Photo courtesy of Yepoka Yeebo.
A Tale of Ghana’s Fabled Fortune
Yepoka Yeebo’s debut Anansi’s Gold is a thrilling dive into the fact and fiction of a legendary scammer.
Everyone loves a story about a good scam, and British Ghanaian writer, Yepoka Yeebo, has written an exquisite, well-researched one in the form of a book called Anansi's Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World.
Anansi’s Gold chronicles the tale of Ghanaian-born John Ackah Blay-Miezah, a shrewd and charming con artist who executed what’s believed to be one of the largest frauds of the twentieth century. He achieved this by perpetuating the myth of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund – Ghana’s hidden riches allegedly stashed away in Swiss Banks by the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah before his death, purportedly worth billions. According to Blay-Miezah, he was entrusted the fictitious trust fund but needed money to unlock the fortune so he could return the stashed-away gold to the people of Ghana.
Peddling this lie, Blay-Miezah convinced thousands of businessmen, financiers, and industrialists around the world to invest in the scheme (promising them tenfold returns) and lend it legitimacy: millions of dollars poured in over the 1970s and '80s.
Prominent figures in the book include disgraced American politician John Mitchell; one-time child star and former US ambassador to Ghana, Shirley Temple-Black; and the journalist Ed Bradley who interviewed Blay-Miezah for 60 Minutes.
Yeebo, who is based in London and Accra, let her fascination with Blay-Miezah guide her in writing her debut book. She spoke to OkayAfrica about what makes a great scammer and dropping out of medical school to pursue her dreams.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to tell this story?
It all started with my mom sending me a WhatsApp clip–that's where the mess always starts. She usually forwards things to me and asks my opinion, or I help her fact check. So she sent me a little clip of the segment 60 Minutes did on John Blay-Miezah. In the clip, Blay-Miezah claimed to be the custodian of billions of dollars but couldn’t say where the money had come from, even though he previously declared it had come from Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. My mom wanted to know whether I thought any part of what he was saying could be true.
So for the next couple of weeks, I would ask my friends if they had heard stories like this, and they all had. The parents of one of my friends, who grew up in California in the ‘60s, had a friend who knew a local news anchor who was trying to avoid paying taxes, so he hid his money in a bank nobody knew about. I heard stories like this, and I got really curious. That’s when I started doing the research. The first thing I found were the diplomatic cables between Shirley Temple-Black and Henry Kissinger. Then I'd ask a couple of people, aunties and uncles, whether they remembered anything about John Blay-Miezah, and all the stories they had were ridiculous.
John Blay-Miezah in the London office of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund.Photo courtesy of Yepoka Yeebo.
There seems to be increasing interest in scammer stories in popular culture, for example, Elizabeth Holmes, Anna Delvey. Why do you think this is?
I think they've always been interesting just because crime is generally interesting, but also because these people tend to be so audacious and outlandish. It's a skill – being convincing and charming and creating a story that convinces enough people. It's a hard thing to do.
Scammers tend to be glamorous and fun and charming and entertaining. What they're doing tends to be a lot more just showy than what people have to do to get through the day – feed their children and keep themselves housed. I think it's also just something about a crappy economy that gets people interested in scam stories.
How long did it take you to research and write?
It took about six years. In the beginning, I was writing between other assignments that I was doing in Ghana. As I started to gather more information and realized how big the story was, I started doing it full-time.
What was the process of writing this book like?
It was havoc because every time I did some research, the story went in an unexpected direction. Initially, I thought it was just a crime story. I found diplomatic cables and some stuff in newspapers via the British Library. I also went to Philadelphia and got hold of some court records. When I started looking through that, I realized that it was a bigger scheme than I realized – way more people were defrauded just in Philadelphia. From looking at the papers and all the cables, I realized that very prominent Ghanaians, and also very prominent politicians were involved. And so it exploded.
John Blay-Miezah with investors and associates in the London office of the Oman Ghana Trust Fund.Photo courtesy of Yepoka Yeebo.
What was the most interesting thing you found out while you were researching?
The weirdest thing – and this was, like, an overall thing rather than a specific detail – was that when I was in Accra or in Philadelphia, people would tell me stories that sounded like urban legends or too ridiculous to be true, and then somebody else would tell me the same story, or somebody else will tell me they witnessed it, or I'll dig around in the story and it would be true. That happened a lot.
A lot of historical books can feel like a regurgitation of facts but Anansi’s Gold doesn’t. Even with its four hundred pages, it manages to hold your attention. Is there a particular way you managed to achieve this?
I feel like the main mechanism was that my editor is brilliant and was able to rein me in and also demand more details where it was needed. There was a whole editorial team full of people who would double check my work. It takes so many people to write a book, and all of them made it a million times better than it was when I submitted my final draft. I think the other thing was the reporting – just the process of reporting helped because then I wanted the facts to sound as exciting as it was to find them.
What would you say are the qualities of a great scammer?
Audacity, gall, and gumption. The ability to immediately assess a situation and figure out what the upside is for you. Blay-Miezah was also just incredibly intelligent and observant. He was also remarkably charming and good-looking, and that helps a lot of scammers, as well, especially if there's some flair added to it. He knew how to sell the illusion. He gave people what they wanted. He could look like a traditional chief. He could wander around in London in a great suit and Rolls Royce. He could be like the good-time person who threw extraordinary parties. He was all these things, and he played all those roles really well.
Also, Blay-Miezah was very generous to many people and he is remembered quite fondly in some places because of that. For example, the football team he managed and invested in – Ghanaians love football so he was pretty beloved for that.
Is there anything you want readers to take away from your book?
History is fragile and subjective, and it's disturbingly easy to manipulate. The stories of everybody who goes through historical events bear equal weight and deserve to be told. I’m thinking of people who suffered through the 1980s and the Rawlings coup d'état. The fact that nobody was really held accountable was pretty devastating to me, and I wish their names and their stories were more spoken about.
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