On Friday 2 December 2016, a curious story appeared on the website GhanaBusinessNews.com. “Ghana security authorities shut down fake U.S. Embassy in Accra,” the headline declared. For a decade, the story went, there had been a fake U.S. 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 website’s 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 wasn’t true.