Could some ‘Yahoo boys’ in EFCC custody be innocent
By O’star Eze
The news media across the country have been awash with reports of mass arrest of many individuals, mostly young people as suspects of internet fraud. It became worrisome when there arose public outcry in Lagos state and elsewhere that the police were even arresting people based on their hairstyle, a pointer to the fact that many currently being held as internet fraud suspects by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) might, indeed, be innocent, Orient Daily investigation reveals.
From jobless to crypto to EFCC
Obinna Okafor came out with 3rd Class degree in mass communication from the Nnamdi Azikiwe University. He spent three years jumping from one uncle’s home to another cousin’s lodge before he settled for learning forex trading and cryptocurrency. He became so good at it that he started making money and, at a point, bought a car. A certain client soon makes a wrong transaction with some crypto he bought and loses money in the process. He involves the EFCC, getting them to take on the cryptocurrency forex entrepreneur. The EFCC raided Obinna’s home, paraded him like a common criminal in the media – social and conventional, even when he had not been tried.
Sharing the case file which he was handling, Barrister Emeka (not real name) practising in Awka, Anambra state capital who spoke to Orient Weekend, alleged that the EFCC, was usually more interested in either ripping off the suspect or establishing that the suspect was guilty of internet fraud. He added that the Nigerian law had no provision for the regulation of such transactions as cryptocurrency, adding that it is still categorised under the class of Ponzi Scheme or, at best, forex trading.
“I had a client who was running a cryptocurrency network business here in Anambra. It would be unprofessional to disclose the names of the characters in this story. He was able to get a wealthy man to invest 100 million naira in the networking business. In the course of a few months, the man received 34 million naira as his premium. As such network businesses were wont to, a lull set in and the returns were no longer coming as before. The wealthy man begged to bow out from the business and asked for his initial capital to be returned to him. He was asked to be patient and continue in the business that his money was no longer available. He called the EFCC on the person that introduced him to the scheme, my client. The EFCC froze the account of my client,” the barrister narrated.
Note that the crypto-currencies are largely designed to operate without sovereign regulation and are protected from being discovered by government authorities for supervision. Crypto-currency does not require any material resources for its production as it is generated through highly encrypted computer programs, stored on computers and its transactions are performed through the Internet.
Suspicions associated with cryptocurrency and regulation issues in Nigeria
Given that cryptocurrencies are designed to evade regulation and because of its resultant volatility, a lot of suspicion has been associated with it. Even US president, Donald J. Trump, was quoted as saying that ”crypto currencies are not money given; they are highly volatile and tend to facilitate criminal behavior.”
In the academic work, “Nigeria: Crypto Currency In Nigeria: Regulatory Framework & Related Issues,” the author, Serah Onyeche Sanni, wrote, “Relatively, the Nigeria government has attempted to place a ban on crypto currency, although its legal status remains ambiguous unlike in countries like Morocco and Algeria where there is a clear ban on trading in bitcoins such that a breach attracts heavy fines.”
One of the actions taken by the Nigerian government is by issuing very strong notices about the likely pitfalls of investing in the crypto currency markets. Such warnings were issued by the Central Bank (CBN) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The warnings are largely designed to educate the citizenry about the difference between actual currencies; which are issued and guaranteed by the state, and crypto currencies; which are not. The government also added the risk resulting from the high volatility associated with crypto currencies and the fact that many of the organisations that facilitate such transactions are unregulated. It was also emphasised that citizens who invest in crypto currencies do so at their own peril and personal risk and that no legal recourse was available to them in the event of loss.”
[Related] Yahoo Boys Jailed In Lagos
The various warnings issued also project the opportunities that crypto currencies create for illegal activities, such as money laundering and terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, human trafficking, and support for radical movements. In January 2017, the CBN issued a statement banning any transactions in bitcoins. This was carried out by the regulator bank circulating a statement to all banks in the country warning them against facilitating the trading of bitcoins in the country. The CBN stated that traders risked losing all their money when they trade in a currency that is not regulated. This risk is largely associated to the volatile nature of crypto currencies. However, a lot of people did not heed this warning as most crypto currency exchanges continued to operate as usual.
Nigeria’s SEC also made a statement in 2017 warning bitcoin traders to exercise extreme caution. Again, in March, 2018, the CBN reiterated its stance on crypto currencies warning traders that digital assets are a mere gamble.
The trade in crypto currency is not extinguished despite the series of warnings. The CBN, however, took decisive steps by having an organised committee to review and articulate a road map for blockchain and crypto currency regulation as well as the possible safety when used as an asset of value and in line with global practices.
Like most African countries, Nigeria is yet to introduce a legal framework or legislation for crypto currencies or crypto exchanges but there is great interest to develop one very soon. Following the moves taken by the CBN and SEC, Nigerian lawmakers have also urged the regulatory authorities to speed up efforts in introducing a legal framework for crypto currencies in the country.
Revealing another angle to the discussion, a senior state counsel with the Anambra State Judiciary, department of public prosecution, Barrister Ikechukwu Eze, disagreed with Barrister Emeka. He opined that, while there were boys being arrested and harassed unjustly by the EFCC, they were usually those engaged in genuine dating with old women from other continents. He stated that because the individuals involved disclosed their real identity on the dating sites and gave these old women romance and attention which they were obviously being starved of in their country of origin, the women part with money willingly keeping the person innocent according to the law.
“You can only establish that a crime has been committed if there is a victim. I have legally consulted for clients who were picked up and paraded by the police or the EFCC simply because they owned luxury cars and latest phones and lived in lush neighbourhoods. They would arrest, harass and dehumanise them claiming to have email evidence that they client were guilty. It was, however, realized, in the cause of cross examination, that my client was in a genuine relation with the Ukrainian lady who he was corresponding with via the email. Such a case was struck out of court for lack of merit. Meanwhile, my client confided in me that he had been made to part with some amount of money on several occasion because he was made to believe he was a yahoo boy.”
While the United States of America has set up agencies that seek to regulate the cryptocurrencies, the number of fraudsters continues to eclipse that of genuine internet entrepreneurs soiling the reputation of these legitimate internet business people. Many lawyers are of the view that the legal framework that covers internet activities needs a complete overhaul in order not to continue the current trend of throwing away the baby with the dirty water.