The arrest this week of a Nigerian Instagram celebrity has pitted Nigerian detectives against their counterparts from the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Nigeria and the U.S. launched the battle for the possession of Ramon Abbas, a.k.a.: Hushpuppi, following his arrest and detention by Emirati authorities earlier this week, according to two officials familiar with the development.
“Immediately we got confirmation that he had been arrested in Dubai, we all started fighting to get him,” a senior Nigerian detective said on Friday. “He is a subject of multiple and conflicting interests between Nigeria and the United States.”
Officials said the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) has been leading America’s effort to take possession of Mr Abbas because many of those he allegedly scammed in years of advance fee fraud were Americans.
Officials could not immediately estimate the financial value of Mr Abbas’ alleged fraud, citing poor cooperation from Dubai authorities, but they expressed confidence his exploits spanned across Europe, U.S. and Nigeria.
Mr Abbas’ arrest was first rumoured on Nigerian social media Tuesday, our correspondent was unable to get official corroboration until Friday. Even then, two officials who confirmed knowledge of the arrest and offered preliminary information elected not to do so on the record — fearing that American officials could jettison back channel negotiations that began on Thursday morning. It was also agreed not to identify both officials because their request satisfied its policy on anonymous sources.
Nigerian officials said UAE authorities have frustrated all their attempts to obtain more than a cursory account of Mr Abbas’ arrest, including when and where he was held.
“They are even reluctant to tell us the preliminary charges that they have against him so we could weigh them with the charges that we have against him in Nigeria,” one of the officials said. “We know that the money involved would be much for the Americans, but we are optimistic that we will prevail in bringing him to Nigeria to face trial.”
The police in Dubai did not return an email seeking comments from our correspondent. An e-mail to the Interpol was also not returned for several hours on Friday. Umar Garba, Nigerian head of Interpol, did not return requests seeking comments from our correspondent.
A telephone number for the FBI in Dubai repeatedly entered voicemail on Friday evening. It was unclear whether Mr Abbas has contacted a lawyer as of Friday evening.
Our law enforcement sources said they were left to assume that since Mr Abbas’ Instagram page, which frequently saw a whirl of postings that carefully molded an opulent image of him, has seen no activities for the past one week, then his arrest must have come around the time rumoured on social media.
A second official told our correspondent that even though Mr Abbas was not declared wanted in Nigeria and not on Interpol red notice, his activities have been regularly analysed by detectives in Nigeria and abroad.
“He is not on the wanted list but his arrest is of interest to both the U.S. and Nigeria,” the official said.
It was learnt that Nigerian authorities have begun tracking individuals within the country with suspected ties to Mr Abbas.
Even though he has for years used his Instagram fame — over 2.3 million followers as of this week — to cultivate a symbol of wealth and envy on social media, little has been learnt of Mr Abbas’ background.
Many of his followers acknowledged benefitting from his occasional cash ‘giveaways’, even though his source of affluence, which has long evoked the curiosity of bloggers, remained unclear,
Mr Abbas appeared to be the highest-profile Nigerian to be arrested so far in 2020, months after several noted Nigerians, including Obinwanne Okeke and Ismaila Mompha, were arrested in August and October 2019, respectively, for their alleged roles on separate multinational fraud charges.
While Mr Okeke and another set of about 80 Nigerians were arrested in the U.S. and charged there, Mr Mompha, who was reportedly friends with Mr Abbas, was arrested in Lagos by Nigeria’s anti-graft EFCC and slammed with multiple charges of financial crimes to the tune of N33 billion — or $85 million.
Ibrahim Magu, EFCC’s top chief, told Lagos-based TVC on Friday that his agency had no prior involvement in Mr Abbas’ case.
“We are yet to be involved in the case of Hushpuppi,” Mr Magu said, noting that Emirati authorities were yet to provide information on his arrest to warrant EFCC’s cooperation.
Nigerian officials admitted that the bulk of proceeds of Mr Abbas’ alleged fraud might have come from Americans, but Nigeria has a tenable interest in the case because his alleged co-conspirators live in Nigeria.
“We are not sure yet of the amount they are being accused of stealing,” an official said. “But we want our friends in the U.S. to know that many of his associates are in Nigeria and we will ensure equitable sharing of all forfeitures arising from the case.”