The long read: Last year, the US state department said it had uncovered a fake embassy in Accra that had been issuing a stream of forged visas. The story went viral but all was not as it seemed
On Friday 2 December 2016, a curious story appeared on the website GhanaBusinessNews.com. Ghana security authorities shut down fake US Embassy in Accra, the headline declared. For a decade, the story went, there had been a fake US embassy in the Ghanaian capital. The fraudsters behind it had flown the American flag from their building and even hung a portrait of Barack Obama on the wall. The criminal network behind the scam had advertised on billboards and prowled the most remote villages of west Africa, searching for gullible customers. They brought them to Accra, and sold them visas for as much as $6,000 (4,495).
The story was an immediate hit. In less than an hour we were getting 20,000 views on the website for that story alone, Emmanuel Dogbevi, the websites managing editor, told me. Two days later, the news agency Reuters picked up the story and it swiftly became an international sensation.
No Passport Control: Mobsters busted after running FAKE US Embassy in Ghana for 10 years (The Sun). Sham US embassy in Ghana issued fake visas for a decade (Fox News). Ghana uncovers fake US embassy that issued authentic visas (Deutsche Welle). The actual US embassy in Accra shut down the fake embassy over the summer, stated the Chinese news agency Xinhua. This takes counterfeiting operations to a whole new level, read a comment about the story on the Times of India website, which triggered an argument between readers over which country did corruption better.
According to a US state department statement, which had been published in early November, the fake embassy was operated by figures from both Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practicing immigration and criminal law. The American authorities supplied a picture of an old, two-storey pink building with a tin roof, originally captioned: The exterior of the fake embassy in Accra, Ghana. The caption was later changed to: One of several buildings used by the disrupted fraud ring.
Reuters reported that the Americans, with the help of the Ghana Detectives Bureau, had raided the fake embassy. Several people were arrested, and officials seized 150 passports from 10 different countries. The Ghanaian police did not distinguish themselves. The conmen eluded them long enough to move the operation out of Ghana, and get their associates out on bail. But, the US state department said, the number of fraudulent documents coming from west Africa had gone down by 70% as a result of this and other raids, and criminal leaders no longer have the political cover they once had.
The fake embassy became a sensation largely because the story was so predictably familiar. The Africans were scammers. The victims were desperate and credulous. The local police officers were bumbling idiots. Countless officials were paid off. And at the end, the Americans swooped in and saved the day. There was only one problem with the story: it wasnt true.
On the morning the news broke, Seth Sewornu, who was then head of Ghanas visa and document fraud unit, got a text message from the director of the police criminal investigation department (CID). Like everyone else, the director wanted to know about Sewornus bust. I was receiving a lot of calls, Sewornu said when we met earlier this year in an open-air restaurant near the police headquarters in Accra. A reporter from BBC called me, a CNN reporter called me. The Ghanaian media houses were all calling to find out. I got calls from other police officers. The US state department story had said that the scammers had also been running a fake Dutch embassy, so the Dutch called, too.
Sewornu was stumped. He knew nothing about any investigations into a fake embassy. He tried to find out which officers had been involved, but the police unit credited by the Americans, the Ghana Detectives Bureau, didnt exist. Ghanas national Swat unit, the CID and the Bureau of National Investigation all told Sewornu that they werent involved either.
It didnt make any sense. The entire story seemed to be based on one source: the US state department website. And their source was the US embassy in Accra. So I called the American embassy to find out, and my contact said: I dont know anything about it, said Sewornu. It was like they were tightlipped over the matter.