Alleged World Cup Visa Scam Nets Millions

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Yidenekachew Abebe, 28, was a farmer in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) Regional State town of Hosanna, until recently, when he sold his farmland and came to Addis Abeba. Here he paid almost 37,600 Br to Askallucan Trading Plc which was promoting a package for people to go watch the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. However, he was denied an entry visa to South Africa and the dream that brought him out of his village to the city remained just that – a dream.

Yidenekachew joined hundreds of people who had met a similar fate, sitting outside Askallucan Trading’s office in Arat Kilo, near Ginfele Bridge on Elizabeth II Street on Tuesday, June 29.  Unfazed by the cold and cloudy weather, the mob went looking for Girmay G. Michael, vice general manager of Askallucan Trading -who had guaranteed them visas to South Africa. Now they are demanding their money back.  Askallucan Trading ran a massive promotional campaign wherein the company claimed to possess 10,000 guaranteed visas to South Africa. It offered people a package that included a ticket for the match of their choice, a roundtrip airplane ticket, and a five-day hotel stay with meals included, all for 37,580.65 Br.

Yidenekachew is one of the almost 1,200 people who signed up and paid Askallucan Trading. He deposited 34,000 Br into an account in Wegagen Bank, opened under Hospitality Package Plus Ethiopia, as per the instructions he received, and paid another 3,580 Br in cash to Girmay, which he claims to have not received a receipt for. He signed up to watch the match between Germany and England on June 27.  Some of the other people who signed up thought that the receipt which they received upon depositing the money at Wegagen Bank was an actual World Cup ticket.  However, the bank provided Hospitality Package Plus Ethiopia with the same services it gives all customers and merely deposited the cash it received from people into the account, sources at Wegagen Bank told Fortune.

The bank’s president was unavailable for comment.  Although Yidenekachew signed up to watch a game, his real purpose for going to South Africa was to immigrate in search of a better life, he said.

Many of the people that Fortune talked to who had “bought the package” had similar plans. Some had a family member that they wanted to join in South Africa or had heard of better opportunities there and wanted to immigrate under the guise of the World Cup.

All, but a few of the people who had paid for the package that guaranteed a visa, were denied visas at the South African Embassy. The South African Embassy declined to comment. All Yidenekachew’s money is now finished, and he cannot even afford to return to his hometown, he said.

“I have nothing left; I have been begging from people to feed myself,” he said. “I am spending nights on the streets and most of my days searching for answers from concerned government authorities.”

The sacrifices that he made and the anger he feels are the driving forces behind his wandering around to find answers and get back what he claims is his. Askallucan Trading Plc was established in 2006 with a capital of 50,000 Br, which has now grown to 100,000 Br, according to the company website.  Aside from offering individuals packages for the World Cup, Askallucan Trading also partnered with Haleta Advertising Media Plc and Afrodan Plc to put on an exhibition for businesses from June 29 to July 3, in Johannesburg, South Africa. However, the exhibition was cancelled because participants could not get visas, an employee at Haleta Advertising Media told Fortune.

The idea to hold an exhibition to promote Ethiopia’s image in South Africa during the World Cup, first came from Century Promotion Services, claims Zewge Jemaneh, managing director of the company. Their whole endeavour was discontinued because Askallucan’s claim to have visas confused clients, and some of the people who showed an interest had clear intentions of immigrating, said Zewge.

“We did not want to take the risk of bringing those exhibitors whose intention was to stay in South Africa once the exhibition was over,” Zewge said. He spent 100,000 Br in four months on promotion work before deciding to abandon the exhibition, he claimed.

Girmay allegedly collected close to 44 million Br, from almost 1,200 people, deposited into his bank account and given in person. Despite the affronted people’s relentless search to locate Girmay and demand their money back, they have not been able to find him.

They have knocked on the doors of various government institutions; they have been to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI), and the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ETRA).

The search for Girmay having proven futile, they instead located Menna Terefe, Girmay’s wife and general manager of Askallucan, who gave birth a week ago. She is currently in police custody and her involvement is being investigated. The police conducting the investigation refused to comment, claiming that it may hamper the investigation. Yohannes Awano, 57, an employee at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD), is another victim of Girmay and his company. He came from SNNP Regional State and paid Askallucan Trading the same amount of money as Yidenekachew.  However, he also could not get his visa in time for the game that he paid for and was told that he would be provided with a ticket for another game, he alleged. This failed to materialise, he claimed.

Yohannes blames the media who gave the whole event high visibility and, to a certain extent, legitimacy. “We were misled by the media itself,” he said. “I saw the advertisement in many newspapers, and the promoters were also in my village advertising. I was convinced when I read about it in newspapers, heard about it on Radio Fana, and watched it on Ethiopian Television.”

Girmay and his colleagues showed them original documents indicating that they had support from different government institutions, Yohannes alleged. Yohannes admitted that he would have used this opportunity to visit his daughter who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and to get a medical check-up along the way. Now that his plan has failed, Yohannes plans to use every available avenue to get his money back. “I will fight to my last breath to get my money; I will not give up at all,” he said, pounding his leg with an angry fist.

A similar situation occurred eight years ago when Habesha Trading organised the 2002 Ethio Trade and Cultural Fair to be held in the US.  A similar tale unfolded as the trade fair was cancelled due to individuals posing as businesspeople who tried to use it as a way to immigrate to the US. The organisers cancelled the event and returned the money to some of the companies who had registered, while some never got their money back.  “The situation with Askallucan Trading Plc is not new; history is repeating itself,” said an exhibition consultant who requested annonimity.  The same thing happened during the Sydney Olympic Games in Australia in the year 2000, and also when Habesha Trading tried to hold a trade fair in the US.

“I wonder why people are not willing to learn from past mistakes,” said the same consultant who has worked with exhibitions for the last 15 years. People do not quit their jobs and sell businesses that afforded them their daily bread just to watch a football match, he explained.  The idea of promoting an occasion like this and holding an event to promote Ethiopia’s image is a noble cause, opines the consultant, but it does not work here. Most people have a hidden agenda, which is often to stay in the country where they travel, he said.

The South African Embassy denied the visas because it was suspicious about some of the individuals who had applied for visas. And because some even admitted that the real reason they wanted to go to South Africa was not for the games but to find work in the country, complained  Beniyam Mola, who was also denied an entry visa. Some still believe that they will make it to the World Cup and are even willing to pay additional money if it gets them to South Africa. Others have given up on the idea and even on the possibility of getting their money back.  Being large in number, the claims coming out of different groups among these people differ and are sometimes hard to verify. What is common is that they all carry a receipt, faded from too much handling, for the money they deposited in the bank as a payment for Girmay, who is yet to be found.
The matter is being investigated by the police.  Source (Addis fortune)