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Businessweek

How Instagram’s ‘Billionaire Gucci Master’ Sank Nigeria’s Super Cop

Instagram isn’t exactly known for its fidelity to reality. It’s a place people go to curate an image of their best self, or their aspirational one. But rarely do those images obscure a darker truth to the extent they did back in 2019, in a pair of posts by two public figures from Nigeria.

On Dec. 8, Ramon Abbas, better known as @hushpuppi, Ray Hushpuppi, or the Billionaire Gucci Master, posted a photo of himself lounging on the hood of his purple Rolls-Royce. His outfit, designed by the legendary Virgil Abloh, was a sky blue shirt-and-pants set with a white cloud that appeared to float across his forearms and midriff. He’d parked the Rolls in the driveway of the Palazzo Versace Dubai, a resort-style hotel where he lived in a penthouse apartment. For Abbas, then a 37-year-old influencer who’d gone from a childhood in a poor part of Lagos to an adulthood full of private jets and celebrity friends, this sort of extremely conspicuous consumption was his brand. “I don’t believe in competition,” read the post’s caption. “You’re not me and THATS IT #LouisVuitton #OffWhite #VirgilAbloh #RollsRoyce.”

That same week, 3,000 miles away, Nigeria Police Force Deputy Commissioner Abba Kyari, also known as @abbakyari75, struck a different pose. Kyari’s style was all business: seated at a desk stacked with files, wearing a blue dashiki and his ever-present AirPods. Flanked by two plainclothes deputies, he looked purposefully into the camera. His caption was equally dry: “With my Senior Colleagues today.” Lining the walls behind him were shelves laden with dozens of his awards. In a decade-long string of busts, Kyari, then 44, had captured kidnappers, freed schoolchildren, and hunted assassins. “He was the star,” says Rommy Mom, who sits on Nigeria’s Police Service Commission, an independent body responsible for police oversight. During a yearslong wave of violent crime and terrorism, the Nigerian press had nicknamed Kyari, the chief of the country’s Intelligence Response Team (IRT), the Super Cop.

Kyari’s glowing press ran counter to law enforcement’s checkered reputation in Nigeria. In particular, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS—which Kyari had previously headed for six years in Lagos—was known for a mix of savage brutality and day-to-day corruption. A year later, in 2020, SARS’s tactics would be the subject of large street protests that culminated in the government agreeing to disband it. Even then, Kyari somehow seemed to float above it all.

“Here was someone who was viewed as really uncharacteristically competent at their job in an organization not known for competence,” says Matthew Page, who researches Nigerian corruption as an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank. “That was the narrative around him—that he was actually getting the job done rather than being abusive or on the take.”

The Billionaire Gucci Master and the Super Cop could hardly have seemed more different. Hushpuppi had more than 2 million Instagram followers to Kyari’s 80,000, and he’d have looked about as at home in an office surrounded by paperwork as Super Cop would have on the hood of a purple Rolls. Yet behind each man’s carefully sculpted public image, their fates appear to have been deeply intertwined.

Off camera, Abbas fueled his lifestyle with a different kind of hustle, as an online scammer and money launderer. He was a partner in what are called business email compromise scams, in which hackers penetrate corporate accounts and collect on phony invoices. He moved money for scams that targeted a law firm in New York, a bank in Malta, and a Premier League soccer club. He teamed up with a loose network of hackers and fraudsters—including, at least once, a state-sponsored group from North Korea—in schemes chasing as much as $100 million. Eventually he landed in the crosshairs of the FBI. In June 2020, local police raided his Dubai penthouse and shipped him to the U.S., where last summer he pleaded guilty to money laundering related to scams that brought in close to $24 million. This July, he’ll face a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.

The announcement of Abbas’s plea contained a more explosive revelation, however. The U.S. government alleged that one of the influencer’s fellow conspirators was a man sworn to uphold the law: Abba Kyari.

Kyari was born in Gombe, a town in northeastern Nigeria. His dad, a teacher, raised 30 children in a polygamous family, and Kyari was the eldest. “I handled so many cases whenever my siblings had any problems with one another,” he later said in one Instagram post. “I started my detective work in my house.” After earning a university degree, he graduated from the police academy in 2002 and in eight years rose from street officer to commander of a SARS unit in Lagos. He earned a reputation for risky and aggressive operations against some of the country’s most notorious criminals. By 2016 he’d been plucked to head the Intelligence Response Team, an elite unit created to combat a nationwide kidnapping crisis. He was Nigeria’s youngest high-ranking police official.

As a commander, his exploits were legion. He’d arrested the masterminds of the deadliest robbery in Nigeria’s history and captured the country’s deadliest kidnapper, nicknamed the Vampire. He’d nabbed bombers and arms dealers and taken on the terrorist organization Boko Haram. “It’s very important to send a message to the criminals,” he said in a BBC documentary on his efforts to stem kidnapping. “Kyari and his people will follow you wherever you are, and they will never forget.”

Perhaps most famously, in March 2016, Kyari and his men took over the case of three girls snatched by a gang of kidnappers from a school in Lagos and held for six days. His team reportedly used intelligence from the kidnappers’ families to track them down and recover the girls unharmed. The operation earned him a presidential medal of courage. “He has become known as the saving grace of the Nigeria Police,” declared the online news outlet the Eagle. By 2019, Kyari was widely rumored to be in line—and angling—for the job of inspector general, the top cop.

Beneath the accolades, however, was a disquieting undercurrent. “We had been concerned about the rogue activities of both SARS and the Intelligence Response Team under him,” says Okechukwu Nwanguma, executive director of the Rule of Law & Accountability Advocacy Centre, a police watchdog group. Kyari’s teams, Nwanguma says, “were involved in all manner of criminal activities: obstruction, abduction, intimidation, torture, killings.” Another human-rights advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, detailed years of interviews with arrestees who accused Kyari’s officers of abuses.

Under Kyari’s direction, both men allege, his teams routinely targeted businesspeople for arrest, extorted money from suspects and their families, and in some cases committed extrajudicial killings. In a decade of tracking Kyari, Nwanguma says, he was rarely able to collect enough evidence from intimidated victims to challenge the police. But he estimates that there were hundreds of other cases of abuse: “They would just abduct somebody and say, ‘We are investigating somebody—we saw your name in his phone.’ And they take the person.”

In one incident in 2015, SARS officers under Kyari were accused of torturing and killing an innocent car dealer in Edo State, in Southern Nigeria, and using the dead man’s ATM card to clean out his bank accounts. Five officers were later convicted for the murder. In 2017 a lawyer for a kidnapper whom Kyari had arrested publicly suggested the officers had extorted money and jewelry from the defendant. A year later the widow of a kidnapper who’d been killed in a gun battle with police accused Kyari’s crew of appropriating her late husband’s assets. In mid-2019 a judge ordered Kyari and his team to produce a suspect whose lawyer couldn’t find him and believed he’d died in custody.

All these accusations rolled off Kyari, who didn’t respond to calls and messages seeking comment for this story. He continued to rack up arrests. His Instagram post on Dec. 14, 2019, showed him accepting an award from a Nigerian bank security group in Lagos. In a post from Dec. 17, he stood in front of a group of prisoners seated on the ground, identified in the caption as “72 Notorious Kidnappers/Armed Robbers/Car Snatchers.”

It was around this time, in mid-December, according to the U.S., that Hushpuppi joined a scam already in progress. This con was more old-school than the business email compromise schemes he was a part of. It was a high-level version of a basic advance fee scam: Pay us a little up front, the scammer says, and we’ll guarantee you a huge windfall later. The upfront asks keep coming, and the windfall never arrives.

In this case, the day before his purple Rolls post, Abbas received a message from a Kenyan entrepreneur named Abdulrahman Juma. According to prosecutors, Juma offered to include Abbas in an advance fee scam with an eager mark: a businessperson hoping to build an international school in Qatar. The businessperson, whose name and nationality remain sealed in federal court, needed a $15 million loan for the project and hired a financial adviser to help secure it. Unfortunately, the adviser’s assistance amounted to Googling sources of multimillion-dollar loans. That search led to Juma and his Nairobi company, Westload Financial Solutions Ltd.

Westload’s website promised “financial solutions specialize in financing projects from inception right through operations.” That the site was riddled with errors, including occasionally referring to the company as “West Financial,” failed to raise any red flags. In November 2019 the businessperson traveled to meet Juma and a colleague at Westload’s offices, on the sixth floor of a modern glass office tower in Nairobi’s business district. There, according to the U.S. government’s allegations, Juma signed a contract to arrange the $15 million loan in exchange for a $164,000 upfront “consultancy” payment (the advance fee). The next day the businessperson sent the upfront fee to a law firm of Juma’s choice. Neither Juma, Westload, nor the law firm responded to emails and calls seeking comment.

The scam had already succeeded at this point, but why not try for more? When the businessperson complained that the money hadn’t arrived in his account in Qatar, Juma said it was stuck and it would take an additional $150,000 to release—essentially, a second advance fee. Once again, the businessperson paid up, no doubt hoping it was the final key to the supposed loan.

At this point, according to the court documents, Juma engaged Abbas to help with yet another round of the con. Abbas would pose as a bank manager in the U.S. who could unstick the loan. Via WhatsApp, Abbas messaged the businessperson from a New York City phone number, introducing himself as “Malik,” the “director of the bank responsible for crediting you the funds.” He said that because the Qatari government was under U.S. sanctions, the money would have to go through an American account (which was true enough), and he’d be happy to create one.

And so he did. First, Abbas arranged for a contact in Los Angeles to register a company with the same name as the businessperson’s Qatari company. Then he had a Wells Fargo account opened for the business. There was just one last obstacle, “Malik” now told the businessperson: They’d also need an account in the U.K. to receive the money. He said he’d open an “investor’s account with our private banking service over there” for an advance fee of $330,000.

After a week of hesitation, the businessperson wired $230,000 of the total to a bank “Malik” provided. As it happened, the account belonged to a watch dealer in Florida, and the amount exactly covered a rose-gold and titanium Richard Mille RM 11-03 that Abbas had coveted. “Malik” had the businessperson send the other $100,000 to a Capital One account held by another Abbas associate. Abbas used half of it to purchase bogus citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis—a transaction that involved bribing a government official and faking a marriage certificate.

A week later the watch made its first appearance on Hushpuppi’s Instagram feed. In the image he was standing on the royal purple carpet of the Palazzo Versace Dubai, sporting a Gucci Mickey Mouse T-shirt, his Richard-Mille-clad arm held lightly across it. “One of the best things I learnt that keeps me going,” he wrote, “is to ‘Never take criticism from people I’d never go to for an advice’ ” #Gucci #RichardMille #Versace #Rm1103.”

By January 2020, according to prosecutors, Abbas and Juma were ready for another go. Abbas called on a compatriot in Nigeria, Vincent Kelly Chibuzo, to create a bogus Wells Fargo website and automated support line, which “Malik” passed on to the businessperson. When he called the phone number, the system said the $15 million had come through. “OMG, I can’t believe it, its true,” the businessperson wrote to “Malik.”

The group’s next story was that the businessperson owed a “withholding tax” of $575,000 to get the money from the U.S.

“Are u proud of me or no?” Abbas asked Juma, by text, when they’d enacted the next phase.

“It’s a perfect job bro,” Juma replied.

Perfect, but for one flaw: Chibuzo, according to the allegations, began complaining that he deserved a bigger share of the spoils. When Abbas ignored him, Chibuzo decided to strike out on his own. On Jan. 13 he called the businessperson directly and told him both Juma and “Malik” were “fake.” The businessperson should stop paying them, he said. They should pay Chibuzo, instead: It was he who could actually free up the loan.

The now-baffled businessperson relayed all this to Juma, who forwarded it to Abbas.

Abbas replied that he would “deal with” Chibuzo. A few minutes later, according to the complaint, he called Kyari.

The connection between the influencer and the Super Cop went back to at least the previous September, when Kyari paid a visit to Dubai for unknown reasons. The origins of their relationship are murky, but according to court documents, Abbas loaned Kyari a car and driver for his stay. A few weeks later, Kyari sent Abbas a slideshow of photos from the trip and an article about his recent arrest of a kidnapper. “Am really happy to be ur boy,” Abbas responded. “I promise to be a good boy to u sir.” Unusually for the two prolific Instagram users, both fond of being seen with other famous people, neither ever posted about the other. Whatever the nature of their connection, it wasn’t something they wanted to publicize.

Now, in January 2020, it seemed Abbas was looking for help in neutralizing his scam partner gone rogue. Moments after reaching out to Kyari about Chibuzo, Abbas updated Juma. “Setting him up already,” he messaged. In a message to Chibuzo, he was more explicit. “U have committed a crime that won’t be forgiven,” he said. “In due time I swear with my life you will regret messing with me, you will even wish you died before my hands will touch you.”

By Jan. 20 it appeared his threat had been fulfilled. Kyari sent Abbas a headshot of Chibuzo looking despondent. “We have arrested the guy,” he wrote. “He is in my Cell now. This is his picture after we arrested him today.”

“I want him to go through serious beating of his life,” Abbas responded. He explained how Chibuzo had double-crossed him in the scam, attempting to “divert the money” to himself.

“Ok I understand,” Kyari replied.

“Please sir I want to spend money to send this boy to jail, let him go for a very long time,” Abbas continued. “Let me know how I can send money to the team sir, let them deal with him like armed robber. … I want him to suffer for many years.”

Kyari texted a Nigerian bank account number to Abbas. According to prosecutors, this step completed the crime, making Kyari and his team cops for hire, paid to commit a false arrest.

The same day, a photo on Kyari’s Instagram showed him at a press conference, standing by the podium for the announcement of the arrest of 60 kidnappers. “Nigeria Police will Never relent,” the caption read, “in the fight against these deadly Criminals.”

Incredibly, even after Chibuzo’s attempt at sabotage, the advance fee scam continued. The businessperson, perhaps so confounded by the dizzying back-and-forth that he was able to internalize only half of what Chibuzo had said, confessed to “Malik” that Juma had taken him for more than a million dollars. “I know that you think I am stupid, but I trusted him and now I’m going bankrupt,” he said.

“Wow,” came the reply. “Over one million?”

“Malik,” naturally, offered to help, telling the businessperson he could get him out of the mess for a fee of $180,000. He would also report Juma to the FBI, he said. He didn’t, naturally, but now the partnership was falling apart. It was every man for himself. Juma complained to Abbas that the businessperson was calling his office and accusing him of being a scammer. Abbas replied that Juma had only himself to blame. Juma hadn’t found a way to keep the story going, but Abbas had. “That’s what happens when u leave a client hanging, u take the money and no follow up,” Abbas said. “Gives the client time to think and involve people.”

After Chibuzo had been in custody a month—including time in the hospital for a painful rash he’d acquired in jail—Kyari allegedly messaged Abbas to say that Chibuzo’s girlfriend had offered a bribe for his release. “They were thinking it’s normal arrest that is why they think money can remove him,” Kyari wrote. “No money can remove him here. Hahahaha.” Nonetheless, a few days later, Abbas messaged Kyari that he was free to let him go. Chibuzo was finally freed, presumably frightened into silence. Neither he nor his girlfriend, whose name wasn’t disclosed in the court documents, could be reached for comment.

The scam reached its final turn in March 2020, after Abbas had extracted an additional $180,000 in transfers, for a grand total of $1.1 million in advance fees. “Sorry Mr Malik,” the businessperson wrote in a final message, “but I’m not gonna pay more and I’m out of this game.” He had finally put it together that “Malik” and Juma were “all one team.”

Abbas’s time in the game, too, was coming to an end. Three months later, after midnight on June 8, armed officers from a Dubai SWAT team stormed his penthouse and arrested everyone inside. Within a few days, Abbas was on a plane to the U.S., in FBI custody for his role in other, more complex email scams.

If Kyari was concerned, he didn’t note it publicly. His own rise appeared to continue unabated. Three days after Abbas’s arrest, the National Assembly presented Kyari with a special commendation for outstanding service. “In spite of the image of the police in Nigeria,” the speaker of the House of Representatives noted, “the House recognizes that some police officers are exceptional.”

In his own personal image-making, Kyari’s Instagram showed him drifting a bit further toward Hushpuppi’s scene. In October 2020 he was pictured in his office with the Nigerian pop star Davido, once a friend of Hushpuppi. The following July, Kyari was spotted at the funeral of the mother of Obinna Iyiegbu, a nightclub owner popularly known as Obi Cubana, who’d been questioned as part of both drug and fraud investigations. (Cubana has not been charged in those investigations.) Cubana, Kyari noted on Facebook, was “a brother and a good friend.”

Then, on July 28, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Abbas had pleaded guilty to money laundering. The same day, the Justice Department revealed that it had indicted Juma, Chibuzo, Kyari, and three U.S.-based defendants on charges of conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering. Juma, Abbas, and Chibuzo were accused of directly fleecing the businessperson, while Nigeria’s Super Cop was alleged to have aided the conspiracy by jailing Chibuzo in exchange for a bribe.

Nigeria’s largest news outlets splashed the Kyari allegations across their front pages and broke down Abbas’s scam in minute detail. “How Hushpuppi bought Richard Mille wristwatch worn on Instagram,” read the headline in the newspaper The Punch. “The indictment from the U.S. court came as a shock to everyone,” says Rommy Mom, the member of the Police Service Commission. “This is someone who had been decorated from the top.”

Not everyone was shocked, of course. Nwanguma, of the Rule of Law & Accountability Advocacy Centre, says he and his peers felt vindicated. In the police force, he says, “there are quite a number of good people, but the system is so corrupt that it breeds and encourages people. It provides them the environment to commit crime and get away with it.”

As befits a celebrity cop, Kyari turned first to social media to defend himself. He posted a long Facebook message, since deleted, claiming that he’d only assisted Abbas in investigating threats against his life. The bank account numbers he’d supplied Abbas, he explained, were for payments to a seller of “native clothes and caps.” Kyari had facilitated the transaction, he claimed, after Abbas had admired them on his Instagram page.

The Police Service Commission suspended Kyari from the force, pending an investigation by the inspector general of police. After the commission received an initial investigative report in December, it determined the report had “gaps” and demanded further digging. “We should wrap this up before April,” Mom, the commission member, said in an interview in early February. He said the commission has faced no pressure from police higher-ups and that its decision will be made independently.

Juma is currently in custody in Kenya, awaiting a judge’s decision on extradition, and Chibuzo’s whereabouts are unknown. For months, whether Kyari will be extradited to the U.S. has remained an open question. “To the best of my knowledge,” Mom says, “I don’t think there has been any extradition request filed.” The U.S. Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, which handles extraditions, declined to comment on the state of Kyari’s case. But one Justice Department official insisted that Kyari’s was more than simply a “name and shame” indictment. In a TV interview in early February, the Nigerian attorney general allowed that there was “prima facie reasonable grounds of suspicion” for prosecution, and that Nigeria was in contact with the U.S.

Even facing potential disgrace and extradition, Kyari seemed unable to avoid the spotlight. At the end of January he posted photos to Instagram and Facebook from the wedding of the son of the inspector general of police—the person in charge of investigating him. Obi Cubana, the nightclub owner, was there, too. After a media uproar, Kyari deleted the posts.

Then, on Feb. 14, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency in Nigeria announced that Kyari was suspected in another major crime. The agency alleged that in late January, while supposedly suspended, Kyari had contacted an NDLEA officer saying he and his IRT team had confiscated a 25-kilogram shipment of cocaine. Over several conversations, Kyari allegedly suggested that they join forces to keep and sell most of the seizure, leave some for the prosecution, and split the proceeds. “The boys are very, very sharp, they are very loyal,” he allegedly said of his team. “I do take good care of them.”

The NDLEA officer reported the approach and, outfitted with a wire, collected the money from Kyari. When Kyari then failed to show up for questioning, he was declared a wanted man. “With the intelligence at our disposal,” the NDLEA said in its statement, “the Agency believes strongly that DCP Kyari is a member of a drug cartel that operates the Brazil-Ethiopia-Nigeria illicit drug pipeline.”

Late on Valentine’s Day, the Super Cop was taken into custody. Read more: Instagram Influencer Hushpuppi’s Rise Was Allegedly Fueled by Cyber Scams

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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