Dozens of persons have been arrested by security agents in an ongoing nationwide crackdown on suspected financiers and collaborators of Boko Haram and other criminal groups in Nigeria, Daily Trust reports.
This is coming five months after Daily Trust exclusively reported jailing of six Nigerians in the United Arab Emirates over allegations of terrorism financing.
The ongoing inter-agency operation is being led by a top intelligence officer, with an army general leading a task team comprising military personnel and staff from intelligence services.
Multiple sources informed Daily Trust that the closely-guarded operation is being coordinated by Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), in collaboration with the Department of State Services (DSS), Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
As part of the operation, billions of naira traced to businesses belonging to persons of interest have been blocked in banks in series of “post no debit” letters sent out to banks by the CBN and NFIU. The apex bank has also lately obtained court orders directing freezing of dozens of accounts flagged for suspicious transactions.
While officials expressed hope that the ongoing operation would be a “game-changer” in the lingering fight against Boko Haram insurgents and other criminal gangs, some analysts say the method may not provide the needed elixir as terrorists and bandits operate largely outside the financial system.
A security source familiar with the operation confided in our reporter that the operation started last year with massive gathering and analysis of financial intelligence and drawing uplink analysis, leading to initial marking of some 60 businesses and individuals.
A source disclosed to Daily Trust that an initial list of 957 suspects comprising bureau de change operators, gold miners and sellers, and other businessmen is being acted upon.
Already, according to the source, about 400 persons have been arrested in series of arrests in Kano, Borno, Abuja, Lagos, Sokoto, Adamawa, Kaduna and Zamfara.
In Kano, a major focus for the operation, traders at the foreign exchange open market in Wapa, Fagge Local Government, were picked up on March 9, 15th and 16th.
Prominent among the BDC operators arrested in the state include Baba Usaini, Abubakar Yellow (Amfani), Yusuf Ali Yusuf (Babangida), Ibrahim Shani, Auwal Fagge, and a gold dealer, Muhammad Lawan Sani.
Four of the arrested BDC operators were related to two persons jailed in Dubai last year on similar charges.
Those arrested are being kept in military and DSS facilities in Abuja and other places, even as their families and lawyers decry the continued detention of the suspects without trial or informing them of their offences.
Daily Trust gathered that dozens of businessmen who were netted in were invited to DSS offices and military barracks in their states from where they were cut off from the outside world.
Family members who spoke to a Daily Trust reporter said they could not establish the locations where their loved ones were being held as they were neither briefed by officials nor were the suspects allowed to contact their families.
The operation was said to have received presidential nod last year, and approval by President Muhammadu Buhari for the exercise to be conducted out of the established bureaucracy.
“Because this is economic warfare against the insurgents and other militant groups, the president, when approving the operation directed that the NFIU take the lead as the country’s financial intelligence powerhouse.
“With the presidential approval, a task team was composed made up of personally selected senior officers who were deployed under the DIA to carry out the special assignment,” a senior government official told Daily Trust.
One official involved in the operation, who however craved for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the operation has recorded immense success with the arrest of key persons with “direct” link to bandits and insurgents.
“The main person coordinating the funding ring for Boko Haram is in our custody, he and his closest ally in the business,” he said.
According to the source, about 19 BDCs owned by persons with “direct connection with Boko Haram” were uncovered, while over N300 billion was found to have been pumped into the funding of terrorism in the country.
The source disclosed that from one person in Borno State and another in Zaria, Kaduna State, over N50 billion were traced in funding to the armed groups.
“A number of those arrested have divulged vital information including operational details of bandits and Boko Haram insurgents. But they are being kept to aid further arrests,” he said.
According to him, not all the affected businessmen arrested were members of the criminal gangs but many of them were involved in it as a business.
Soldiers in the net
Daily Trust gathered that when the operation started last year, one of the initial focus was to round up collaborators of Boko Haram insurgents among security agents.
“About 20 of them were arrested in Borno and detained. In the course of interrogation they revealed a lot including the identity of some of their civilian collaborators who were also arrested,” a source said.
In addition to the initial arrest in the military, Daily Trust gathered that fresh arrests were made of military officers in Borno and other places as part of the expansion phase of the operation.
The ongoing operation, Daily Trust gathered is the first phase of activities lined up by the task team to crack the riddle of how Boko Haram, kidnappers and other criminals fund their operations and launder the proceeds.
As part of the operation, CBN has upped the ante in tracking suspicious transactions and malpractices leading to mass closure of bank accounts identified as undertaking suspicious transactions.
Last week, the bank announced the freezing of 193 corporate and individual bank accounts over allegations of suspicious forex transactions. This is in addition to 138 accounts frozen in February.
In a February 24, 2021 memo to commercial banks from the CBN, which was sighted by our reporter, the apex bank directed the banks to “place the accounts of the under listed customers on Post-No-Debit with immediate effect”. The bank did not give reasons for the order.
Operators of the accounts, mostly international businessmen decry the sudden measure without fair hearing. Some of the affected traders, Daily Trust gathered, are businessmen who import wares from China. One of them, a Kaduna-based businessman, Alhaji Sani Polo, is said to have over N200 million, including bank loans, trapped in his accounts.
Measure may not yield results – Expert
An anti-money laundering specialist, Umar Yakubu, told Daily Trust that the ongoing operation maybe applying the wrong medicine for the disease of terrorism financing.
According to him, finances for outlawed groups like Boko Haram do not usually come in through the banking system, making it difficult to trace through the use of banks’ Suspicious Transaction Reports (STRs).
He said the way to crack the financial transactions of criminal elements like insurgents and their collaborators is through informal tracking through “raw, old school investigation technique” which require life time intelligence on people’s lifestyle to identify persons getting rich overnight.
Yakubu further explained that the security agencies should tackle the problem by putting more emphasis on the country’s borders, which he described as porous and easy passage for money and other logistics.
Family, friends defend suspects
Relatives and associates of the arrested businessmen, however, insisted that they were innocent of allegations.
“There is no way they will finance or aid anything criminal,” said a businessman in the market, Mohammed Sani.
He said because their line of trade involves dealing with all manner of people, it is therefore difficult to know the real background and identify of a customer.
Sani urged for a thorough investigation to establish the real truths, especially by establishing if those arrested were conscious of the identity of the persons they were alleged to have helped, or not. Sani Ali Yusuf, whose two brothers and two cousins were among those arrested described the allegations against his siblings as untenable.
He said persons engaged in an illegal transaction like terrorism financing are likely to be “few and secretive, not this prominent and so many”.
“Most of the people arrested are prominent businessmen at Wapa. I am sure if there will be a thorough investigation, they will find out that this is not true,” he said.
“Financing terrorism or even money laundering is not something my brothers engage in.
“Of course in their line of business, as I understand it, a criminal may come forth and they deal with him without them knowing. It is like a transporter who is given some goods to transport. If cartons are given to them in the name of fish, he has no way of finding out if indeed it was fish that was inside or something else,” he said.
Be fair, speedy in investigation – ABCON
President of the Association of Bureau de Change Operators of Nigeria (ABCON), Alhaji Aminu Gwadabe, appealed to the authorities concerned to speed up investigation on the issue in order “for those who are culpable to face the law and the innocent ones to be released”.
He said his association supports any measure by the government in fighting illegalities, but asked the authorities to be careful so that those who are innocent do not suffer unnecessarily. He confirmed arrests of a number of the association’s members in places such as Kano, Abuja, Sokoto, Zamfara, Niger and Borno, saying the association was following a “non-confrontational approach” to resolve the issue.
“The issue is very dicey that is why we are being careful. It is an issue that started from a foreign country and that is why the presidency took it with all seriousness also.”
Gwadabe said efforts by officials of the association to meet the incarcerated members of ABCON was resisted, even after the initial promise of access by the DSS.
Spokesperson of the DSS, Peter Afunaya, when contacted on Friday, promised to make findings on the issue and revert to our reporter. He, however, did not get back as of the time of filing this report. He did not respond to a text message sent to him to follow up and ignored repeated phone calls thereafter.
It’s a military affair – NFIU
An official of the NFIU, Sani Tukur, referred Daily Trust to the military saying the agency has no mandate to “arrest or investigate anybody”.
I’m unaware – Army spokesperson
Spokesperson for the Nigerian Army, Major General Mohammed Yerima, said he was not aware of the arrest of army officers in connection with allegation of collaboration with Boko Haram elements.
He also referred the question on the military’s involvement in the operation to the DSS, saying issues to do with arrests on charges of terrorism financing is under the purview of the DSS.