Everyone loves a con artist. Since her indictment in 2018 for defrauding investors in her blood-testing startup of $700 million, Elizabeth Holmes has been the subject of two books, four documentaries and a hit miniseries. Anna Delvey, who posed as an heiress in order to swindle banks, hotels and benefactors, got out of prison last year and has since launched a podcast and released a single with a TikTok star, all while under house arrest in an East Village apartment. Following his release from jail, Billy McFarland, the man behind Fyre Festival (where attendees expecting luxury were put up in disaster relief tents as opposed to partying with celebrities on the white sands of the Bahamas etc), announced that he was doing the same thing all over again. Early-bird tickets for Fyre II were said to have sold out overnight, most of them presumably snapped up by people hoping to write a viral article about the clowns who would pay for such an event.
A less well-known but more interesting scam than any of these was pulled off by Dr John Ackah Blay-Miezah, who persuaded investors across Ghana and the US that he was the sole beneficiary of a $27 billion trust fund hidden away in Swiss bank accounts by Kwame Nkrumah. He explained that as the former Ghanaian president’s closest confidant, he had been entrusted with the secret of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund when the old man lay dying in Bucharest in 1972. If a savvy businessperson wanted to get hold of some of those billions, Blay-Miezah would say, all they had to do was make a relatively small upfront payment, to help him clear certain legal and diplomatic hurdles that remained before he could release the fund. After that, the bulk of the money would be used for the development of Ghana. The rest – which would still be a huge sum – would be distributed among the investors, who had been so very patient, and who at this point were really more like family to him. Returns of 100 per cent would, he hoped, make up for the delay.
That the Oman Ghana Trust Fund didn’t exist might seem obvious now, especially to those of us who feel a bit smug at not being fooled when an offer like this lands in our spam folder. Advance-fee scams – sometimes called ‘Nigerian prince scams’, although they mostly originate in other countries – have become a hackneyed example of online fraud. But Blay-Miezah and his varyingly complicit associates managed to keep the con going for almost twenty years, extracting hundreds of millions from investors, despite warnings from a number of prominent people, including Henry Kissinger and Shirley Temple. We think of a good con artist as someone who is able to present himself as a legitimate and trustworthy businessman, cannily deflecting attention away from the sketchiness of his scheme by various demonstrations of legitimacy. But he could just as well be someone who is able to turn the evident implausibility of his plan to his advantage, in the knowledge that there are quite a lot of people in the world who are ready to persuade themselves of almost anything rather than admit that a man with an air of over-the-top fraudulence has been taking them for a ride.
Blay-Miezah was born in 1941, when Ghana was still the Gold Coast. John Kolorah Blay grew up in a tiny village without electricity or running water, about seven miles away from Fort Apollonia, a former British slave-trading post. His parents sent him to an Anglican school in the closest big city, Takoradi, where he served as an altar boy. For a while, he sold kerosene after school to help pay the fees, but around the time that Ghana became independent, in 1957, he changed tack, persuading first his classmates, then his headmaster and then people in the street that he was ‘gifted in more senses than five’, that he could cure sickness and tell the future, for a small fee. For some reason, they believed him. By the time Blay-Miezah left Ghana for the first time in 1959 (he told everyone he’d been awarded a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania), he already had an entourage of clients, or patients, or dupes, who turned up dressed in white to wave him off at Takoradi harbour. He spent a few years in Philadelphia pretending to be a student before coming home to a young country whose early optimism was being replaced with rising panic and cynicism.
‘Just after independence,’ Yepoka Yeebo writes in her new book about Blay-Miezah, ‘there really was a plot to take Ghana’s gold reserves out of the country.’ Although newspapers around the world reported that the country had reserves amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, the British colonial administration’s chronic and deliberate mismanagement meant that there was far less money than Nkrumah had expected. Almost everything that was left was locked up in securities, so, in effect, ‘the money that was supposed to build Ghana after independence was building Britain.’ Nkrumah and his finance minister eventually managed to move the remaining reserves out of the British government’s control, but, as Yeebo writes, the mystery of Ghana’s lost millions would serve as the basis for Blay-Miezah’s story.
Yeebo characterises the early days of the Nkrumah presidency as one big revolutionary cocktail party, with people like Oliver Tambo, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King in attendance. Accra quickly became a magnet for liberation movements across the continent, but it also attracted spies, war criminals and corrupt businessmen. Malcolm X remembered sitting in a hotel dining room there, listening to Americans ‘discussing Africa’s untapped wealth as though the African waiters had no ears’. Nkrumah himself never took bribes, as even the CIA would later concede, but he filled his cabinet with ministers who did, including Krobo Edusei, who liked to tell stories about accepting envelopes stuffed with money in London hotels.
A few months after independence, Edusei, the minister of the interior, introduced the Preventive Detention Act, which allowed the government to imprison, without trial and indefinitely, ‘any person suspected of activities prejudicial to the security of the state’. For reasons that aren’t totally clear – perhaps there didn’t need to be a reason – Blay-Miezah was one of the thousands of people detained under the Act in 1963, shortly after he returned from the US. He was locked up for about three years, sharing cells with prominent politicians and members of the opposition, learning ‘how a powerful man should sit, how he should nod his head, how he should take up space in a room’. Over this period, the British and US governments were ramping up their efforts to get rid of Nkrumah. At one point, the CIA contemplated ‘raiding the Chinese embassy in Accra in blackface’, hoping that this would trigger a coup. They chose, more sensibly, to fund disgruntled military officers and policemen, and in 1966 Nkrumah was duly deposed and replaced by a regime that was ‘almost pathetically pro-Western’, as a US State department aide wrote in a memo to President Johnson. When circumstances for ordinary Ghanaians started to deteriorate, the junta blamed Nkrumah, in exile in Guinea, accusing him of draining the treasury, of having carried hundreds of suitcases full of gold bars onto planes to China and of opening Swiss bank accounts in his children’s names. The international press repeated the claims, estimating Nkrumah’s personal fortune at anywhere from $7 million to $132 million.
‘Nkrumah took it’ was a neat answer to the question of what exactly had happened to all that money, and Blay-Miezah certainly capitalised on suspicions about the reserves within Ghana, as well as taking advantage of Western contempt for Africa. But to see him simply as someone who knew a good lie when he saw one risks overlooking the weirder elements of this story: the long-standing mystery of charisma, and some people’s ability to turn a screaming red flag into a green light.
Blay-Miezah spent the years after the coup running various low-level scams in West Africa and the US, apparently with no real goal other than getting to stay free of charge in fancy hotels. He posed as an executive with the African Development Bank, or a doctor, or a member of Ghana’s delegation to the UN. He dodged fraud charges, jumped bail a few times and once escaped police custody in Ghana by climbing through a pit latrine. After trying to skip out on an enormous hotel bill in Philadelphia – he’d been posing as a diplomat – he was sentenced to two years in prison. A few months later, in April 1972, Nkrumah died. The Oman Ghana Trust Fund scam began to take shape almost immediately.
Blay-Miezah first tried it out on a radical American prison chaplain, telling him that he and Nkrumah had been ‘more than brothers, by tribe and by politics’, and that he urgently needed to get out of jail in order to complete the mission of Ghana’s founding father: the economic liberation of the country. He added twenty years to his age in order to make the chronology work (he would have been twelve when he was supposed to have begun fighting for independence alongside Nkrumah), and intimated that he had access to a vast hidden fortune. The chaplain had no difficulty buying any of this, and started pulling strings. Blay-Miezah was released early, and immediately set himself up in the business of selling Ghana.
With an American partner called Robert Ellis, he set up a fake company, which he called the Bureau of African Affairs and Industrial Development, in a business district outside Philadelphia. The bureau sold greeting cards with Nkrumah’s face on them, and claimed to have obtained a licence to import 700,000 tons of Ghanaian timber into the US, as well as heavy machinery and minerals. When visitors came to the office, Blay-Miezah and Ellis introduced the subject of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund cautiously. First, the billions of dollars, then the vision of a rebuilt Ghana, then the upfront money required, then the ten dollars investors could expect to see for every one they put in. As investors lined up, Blay-Miezah and his partner ‘learned to fleece people with their own fantasies’: to some, they sold the prospect of liberation, a chance to repair colonial wounds. To others, they sold one last crack at raiding what was left of the loot, assuring moderately successful businessmen that they would be able to access vast, unsaturated markets where they could do whatever they wanted. As a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, Blay-Miezah was selling ‘the mystery of Africa, along with the promise of billions in gold’.
American companies considering going into business with the Bureau of African Affairs started making inquiries in diplomatic circles in case all this was too good to be true. Alarmed, staff at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington assured them that it very much was: Nkrumah’s will showed that he had died with ‘little more than the royalties of his books to his name’, as Yeebo writes. In any case, there was no reason to believe a man who, among other things, had been arrested on fraud charges in Accra before escaping out of a toilet. Kissinger, then secretary of state under Gerald Ford, wrote a memo early in 1974 to US diplomatic missions all over the world, warning that the Bureau of African Affairs was a ‘front organisation which Blay-Miezah has used in attempting [to] arrange several apparently fraudulent business transactions’. These warnings made no difference at all.
When Blay-Miezah was arrested again in Accra, after trying to cash $150 million dollars’ worth of badly forged cheques in Brussels, he talked his way into an audience with the new head of state, Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, and got himself released on the basis of his assurance that the money was definitely there, no doubt about it. Blay-Miezah then went into business with Edusei, the corrupt politician who had introduced the Preventive Detention Act, and cultivated relationships with other powerful, violent men. He was issued with a diplomatic passport. There were parties thrown in his honour at expensive hotels, where he’d be introduced as ‘a multi, multi, multi, multi, multimillionaire’, maybe even the richest man in the world.
It was around this time that Shirley Temple started paying close attention to him, in her capacity as the American ambassador to Ghana. Highly active in the California Republican Party, she’d distinguished herself during Nixon’s failed 1960 presidential run by making more speeches and appearances on his behalf than his wife and daughters put together. Despite preparing for her appointment by taking a crash course in French (she seems to have forgotten that Ghana had been a British colony), she was committed to the job and became concerned about the number of politicians and businessmen who were putting larger and larger sums of money in Blay-Miezah’s hands. Along with Ebenezer Moses Debrah, a high-ranking Ghanaian diplomat, she worked to have him discredited. ‘Topic is currently most talked about in Accra circles,’ she wrote in a memo. ‘We assume chickens will soon be home to roost.’ The chickens remained at large. Blay-Miezah was arrested again (almost every chapter of Yeebo’s book could be called ‘Arrested Again’), but the charges were dropped, and he gave a speech assuring investors that the money was definitely, definitely there: ‘If I am given a chance, and I am not disturbed, and I am not interrupted unnecessarily – within the shortest time, I tell you, I will perform. I will perform to the surprise of many.’
Performing to the surprise of many is pretty much what Blay-Miezah did for the next fifteen years, bouncing from grand hotel to lavish compound with an entourage of investors whose belief in the existence of the fund seemed to increase with every arrest, and every piece of irrefutable evidence that there was no money. It wasn’t just investors. Blay-Miezah ran for the Ghanaian presidency in 1979 on an anti-corruption ticket – at rallies, supporters’ signs read ‘Allow Dr Blay-Miezah to Bring His Millions’ – and he might even have won, but for the inevitable arrest and brief imprisonment. He opened offices in London, Amsterdam, Zurich and Seoul, and took American investors on trips to Accra, working hard to ingratiate himself with President Jerry Rawlings, who had seized power briefly in 1979 and more lastingly in 1981, with the stated goal of purging Ghana of corruption. Rawlings’s real aim, Yeebo writes, was to stay in power, and he did this by sanctioning ‘plunder and revenge as state policy’, executing judges who tried to hold him to account, and presiding over the torture and disappearance of hundreds of people. It was a mutually advantageous relationship: Rawlings gave Blay-Miezah diplomatic backing and proximity to power, and Blay-Miezah – supposedly the richest man in Ghana – made Rawlings look good. He got himself appointed chairman of a football team, donated $85,000 to the country’s Olympic Committee – this cheque actually cleared – and was named Sporting Personality of the Year. He was installed as a chief in the Western Region, waving ‘the biggest fly whisk that anyone could remember seeing’ at the enstoolment ceremony.
But he seemed to prefer London – ‘the one place where no one had ever tried to arrest him’. His Mayfair office became a bullpen for investors and hangers on, with everyone sitting around smoking and talking about what they would do with their money. Many of them had given millions of dollars, and had persuaded their friends and family to invest too. Yeebo’s descriptions of the investors, drawn from interviews and home video footage, show what it looks like when people lie to themselves. ‘I said to my father, it’s so outrageous, it’s gotta be true,’ a man called Barry Ginsberg remembered. ‘How can you concoct a story like this?’ Already buoyed by this reasoning, he allowed himself to be further reassured when he asked Blay-Miezah where his money was, and had the words ‘Very soon’ whispered in his ear. Another time, Blay-Miezah wrote ‘$150 million’ on a piece of paper and slid it across the table. Ginsberg recalled that he was so overcome with relief he had to grip the sides of his chair to keep from fainting. Other investors similarly soothed included John Mitchell, Nixon’s former attorney general, who went to work for Blay-Miezah after being promised $733 million dollars from the fund. In turn, Mitchell – disbarred, disgraced and not long out of jail – made himself useful when it came to calming the fears of other investors. When asked if the fund was real, he’d respond: ‘Why would a man like me follow Dr Blay-Miezah if there is no money?’
Why did anyone believe him? Blay-Miezah used to fake heart attacks or fainting spells when cornered by investors, only to revive when someone placed a wad of cash in his trembling hands. He sometimes sprinted off down hotel corridors when he couldn’t come up with a good line on the spot. He changed his story all the time. He once told Rawlings’s right-hand man that ‘the funds are such that you cannot pin them down. They keep skipping from bank to bank.’ He littered his various offices with promissory notes adding up to $62 billion, and nobody ever saw a cent.
Yeebo works hard to provide the context for his success: high levels of mistrust and corruption in Ghana helped, as did low levels of financial regulation in London. Blay-Miezah was also assisted by his US investors’ total ignorance of Ghana, its laws and economy, and even how to pronounce ‘Ghanaian’ (they went with Ga-nay-NEE-an). They thought of themselves as skilled operators, and of Blay-Miezah as someone you could take advantage of, a man who did not fully comprehend the size of the goldmine he had stumbled on. The lie he told about a fund held by a corrupt African leader was one that fitted ‘their preconceptions like a dovetail joint’. Yeebo’s decision to use her book to illustrate Western greed and colonialism’s aftershocks, rather than to show that every so often someone is born with the ability to talk the fleas off a dog, is the correct one. But some of the best passages in the book are the ones where Blay-Miezah’s personality emerges at full force, and he becomes less a product of a particular time and place and more a once-in-a-century bullshitter, talking his way out of jail before climbing into the back of a white Rolls-Royce.
The Oman Ghana Trust Fund scam ground to something like a halt in 1988, after Blay-Miezah decided to go on 60 Minutes. Ellis, his American partner, had been convicted of securities fraud the year before, in a trial that exposed the con’s obvious contradictions. Nobody could explain, for instance, how Nkrumah had managed to get his pile of treasure to Switzerland. ‘How did he haul all that gold?’ the judge asked. ‘Did he have a train?’ The investors were getting tetchy at being asked to keep subsidising Blay-Miezah’s extravagant accommodation – he’d recently moved from a £1000 a night hotel in Knightsbridge to a mansion in St John’s Wood – and he appears to have seen 60 Minutes as an opportunity to placate them.
Some of the interview can be found on YouTube. Blay-Miezah seems almost euphoric as he explains that his word is better than his bond – ‘I will never, never, never, never dishonour it’ – or when he performs a ceremony of his own devising, spitting mouthfuls of gin onto a fake gold sword while swearing to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth. People don’t usually act this way, especially not while being grilled on a TV show known for exposing scams. He seems to be on the verge of levitating off his ‘tribal throne’, as the interviewer describes it (it was a reproduction Louis XV chair), visibly enraptured with himself, or with the lie, or both.
Still, his TV appearance wasn’t a triumph. The interview revealed that he had been in a Pennsylvania jail when Nkrumah had died, and that he was currently wanted for fraud in the US. When confronted with these facts, Blay-Miezah, still looking ebullient, chose to frame every inconsistency as a wacky misunderstanding. The Oman Ghana Trust Fund existed, but it had never had anything to do with Nkrumah: ‘Our former president has no involvement in the fund … These are mere suggestions by the public.’ The money, he continued, ‘comes from our ancestors’. When the interviewer confessed to being confused, Blay-Miezah nodded like a kindly schoolteacher. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘You should be.’ The Philadelphia district attorney who had pursued the case against Ellis predicted that Blay-Miezah would ‘go down in history as a world-famous con man … This fraud is of proportions that are unbelievable in the dollar figures, and it is worldwide. This guy has fooled people from heads of government all the way down to a poor widow in the street.’
Rawlings ordered Blay-Miezah back to Accra, where he was placed under house arrest and his diplomatic passport revoked. His supporters bombarded the High Commission with requests that his travel documents be reissued, claiming that negotiations had now reached a critical stage and that he was urgently required in Geneva. Blay-Miezah recorded a tape, with hymns playing softly in the background, promising that he would volunteer to go before a firing squad if he came home from Switzerland empty-handed. ‘Some part of me is rotten. Some part of me is false. But that part of truth is the Oman Ghana Trust Fund.’ This time it didn’t work. He spent three years under house arrest, and just before US extradition proceedings on multiple fraud charges got underway, in 1992, he died of a stroke. The FBI requested fingerprints be taken, convinced that he’d faked his death. Soon afterwards, some of the American investors established a group called Friends of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund. In 2009, they successfully petitioned the Ghanaian government to look into the fund’s existence, and were of course undeterred when no evidence was found. The story now is that, on his deathbed, Blay-Miezah passed the secret on to a confidant.
There’s a bit of the 60 Minutes episode that I keep rewatching. One of the American investors admits to having given Blay-Miezah around $7 million without having seen anything in return. Even as he says it, he assumes the posture of a killer businessman, someone to be reckoned with across a boardroom table. He is wearing a big gold watch and smokes a cigarette while craftily narrowing his eyes. When the interviewer asks him how much money he expects to get, he says: ‘Well, it’s not the money, but the satisfaction. The satisfaction that I was right.’ He smiles. ‘When it’s all over, what will you say?’ the interviewer asks. The investor makes a performance of thinking about it. ‘Hooray,’ he says.
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