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Imagine Global Holdings: How the largest Ponzi Scheme in over a decade was perpetuated

Investors looking for high yielding returns are at risk of losing billions of naira in funds invested through a local “holding company” Imagine Global Holdings Company Limited. The company was founded by Mr Bamise Samson Ajetunmobi, an ex-banker who is currently on the run.

The company which claims to provide “investment banking, advisory and micro-lending and brokerage services in Nigeria and Africa” is said to have received over N20 billion from high yield-seeking investors promising returns as much as 10% monthly. Investors in the fund were told that the money was invested in a boutique of investments ranging from real estate, bonds, forex, equities, etc.

However, it appears the company may have been perpetuating a large-scale Ponzi scheme which by our records is on track to be one of the biggest in recent history. Nairametrics gathered information from multiple sources, including victims of the alleged Ponzi Scheme revealing an enthralling tale of how the promise of higher returns found favour in the pockets of yield-seeking individuals and institutions.

It came crashing down

The first sign that things were going awry for investors started in August 2021, when Mr Ajetunmobi failed to pay investors any return. In a country where returns on investment are mostly single digits, Imagine Global hardly missed payments of its monthly returns ranging between 5% to 10% per month. Even in the dark days of the Covid-19 lockdown, Mr Ajetunmobi never missed a payout.

So, when investors did not see the accustomed alerts, they grew worried prompting a showdown meeting with some of its major investors. Mr Ajetunmobi operated a sophisticated network of investors ranging from institutions that had billions in pooled funds invested to individuals with tens of millions invested directly into the fund.

The missed payment in August triggered an emergency meeting between Ajetunmobi and his largest investors who needed answers for smaller investors to who they were answerable. At the meeting, investors probed the management of the company over the missed payments demanding that the company provide a statement showing where all the funds have been invested. Ajetunmobi insisted that the missed payment was a blip and that things will quickly return to normal by September. For the first time, investors suspected something was terribly wrong but took solace in Ajetunmobi’s assurances of a return to normal in September. They had no choice but to wait.

By September, the alerts once again did not drop forcing yet another string of meetings with Mr Ajetunmobi. By then, it was obvious that the company was facing serious challenges in meeting its monthly payments. Still believing the funds were invested genuinely, investors suggested that he cut rates from 10% to about 3%, a logical sacrifice if it meant that they at least get their capital back. Mr Ajetunmobi cut the interest rate to 7%, promising to make things right by October 1st.

By October 2nd it was obvious investors were on the hook for a third consecutive month of zero returns on their investment. An investor who could not stomach the excuses any longer got a few policemen and stormed the residence of Mr Ajetunmobi in an apartment in Ikoyi, a high brow neighbourhood in Lagos, often occupied by extremely rich people. The investor had over a billion in the scheme and wanted to apprehend him in a sting. Unfortunately, they could not breach his gate despite several attempts giving Ajetunmobi heads up to make a move. That was the trigger Ajetunmobi needed, and realizing he was out of options, took off very early the next morning and has not been seen since then.

As the days flew by, investors who had their money indirectly invested through proxies started asking for their returns and their capital. It was not immediately obvious that they were victims of a large-scale Ponzi. After all, savvy investors like Microfinance banks, investment houses, FinTech companies and even Churches are said to have invested in the fund. This could just be a short-term problem, they thought.

A WhatsApp group for investors in the scheme swelled with members providing any useful information they could get in their bid to recover their money. As it became obvious their money was not coming back any sooner, many took to Twitter and other social media platforms to reveal what is now arguably a sophisticated scam that may have cost investors billions of naira in savings.

How it started

Some of the early investors in Imagine Global Solutions Limited who spoke to Nairametrics reveal how a little-known ex-banker started what was then thought of as a money lending business. Ajetunmobi started his business by pooling money from colleagues and friends and then lent the money to traders and market women looking for soft and unsecured loans.

As the business took off, he resigned from the bank to face it full time. Ajetunmobi’s allure was his ability to pay investors their returns monthly without a miss. This created more confidence within early investors allowing them to keep rolling over their investments. As the returns remained consistent, early investors increased their investment size. With time, others pooled funds from smaller investors promising them returns lower than what Ajetunmobi offered allowing them to keep the delta. Others simply just charged fees by acting as agents for investors and Imagine Global. The glue was the monthly interest payments.

Within 5 years, his investor base had grown from about 30 investors to over 90,0000, according to information contained in an investor pitch created by the company and seen by Nairametrics. Loan portfolio also grew from about N5 million to about N11 billion within this period. These were unprecedented numbers by any standards yet investors found no reason to doubt it. Imagine Global was still paying its monthly returns, so there was no reason to worry.

As the company balance sheet grew in size, they packaged the business as a full-fledged investment powerhouse claiming it provided investment banking, advisory and micro-lending services in Nigeria and Africa. It also claimed to own offices in the UK, USA and Canada. IMG had ambitions that also met the appetite of its investors. They wanted to become the biggest moneylender not just in Africa, but in Eastern Europe and South Africa, setting a ten-year target. Such ambitions give investors even more reason to invest more, after all, scaling was an important growth story a founder had to propagate.

In one offer made to investors, IMG pitched for a minimum investment of N100 million in exchange for a return of between 18% to 36% per annum “depending on the capital amount” while a 6-month note attracted 6 to 9% per annum. An investment note seen by Nairametrics was even more generous, it offered 10% per annum as recently as June 2021.

Business Model

IMG claimed its business model was based on 4 key metrics. Using his microlending…

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