Africa

Nigeria's MMM Ponzi scheme: Will investors get their money?

Screen grab of a MMM website announcing investment profits. Image copyright MMM Nigeria
Image caption The MMM Nigeria website advertises its benefits

The MMM financial scheme caught on like wildfire in Nigeria but it has frozen its transactions, leaving many investors unsure what will happen to their savings. The BBC's Stephanie Hegarty explains how the Ponzi scheme found its way to the most populous nation in Africa and how it managed to survive.

What is MMM?

Well, that depends on who you speak to. According to MMM itself, it is a "social financial network of people providing help and getting help from each other".

Members are supposed to receive 30% back on their investment in just 30 days. It launched in Nigeria in November 2015 and according to its founders, has three million members.

But it has a murky history. It started in Russia in the 1990s and collapsed a few years later losing an estimated $100m (£80.3m) belonging to its members.

The Russian government outlawed the scheme and founder Sergey Mavrodi was jailed for four years.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Founder of the MMM pyramid scheme Sergei Mavrodi was released from Russian prison in 2007

It made its way to China where it was also banned. But in the past two years, the scheme has appeared in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria.

Nigeria's financial regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), say it is a Ponzi scheme.

That means money paid in by new members is used to pay back previous members. It doesn't generate any profit but relies on new members to keep going, which means that sooner or later it will collapse.

"No profit is being created," says economist Tunji Andrews. "And the people that are going to pay for all your profit right now are the people that are going to get stuck when MMM finally crashes."

How does it work?

Members either sign up online or with the help of a "guider" - a member who gets commission to recruit more investors.

To start, one can invest as little as 15,000 naira (£32; $40). That money gets paid directly to another member.

The idea is that after 30 days, every member reaps their profits. "Guiders" get a 10% cut of the new members' investment.

Over the past few months, MMM Nigeria has undertaken an aggressive advertising campaign and used community forums and church meetings to recruit members.

Why are people talking about it?

On 13 December, the scheme was frozen. Members who expected a pay-out since Tuesday have been disappointed.

MMM claims it froze the scheme to deal with heavy traffic that it experienced in the run-up to the Christmas holidays.

It says it will re-open in January and though many people are sceptical, others have staunchly defended the scheme.

Nigeria is in the middle of its worst recession in decades. Banks are not lending and so many people are hailing MMM as a source of capital.

Image copyright MMM Nigeria
Image caption Testimonies of members can also be found on the website

Since it first appeared in 2015, authorities have issued warning to Nigerians against investing. In a country that does not have a huge amount of trust in its government, millions ignored that advice.

Seven people, who do not wish to be named, explain how they got involved in the scheme. We will call them by different names.

Margaret, a farmer from Port Harcourt told me that MMM was "a blessing". She used it to pay rent when her business slowed due to the recession.

Similarly Yinka from Ilorin described MMM as "beautiful". He was able to pay his school fees and buy a printer. Both are optimistic the scheme will work again.

Most of the people who spoke to our team had initially made good returns on their investments, compelling them to invest huge amounts later. Unfortunately for them, the company froze its operations.

Isaac invested 50,000 naira in the scheme and got his returns. Two days later he invested 950,000 naira. He was supposed to get his money back on 14 December. So far, he has received nothing.

MMM say it is up front about the risks. A warning on its website reads: "The only rule is no rules… "Win" might not be paid without any reasons or explanations."

All the investors we spoke to admitted that they had been aware of the warnings but thought the risk was worth taking.

Have people lost their money?

At the moment, it is unclear whether investors will get their money back but authorities in Nigeria believe that it is inevitable that people will lose out. There is not enough money in the system to carry on forever.

Folusho Awosanya claims to be the spokesperson for MMM. I found his number after browsing the MMM website.

He told me in a phone interview that the earnings of investors "are being calculated but will be paid to them when MMM Nigeria unfreezes its activities".

He however, was unable to indicate exactly when that will happen.

Even if MMM reopens in January as it claims, it is likely that the scheme would collapse at some point.

Is MMM breaking the law?

Image copyright MMM Nigeria
Image caption MMM Nigeria's website features live chat where prospective members can chat with a 'consultant'

According to the privacy laws of SEC, once a scheme like this gets a certain level of investment it must be registered.

MMM is not registered with the financial regulator so technically, it could be breaking the law.

But the SEC has not yet taken any active steps to prosecute it.

What happens next?

Members have to wait until January to see if MMM is as good as its word.

Until then its investors can only hope to get their money back.

But MMM is under no legal obligation to return it.

If the scheme does "unfreeze", that might encourage more people to invest.

And that means even more people are at risk of losing their savings.

Additional reasearch by Ugochukwu Ikeakor

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