It was shocking to hear the news detailing the arrest of the senior special assistant to Ogun State Governor, Abidemi Rufai, in the United States. It was not so much of the arrest that drew attention, but the reason that led to it.
In a statement, the US Department of Justice reported that Abidemi Rufai was arrested for an alleged $350,000 COVID-19 unemployment fraud.
The offence which is categorised as wire fraud is punishable by up to 30 years in prison, especially when it relates to benefits linked to presidential emergency funds such as the one for the COVID-19 pandemic.
He was apprehended at the JFK Airport in New York on his way out of the United States. Although he appeared before a court on 15 May 2021, he appealed for a detention hearing holding five days after.
Abidemi is said to have used a fake name, Sandy Tang, to steal over $350,000 in unemployment benefits from the Washington State Employment Security Department.
According to the US Department of Justice, the identities of more than 100 Washington residents were stolen by the special assistant to Ogun State Governor. He used them to file over 102 jobless claims with ESD for unemployment benefits relating to COVID-19. The claims are said to be part of the $646 million Washington lost to unemployment fraud.
In the words of the US Attorney General, Tessa Gorman, “Since the first fraud reports to our office in April 2020, we have worked diligently with a federal law enforcement team to track down the criminals who stole funds designated for pandemic relief. This is the first, but will not be the last, significant arrest in our ongoing investigation of ESD fraud.”
The US Department of Justice equally declared that “Rufai used variations of a single e-mail address in a manner intended to evade automatic detection by the system. In doing this, Rufai made it appear that each claim was connected with a different email account.”
The same fraudulent claims were cloned by Rufai in different states of the country such as New York, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, etc.
The proceeds of the crime were either paid out to online payment accounts or wired to bank accounts controlled or owned by people who transfer or move illegally acquired money on behalf of someone else.
It was alleged that over $288,000 was deposited into an American bank account controlled by the special aide between March and August 2020.
In a swift move, the Ogun State Governor immediately suspended Abidemi Rufai following the allegations. The Governor’s chief press secretary, Kunle Somorin, verified that “the Governor has ordered his immediate suspension from office to answer charges against him”, while maintaining that “Our position is that the law should take its course”:
Part of his statement reads: “The Governor wishes to restate his commitment to an open, transparent, accountable, and morally upright administration and will not condone any act bordering on criminality by anyone.”
On the one hand, Abidemi Rufai’s arrest reveals the atrophy in our values and ethics as we often envy the glory without questioning the story. The love of money has taken root in virtually all aspects of society. We often do not care how people make their money. The wealth is given due importance over the source. As one observer pointed, “Abidemi Rufai and Hushpuppi who is currently serving jail time could have been the Governor of their respective states if they were not caught.”
Asides from the fact that their illegal activities are uncovered outside of the country, it calls to question Nigeria’s justice system. James Ibori for instance was tried in a Nigerian court eight times but was never found wanting, yet the same man pleaded guilty in a foreign land.
While there is no justification for crime, unemployment and lack of opportunities in the country are often used as excuses to indulge in this opprobrious act. But Abidemi Rufai occupies a dignified office as an aide to a state Governor. If this allegation is true, what could have led him with such avaricious propensity, to defraud a country of millions of dollars that should ordinarily go to a set of “broken people” affected by the pandemic and are in dire need of the funds to survive?
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What is more depressing is that Abidemi Rufai’s case will be an addition to the popular orientation, especially in foreign lands, that Nigerians and her people are fraudsters. The very fact that he is a government official makes it even more condemnable.
On the other hand, it brings to bear the shabbiness that informs Nigeria’s leadership selection system. Drug barons, human traffickers, cultists, fraudsters, and other unscrupulous elements can easily slip in and hijack any government at both state and federal levels. Most of them go into politics to cover up their underground lifestyle.
It is, nonetheless, good that there are many other Nigerians in the international scene like Okonjo Iweala who are pushing to present Nigeria in a better light.
Abidemi, however, is not the first from Nigeria. Similarly, the young promising Nigerian billionaire, Obinwanne Okeke who once featured on the cover of Forbes Magazine was jailed for ten years over a cyber fraud scam that led to the theft of about $11m (£8m). In 2016, Forbes Africa had listed him among the most influential business people under the age of 30.
BBC reported that Obinwanne Okeke, also known as Invictus Obi, used Nigerian-based companies to defraud people in the US. His companies used phishing emails to steal funds from victims.
Even so, the current prevalence of internet fraud amongst Nigerian youths does not seem to appeal to the logic that they can take on the political scene and provide the necessary change the country so badly needs. Although one bad egg does not define the whole pack, Abidemi Rufai and other similar cases will always be sad relics of Nigerian youths’ inability to inspire the change this generation and the future ones truly need.