DAKAR, Senegal — He is famous in Nigeria for catching notorious criminals — killers, kidnappers, bank robbers and Boko Haram extremists. Years of high-profile arrests won him acclaim and an enduring nickname: “super cop.”
Now Abba Alhaji Kyari, deputy commissioner for the Nigeria Police Force, stands accused of abusing his power to support a global fraud ring.
Kyari, 46, is wanted in the United States on charges related to wire fraud and money laundering, according to court documents unsealed this week in California. One of Nigeria’s most infamous scammers — Ramon Abbas, who goes by the moniker “Hushpuppi” — told investigators that Kyari accepted a bribe last year to arrest a man who betrayed his cybercrime syndicate.
“He is in my Cell now,” Kyari texted Abbas, according to the indictment.
“I want him to go through serious beating of his life,” Abbas allegedly wrote back, with the police official responding: “Hahahaha.”
Abbas in April pleaded guilty to charges linked to fraud in a U.S. court in California, according to court records unsealed Monday. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Kyari has denied all wrongdoing. The Nigeria Police Force on Thursday said it had launched a probe of the FBI’s allegations but did not say whether Kyari had been suspended.
The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on any extradition requests.
In a statement on the case, acting U.S. attorney Tracy Wilkinson said the United States aims to crack down on “business email compromise,” or BEC — the type of con favored by Abbas’s gang.
It typically starts with a perpetrator hacking a company email account, spotting an invoice, for instance, and then impersonating the intended recipient of that payment. American businesses lost $1.8 billion from such scams in 2020, according to FBI data.
Some Nigerians rushed to Kyari’s defense, arguing that Abbas just wanted to smear an idol. But outrage has erupted on talk shows, social media and street corners.
“He is known as a no-nonsense cop who likes to do things the right way,” said Raymond Nkannebe, a 31-year-old lawyer and columnist in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos. “Imagine what this does to the morale of the nation.”
Activists say a culture of corruption has flourished in Nigerian law enforcement, with officers extorting people over the years, often violently and without consequence. Thousands took to the streets last year in nationwide protests. The #EndSARS movement grew out of calls to abolish the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit widely viewed as predatory — and one that Kyari once led in Lagos. The Nigerian president has pledged reform.
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Anger also lingers after security forces fired on a group of demonstrators in October at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, spurring international condemnation. (Judicial panels examining the incident are still scheduled weekly.)
Kyari’s indictment fuels more distrust, said Rinu Oduala, an #EndSARS activist. Nigerians continue to have a deeply uneasy relationship with police.
“This is the ‘super cop’ — a top guy in top circles,” she said. “Police officers still aren’t friends of the people. They’re friends of the elites.”
As Kyari racked up the accolades for law enforcement, “Hushpuppi” was attracting millions of followers on Instagram with a feed of scam-funded decadence: private jets, a turquoise Birkin bag, a wall of Nike and Chanel sneakers.
In one photo, the scammer leans against a red Ferrari.
“Roll with me, baby,” he wrote. “You’ll prosper.”
Before police arrested Abbas in Dubai last year, he billed himself as an ultra-wealthy real estate developer. In reality, he admitted in court, he ran a fraud operation that tricked victims out of $24 million. At least $1.1 million of that amount was supposed to open a school for children in Qatar.
Abbas kept some of the stolen funds in American bank accounts, according to court records. The court blocked the identities of his victims.
When the scammer needed help, he turned to “a highly decorated deputy commissioner of the Nigeria Police Force,” FBI agents allege.
Abbas messaged Kyari last year after one of his co-conspirators — dubbed “Vincent” — turned on him, according to the indictment. Vincent tried to warn and “steal a victim away,” Abbas told Kyari, adding that he should be beaten “like [an] armed robber,” according to the indictment.
“Please sir I want to spend money to send this boy to jail,” Abbas allegedly wrote. “Let him go for a very long time.”
Kyari allegedly responded with a photo of Vincent in jail, then sent over bank details. (The account was not listed in his name.)
On Thursday, when word of Kyari’s indictment reached the Nigerian news media, he insisted there had been a misunderstanding.
“Nobody demanded any money from Abbas Hushpuppi and nobody collected any money from him,” Kyari wrote on his Facebook page. “We responded to a distress call he made on threat to his family and released the Suspect when we discovered there was no life threat from the Suspect.”
Later, Kyari wrote, Abbas asked him to connect him to someone selling clothes the officer had worn in photos on social media. Assad sent about $730 to that merchant, Kyari said.
The clothes, Kyari wrote, “were brought to our office and He sent somebody to Collect them.”
The Facebook post inspired online mockery — “Who knows the nearest police station where a tailor can drop my clothes, please?” tweeted journalist ‘Fisayo Soyombo — mixed with an outpouring of sorrow.
“I don’t like it when stars fall,” Timawus Mathias, a Nigerian media executive, wrote on his Facebook page. “It’s like a beautiful gift held close that faded in the night.”
People in Kyari’s hometown, Maiduguri, had followed his rise with pride.
The police official was credited with tracking down masterminds behind suicide bombings that had devastated the city. A few years ago, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari awarded him a medal for courage.
“We all held him in high esteem, and most of our youth look up to him for inspiration,” said Usman Dalhatu, a 43-year-old civil servant. “It’s definitely devastating. I pray that he comes out clean.”
Alice Crites in Washington and Ismail Alfa in Maiduguri contributed to this report.
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