Investigative report: How Nigerian government allowed fugitive to control sensitive national data

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Mahmood Ahmadu
Mahmood Ahmadu
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Source: BBC, Premium Times

Sensitive information like the passport data of foreigners seeking to enter Nigeria, Bank Verification Numbers (BVN), and the National Identity Numbers (NIN) of Nigerians in the diaspora are in the custody of a company owned by a fugitive who fled abroad after the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) launched an investigation into his business activities, a joint investigation by PREMIUM TIMES and the BBC has revealed.

The embattled businessman’s company is facing trial for organising a controversial recruitment exercise that led to the death of at least 16 Nigerians six years ago.

Mahmood Ahmadu
Mahmood Ahmadu

Prior to 2014, Mahmood Ahmadu was just another Nigerian businessman cutting juicy public procurement deals and bagging lucrative government contracts.

But on March 15, 2014, he rose to national prominence. No fewer than 16 applicants died, and several others were injured, in stampedes across the country during a recruitment exercise his company, Drexel Tech. Nigeria Limited, organised on behalf of the Nigerian Ministry of Interior.

The exercise was organised to fill 4,000 vacant positions in the Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS). With massive unemployment in the country, 676,675 people applied for the openings and the company and the ministry made each applicant pay N1,000 as registration fee for jobs they were not even sure of. That amounted to more than half a billion naira.

However, authorities at the NIS later claimed it was not aware of the recruitment and had no plans to recruit additional personnel into the agency at the time.

Online Integrated Solutions Website Screenshot
Online Integrated Solutions Website Screenshot

“I was surprised about the recruitment exercise because I was not aware of it,” then NIS Comptroller General, David Paradang, later told the Federal High Court in Abuja.

The exercise, which was conducted at stadia and other public places in major cities and towns across the country, was characterised by shoddy organisation, inadequate personnel and abysmal crowd control, an investigation by the National Assembly showed.

The organisers invited more people than venues could accommodate, ostensibly to ensure more people paid the fees, a Senate hearing into the recruitment later heard.

Many applicants, some arriving at the venues as early as dawn, were kept waiting outside for several hours. Due to inadequate personnel to handle the surging and already agitated crowd outside, alternative entrances into most of the venues were shut leaving only one or two entrances to admit several thousands of already tense applicants.

The crowd soon became impatient after rumours went around that some applicants who had gotten inside the venue earlier had started writing the test. The agitated applicants then forced their way into the venues causing stampedes that killed at least 16 applicants and left scores injured.

Corruption and money laundering trial

Two years after the deadly recruitment exercise, the EFCC filed an 11-count charge of fraud and money laundering against Mr Ahmadu’s company, Drexel Tech. Nigeria Limited; a former minister of interior, who approved the tragic recruitment exercise, Abba Moro; Anastasia Daniel-Nwobia, a former secretary in the ministry; and F.O. Alayebami, a deputy director in the ministry.

The EFCC told the court that Mr Ahmadu, who is at large and the co-accused, made a total of N676.67 million from the N1,000 each applicant was charged to register for the recruitment exercise.

The anti-graft agency also said Mr Ahmadu, who was awarded one of the nation’s top honours – Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), by the immediate past president, Goodluck Jonathan, spent about one-third of the fund to purchase two properties in highbrow neighbourhoods in Abuja while N101.2 million was converted to dollars for the personal use of Mr Ahmadu.

Mahmood Ahmadu
Mahmood Ahmadu

While all the other co-accused presented themselves for interrogation and are currently standing trial, the EFCC said Mr Ahmadu absconded and did not present himself to be interrogated for his role in the recruitment saga. He also did not show up for a hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Internal Affairs, committee officials said.

The EFCC subsequently threatened to declare him wanted.

“We may enlist INTERPOL and relevant agencies in The UK to track down Mahmood Ahmadu,” Wilson Uwujiaren, the then spokesperson of the EFCC, reportedly told The Nation newspaper in 2016.

“He used to have companies in the UK and with his biometrics, there is no hiding place for him. We have already watch-listed him. This makes him a security risk wherever he goes. It is in his interest to come out of hiding.”

When contacted, the EFCC said Mr Ahmadu remained on its radars.

“Mahmood Ahmadu is still at large,” Tony Orilade, current spokesperson of the commission, told PREMIUM TIMES recently via SMS when asked if the EFCC was still looking for Mr Ahmadu.

He explained that the commission had closed its case against the businessman and that his defence filed a no-case submission in response to the charges.

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“Remember, he was charged for money laundering,” Mr Orilade added.

According to Nigerian law, Mr Ahmadu is presumed innocent until otherwise stated by a competent court of law.

A cover-up?

Soon after Mr Ahmadu was charged for fraud by the EFCC, a process was activated to delink Drexel Tech Nigeria Limited from the similarly named but UK-registered Drexel Tech Global Ltd.

According to Opencorporates, on August 26, 2014, five months after the recruitment fiasco, Mr Ahmadu dissolved Drexel Tech Global Ltd.

Details sourced from Company House and Opencorporate revealed that the company was established in June 2011 as a private limited company with Mr Ahmadu and one Theresa Mahoney, an American, as its original directors.

The original shareholder of the company was listed as Drexel Tech Global Incorporated, a company registered in Mauritius, a notorious offshore tax haven.

In Nigeria, despite being listed as a registered company on its websites with registration number 994063, a physical search for the registration detail of Drexel Tech. Nigeria Limited at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) returned no result. Some CAC insiders suggested the documents may have been deliberately pulled out to hide the identities of persons behind the company or other details about it.

In charge of sensitive data

But while Mr Ahmadu remains at large, our investigation has revealed that another of his companies, Online Integrated Solutions Limited (OIS), is currently in charge of collecting sensitive data of Nigerians and foreigners on behalf of the Nigerian Immigration Service, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC).

On its website, OIS claimed it is present and conducting businesses on behalf of these agencies in 25 major cities across the world including Abuja, Pretoria, New York, London Berlin, New Delhi, and Ottawa. The company prides itself as “a specialist Nigerian visa and passport application agency” in partnership with diplomatic missions across the world to “expedite hitch-free travel” to global destinations.

Apart from offering visa services, the company does enrollment of Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) for Nigerians in the diaspora and is licensed by the NIMC to enrol Nigerians abroad in the National Identification Number (NIN) “and subsequent issuance of the NIN which will be integrated into the Country’s National Database.”

The company also helps with medical tourism, and educational support services for Nigerians seeking admission into institutions abroad.

Nigerian High Commission UK
Nigerian High Commission UK

On February 15, 2016, about a week before he was charged with fraud and money laundering for the botched recruitment exercise of 2014, Mr Ahmadu resigned as director of the UK subsidiary of OIS.

The company then appointed Momodu Abdul-Kareem, a Nigerian, and Archibald Coker, a British national, as directors. But searches on Opencorporates and details gleaned from the OIS Certificate of Incorporation revealed that Mr Ahmadu is still the sole shareholder and ultimate beneficial owner of the company.

Nigeria Embassy US Screen shot
Nigeria Embassy US Screen shot

Mr Abdul-Kareem and Coker are also the directors of two other companies -OIS Money Ltd and Apex Money Limited owned by Mr Ahmadu and his wife, Maryam.

Visa application business

On the websites of the High Commission in the UK and the Nigerian Embassy in the United States, foreigners seeking visas into the country were directed to submit their applications to OIS offices in London and in the Metro area of Washington DC, respectively.

The Nigerian consular offices in both countries also instructed visa applicants that apart from the official visa fee charged by the Nigerian government, they should be ready to pay extra charges imposed by OIS for processing their documents.

Several foreign nationals who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said their applications for visas into Nigeria were processed by OIS. There were however mixed reactions about how efficiently OIS is handling the process.

“I came across them last year when I wanted to apply for a visa,” said James Wan, the editor of the pan-African news website, African Argument. “You have to go through OIS basically.”

Mr Wan, who described OIS as “pretty efficient” and “well-run”, however, said he was charged an extra £72 by OIS for basically collecting the envelope containing his travel documents apart from the £135 official visa fee.

“There is no other way of getting a visa (to Nigeria),” said Emma Hooper, a communication consultant, who said her visa application to Nigeria was handled by OIS. “They processed the visa application on behalf of the High Commission and handled the entire process.”

OIS is the only service provider working with the Nigerian High Commission,” said UK-based university lecturer, who asked not to be named.

“The service was good, but the various fees do not add up,” the lecturer said. “In comparison, a single-entry visa is pretty expensive. Also, costly and time-consuming is the required appointment the OIS office in London to take the applicants biometric data, especially for those not living in London.”

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However, in the U.S., one visa applicant said she was displeased with the services of OIS.

Aubrey Hruby, an Investment advisor based in Washington DC, said she used OIS two years ago when she renewed her visa to Nigeria.

“I used to go to the embassy (to renew my visa),” she said. “They don’t renew at the embassy anymore. I had to travel outside Maryland to OIS Office. The office is not nice.”

She also raised concerns that OIS employees at the Maryland office were not Nigerians but Filipinos.

“They take your bio-metric. You can’t tell they are going to protect your bio-metric,” she said.

We are not aware

When reached for comment by the BBC, Mr Ahmadu responded with a letter via his counsel, S.I Ameh, claiming the publication of this report would be in violation of Nigerian law since the matter was still in court. Mr Ameh stated that his client (Mr Ahmadu) preferred not to take part in such “illegality”.

“Be advised that our client will not participate in such illegality and any attempt by you and or your organisation -BBC to publish anything that is capable of prejudging the matter, contemptuous of the court or that proceeding before it, libellous of our client, or even prejudicial to his business interest or person will be vehemently resisted with every legal arsenal at our disposal,” Mr Ameh wrote.

Meanwhile, another legal representative of Mr Ahmadu, Theodore Mayaki, told PREMIUM TIMES he was not aware that the EFCC had described Mr Ahmadu as being at large in a court document. Mr Mayaki also said he was not aware that Mr Ahmadu was charged for money laundering.

When asked to comment on Mr Ahmadu’s company’s possession of sensitive data of some foreigners and those of Nigerians in the diaspora, Mr Mayaki said, “You can’t ask me that question because I already answered the first two questions you gave me in the negative. You asked me if I am aware, I said no. But you’re assuming. If I didn’t answer the first two questions in the affirmative your follow-up question is very preposterous, to say the least.”

He added that Mr Ahmadu was not listed as a defendant in the case.

But when this reporter pointed out that despite not being listed as a defendant, Mr Ahmadu was specifically charged for fraud and money laundering in counts 1, 2, 9, 10 and 11 of the suit, Mr Mayaki insisted on discussing “facts and not fiction”. However, when the phone line died mid-conversation, he did not answer or return several subsequent calls made to him.

Similarly, Mr Coker of the UK OIS categorically denied that Mr Ahmadu was charged for money laundering. He also said that Mr Ahmadu is not at large.

“I don’t have anything to say about that as such but as you know, you have contacted me and the best thing to do is to follow the due process which is contacting the police, the army, and the air force and all these kinds of things and also INTERPOL because as you said, according to your source, he is a wanted person then I think by now he should have been arrested.

“But if by those allegations that are baseless and someone is trying to achieve their own aim through whatever means but I can assure you, I don’t know where you got your information from.”

When told Mr Ahmadu was clearly described by the EFCC as being at large in court papers, Mr Coker replied:

“Anyone can print court papers. You yourself can source court papers which are not legally right. Have you gone to the chief justice and ask them if this is genuine information?”

He is still at large, EFCC insist

But the EFCC spokesperson said both men were merely trying to obfuscate the facts of the case. He forwarded a statement he said he got from the EFCC prosecuting team which reads:

“Mahmood Ahmadu is the alter ego of Drexel Tech Nig Ltd, the company that was used, under the leadership of Senator Abba Morro as minister of interior, to collect a humongous amount from victims/ applicants of the Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS, recruitment. The case against him subsist. The charge sheet read that he is at large. When judgement will be delivered, definitely pronouncement will be made concerning him and his company. The position of the commission is clear: the proceed of the recruitment remains illegal and the proceeds should be returned to the “unfortunate” applicants.

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“The EFCC is aware he is hiding in Europe. He has not been seen since arraignment; hence he was declared to be at large and hence the charge sheet reads at large.”

EFCC Operatives
EFCC Operatives

The EFCC, however, did not explain the efforts it made to reach Mr Ahmadu before declaring him a fugitive.

Meanwhile, Jiti Ogunye, a Lagos-based lawyer further clarified why the EFCC did not list Mr Ahmadu as a defendant despite naming him in five of the 11 charges of the suit.

Mr Ogunye explained that by virtue of Section 36 of the Nigerian Constitution, an accused person may not be tried in absentia. He explained that since Mr Ahmadu is a fugitive from the law, the EFCC could not have listed him as a defendant until he is apprehended.

“If the EFCC arrests him today, they will apply to the court to amend the charges and he would be listed as a defendant,” Mr Ogunye explained.

Section 36 (6) reads: “Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be entitled to- (a) be informed promptly in the language that he understands and in detail of the nature of the offence; (b) be given adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence; (c)defend himself in person or by legal practitioners of his own choice; (d) examine, in person or by his legal practitioners, the witnesses called by the prosecution before any court or tribunal and obtain the attendance and carry out the examination of witnesses to testify on his behalf before the court or tribunal on the same conditions as those applying to the witnesses called by the prosecution.”

No word from the Nigerian government

PREMIUM TIMES contacted the Ministry of Interior, the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Nigerian Identity Management Commission (NIMC) for comments but we were either ignored or given the runaround.

When reached to react to our findings, the Director of Information, Ministry of Interior, Mohammed Manga, said we should contact the NIS. The spokesperson of the NIS, Sunday James, said he was not aware of the case. He added that since the matter is in court, he would rather not comment.

“Surprisingly the recruitment case you mentioned, and visa issue are practically two different things; the NIS had by government directive addressed the 2014 recruitment and series of successful recruitments have taken place thereafter,” he said.

“Please verify the status of the person you are investigating with the EFCC,” he added.

The spokesperson of the CBN, Isaac Okoroafor, is yet to return calls made to his mobile telephone. He also did not reply to the SMS messages sent to him.

In its own reaction, the NIMC admitted that OIS is in partnership with one of its service providers.

National Identity Management Commission-NIMC
National Identity Management Commission-NIMC

The spokesperson for the agency, Kayode Adegoke, explained that in compliance with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) “and other data protection authorities worldwide no service provider licensed by NIMC stores ID data. All data collected is through NIMC certified enrolment software, fully secured that transmit data to only NIMC database.”

“Our licensing agreement does not permit for copying data by any means. A breach of which is a ground for termination and prosecution under the NIMC Act, Cybercrime Prohibition Act and with respect to the diaspora, in addition to above, the data protection laws and regulations of each country of operation,” he said.

A dent on Nigeria’s image

Abdul Mahmud, a human rights lawyer, said while it is “morally wrong that the company is owned by an individual who is on the run,” there is nothing that makes OIS operation illegal.

He explained that OIS is a different legal entity from Mr Ahmadu and as long as there is no criminal relationship with the on-going corruption trial in court, it has done nothing illegal.

Olanrewaju Suraj, the chair of Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA), a good governance non-governmental organisation, said the fact that OIS is enjoying the patronage of government agencies while running from justice exposes “a lack of coordination in government.”

He said the government should have suspended all kinds of patronages between it and any company owned by Mr Ahmadu immediately he was declared to be at large.

“We have to call for a suspension or revocation of the contract involving the company,” he said.

He added that having a company owned by a fugitive handling sensitive documents such as the passport and visa process of foreign nationals a dent on the image of the country abroad.

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