An execution in broad daylight has lifted the lid on the alleged nefarious enterprise of a SA-based Nigerian rapper with apparent links to criminal organisation Black Axe.
The killing at a petrol station on Central Avenue, in the Kempton Park area, on Monday last week led to a police chase and a deadly shoot-out on the R24 near the Gillooly’s interchange. Two Nigerian nationals were left dead and three were arrested, including Nicholas Ogbeifun, a rapper and alleged member of the Neo Black Movement of Africa, an alleged front for Black Axe…
● A 74-year-old Sandton woman has spent the festive season mourning her brother, whose death she blames on fraudsters.
The fraudsters stole R2.7m after intercepting an e-mail between the woman and her financial adviser regarding the proceeds of a house sale.
In 2019, the siblings sold their mother’s house for R3m, with the proceeds intended for the brother. But the money was stolen when the woman was arranging to deposit it into an investment account.
Now the bedridden woman, who asked to remain anonymous, is involved in legal action to seek compensation from financial service providers and insurers, but has received little help from the police.
The fraud is believed to be part the growing business e-mail compromise (BEC) scam. US law enforcement authorities are working with the South African Police Service to seek justice for hundreds of American victims of BEC fraudsters — mainly members of the Nigerian transnational organised crime group Black Axe — based in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
An alleged Black Axe member was arrested this month by Interpol in Douglasdale, Johannesburg, regarding an FBI fraud case. Police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo said the 39-year-old Nigerian is wanted in the US for wire fraud and money laundering.
His arrest was the latest in a global crackdown on Black Axe, including the detention in October of eight men — six of them alleged leaders of Black Axe’s Cape Town Zone.
The suspects allegedly scammed 100 US victims out of $6.8m (about R107m). They are also charged with money laundering and identity theft.
Opposing bail for the suspects, prosecutor Robin Lewis told the Cape Town magistrate’s court that though the victims are American, the authorities are aware of the Cape Town Zone having targeted many more people worldwide. “Law enforcement has identified additional victims in Germany, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, the UK and Canada, all associated with Black Axe Cape Town.”
The state’s evidence suggests Black Axe and sister organisation the Neo Black Movement of Africa have 56 to 150 members in the Cape Town Zone.
“Black Axe have used internet-based schemes to defraud victims in the US and elsewhere,” Lewis said.
In its 2020 fraud report, the FBI internet crime complaint centre said it had received 791,790 complaints of alleged fraud involving the loss of $4.1bn.
“Business e-mail compromise schemes continued to be the costliest: 19,369 complaints with an adjusted loss of approximately $1.8bn,” the FBI reported. More than a quarter of the losses were sustained by victims older than 60.
Prof Gary Warner, director of research in computer forensics at University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the Sunday Times that almost every BEC fraud case he has researched pointed to Black Axe.
The Sandton woman opened a case at Sandton police station but has not been informed of any progress despite repeated calls. “But even if they find the guys who did it, the money is gone, so what’s the point?”
The brother died in November after an accident at home, which the woman said could have been avoided if they had been able to afford carers.
“This money could have made a difference. I just can’t help to keep thinking my brother would have been living a better life, having a proper medical aid,” she said.
United States Secret Service say be on the look out for this doe eyed scoundrel. Check your bins and garden sheds. His name is Egbe Tony Iyamu but also might answer to “Lord Aminu Kano” or “Richard Amall” if called.
He, like many other thousands of Axemen, are currently on the loose.
ALIASES: “Lord Aminu Kano,” “Richard Amall” DOB:April 20, 1986 NATIONALITY: Nigeria CITIZENSHIP: Nigeria HEIGHT: N/A WEIGHT: N/A HAIR COLOR: Black EYE COLOR: Brown U.S. SECRET SERVICE FIELD OFFICE: Newark
Egbe Tony Iyamu is a member of the Cape Town, South Africa-based chapter of the “Neo Black Movement of Africa” criminal organization, also known as “Black Axe.” From at least 2011 until 2021, Iyamu and other members of Black Axe worked together to engage in widespread Internet fraud involving romance scams and advance fee schemes. The conspirators used social media websites, online dating websites, and voice over Internet protocol phone numbers to find and talk with victims in the United States, while using a number of aliases.
The conspirators’ romance scam victims believed they were in romantic relationships with the person using the aliases and, when requested, the victims sent money and items of value overseas, including to South Africa. Sometimes, when victims expressed hesitation in sending money, the conspirators used manipulative tactics to coerce the payments, including by threatening to distribute personally sensitive photographs of the victim.
In addition to laundering money derived from romance scams and advance fee schemes, the conspirators also worked to launder money from business email compromise (BEC) schemes. In addition to their aliases, the conspirators used business entities to conceal and disguise the illegal nature of the funds.
Iyamu was the Cape Town chapter’s “Chief Butcher” from approximately 2013 to 2018. In this role, Iyamu functioned as the chapter’s security officer and was responsible for disciplining other members.
The prosecution is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey. The case is also part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Priority Transnational Organized Crime (PTOC) investigation.
If you have information regarding this individual, please contact the U.S. Secret Service at MostWanted@usss.dhs.gov
The Black Axe are one of the most feared and powerful organised crime groups in the world. The highly secretive mafia – referred to as a “cult” in Nigeria – have been accused of countless murders and are estimated to earn millions of dollars through internet fraud. But who is behind them? Are politicians involved?
A two-year BBC investigation into Black Axe – a Nigerian student fraternity which evolved into a dreaded mafia-group – has unearthed new evidence of infiltration of politics, and a scamming and killing operation spanning the globe.
Warning: Contains detailed graphic accounts of violence
During quiet moments, after he has finished lecturing for the day, Dr John Stone has flashbacks. It’s not the blood or the sound of the gunshots that haunt him. It’s the begging. The way people beg for mercy when they die. Begging him. Begging God.
“It’s so painful,” he says, shaking his head with a shudder. “The families of the dead, they will curse you. A curse will be upon your life.”
Dr Stone teaches political science at the University of Benin, in southern Nigeria. But for decades he was a senior member of Black Axe – a Nigerian mafia-style gang tied to human trafficking, internet fraud and murder. Locally, Black Axe are referred to as a “cult,” a nod to their secret initiation rituals and the intense loyalty of their members. They are also infamous for extreme violence. Images of those who cross their path – dead bodies mutilated or showing signs of torture – regularly surface on Nigerian social media.
Dr Stone admits he took part in atrocities during his years as an “Axeman”. At one point during our interview, recalling the most efficient means of killing, he leaned forward, squeezed his fingers into the shape of a gun and pushed them to the forehead of our producer. In Benin City, he was known as “a butcher”.
The horror of these years has scarred him. Today, Dr Stone is remorseful for his past and a vocal critic of the gang he once served. He is one of a dozen Black Axe sources who have decided to break their oaths of silence and reveal their secrets to the BBC, speaking to international media for the first time.
For two years BBC Africa Eye has been investigating Black Axe, building a network of whistle-blowers, and uncovering several thousand secret documents – leaked from the gang’s private communications. The findings suggest that over the past decade, Black Axe has become one of the most far-reaching and dangerous organised crime groups in the world.
In Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, Axemen are in our midst. You may even have an email from them in your inbox.
Our investigation began with a death threat – a spidery, hand-written letter, delivered to a BBC journalist in 2018. It was dropped by a motorbike rider on to the windscreen of the reporter’s car. Weeks earlier, the journalist had been digging into the illegal opioid trade in Nigeria and had met a number of Black Axe members face to face. Later, a second letter was handed to the man’s family. Someone had been tracking him and had found his home.
Did the threat come from Black Axe? How powerful is this crime network, and who is behind it?
Our search for answers led us to a man who claimed he had hacked tens of thousands of secret Black Axe documents – a huge cache of private communications, from hundreds of suspected members. The messages, which span 2009 to 2019, include communications about murder and drug smuggling. Emails detail elaborate and lucrative internet fraud. Messages plan global expansion. It was a mosaic of Black Axe criminal activity spanning four continents.
The source of the hack claims Black Axe are desperate to kill him. He would not reveal his real name, instead he used a pseudonym – Uche Tobias.
“A manhunt will befall you,” reads one death threat, sent to Tobias online. “The AXE will pierce through your skull… I will lick your blood and chew your eyes.”
The BBC spent months analysing Tobias’s documents. We were able to verify key sections of the data – confirming that individuals mentioned, and a number of the crimes committed in the documents, did take place. Much of the hacked material is too horrifying to publish. Axemen use secret forums – password-protected websites – to share photos of recent murders in internal chat groups. In one post labelled “Hit”, a man lies splayed out on the floor of a small room. There are four gashes on his head. His white T-shirt is surrounded by a pool of his own blood. The imprint of a boot, stained red, marks his back.
Within Nigeria, Black Axe is fighting a war of supremacy with rival “cults” – similar criminal gangs with names like the Eiye, the Buccaneers, the Pirates and the Maphites. Messages the BBC have translated from West African Pidgin show Axemen keeping track of how many rivals they have murdered, tallying up the figures like a football score in each region.
“Score is presently 15-2, the war is Benin,” reads one post. “Hit in Anambra state. Score is Aye [Axemen] 4 and Buccaneers 2,” reads another.
But internet fraud, not murder, is the primary source of revenue for the gang. The documents given to the BBC include receipts, bank transfers and thousands of emails showing Black Axe members collaborating on online scams around the world. Members share “formats” – blueprints on how to conduct scams – with each other. Options include romance scams, inheritance scams, real estate scams and business email scams, in which the perpetrators create email accounts that appear to be those of the victim’s lawyers, or accountants, in order to intercept payments.
These scams are not small-scale, conducted by a lone wolf on a laptop. They are collaborative, organised and extremely lucrative operations, sometimes involving dozens of individuals working together across continents.
Among the leaked emails, the BBC uncovered a case of a man in California who was targeted by a network of suspected Axemen in 2010, scamming him from Italy and Nigeria. The victim told us he was defrauded of $3m in total.
“The Bank that I was working with does not seem to exist???” the desperate victim exclaimed in an email to one of the conmen – the moment he realised his money was missing. “Can I make this any clearer??? The Bank in Switzerland seems to be fraudulent.”
The emails show suspected Black Axe members adopting “catcher” names – fake names and identities – when scamming people, making use of forged or stolen passports. They refer to their victims as “mugu” or “maye,” regional slang words for “idiots”.
Black Axe’s international cybercrime network is likely to be generating billions of dollars in revenue for their members. In 2017 Canadian authorities say they busted a money laundering scheme linked to the gang worth more than $5bn. Nobody knows how many similar Black Axe schemes are out there. The leaked documents show members communicating between Nigeria, the UK, Malaysia, the Gulf States, and a dozen other countries.
“It’s spread all over the world,” the source of the data hack told us. He says he’s an anti-fraud investigator in his private life and began pursuing Black Axe after encountering a number of their scam victims.
“I would estimate there are upwards of 30,000 members,” he says.
Black Axe’s global expansion has been carefully constructed. The correspondence shows Axemen dividing geographic areas into “zones,” and designating local “heads”. Zonal heads collect “dues” – something akin to membership fees – from those in their jurisdictions, before sending the money back to leaders in their heartland in Nigeria’s Benin City.
“It has spread throughout Europe and America, South America and Asia,” says Tobias. “It is not a little club, this is a fantastically large criminal organisation.”
Tobias’s assessment is backed up by international law enforcement findings. According to the 2021 Organised Crime Index, based on analysis from 120 experts in Africa, Nigeria has the highest levels of organised crime on the continent – and these networks are expanding abroad.
In Italy, decades-old mafia laws are being revived to tackle the expansion of Black Axe, who are said to be overwhelming local crime networks. In April 2021, 30 suspected members were arrested in the country, charged with human trafficking, prostitution and internet fraud.
The US has taken a more aggressive approach. FBI operations against Black Axe were launched in November 2019 and September 2021, eventually charging more than 35 individuals with multi-million dollar internet fraud. Between September and December this year, the US Secret Service and Interpol launched an international operation to arrest a further nine suspected Black Axe members in South Africa.
“Cybercrime is a multi-trillion dollar industry, it’s out of control,” says Scott Augenbaum, a former FBI special agent and cyber-security expert.
He says he dealt with hundreds of Black Axe victims during his 30-year career in the bureau’s cybercrime department, investigating fraud cases similar to those found in the leaked documents.
“I’ve seen lives destroyed, companies go out of business, life savings lost,” he said. “It affects everyone.”
As global as Black Axe’s criminal empire may be, its roots lie firmly in Nigeria. The group was founded 40 years ago in Benin City, Edo State.
Most Axemen are from this region, and this affiliation may have played a role in the group’s international expansion. According to the UN commissioner for refugees, 70% of Nigerians who migrate abroad are from Edo State. Black Axe are reported to play a pivotal role trafficking those who travel illegally, moving them between their bases in Benin City, North Africa and Southern Italy.
In their homeland, male university undergraduates – aged between 16 and 23 – are Black Axe’s primary recruits. The gang’s secretive initiation process, known as “bamming,” is notoriously brutal.
“I didn’t know I was going to bam that day,” writes one Axeman, detailing his experience in a post on a secret forum from 2016. He says he was led away from campus, thinking he was attending an exclusive party. He writes how he was taken to a forest, where a group of men were waiting for him. They stripped him and forced him to lie face down in the mud. Then they took turns whipping his skin raw with bamboo, beating him close to unconsciousness. Someone screamed they would rape his girlfriend, and when he had finished, he would rape her again.
“That was going to be the day I die,” he writes.
But the agony eventually stopped. A series of rituals followed, including crawling through the legs of his tormentors – a tradition known as the “devil’s passage” – before drinking blood from a cut in his thumb and chewing a kola nut, a caffeinated nut native to West Africa. To the echoes of songs and chants, he was then embraced by the men who had just tortured him. He had been reborn as what they call an “Aye Axeman.”
There are many reasons people join Black Axe. Some recruits are forced, others volunteer. In Makoko, a vast slum built on wooden stilts above Lagos Lagoon, we interviewed a number of Axemen, some of whom said they had joined against their will. Their loyalty, nevertheless, was strong – cemented by the spiritual bond of the initiation process.
“We worship Korofo, the unseen God, and he has always guided us,” the leader of the group told us, sitting in a small wooden building, surrounded by an entourage of Axemen. He said he was “proud” to be a member of Black Axe, despite saying he was forcibly recruited by a police officer. Another member claimed he joined after his father was killed by a rival gang. No matter how or why members join, many of them claim there are benefits.
“Secrecy, discipline and brotherhood,” a cult member told us proudly during another interview in Lagos in April 2021, when we asked why he had joined Black Axe. He claimed he made good money through the group’s criminal enterprises – better than he would earn working in a bank.
“Nobody will be able to touch you – once you belong to a cult, they will protect you,” said Curtis Ogbebor, a community activist based in Benin City, who tries to stop young people joining groups like Black Axe. “The process of initiation – it’s all about networking.”
Dr Stone says many Axemen join solely for networking purposes. Nigeria has the second highest rate of unemployment in the world, and within this challenging environment, he says joining Black Axe can provide protection and business connections. He claims not all members are criminals.
“We have members in the Nigerian army, navy, air force. We have those in academia. We have priests, pastors,” he said.
This mutual support was key to Black Axe’s original purpose. The group grew out of a student fraternity called the Neo Black Movement of Africa (NBM). It formed at the University of Benin in the 1970s. The NBM’s symbol was a black axe breaking chains, and its founders said their aim was to fight oppression. The NBM was inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, but in structure, secrecy and brotherly commitment, it mirrored societies like the Freemasons, which had a presence in Nigeria during the colonial era.
The NBM still exists today, and is a legally registered company with the Nigerian corporate affairs commission. It claims to have three million members around the world, and regularly publicises charitable activity – donations to orphanages, schools and the police, both in Nigeria and abroad. It holds huge annual conferences, some of which have been attended by prominent politicians and celebrities.
Leaders of the NBM claim Black Axe is a rogue, breakaway group. Publicly they strongly disassociate themselves from the name and are adamant that the NBM opposes all criminal activity.
“NBM is not Black Axe. NBM has nothing to do with criminality. NBM is an organisation that tends to promote greatness in the world,” says Olorogun Ese Kakor, the current president of the organisation, in an interview with the BBC in July 2021.
The NBM’s lawyers told us anyone from Black Axe who is found to be a member of NBM “will be expelled immediately” and that they have zero tolerance for crime.
International law enforcement have a different view. Statements by the US justice department, in the course of its prosecution of Black Axe members since 2018, say that the NBM is a “criminal organisation” and “part of the Black Axe”. Similar statements have been made by authorities in Canada, who have said the NBM and Black Axe as “the same”.
The documents seen by the BBC also appear to show links between some Black Axe members and the NBM corporation.
Many of the documents were sourced from an email account that belonged to Augustus Bemigho-Eyeoyibo, the president of the NBM between 2012 and 2016. These files suggest Mr Bemigho, a successful investor and hotelier in Nigeria, has engaged in large-scale internet fraud. The BBC verified two major cases from the data in which Mr Bemigho appears to have been involved in inheritance scams targeting UK and US citizens. The victims told us they were defrauded of more than $3.3m.
“We have removed him close to 1M dollar,” says one message, referencing a victim, sent to Mr Bemigho by a suspected co-conspirator. The email contains the victim’s full name, email address and number, and instructions on how to progress the scam.
The documents suggest Mr Bemigho sent scam formats to a network of collaborators on at least 50 occasions. One message, discussing the expansion of the NBM, suggests he requested members establish NGOs around the world in order to “rake in millions”.
When messaging NBM members in the emails, Mr Bemigho addresses them as “Aye Axemen”. In one response, which appears to have been sent to Mr Bemigho via Facebook messenger, he is addressed as “national elder Black Axe”.
In 2019, Mr Bemigho’s sister-in-law was charged with money laundering worth £1m in the UK. The Crown Prosecution Service, in a widely reported press release, referred to him as “the leader of the Black Axe” at the time.
When the BBC raised this evidence with the leadership of the NBM, they said they would investigate the matter, and that anyone found to be in breach of their code of conduct would be expelled. Mr Bemigho did not respond to the allegations when contacted by the BBC.
Dr Stone claims Black Axe and the NBM – beneath the surface – are the same organisation. He is speaking from experience. He was not only a member of Black Axe, but also a chairman within the NBM in their heartland of Benin City.
“It is one and the same,” he says. “It’s just a kind of formality to cover the informalities. It’s a coin with two sides.”
According to Tobias, the NBM has been instrumental in Black Axe’s covert expansion around the world. “The Neo Black Movement as an organisation is just a charade, it’s a smokescreen, it’s a public face of the organisation,” he says. He claims “the end game” of the NBM is “to subvert the opinion of the public”- to hide “what they really are, which is a mafia”.
Organisations operating under the name of the NBM are registered around the world, including in the UK and Canada. There are at least 50 Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts using a variation of this name, in addition to the corporation’s official social media channels. Some accounts have more than 100,000 followers. Others include implicit references to Black Axe – axe emojis, photos of people carrying axes or guns, and occasionally the signature slogan “Aye Axemen!”
The NBM has successfully established itself as a global brand, in multiple countries. In Nigeria, Dr Stone claims, the network’s influence extends to the political sphere.
“There are a lot of members in the House of Assembly, even the executive,” he said. “That is what Black Axe is. That is what NBM preaches: veer into any position that you know is humanly possible.”
Augustus Bemigho, the former head of the NBM – described in UK court files as the former head of Black Axe – ran for office in the Nigerian House of Representatives in 2019, campaigning for the ruling All Progressive Congress Party (APC).
The activist Curtis Ogbebor claims Edo State politics is saturated with Black Axe members. “Nigeria has this mafia politics,” he said. “Our politicians, government at all levels, encourage our youth into cultism.”
Prospective Nigerian politicians, Mr Ogbebor claims, hire Black Axe members to intimidate rivals, guard ballot boxes, and coerce people to vote. Once in office, he says, they then reward them with positions in government.
“They arm them, they give them money during elections, and they promise them political appointment,” he says.
Two documents, which appear to have been leaked from the internal communications of the NBM, suggest that 35m naira (more than £64,000) was funnelled to the organisation in Benin City to “protect votes” and ensure support for a governorship election in 2012. In exchange for the support, the files state “80 slots [were] allocated to NBM Benin Zone for immediate employment by the state government”. This money was allegedly distributed directly “through the then Chief of Staff Hon. Sam Iredia” – who has now died.
During interviews with senior members of the NBM in Lagos, their legal representative confirmed that “a number of politicians” are members. He went on to name the Deputy Governor of Edo State, Philip Shaibu, as an example.
“There are a lot of people that are members of our organisation and there is nothing to hide about it,” said Aliu Hope, one of the NBM’s solicitors.
A former member of the Edo State government, speaking to the international media for the first time, has come forward to blow the whistle on Edo State’s collaboration with organised crime.
Tony Kabaka, a self-confessed “cultist” and member of the NBM, spent years working for the government in Benin, up until 2019. During this time, through his company Akugbe Ventures, he employed more than 7,000 tax collectors, generating billions in revenue for the state.
Since leaving politics, Mr Kabaka has faced repeated assassination attempts. His mansion, a huge white building with Roman columns, is littered with bullet holes.
“If you sat me down and say, ‘Can you identify Black Axe in government?’ I will identify,” he says. “Most politicians, almost everybody is involved.”
Mr Kabaka claims he was asked to mobilise cult groups to help win elections. He denies ever being involved in violence himself.
“If government wants to seek for election they need them,” he says. “Cultism still exists because government is involved, and that is the truth.”
We travelled to Benin City in July 2021 to interview Deputy Governor Philip Shaibu, but he twice failed to turn up to the interview. When we sent the government of Edo State and Mr Shaibu our allegations that they have links to Black Axe, they did not respond.
Dr Stone believes Nigerian law enforcement and politicians are too enmeshed with Black Axe to effectively combat them. The solution to the violence, he says, lies within the cult itself. He is not the only former member who feels the group have become too dangerous.
“The reason some of us joined NBM was to join in the fight of oppression,” wrote one member of a secret forum leaked to the BBC. “But now, we have been labelled a criminal organisation with evidence all over.”
Internal Black Axe communications are littered with similar complaints from members.
“I didn’t become an axeman to take lives, I became an axeman in the bid to fraternize,” says another post. “Please, stop these killings.”
The leaders of the NBM say they are committed to ensuring the organisation stays true to its founding principles and promotes peace. The group’s current president, Olorogun Ese Kakor, told the BBC he was elected in order to root out criminal “infiltrators” and that these people are causing “the organisation so much harm”. In a bid to harness this push for change, Dr Stone has formed what he calls a “Rainbow Coalition” – an advocacy group made up of former cultists, influential Nigerian citizens and professors. Members try to de-escalate tensions when rival gangs clash, and are trying to steer Black Axe towards a more peaceful future.
“Rainbow’s contribution to society is to reduce criminality,” he says. “To reduce the rate of death among youths. To reduce the rate of widows and orphans.”
Rainbow’s co-founder, Chukwuka Omessah, wants Black Axe members to reflect on the society they are creating.
“Everyone has a conscience,” he says. “You may deny it on camera, deny it during public, but you cannot deny it in your quiet time – it will haunt you.”
Dr Stone knows that pushing Black Axe towards reform is a dangerous business. He knows his former comrades might come for him one day. He is ready for them if they do. The professor keeps a three feet-long sword hidden in his car, and a licensed shot gun at home.
“For personal guard, personal safety,” he says, with a half-smile. “If they come after me, can’t I also come after them?”
No fewer than six people have been killed in the Okitipupa community, headquarters of Okitipupa Local Government Area of Ondo State.
The cult clash, which was said to have started last Wednesday, had given the community sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, in a bid to curb the ugly trend, monarchs within the council area in collaboration with the security agencies imposed a seven-hour curfew on the community.
According to the Jegun of Idepe, Okitipupa, Oba Micheal Obatuga, the traditional rulers and other stakeholders agreed on the imposition which he said must be observed between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.
While admonishing residents to call their children and wards involved in such dastardly acts to order, the monarch disclosed that the perpetrators of the acts carried out the attacks mostly at night with the use of motorcycles.
On his part, the Chairman of Okitipupa Local Government, Igbekele Akinrinwa, said the community leaders and traditional leaders had been involved in a series of meetings over the disturbing development.
“We have spoken with all the security agencies and they are on ground to arrest anyone found in the act,” he said.
The Police Public Relations Officer in the state, DSP Funmilayo Odunlami, who had earlier confirmed the incident, stated that no one had been arrested in connection with the incident.
Odunlami maintained that investigations and series of meetings with the traditional rulers are ongoing as part of moves to stop cult-related activities in the area.
The press and the police in Italy called them “The Black Axe” and that was then successfully used as a defence to free the members. South Africa and USA going for the same but for hoping for different results.
“Student cult” comprised mostly of middle aged criminals who cannot spell.
Black Axe, a crime syndicate operating in several countries around the world, has been exposed in South Africa via an international investigation that initially focused on Ireland.
Some authorities view the syndicate, also known as the Neo Black Movement of Africa, as a cult. Its SA wing allegedly has security known as “butchers” to maintain discipline.
According to both South African and US authorities, it has a base in Cape Town.
One of Black Axe’s suspected leaders in Cape Town was brazen enough to allegedly use, as an alias, the name of democratic South Africa’s first president, along with a fancy title – Lord Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
And DM168 can reveal that the international head of the syndicate, according to court papers in the US, “advised members against ostentatious displays of fraudulently obtained wealth to avoid attracting attention”.
An Interpol report on cybercrime in Africa, which DM168 reported on last month, said that from January 2020 to February 2021 “South Africa … had the highest targeted ransomware and BEC [business email compromise] attempts”.
Business email scams can involve a target unwittingly transferring funds to scammer-controlled accounts.
Black Axe is suspected of being behind an array of such online scams and money laundering.
In 2020 Udom Emmanuel, governor of the Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom, ordered that “cults, societies and groups”, including Black Axe, “are hereby declared unlawful”.
The European Asylum Support Office, set up by the European Union, also described Black Axe as a “student cult”.
It stated: “Student cults are characterised by violent initiation rites and conduct illegal activities such as: killings, human trafficking, drug trafficking, smuggling, extortions, kidnapping, forced recruitment, etc.”
Various reports say Black Axe was founded at the University of Benin, in Nigeria, in the late 1970s and drew inspiration from the US’s Black Panther Party.
Black Axe evolved and is now known as a criminal grouping that, besides South Africa, operates in several countries, including the US, Canada and Italy (where 30 suspected members were arrested in April this year).
It appears that its South African offshoot was foiled recently after investigators started sniffing out cybercriminals in Ireland.
In November 2021, Interpol announced in a statement that in mid-October it had sent a team to Dublin, Ireland, as part of investigations into financial crime networks.
Members provided support to Ireland’s Garda National Economic Crime Bureau as part of Operation Skein, an 18-month investigation into transnational financial crime, including business email compromise. Operation Skein resulted in more than a dozen arrests and the confiscation of luxury goods including alcohol and designer clothing.
Last month, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau said it was suspected that Operation Skein crimes under investigation amounted to more than €18-million – nearly R327-million – stolen worldwide.
Interpol’s statement said that its members helped Garda police download data and records from phones and computers seized during Operation Skein crackdowns.
This is where South Africa fits in.
“Some of the data collected during the operation has triggered cooperative investigations between the US and South Africa, with the support of Interpol’s financial crime taskforce,” Interpol’s statement said.
“Evidence extracted is currently being analysed by Interpol with a global lens to help identify and target the principal global protagonists and provide further insight [into] how they carry out these cyber-enabled financial crimes.”
The massive operation led to other takedowns and South Africa was key.
Interpol said investigations led to cases involving Black Axe, which was “thought to be responsible for similar cyber-enabled attacks on a global level”.
In October this year in South Africa, the Hawks announced the arrests of eight suspected online scammers in Cape Town during a joint operation with the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“The operation was initiated based on the Mutual Legal Assistance from Central Authorities of the United States of America that was approved by the Republic of South Africa,” Colonel Katlego Mogale said at the time.
She said the suspects “intimidated and berated their victims, ruined their lives and then disappeared”.
“We are confident that this investigation will have a significant impact on this region and beyond.”
Mogale told DM168 no further arrests were carried out. It was not clear if more individuals were set to be detained.
The US was after the eight arrested suspects, seven of whom are allegedly leaders of Black Axe in Cape Town, while the eighth is accused of operating with the group.
These suspects, and the allegations they face according to the US, are:
Perry Osagiede, aka Lord Sutan Abubakar de 1st / Rob Nicolella / Alan Salomon – alleged to be the “Zonal Head” and later “Elder” who ran the Cape Town offshoot of Black Axe. (DM168 has established that in 2020 a man named Perry Osagiede, based in Milnerton, Cape Town, was notified that he would have to forfeit R45,000 to the state. It was not clear why.)
Enorense Izevbigie, aka Richy Izevbigie / Lord Samuel S Nujoma – allegedly “Chairman of the Council of Elders” who helped steer the Cape Town grouping.
Franklyn Edosa Osagiede, aka Lord Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela / Edosa Franklyn Osagiede / Dave Hewitt / Bruce Dupont – the suspected “Chief Ihaza” or treasurer and later a suspected Elder.
Collins Owhofasa Otughwor, aka Lord Jesse Makoko / Philip Coughlan – the suspected “Chief Eye” or secretary.
Osariemen Eric Clement, aka Lord Adekunle Ajasi / Aiden Wilson – allegedly the “Assistant Eye” who assisted the secretary.
Egbe Tony Iyamu, aka Lord Aminu Kano / Richard Amall – the suspected “Chief Butcher” or head of security.
Musa Mudashiru, aka Lord Oba Akenzua – allegedly an “Assistant Butcher” who helped with security.
Toritseju Gabriel Otubu, aka Andy Richards / Ann Petersen – suspected of controlling a business used to receive proceeds from scams.
A US indictment against the seven suspected Black Axe leaders (the group minus Otubu), signed by Acting US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Rachael Honig, provides detailed insight into how the syndicate allegedly operated in Cape Town.
It said Black Axe started out, and was headquartered in, Benin City, Nigeria.
In various countries it had regional groupings known as “zones” and its members were known as “Axes” or “Ayes”, who, on joining up, were given an alias or “strong name”.
“In or around 2013, the Cape Town Zone of Black Axe was formed. In or around 2018, the Zone was registered as an organisation with South Africa’s Companies and Intellectual Property Commission,” the US indictment said. Based on the US’s case, Black Axe members seemed to have flaunted their wealth accumulated via crime.
Court papers said that Black Axe’s national chairperson once addressed members, in part saying: “My worry for the movement is that we have lost the secrecy code. A greater percentage of Axemen gets involved in racketeering just like any other persons but, the issue with Ayes is that we are too lousy.
“In the cause of our daily life, we show off unnecessarily our bad money. Can’t we just hide ourselves in our lifestyle? Can’t we separate this our beloved movement from our illicit engagements? Why are we desecrating the essence of our common existence?”
The US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey said that, from 2011 to 2021, Black Axe members “and other conspirators worked together from Cape Town to engage in widespread internet fraud involving romance scams and advance fee schemes”.
Romance scams involved suspects using aliases on social websites and getting victims to believe they were in a romantic relationship with them, as well as getting victims to transfer to, or receive money from them.
Advance-fee schemes made false claims about their ability to provide or arrange loans, inheritances or other financing.
“Many of these fraudulent narratives involved claims that an individual was travelling to South Africa for work and needed money or other items of value following a series of unfortunate and unforeseen events, often involving a construction site and/or problems with a crane,” the indictment said.
“The Co-conspirators used certain victims and other individuals with US-based financial accounts to receive illegally obtained money in the US-based financial accounts and to transfer the funds to accounts overseas for [their] benefit.
“When some victims stopped or expressed hesitation in sending money … the Co-conspirators engaged in manipulative tactics to coerce the victims… For example, alias ‘Aiden Wilson’ … threatened to distribute personally sensitive photographs of a victim on the internet and to other people known by the victim.”
The suspects had also allegedly used “mules” in and out of the US to conceal criminally obtained money. It is yet to be seen whether the suspects, in custody in South Africa, will be extradited to the US. There have been other Black Axe-related cases there and arrests in several countries.
In October 2019, for example, Ikechukwu Derek Amadi was sentenced to nearly 16 years in jail after being extradited from Canada to the US, where he faced charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Amadi was accused of working with Black Axe.
Meanwhile, in August 2019 in the UK, it was reported that three siblings from Nigeria were sent to jail in London for conspiring to launder nearly a million pounds.
They had allegedly been planning to do so for Black Axe. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
AN investigation by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, has uncovered an international crime gang known as Black Axe, masterminded by a Nigerian, which specialises in preying on health workers and has defrauded the State of €183,000 in a pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) scam.
The gang had harvested information from the emails of HSE staff with a target to secure up to €1 million from their elaborate fraud, but only managed to get €183,000, according to a report by Irish Examiner. The information gathered were used to set up bank accounts in online prepaid financial services, while they perfected plans to launder the money.
The trial established that two Nigerians – Oluwagbewikeke Lewis and Bashiru Aderibigbe – aided by two ‘low-level’ Cork-based operatives and technology, engaged in several fraudulent activities where the identities of a sizeable number of HSE or Tusla staff were used to make PUP claims in the first months of the pandemic. The two operatives have been jailed for their parts in the unemployment scam.
Aderibigbe was arrested by Detective Garda Kieran Crowley during what was a relatively routine act of stop-and-search policing in the Midleton area. Having signalled for the driver of a Mercedes to stop, the detective noticed that the driver was acting nervously and he decided to conduct a search for suspected drugs. No drugs were found. However, what was seized became a key part of the PUP fraud investigation.
Two false passports were discovered, two fraudulent bank documents were seized, and two phone SIM cards were located. The SIM numbers would correspond with numbers provided for the setting up of bank accounts for the fraudulent PUP claims. Most significant of all, however, was the seizure of a mobile phone.
Instead of communicating by text message, the criminals had used WhatsApp voice messages instead. These would prove vital in linking the two defendants with each other, linking them with other criminals, and providing vivid accounts of the modus operandi of the gang.
At the time this phone was seized in Midleton, Detective Garda Trevor Conroy, from Wexford and on secondment to the Department of Social Protection, had been examining patterns in suspicious PUP claims. It was later established that email addresses of the unsuspecting victims had been harvested and used to dupe them into providing further personal information that would advance the fraud.
Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan, confirmed that these health workers were oblivious to the claims that had been filed in their names and the payments made to accounts set up fraudulently from Cork, a country located in South-West Ireland.
A Nigerian interpreter assisted the Bureau to translate a web of WhatsApp recorded phone messages, which provided a unique insight into the workings of Black Axe as it targeted PUP payments. Operatives were also able to identify a number of the parties, including a man believed to be the leader of the criminal organisation known by the nickname ‘The Chairman’, a term of respect used among people involved in such gangs.
In one call, there is a conversation about how €1 million fraudulently claimed in pandemic unemployment payments would be laundered; in another, there is talk of how €30,000 of the proceeds of the Cork-based fraud was being laundered through accounts in Germany.
While fraud investigations typically involve detailed paper trails to follow the money, other policing strategies were involved, including the painstaking analysis of CCTV that could be gathered in coordination with the documented timing of withdrawals from the suspect accounts.
Aderibigbe was seen on security cameras on 22 occasions making withdrawals from the target accounts, in the course of which he pocketed €11,270 in cash from 13 different bank accounts. It was ultimately established in this way that in these 13 accounts, he had access to over €56,000 in cash from the fraudulent PUP claims.
A total of 74 PUP claims were observed in this fast-developing investigation. It was quickly becoming clear that this was a systematic scam, and the monies were being paid into 57 bank accounts. For instance, on August 8, 2020 Aderibigbe was seen on CCTV at the Crestfield Centre in Dooradoyle in Limerick City making one of the withdrawals.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence against his co-accused, Lewis, was the phone seized from him and the audio WhatsApp messages between Lewis and Aderibigbe and other parties.
When arrested, Aderibigbe made no comment during interviews with gardaí. Lewis was later arrested, and he also made no comment to the majority of questions he was asked and examination of WhatsApp messaging made it clear that the two co-accused have been friends for several years.
Detectives were satisfied from their analysis of the audio messaging WhatsApp that Lewis had direct contact with the director of the criminal organisation who was referred to as ‘The Chairman’.
Aderibigbe, 45, of Ballincollig, Co Cork, was sentenced to three and a half years with the final year suspended, while Lewis, 36, of Brookdale, Midleton, Co Cork, was sentenced to four years in prison with the last year suspended.
The ripples caused by allegations brought against some members of NBM of Africa have led to the shutting down of the organization’s activities in its North American and Southern African chapters.
A few weeks ago, there were embarrassing fraud-related allegations against some suspended members of the organization in USA and South Africa.
The Pan-Africanist organization after appraising the situation considered the allegations against the suspended members as not only frightening but also repugnant to its image and sensibilities of its law-abiding members. The organization condemned any form of criminality and fraudulent practice that conflicts with the provisions of its code of conduct and constitution.
NBM also condemned attempts by some media and security organizations to undermine or taint the entire organization with the private actions of a few unscrupulous individuals.
The group’s stance was stated by its spokesman, Mr. Oluwatosin Dixon, while addressing journalists in Abuja yesterday. He stressed that its chapters in North America and Southern Africa would remain shut until members in the affected regions take steps laid out by NBM’s national body to dissociate itself and redeem its image by assisting security agencies to identify the bad elements amongst them whose activities are against the laws of the host countries and its own creed as provided in section 2 of its constitution. This will be carried out in addition to the profiling of its members in the two Regions. The profiling will determine members with genuine qualifications and conducts as members of the organisation.
He added: “NBM will not allow some unscrupulous persons within and outside the movement to continue to destroy its good image earned over years with a clear focus on its objectives and vision of equity and social justice.”