CIO

The Kindness of Strangers

Africa today seems full of people eager to give our author millions. Isn't that nice!

Like most of the general population (but unlike those CEOs who were lucky enough to unload their stock options just before their company's earnings took a dive), this past year has put a dent in my retirement funds bigger than the one next to the headlight on my 93 Magna. And believe me, that's a pretty big dent. It didn't take me long (I'm lying; I procrastinated for over a year) to put my tail between my legs and change my asset allocation from a "Movin' on up" 80 per cent stocks/20 per cent bonds ratio to a "I'm petrified" 40/60 split.

Having said that, I thank my lucky stars I have one wild card that the depressing Dow Jones Index can't touch. For at least a couple of years now, I've been receiving personal, confidential e-mails from a number of different potential benefactors, all who happen, coincidentally, to live in Africa. Each of them has offered to cut me in on a multimillion dollar bounty that has, in one way or another, fallen into their hands. The amounts are staggering, ranging from $18 million to as high as $152 million (and that's in cold, hard US dollars, mind you, not some tepid, squishy sub-Saharan currency).

Why have I, a humble journalist, been chosen by so many people to share in this most excellent windfall? I'm still not sure (although I do pride myself on being trustworthy, dependable and willing to give complete strangers personal financial info), but in one way or another they all obtained my e-mail address from a surprising variety of unexpected sources.

Lucky Me

Agogo Mustapha, a senior accountant with the Office of the Honourable Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria, says he got my address "through a secret enquiry I made from your country's Chamber of Commerce down here".

A couple of Nigerian military officers, General Benjamin Ojiani (retired) and Brigadier General Bibiola Waritimi, both said they obtained my "contact" from the US Embassy/High Commission in Abuja. (Despite my suspicious nature, I took both these missives seriously because they thoughtfully added THIS IS NOT A SPAM MAIL to the subject line.)

A Senegalese gentleman, Kalibu A Omar, said he was "writhing following the impressive information about you through one of my friend who runs a consultancy firm in your country". I have no idea what this consultant said about me, but it must have been hot stuff to make Mr Omar writhe. Normally, I don't have that effect on people.

I was a little less impressed by how Johndear Franka found me. He admitted that my e-mail was given to him by "the Girl who operates computer". But he did add that I was the only person he was contacting. And here I thought I was just another random address.

What's been even more delightful is that in the past year, I've started to receive these generous offers from VIPRFALs (very important people related to former African leaders). Manuel Savimbi, for example. He is the son of Jonas Savimbi, the former leader of UNITA, a rebel group that fought for years in Angola. (He died on the battlefield earlier this year.) Mariam Abacha, the wife of the former Nigerian head of state, the late General Sani Abacha, dropped me a line, as did Mrs. Sese-seko, widow of the late Zairean president Mobutu Sese-seko. Mobutu's son also sent me a nice note.

Have We Got a Deal for You!

These are just a few of the people who have proposed business deals with me that dwarf anything former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow could have dreamed up - and he was a really inventive guy. The sources of these riches tend to fall into two categories. In the first, my proposed benefactor has discovered that the owners of certain large bank accounts have passed away and the banks, despite their best efforts, have failed to locate any next of kin. Seeking someone honest and upright to work with, they've fallen back on Plan B - me, a "foreign partner", who will provide a bank account into which they can deposit their stash o' cash.

In the second category, my benefactor is part of a deposed or deceased political or military leader's family and wants to hold on to the family fortune before the new, upstart government absconds with it. Naturally, he needs someone outside the country to help - me and my bank account.

Mr Dumbushe is so impressed by my business acumen that he wants to pay me $2.68 million if I will only let him invest in my next venture, whatever it may be. In fact, he's willing to send that money - sight unseen - to my bank if I simply send him my account number.

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For example, here's how Mr Omar came into the big bucks: "In my department (the telex and credit department of the Sengal-Dakar Agrobank) we discovered an abandoned sum of $31 million, in account of our foreign customer who died along with his entire family in November 1999 in a plane crash . . . We agree that 30% of the money will be for you as foreign partner . . . 10% will be set aside for expenses . . . 60% would be for ME and my colleagues, there after I and my colleagues will visit your country for disburement."

My take: a sweat-free $9.3 million. And all I have to do is provide him with the number of one of my bank accounts (could this be easier?), a safe haven where the cash could sit until he could arrange for "disburement". That should be enough, with compounding, to cover my daughter's first year at university, or if my son continues to fake lightning-bolt-like periodontal pain when I ask him to brush his teeth, two years at the Actors Studio.

Brown Dumbushe was the chairman of a contract review panel in Zimbabwe before being chased from the country because he was a member of the opposition party. He recovered $26.8 million from overinflated contracts and has been able, somehow, to move those funds into a secure account in the Netherlands. Now, Mr Dumbushe is so impressed by my business acumen that he wants to pay me $2.68 million if I will only let him invest in my next venture, whatever it may be. In fact, he's willing to send that money - sight unseen - to my bank if I simply send him my account number.

Hey, that could be seed money for the online pet store I've been thinking about launching. I think the domain name Pets.com might be available. I feel particular sympathy for Kaba Jamila, whose father, a wealthy cocoa merchant in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, was poisoned by his business associates. Mr Jamila will give me as much as 20 per cent of his $16.5 million inheritance if I "SERVE AS THE GUARDIA OF THIS FUND SINCE I AM A BOY OF 26 YEARS". Again, all I have to do is provide a bank account and serve as a guardia. Piece of cake.

I'm less inclined to help some of my correspondents, in spite of their pleadings. Take the Sese-Seko family. They may be honest, law-abiding citizens themselves, but their dad's administration made Boss Tweed's 19th-century political gang look like the cast from Zoom, not to mention the fact he wreaked three decades of havoc upon the Congolese people. From the hundreds of millions papa plundered from his countrymen and women, mom and son only have $30 million squirrelled away. And in keeping with Dad's greediness, neither of them offered me a cut up front, though they did say remuneration would be discussed. Mom just wants me to help her invest the funds so that she may "acquire real/landed properties and stock in multinational companies".

I'll pass on this one. Even if I did want to help them, my investment track record the past two years should be enough to dissuade them.

Another e-mailer, Dr Efe Osamende, coordinator of the federal government of Nigeria contract review panel of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), had the gall to think that I would consider accepting a large sum of money fraudulently. He said that the NNPC over-invoiced a contract with a conglomerate of foreign companies to the tune of $24.5 million. And he expects me to help him get his hands on his ill-gotten gains? Try some other sucker, Dr Efe. (I'll bet he isn't even a doctor.)

Confidence Game

When I have the occasional twinge of doubt about these opportunities, wondering if they're really on the up-and-up, I just reread the reassuring legalese that most of the e-mails provide. For example, General Ojiani assures me that "this transaction is NOT ILLEGAL and we will NOT ENTER INTO ILLEGALITIES AT ANY STAGE OF THE TRANSACTION TO TRANSFER THIS FORTUNE ABROAD; EVERYTHING WILL BE TRANSPARENT AND PROPER".

And this is the word of a military officer. A general, no less.

So with my golden years provided for and plentiful tuition funds for the young'uns, I sleep more easily these days. And because my family's needs shortly will be taken care of forever, I can now share my good fortune by forwarding to my friends all the e-mail offers that continue to flow into my inbox at an amazing rate. I still can't figure out why I have been so blessed, but it brings me great joy to know that I can share my bounty with others, peaceful in the knowledge that THESE ARE NOT SPAM MAILS.