Marek Zmysowski, a polish-born entrepreneur, known for creating new businesses in Nigeria and sub-saharan African including Jovago, Jumia Travel, Hotel Oga and others, has just shared an interesting story of how he got on Interpol’s most wanted list.
According to him, ‘this is a story about how corrupt policemen disobey the judicial system of Nigeria and even manage to manipulate Interpol, at the request of one businessman that openly brags about his “influence”.
Warsaw Okecie Airport, January 14th, 2018. My holiday was coming to an end. I finally recovered from the five most stressful years of my life. In 2013, as a young and success-hungry Polish tech entrepreneur I moved to Nigeria to join the African Digital Revolution. I co-founded Jovago.com, that later merged with Jumia.com who shortly after became Africa’s first Unicorn, employing 3000 people in 23 African countries. My second startup, HotelOga (rebranded later to HotelOnline), turned into the biggest Hospitality Software and Destination Management Company in Western Africa. We were first to partner with the Online Travel giants like Expedia or Booking.com. I was fighting hard to change the narrative of Africa in the Western World. One of my TED talks was viewed by close to a million people. Google and the World Bank invited me to join as a mentor for their African programs.
I was about to board a flight to London to see a couple of London’s VCs to discuss their support in launching my new venture. I arrived at the airport on time, but boarding this flight was not meant for me anymore. At what was supposed to be another routine passport control, I was arrested by the Polish border security. I was informed that I’m wanted by the Nigerian Government for the crimes of Advanced Financial Fraud and that I will stay in custody until it is decided if I should be sent to Nigeria or not. I was allowed one phone call to my lawyer. During that first night in jail, between meditations, prayers, push-ups, breathing exercises, and anything that kept me away from totally freaking out and breaking down, I decided that I will do everything it takes to make sure this story eventually comes out. To prevent the same thing from happening to others. That thought allowed me to survive that night and kept me sane during many more to come.
I fell in love with Africa and its people for so many reasons, but the excitement and challenges of building businesses in frontier markets were for me always the most captivating thing. You have to solve the craziest problems a typical Western manager would never think of dealing with. But the reward is the biggest market opportunity of the 21st century. And why do some companies start their African journey in Nigeria? Because If something can go wrong, it will most likely go wrong in Nigeria. Nigerians joke between each other that their country is never the number one in the ranking of the most corrupt countries in the World just because they can bribe the ranking.
The reality is pretty close to the joke. According to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty Report, in 2017 Nigeria was the 4th most corrupt country in the World. In 2018?—?THE MOST corrupt state on the Globe. And what is the most corrupt institution in Nigeria? According to the Global Corruption Barometer, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics, the NOI Polls Organization, and The Independent Corrupt Practices Commission… it’s the Nigerian Police.
Nigerian Police gets involved in business disputes to an extent not seen in any democratic, developed country. If Policemen were as passionate about catching thieves, murderers, rapists, and terrorist, as they are in becoming a side in a conflict between 2 companies, Nigeria would be safer than Switzerland. One might wonder what incentivizes them to act this way…
Online businesses in Africa used to be under the radar for some time. There was enough money to extort from the oil companies and big international corporations. But since Jumia and Konga (2 biggest e-commerce players) started showing their ads every 15 min on the national TV and setting up billboards on every street corner, we were bound to get attention from the guys that really run in this country?—?corrupted officials.
For a typical policeman, an online entrepreneur wasn’t just a “Yahoo Boy”anymore, whom he could stop on the street, shake up a little bit, take his laptop and force him to pay 20,000 Naira (around 50$) to get it back. Now there was serious money to be made from the new wave of Internet companies and their founders.
You should never underestimate the ability of your enemies to do illegal things against you. Especially in Nigeria, where most of my business was located. I met with a reputable Nigerian businessman once. He came for the meeting with his own coffee. “Having a taste for that one special blend??—?I asked. He replied to me: “Not really. I was just poisoned by my business partner once”.
For the first couple of years, I was relatively lucky and was able not to have any “adventures” with the big government institutions. Then, statistics decided to catch up with me. After leaving Jumia in 2015, I launched “HotelOga”. The company was funded from my private capital and investment from minority shareholders from Nigeria, India, and Poland. The local investor was a very prominent businessman with his hands in many different sectors, strategic for the Nigerian economy. He had also powerful friends that allowed him to keep those hands there. Someone you want to have as a “Godfather” in a hostile business environment. Where you definitely don’t want to be, is when the “Godfather”, your support system, turns against you.
During the startup fight for growth and survival, a conflict (around the company vision and management style) between myself and the Godfather arose. It reached a threshold when he, together with our CFO, tried to kick me out of the management board and take control of the company. They failed because my team, my co-founder and other shareholders came to my defense. The conflict, however, paralyzed our operations for months and almost made us go bankrupt. We were able to save the company by merging with our biggest competitor from East Africa. This allowed me to exit the company and remove myself from the equation, hoping that this move will release the tension between stakeholders.
I was arrested at Warsaw airport because my name showed up in the passport system as a person wanted by Interpol. Interpol put me on the list on the basis of an arrest warrant from Nigerian Police. The justification of the arrest only included a very vague description of my alleged crimes. Apparently, I stole my investor and my CFO money. The only evidence in the case? Victim statement. Nothing else. Just “testimonies”. Imagine going to the police now and telling them that your neighbor stole a million dollars from you. And now the police goes to arrest your neighbor without even asking if you ever had a million, not even bothering to ask if you have any proof of the theft.
I was lucky enough to have my case assigned to a young Polish public prosecutor, who could see that something is wrong here. The day I was arrested, he has requested the Nigerian police to send the full documentation of my case. After all these months, they still haven’t sent anything. What they did send, however, was the request for my extradition. Again with no supporting documentation. I was released the next day. Polish Ministry of Foreign affairs has sent to its Nigerian counterpart a formal request to explain the situation and give any information about the actions against me. Guess what? It’s been 6 months and just like the Police, they’re yet to give a reply.
What I couldn’t understand though, is how one can be pursued in the “First World”, based on some shady paperwork from one of the most corrupt countries in the World. Why is it so easy? My knowledge of Interpol back then came from action movies. A noble international institution, coordinating the cooperation between police organizations from around the World, helping to track down World’s biggest villains. Seems pretty black and white, right? Well, the reality adds fifty more shades of gray to this picture. Interpol has 190 member countries. They support it financially, but on top of that, Interpol accepts donations from private institutions. Imagine your local police or public prosecutor got paid by a big local company, how would that make you feel? In 2011 Interpol got a 20 mln Euro donation from FIFA, just before the outbreak of a huge bribery scandal including many top FIFA officials. Conspiracy theories fans would probably have something to say about that. When the news broke, the organization has returned the money to FIFA.
Interpol is trying very hard to remain a politically neutral organization. Just like every reputable law enforcement organization should be. The problem is, it’s equally neutral to the laws of all the members. It enforces the laws of Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland just like it does for China, Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, and Iran. And you don’t need to be politically biased to point out differences in democracy and corruption between those countries. If you were a political opponent of Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi it would be just a matter of time to be convicted for “something” and wanted in their countries. And thanks Interpol, you would be wanted also in the rest of the World.
Entrepreneurs, however, rarely become political opponents of ruling governments. We tend to find opportunities in the system that currently exists, rather than trying to turn the whole political world upside down before making our living. Should we be then worried about Interpol and Police? In theory, we shouldn’t, it’s illegal for them to engage in civil disputes. Everyone, who has ever done business in a corrupt system knows the real answer though. If someone can bribe his way to a multimillion-dollar contract, having a business rival convicted is like a walk in the park. And once you have that conviction in the local country, thanks to Interpol… you know what happens next.
How does Interpol help catch the “bad guys’? It issues a so-called “Notice” to all it’s member countries about each wanted person. There are eight types of Notices, Blue being the lightest and Red dedicated to the worst scumbags walking on the face of this planet. Convicted murderers, rapists, drug lords, terrorists, and me.
The day I left the Polish custody. I got 3 phone calls. The first one was from my Nigerian banker who informed me about the police order to freeze all my accounts. The second call came from a Nigerian journalist, that got a tip from “someone” about my arrest and wanted my comments. Someone really wanted to give me some bad press. The only people in Nigeria that knew at that time about my detention in Poland, were the Police officers behind the arrest warrant. The third person I spoke to that day, was the “Godfather’s” lawyer. Her offer was pretty simple. If I pay 300k USD, my problems with the Nigerian justice system and Interpol will go away. And my image in the media will remain untarnished. That’s how some people secure their investment returns.
Still, I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet. The Red Notice was put into the system on December 22nd. That was just one day after I landed in Poland to spend Christmas with my family. That was my first time in Poland in many months. I was let free from custody just because Poland does not extradite its own citizens. Have I been stopped in any other frequently visited country, the situation would have been much different. I would be rotting in a Nigerian jail and probably confess to anything, just to get out, just like the “Godfather” planned.
On that day I decided to fight for justice. Even if it was going to cost me more than that ransom I was forced to pay. This fight was my new startup. I’ve recruited a team of lawyers from Nigeria, USA and Poland, specialized in international crime and Interpol abuse. I got support from Organizations: Fair Trials, Open Dialogue, Amnesty International, and Bill Browder, a former biggest foreign investor in Russia, probably the most famous victim of Interpol abuse triggered by corrupted Russian officials (you MUST read his book “Red Notice”).
The bizarre situation was that I was wanted because of a Nigerian court order, but we didn’t really know for what, which court ruled it, and when. The disinformation seemed to be planned to slow us down. We started by demanding that my bank sends us the police documents supporting the account freeze. After pulling all the possible strings, we got the scan of the letter, that the bank received from the police. We finally knew which department and which court is behind it. The happiness didn’t last long though. My lawyers were kicked out from that police station and refused any explanation. A big surprise also waited for us in court. The documentation of the case related to my situation “got lost in court archives”.
“Godfather’s” lawyers kept putting pressure on me to pay the money. They said the Nigerian government will push hard for my extradition. The “Godfather” himself was so confident that in a phone call admitted who got paid to chase me, and who to pay to clean this mess. Because in the end, he was just teaching me a lesson and wanted to help.
A couple of phone calls to my friends in Nigeria and I quickly found out that I wasn’t the only victim of the “Godfather’s” usage of “political relationships and power” so he could always get what he wanted. Two other founders of very well known, established Nigerian Fintech and eCommerce companies opened up to me about their experiences. And those were not pleasant stories, to say the least.
I decided to first sue the Nigerian Police in the Nigerian Federal Court. We had nothing to lose, but so much to win. Nigerian police, in order to defend themselves, would have to present to the court the documents they used to build my conviction case. Those documents, that we were so desperate to find so we could fight them. Police could also decide not to show anything and risk losing the case. If we were lucky enough to get a fair Judge, outside the “Godfather’s” circle of influence, this might actually work.
And it did work. I had more luck than brains again. Police decided not to attempt to defend in the court, just to protect themselves from being exposed for taking bribes. On July 23rd, 2018, the judge ruled in my favor. My arrest warrant was struck down, bank freeze was ruled as illegal and I was even given a 2 mln Naira compensation. The symbolic amount in a symbolic victory.
Does it mean my problems are over? Not at all. Winning a case in Nigeria is one thing. Having anyone respect that court ruling is another. The same people in Nigeria that put me on the system are the only ones who can take me down. And of course, they haven’t. The only way left was to apply directly to the Interpol Headquarters in Lyon, France.
It takes the Super Global Police only a couple of hours to put you on the wanted list. It can take years to take you down. With an estimated of 20,000 Red Notices being active at any given time, a complicated legal structure of the organization (that makes it almost impossible to sue Interpol for its wrongdoings) and only a handful of in-house lawyers to analyze thousands of complaints monthly (!) about baseless Red Notices, the problem of dealing with this international organization can be bigger than the issue itself that brought you there. Why is Interpol just putting all these arrest warrants from the shadiest countries without any proper background check, but applies the time-consuming and financially-destructive procedure to undo it? The vision behind Interpol is noble. We need Interpol. But we don’t need an organization that is abused and spreads the corruption and abuse of power between the countries.
The extradition request and the Interpol arrest warrant are framed now and hang in my office, next to other diplomas and prizes. I’m equally proud of all of them. What happened to me could never have happened in a democratic country with a rule of law. It would never happen to me in the European Union or the USA if I chose to run my businesses there. But I want to run my business in Africa. I was always warned not to do business with Nigerians. The Irony is that the bad guys turned out to be people with American and Indian passports and the Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans, and South Africans were the ones that helped me. My love and belief in Africa remain unshaken. We have so much to win together.
I’ve decided to write a book about my story. All of my income from the book sales will go to giving laptops and coding lessons to the smartest pupils from the poorest families in Northern Nigeria.