Sierra Leone Busts a $200 Million Smart City Scam

Опубликовано: 16 Март 2023

Smart City SierraLeoneA billboard advertising the Motherland City in the coastal village of York near the capital Freetown where it was supposed to be built. (Photo: Josef Skrdlik, OCCRP)

The days of Olufunmilade Adeyemi as a con artist seemed to have been numbered in 2018 when he was arrested in Ghana and extradited to his native Nigeria to face justice for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars in sales of fictitious property in the suburbs of Lagos.

But the ostentatiously religious son of a pastor somehow slalomed his way out of the process and four years later miraculously appeared in Sierra Leone posing as Harvard-educated business visionary Professor Alex O Phillips who claimed to have a genius plan to kickstart the country’s struggling economy with a US$200 million smart city.

Named the Motherland City, the site would contain 10,000 housing units and all the imaginable facilities ranging from wind turbines and a ferry terminal to a waterpark and the biggest wax museum in Africa.

The investment capital would be provided by Phillips-owned EAP Group of Companies – an alleged ultra-successful real estate developer with projects all around the world.

The idea was welcomed with enthusiasm.

President Julius Maada Bio allegedly personally thanked Phillips for coming to help Sierra Leone and the official launching of the Motherland City at the end of January was attended by a number of top state officials, including Head of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) Francis Ben Kaifala.

Kelfala Kallon, the then Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone, even said that the bank was ready to invest in the city. “I’ve seen projects, I’ve seen people come and go but I have a very good feeling about this one,” he was recorded saying.

The main appeal of the project was in its affordability – a basic two-bedroom house could be purchased for as little as $24,600 paid in monthly installments of less than $200.

Melvina Jackson, a local businesswoman who was initially interested in signing up for the scheme, told OCCRP that the company even offered her a 50% discount if she starts paying soon enough.

That said, things soon stopped looking rosy for Phillips as no construction work could be seen at the site. At the end of February, John Idriss Lahai, a local social media influencer, started publishing on his Facebook material exposing the scam.

At the beginning of March, the Anti-Corruption Commission proceeded with the arrest.

“Phillips is now in police custody and the investigation is ongoing,” Patrick Sandi, the Director of Public Outreach at the ACC, told OCCRP.

“We haven’t yet estimated the total loss but many people have been affected,” he added.

Sandi praised the ACC’s early intervention but there are question marks surrounding the ACC's boss Kaifala’s attendance at the launching of the Motherland City.

“I found it very strange,” said Raymond Pratt, a youth representative in the coastal village of York, where the city was to be built.

“In my opinion, the ACC failed its job, as they should have done research on the company before endorsing the project,” he added.

Lahai was even more outright. “These guys are criminals,” he wrote on Facebook, suggesting that all the ACC staff should be fired.

The government has remained silent about the scandal, which is perceived as deeply embarrassing by many Sierra Leoneans suspecting that it was not only ignorance but also corruption that facilitated the initial success of Adeyemi’s attempt for a big comeback. “They are all involved,” said Jackson.