This Nigerian Fraudster 'Sold A Fake Airport' That Never Existed For $242m

By Fabrizio Romano


Victor Lustig - Sells the Eiffel tower for 100,000 francs, Emmanuel Nwude, hold my beer - sells an airport that doesn’t exist for $242 million!

The Story of the third biggest crime in banking history.

OK, so I’m not sure what “great” means in this context but I’ve taken it for scale and as far as that goes, very few match the con of Emmanuel Nwude who pulled off one of the largest banking frauds, interestingly, before the ease of global interactions brought about by the internet.


Around 1995, Nwude, a former director in one of Nigeria’s largest banks, along with his local accomplices, exploited their knowledge of local and international banking operations to pull off an elaborate con. Of course as these things go, there had to be some greedy individual(s) at the other end to take the bait. Enter Nelson Sakaguchi, a Director at Brazillian bank Banco Noroeste.

The Con

Cashing in on his experience as a bank Director with regular interactions with Nigeria’s Central Bank, Mr Nwude successfully impersonated the country’s Central Bank governor, contacting Mr Sakaguchi about a new airport Nigeria intended to build in its Capital Abuja. The catch? $10 million in commissions if the deal sailed through. Convinced, Mr Sakaguchi promptly released a total of $191 million in cash and the remainder in the form of outstanding interests to supposedly finance the airport construction project.

How was the fraud discovered?

Interestingly, Nwude’s scam was not discovered until 1997, when the Spanish Banco Santander was conducting its due diligence as part of a take over of Banco Noroeste. A joint board meeting of the banks had seen representatives of the Spanish bank wondering what half of the Brazilian bank’s capital (about two-fifths of Noroeste’s total value) was doing in an unmonitored bank account in the Cayman Islands. Their enquiry prompted investigations in Brazil, Britain, Nigeria, Switzerland, and the United States that eventually uncovered the fraud.

Justice or some of it

Military rule in Nigeria at the time of the discovery meant advance fee frauds were given little or no attention. There was quite frankly, some level of acceptance of crimes that preyed on the greed of foreigners. The return to democratic rule saw a searing need to restore the country’s poor image on various fronts and with advance fee frauds doing the greatest damage, a Financial Crimes Commission was set up in 2002 to specifically tackle these and other financial crimes. By 2004, the no-nonsense head of the commission succeeded in arraigning all members of the crime syndicate and by 2005 following a confession by one member in exchange for a light sentence, the first conviction was made with a 2 and half year sentence as well as an order to repay $25.5 million.

In the course of the trial, various attempts were made to disrupt proceedings with a bomb scare once prompting the trial to be adjourned, an attempt to kidnap a prosecution witness and allegations of money ‘flying around’. The scale of desperation was to be laid bare when the chairman of the commission - a certain Mallam Nuhu Ribadu tendered as exhibit, $75,000 in attempted bribe money (Mr Ribadu was to also tender a $15 million attempted bribe money in court in an unrelated case). Mr Nwude was subsequently arraigned for attempted bribery and kidnapping in addition to the charges he faced.

Following Sakaguchi’s witness, Nwude, realising his game was up, pleaded guilty in return for a lighter sentence and was subsequently sentenced to five concurrent sentences of five years with the entirety of his assets confiscated and returned to his victim along with a $10 million fine paid to the Nigerian government. Released from prison in 2006 Nwude filed a case to reclaim his assets insisting some of them were acquired before the criminal act. He was reported to have successfully reclaimed at least $52 million.

Mr Nwude is currently in jail facing 27 charges including murder, attempted murder, and terrorist attacks following a land dispute in his home community.

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