Saturday, 26 August 2023 04:49

The Ghanaian conman who fooled the elite: ‘He gave them excitement’

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Lauren Mechlina

In her thrilling new book, Yepoka Yeebo tells the jaw-dropping story of a man behind a scam called ‘one of the most fascinating – and lucrative – in modern history’

The ever-proliferating grifter-lit bookshelf is on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. But Yepoka Yeebo’s contribution to the category stands out. Her meticulously researched Anansi’s Gold isn’t set in Silicon Valley or a swishy enclave such as Nantucket or Noto. Anansi’s Gold offers a tangled and mesmerizing history of Ghanaian-born John Ackah Blay-Miezah, architect of an Accra-based scam that American prosecutors called “one of the most fascinating – and lucrative – in modern history”.

The result of what the author calls a “six-year-long treasure hunt”, Anansi’s Gold involved countless hours at the library, trawls through hotel and military archives, and off-the-cuff conversations with Lyft drivers. Yeebo first heard about the story of Blay-Miezah when her mother sent her a video on WhatsApp showing a charismatic man who claimed to be the guardian of billions of dollars. “I was like, well, obviously not – that’s ridiculous,” Yeebo, 38, said by video call from her plant-filled apartment in London. “But every time I told a friend they were like, well, I’ve heard crazier stories. And I got obsessed with it.”

Her book is a tale of a man who had a Ripley-like talent for identifying and parroting the habits of the privileged class – be they people he met while working at a private club in Philadelphia or while in prison, serving time for petty fraud.

For nearly two decades, Blay-Miezah managed to convince thousands of investors all over the world that he had access to the gold, diamonds and cash that the Ghanian government had hidden from British colonists. He’d struck up a friendship with Ghana’s ousted president Kwame Nkrumah, you see. And Blay-Miezah was with him at his deathbed and granted oversight of a trust fund, worth $27bn. Anyone who believed in this fiction and wished to invest would see their investment grow tenfold. Blay-Miezah was a trickster whose self-delusion, shamelessness and unflagging popularity call to mind the ways of Donald Trump.

There are shades of Anna Delvey, too, to the story, given Blay-Miezah’s affinity for world-class luxury hotels, where he racked up bills that he had no intention of settling himself. But his scheme was larger in scope and far longer-running than Delvey’s experiment in being Manhattan’s worst houseguest. “When you’re staying somewhere really fancy, people make assumptions about you,” Yeebo said of her subject’s affinity for five-star hotels. “But he also just had ridiculously good and specific taste. It was developed by watching people who were born wealthier.”

It wasn’t until 1989, when the American news program 60 Minutes ran a humiliating interview with the cigar-chomping, jewelry-laden man, that his believers grew uneasy.

Diplomats, Nixon associates and businessmen – as well as humble mom-and-pop investors – had bought into Blay-Miezah’s claims. He said that he had been in Bucharest, at the deathbed of Nkrumah, who entrusted him with the hidden riches of Ghana, which declared independence in 1957. (At the time of Nkrumah’s death, Blay-Miezah was actually thousands of miles away, serving time in a prison outside Philadelphia.)

But details can be such a nuisance! He had an uncanny ability to befriend people in high places, forge documents and play the press. He set up satellite offices in Philadelphia and London, and used his combination of chutzpah, cunning and self-importance to keep the grift afloat. He didn’t just appeal to marks’ greed; his program was benevolent. Once the money was freed, he was going to funnel funds back into Ghana, for much-needed improvement projects. His lucre spelled out a direct route to dignity and liberation, and people were all too primed to buy into the con. “Even when he didn’t give them money, he gave them a tension or excitement,” Yeebo said. “He gave them a reason to keep taking risks.”

There were a few skeptics – notably, as it happens, Shirley Temple Black. The former child star was serving as a US ambassador in Accra and had her doubts about the so-called Oman Ghana Trust Fund. As she put in a cable to the secretary of state, Henry Kissinger: “Those who believe Blay-Miezah a fraud are worried he might just have the money and then they would look extremely foolish.” Victims’ reluctance to identify as suckers only helped shield Blay-Miezah and breathe life into his scam. People wanted to believe.

“He was magnetic and charming and handsome,” Yeebo said. “He also seemed to charm even the people who would come to hate him.”

Her blow-by-blow narrative comes to assume a cyclical quality. It happened again and again: skepticism led to criticism led to accusation led to defensive tactics that discredited any doubters and led to Blay-Miezah’s purchase on a higher social or political rung. A master of dog-ate-my-homeworking and squeezing lemonade out of lemons, he convinced a great many that he was the one man who held the key to restoring Ghana’s wealth. He was audacious and brave, inviting chief investors to congregate at international retreats where he would dole out the money they’d long waited for – only for a death of a business associate, or a sudden illness, or a new bureaucratic hurdle to present itself and render the gathering moot. Everybody was a little complicit. Yeebo cites a study from the 1950s, in which scholars looked at members of a cult whose leader had promised that the end of the world was nigh. When the apocalypse failed to materialize, “their belief became stronger”.

Yeebo’s book is also an evocative portal to a world that mixed mid-century glamor with futurism. “I actually have a giant folder of photos from the 50s all the way to the 90s,” Yeebo said. “I was really hungry for these images, because I hadn’t seen enough of them anywhere. It was almost like I could step into my grandparents’ photo album.”

She began digging around the story in 2016, after her mother sent her the WhatsApp video of Blay-Miezah’s notorious 60 Minutes appearance. His screen presence was startling and his gravity-defying narrative felt of a piece with the spirit of Ghana, where Yeebo’s parents were born and where political unrest and economic instability often gave rise to creativity. “You could have the most secure government job and, for some reason, you still wouldn’t get your salary for like six months,” she said.

Raised in London, Yeebo was living part-time in Ghana, filing freelance stories to British and American magazines, when she embarked on the project. Researching her book, she came to see the overlap between truth and fabrication. “I’d be randomly talking to someone in London or Philly or Accra. They tell me something just that couldn’t have been true at all. And then I’d go look it up and it was actually true,” she said. “You start to think about the stories people tell a lot more carefully.”

Decades after Blay-Miezah’s death, the con is still thriving, and other people are out there collecting investments for the supposed fund. If they’re any good, they probably don’t think what they’re doing is beyond the pale. “You can’t just be a liar,” Yeebo said. “You actually have to believe in it a little bit yourself.”

 

The Guardian, UK

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