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Emmanuel Nwude: The Man who Sold a Fake Airport for $242 Million

These days, with the internet being at everyone’s fingertips and almost all transactions, no matter how big or small tracked digitally, pulling off fraud at high levels is nearly impossible.

Scammers and thieves have had to adapt, changing tactics, and doing their shady business behind keyboards instead of in back alleys or corrupt conference rooms.

Photograph of Emmanuel Nwude.

But not too long ago, in the 1990s, pulling off a multi-million dollar scam across countries was much easier, and no story is a better example than that of Emmanuel Nwude’s fake airport scam.

Between 1995 and 1998, Emmanuel Nwude managed to steal almost a quarter of a Billion dollars from a Brazilian bank after convincing its naive director that the money would go towards a non-existent brand-new airport in Nigeria’s capital.

In this article, we’ll look deeper into the third-largest bank fraud in history and what happened when Nwude’s lies finally came to light.

Unraveling Nigeria’s Biggest Fraud

Nigeria has a reputation as a hotspot of internet scams and has held that title for quite some time.

From fake stories of impoverished princes to carefully disguised get-rich-quick schemes, Nigerian scammers have become so prevalent that “Nigerian Money Transfer Scams” are a category all their own on government anti-cybercrime websites.

Called “419 scams”, the name stems from the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code regarding internet fraud as well as other types of scams.

What Emmanuel Nwude pulled off, though, was much more advanced than the typical 419 scam, and it required an internal knowledge of the Nigerian banking system as well as taking on a fake identity to pull off.

Nwude wasn’t a part-time fraudster, either. Unlike current scammers who ask for things like Apple gift cards, the scale of Nwude’s heist was astronomical.

To simplify things, we can break down Emmanuel Nwude’s plan into three steps:

● Impersonate Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Paul Ogwuma.

● Contact the victim, the director of Brazil’s Banco Noroeste Nelson Sakaguchi, about an incredible business opportunity–a brand new airport in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja.

● Receive as much as possible in cash and spread the rest of the money into multiple accounts around the world to avoid suspicion.

Anatomy Of The Airport Scam Deception

Multiple pieces had to fall into place for Nwude to pull the airport scam off. He needed the right target–someone who had a high enough position in a bank to access the needed funds, who was also naive enough to believe Nwude’s deception, while also being willing to embezzle money from their own bank.

They found their mark in one Nelson Sakaguchi, the Director of Brazil’s Banco Noroeste. On the surface, Sakaguchi should have been too legitimate to be a possible target. He had spent years as a professional international banker and found vast success with his dealings. 

This success is what landed him the position with Banco Noroeste, but something about him must have caught Nwude’s eye.

Maybe it was because, for a time, Emmanuel Nwude had been a high-level baker, too. Before he became the mastermind behind one of the biggest bank frauds ever, he was the Director of the Union Bank of Nigeria.

Union Bank of Nigeria was legitimate; it had been operating in Nigeria since 1917. Working for them had given Nwude an inside knowledge of the world of banking, making it easy for him to assume the identity of another high-level banker to trick Sakaguchi.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Nelson Sakaguchi had received a fax from Tafida Williams, who claimed to be a senior staff member at the Federal Government of Nigeria within the Ministry of Aviation. 

William’s letter would say that Nigeria’s Ministry of Aviation was looking for investors for a new airport in the country’s capital, Abuja. In return for the investment, Sakaguchi would receive a personal commission of $10 million. The idea made sense to Sakaguchi.

In 1976, the Nigerian government switched the capital from the island city of Lagos to Abuja, which was more centrally located.

Since the switchover, no major airport had been built, and the country was undergoing an economic boom, which meant an airport should have been a brilliant investment. Sakaguchi was in, and he wanted more information.

Soon, Nelson Sakaguchi was in London, ready to meet with the representatives from the Ministry of Aviation and the rest of the Nigerian delegation.

A man, obviously the leader of the Nigerian team, greeted Sakaguchi as Paul Ogwuma, who was, at the time, the Director of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Alongside him was the representative from the Ministry of Aviation.

Sakaguchi had heard of Ogwuma, and his reputation was pristine. He had no reason not to feel confident in the upcoming meeting.

It didn’t take long for a deal to be struck–$50 million from Sakaguchi’s Banco Noroeste. It was already an enormous deal, but that figure would quickly balloon from the tens of millions into the hundreds of millions.

Photograph from the 1970s depicts a branch of Brazil’s Banco Noroeste. Image via Maringa Historica.

By the end of it all, Nelson Sakaguchi would be scammed out of $242 million, $191 million of it being paid in cash.

Of course, no Abuja Airport was being built to invest in, and while Paul Ogwuma was a real, successful banker, he was certainly not the man Sakaguchi met that day. Instead, he had met one of Nigeria’s most capable scammers, Emmanuel Nwude.

Everything, from the first fax to the final exchange of money, was fake. Nelson Sakaguchi had been thoroughly scammed, and Banco Noroeste would have to bear the consequences of its director’s actions.

Exposing The Truth Behind Emmanuel Nwude’s Airport Scam

Everything came tumbling down for Nelson Sakaguchi when another corporation, the Spanish bank Banco Santander, expressed interest in buying out the struggling Banco Noroeste.

Little did they know that Banco Noroeste was struggling because of Sakaguchi’s failings.

During a joint board meeting between the two banks, questions were raised about the strange allocation of some of Banco Noroeste’s funds. Over half of the bank’s capital wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and instead, was in a strange bank account in the Cayman Islands. 

It was an enormous amount of money, and Sakaguchi had no answers to give any other board members. 

Slowly, the truth began to trickle out–Sakaguchi had been scammed and had used the bank’s capital to pay for the fake airport investment. He was in too deep, and there was no going back.

Criminal investigations were immediately launched, and all trails led back to Nigeria, but not to the Ministry of Aviation or the Central Bank of Nigeria. Instead, they led to notorious scam artist Emmanuel Nwude.

The Fallout Of The Nwude Airport Scam

As it turned out, Emmanuel Nwude hadn’t acted alone. He had several accomplices who had filled out the group that originally met Sakaguchi in London, which meant that while Nwude was going down, he wasn’t going down alone.

Photograph of the ringleader of the group, Emanuel Nwude.

In February 2004, Emmanuel Nwude and his accomplices Amaka Anajemba, Emmanuel Ofolue, Nzeribe Okoli, and Obum Osakwe were arrested in Abuja. 

Just two years prior, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had sworn to crack down on the rampant Nigerian scams, starting with the creation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. 

This meant that Emmanuel Nwude and his crew had no chance of getting away with their airport fraud deception.

After multiple trials, a bomb threat to the courthouse, a second arrest, bribery, attempted kidnapping, and finally, the all-important testimony of Nelson Sakaguchi, some justice would be served. 

Nwude pulled out all the stops during his trials to try and get out of trouble, using this vast criminal empire and associates outside of the prison to cause trouble and chaos to disrupt the proceedings, but it wasn’t enough.

Sakaguchi, who had also been arrested in the United States over his embezzlement and opening bank accounts to participate in the airport scam fraud, was the key to getting Emmanuel and his accomplices convicted. 

After his testimony, Nwude, who had previously pleaded not guilty, changed his plea to guilty. There was no escaping it–he had been caught.

Nwude would be sentenced to twenty-five years in prison–five sentences of five years, all of which could be served consecutively. This meant that while he would be serving twenty-five years on paper, he only had to stay in prison for five years before being released. 

He would be forced to give up his assets to pay back the hundreds of millions that had been stolen from Banco Noroeste, but he would later challenge the seizure and regain some of those assets.

Nelson Sakaguchi wouldn’t escape without punishment, either. He would go on to serve two years in prison in Switzerland for money laundering.


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