money on me. We kept going back and forth in the haggling until they agreed to collect N70, 000. I was directed to a POS vendor where the cash was withdrawn with my ATM card before they could let me go. It was a very horrible experience.”
Police raid for students and youth corps members
Joshua Oriade, a student in one of the Federal universities, also shared with Saturday Sun his experience, which he said happened before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. His story: “During the semester, some policemen in Hilux open 4-Wheel Drive van drove into our hostel which is located outside the campus, at about 6:30pm. Immediately they arrived, they threatened us with gun and asked us to go into the vehicle. We were eight in number. They took us to the station and locked us up on the false allegation of being internet fraudsters and smokers. They asked us to pay N20, 000 each for bail. Majority of us didn’t have the money. Although those who had, paid and got their freedom, in my own case, I spent one day in the cell before I could get things sorted out.”
Another victim, Tony Gabriel, a youth corps member, also shared the story of how he was arrested and accused of internet fraud, last Easter, while charging his phone in a pools-betting office. Gabriel who is serving in Delta State was in Anambra State to see a friend when the incident happened. According to him, while he was there, some Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) men, said to come from Awkuzu, arrived to conduct a raid. And, and that was how he and 15 others were taken into custody.
“Even though there was lockdown because of Coronavirus, we were made to sit on one another ‘s lap at the back of their van,” he recalled. “When I looked back and saw able-bodied men crying like a baby I knew that I was in soup. But I was surprised when we got to Awkuzu junction and the officers there told the driver to take us to Ukpo Police Station and the other guys started thanking God. I did not understand why. But I later learnt that the officers at Awkuzu beat perceived stubborn ones with cutlass.”
Gabriel, on getting to police station, identified himself by tendering his NYSC ID card. But he was surprised that the officers and men in charge were not moved by that until the owner of the pool-betting office came and bailed all of them out. That notwithstanding, he was detained for failing to pay for some other spurious charges. “As we were leaving the station, the police woman at the counter stopped us and said we must pay for counter money and accommodation. But we told her that we didn’t have the money to do so. She did not allow us to go until one of my cousins arrested along with me sorted out the issue.”
Victim’s advice on how to escape trigger-happy cops
In Courage Omodiagbe’s case, although he was not accused of being an internet fraudster or a cultist, the policemen on duty at a checkpoint somewhere in Abuja, threatened to “waste him” if he did not “Roger” them during the lockdown. To save his life, the young man who was out to buy eggs gave him the N5, 000 that he had on him. He advised young people not to argue with the police because like they threatened they can kill out of anger or unnecessary show of ego. “During the course of argument, some people had lost their lives,” he said. “So if there is no incriminating stuff found on you, your best bet is to let go or follow them to their station. Once you get there, you can put a call across to someone who can help you.”
But contacted on the issue, the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer, Bala Elkana, offered a slightly different counsel from the Omodiagbe’s. Admitting the truth of the matter as “part of the challenge that we found on ground here, of young people being harassed because of how they look, how they dress,” he noted that the state command has “made it clear that it is not a criminal offence for anybody to choose a particular lifestyle or to dress in a particular pattern. It is not a criminal offence for someone to wear dreadlocks, to have tattoos on the body or to buy iPhones; it is your money, it is your life. We have also made it clear that it is wrong for any young man to be harassed on the street.”
He added that his office had provided a platform for anybody with such extortion complaint to do so: “If you follow me on Twitter, you’d discover that there are quite a good number of people who tag me in quite a number of those things and we respond immediately. First, we created an avenue for young people to be able to seek redress, and not to suffer in silence. When they pass through such things, they should be able to seek redress. We have a Commissioner of Police who does not tolerate such nonsense. I’m speaking this way because my office is directly involved. There is a unit in my office that is called Public Complaint Bureau. It is responsible for receiving such complaints, investigating them and ensuring that justice is served. Recently, we recovered N500, 000 extorted from somebody. The Commissioner of Police even personally handed over the money to the person. Towards the end of last year, we were also able to recover about N130, 000 that was extorted from a website designer.”
According to him, over 20 policemen and officers had been dismissed within the past one year for the offence while 50 others have had their ranks reduced. “They were given various degrees of punishment. That is a strong signal we have sent that impunity will not be tolerated and it serves as a deterrent to others.”
He added that the most important thing is that the affected young people have avenues through which to reach the appropriate quarters to seek redress. “They can go on Twitter to tag me. They can also call me. My numbers are on the internet. They can call me directly and I will get the unit to investigate. We have put a lot of measures in place, which is why it has reduced. We have the figures. It has come down drastically compared to how it was before we came on board. There are lots of young men out there who contact us and they can attest to the fact that we actually take actions on complaints they sent to us.
“We don’t tolerate it. My CP will never tolerate it and I will not. Just recently, a young girl was harassed. The video went viral. She was harassed in Ibadan, not even in Lagos. But we traced the identities of the officers and discovered that they were from Lagos and we got them arrested. These are the things we do because we believe that the young men out there must be protected. I’m also thinking of the kids I’m raising in Nigeria. I want them to move freely on the street without being harassed. This is a fight that all of us are passionate about and we are putting in our best to make sure that nobody is harassed out there. Police officers must carry out their duties in line with the laws that empower us to carry out such duties.”
Source: Sun News