It is a murky, byzantine story that should worry Nigerians who run legitimate businesses: A businessman picked up from Lagos State by Rivers State police for an alleged fraudulent transaction, detained for days in a cell with hardened criminals, a shadowy accuser appeared claiming he must refund payment made by his principal, and the detainee was coerced by police to pay almost thrice the sum he was accused of “swindling” the customers of, but when he turned around to prove his innocence, police claimed the incident never happened. That is the plot of the story.
However, the victim, Dayo Ayoade, managing director of Lagos-based Travel Deals Limited, insisted his ordeal was no figment of his imagination. He has evidence of the transactions of the international-airline-ticket-gone-awry deal –– how he was set up by a fellow travel agent, the phone conversation with unknown client who called himself Ezekwugo, a Technology Manager at Shell Petroleum and the tickets he bought on behalf of the other party; he has clear a memory of the sequence of events that followed––his treatment in the hands of detectives from Eagle Crack Unit of Rivers State Police Command and those at Area F in Lagos; and he has ample evidence of the financial transaction between him and the other party. Hence, his story cannot be wished a way.
In this interview with Saturday Sun, a traumatized Ayoade reconstructed the farce that culminated in policemen forcing him to pay N3m for N1.2m.
His story raises questions over the legality of his arrest, detention and the subsequent strong-armed extortion.
Simple transaction, serious trouble
What became a nightmare started as an innocuous transaction. Narrating to Saturday Sun, Ayoade claimed he never suspected a foul play because the travel agent was well known to him.
His story: “On July 22, 2019, one Ayanniyi Babatunde Daniel of Range Travels came into my office to make enquiries about my discount tables for sub-agents and he expressed his willingness to do business with me. He told me to do travel reservations for one Mr Joseph from Lagos to Winnipeg on Lufthansa; Ottawa to Winnipeg for his son on West Jet; Lagos to London return for Omolola on British Airways and Abayomi on Ethiopian Airline. The reservations were made and were immediately forwarded to Babatunde Ayanniyi via WhatsApp. I had earlier given my GTBank account number to him to enable him make payment once his client gives his approval.
“Later that evening, an unregistered number called me and introduced himself as Ezekwugo from Port Harcourt and wanted to know if he’s speaking with the MD of Travel Deals Limited. I answered in affirmation and he told me his agent (Babatunde Ayanniyi) gave him my number and account. I called Ayanniyi and notified him of the call from Ezekwugo and he confirmed that he gave him my details. Shortly after, I got an alert of seven hundred thousand naira (N700, 000) from Mr Ezekwugo. I immediately called the two of them to notify them of the payment. The agent (Ayanniyi) told me that more payment will still be made as his client (Ezekwugo) will be traveling with members of his family.
“The following day, July 23, I received another payment of five hundred and fifty-seven thousand, two hundred naira (N557, 200.00). I again notified Ezekwugo via text message and also called Mr. Ayanniyi to let me know the tickets to be issued, as I will not be responsible for any increase in fares. He told me he would liaise with his client and get back to me and even confirmed that more payment will still be made.
“About a week after, Mr. Ayanniyi came to my office and asked me to issue British Airways ticket to London for Omolola at a cost of seven hundred and fifty five thousand, five hundred and ninety-eight Naira (N755, 598.00). On August 19, he was in my office to issue another Ethiopian Airline ticket for Vitalla at a cost of three hundred and fifty three thousand six hundred and two naira (N353,602). The same day, he asked me to issue another ticket for a local flight to Ezekwugo from Port Harcourt to Lagos, but I told him we don’t do local tickets because of the stress involved. He then requested that I send him the balance of one hundred and twenty thousand naira (N120, 000) after deducting the twenty thousand naira (N20,000) that I borrowed him to enable him source for Ezekwugo’s local flight ticket.”
The trouble began on September 26. “An unregistered number called me and introduced himself as Inspector Dominic from Port Harcourt. He asked if I know Ezekwugo; and why did you issue him a fake ticket? He asked. I told Inspector Dominic that though I didn’t know Ezekwugo in person, we had spoken twice on phone and I didn’t issue any ticket to him. I further told the Inspector that the two tickets I issued from the payment Ezekwugo gave me were in favor of Jenmi Nikky Omolola and Vitalla on the instruction of his agent, Ayanniyi Babatunde and that the balance of his money has since been transferred to Ayanniyi, his agent. Inspector Dominic later sent me snapshots of the purported fake tickets. I told him that what he sent to me did not originate from me as they did not even resemble my company’s ticket format.
“Shortly after, I called Ezekwugo to intimate him of what Inspector Dominic told me but was surprised when he affirmed it. When I questioned why he didn’t notify me when he realized the ticket given to him by his agent were fake, he had no answer to that, but instead insisted my company has been used to defraud him by his agent.”
It occurred to him that he had a problem on his hand when Ayanniyi Babatunde, the travel agent that came to his office to do all the negotiations suddenly became unavailable.
“He initially refused to pick my calls and when he eventually did, he was so evasive, claiming he was not around,” he said.
Arrest and detention
The first trouble came four days later when Ayoade realized he could no longer conduct an online transaction.
He continued: “On September 30, I realized my GTBank account was frozen and I had to go to GTBank to enquire why the restriction on my account. To my surprise, the bank’s Chief Security Officer (CSO) showed me some documents from the Inspector General of Police office approving my arrest on sight. I followed him to the Police station hoping that the issue would soon be resolved since I knew I had not committed any fraud.
“We met the DPO who took us to the Area Commander and after so much going back and forth, I was detained and locked up in the cell. Due to my ill health, I was moved from the cell to stay behind the counter overnight. My health got worse the following day and was taken to the hospital (Cottage) on the order of the DPO and was handcuffed to the bed. I was treated for asthma. In the course of the treatment, it was discovered I had developed high blood pressure. I was moved to the police station again on Thursday morning where I spent the day and night behind the counter before Inspector Dominic finalized his paperwork and we proceeded on the trip to Port Harcourt.”
We were to move by road but I was made to buy flight tickets for the two police officers that came from Port Harcourt, namely Inspector Igwe Dominic and Sergeant Oludare Olamide.
“We got to Port Harcourt that same Friday, I wrote my statement with the police and later met one Mr. Chukwukaelo Ogadinma who claimed he was Ezekwugo’s personal assistant. Ogadinma insisted that I must pay N3.5 million before I could be granted bail. It was later discovered that Ogadinma is a staff of Shell and was employed by Ezekwugo to further confuse and give verity to the allegation against me. To further intimidate me as well as extort money, Ogadinma boasted of the huge sum of money he had paid the police to see to my arrest and insisted he must recoup the said amount before my release. All appeals to release me fell on deaf ears.”
The steep price of freedom
Ayoade was ready to refund the said amount if only to avoid staying longer in a cell with hardened criminals.
“But my proposal to be responsible for the N2.2million which was the cost of the fresh ticket Ezekwugo claimed he bought fell on deaf ears; Ogadinma insisted that I must pay that money or remain in police custody. Already I was locked up in the cell with criminals and couldn’t imagine spending another night there.
“When all pleas fell on his deaf ears, a friend of mine, Jide Akinuli transferred N3 million to Ogadinma; upon receipt of the payment, which he confirmed via online banking, Ogadinma asked the Police to release me. After all the necessary paperwork, I was released on bail later that Friday night.”
Police’s contradictory story
In hindsight, it appears that Ayoade was framed.
When contacted the Police Public Relation Officer of Rivers State Command, Deputy Superintendent of Police Nnamdi Omoni pleaded ignorance of the incident.
“You need to get your facts right, I have contacted the leader of that team and he assured me that such a thing did not happen,” Omoni asserted.
On the contrary, an impeccable source at Area F, Ikeja, Lagos, where Ayoade was first detained before he was handed over to the detectives from Operation Eagle Crack of Rivers State Police Command, confirmed to Saturday Sun that detectives attached to that department, led by one Dominic, took him to Port Harcourt on November 4, 2019.
Ayoade insisted on his innocence, pointing to the disappearance of the travel agent who started the fraud. “I reported the matter to the police in Lagos and since then, Babatunde has disappeared,” he said. “The amount that was paid into my account for the transaction is N1.2 million, but the police in Rivers State forced me to pay N3 million. I want the police to give me back my money and to also produce Babatunde who escaped with their money. I have proof of payment and the phone number of all the policemen responsible for my arrest.”