“So how much money is in that trunk anyway?”

“Eight million dollars.”

Stated as if that was nothing. No big deal. People commonly walk the streets and travel on tro-tros carrying trunks full of cash, right? Well, that has not been my experience, but here I was, looking at a metal trunk filled with stacks of bills that looked very much like one hundred dollar American bills, and I was not about to dispute amount. It was stated with the utmost of confidence and in a way that made it clear that the speaker was not expecting to be challenged on the matter.

Let me try to set the scene. The day earlier I drove my BMW to Accra. The side windows carried “For Sale” signs, with phone numbers – I was hopeful that someone would spot my car and offer to buy it, and in fact several phone calls came in, some more and some less serious in their offers. One of those calls was from a Mr. Johnson. He was travelling in a car with his nephew and spotted the BMW as I neared the outskirts of Accra.

The 8 Million Dollar BMW

Mr. Johnson wanted to check out the car, and suggested that I bring it to him the next day at Kasoa, the sprawling suburb that I had driven through to get to the capital city. The city traffic is notoriously hectic, and I told him that it would not be possible since my business was in the city. Mr. Johnson suggested an alternative – I should meet him in Achimota.

Reluctantly I agreed, even though it was out of my way, because Mr. Johnson expressed a serious interest in the car. The next morning, I drove to Achimota and waited at the Kingsby Hotel, a well known landmark in the area owned by a very good friend. Mr. Johnson’s nephew, a pleasant young man, met me in a car sporting dealer plates, and led me a considerable distance until we turned off the tarred and well travelled streets onto a side street marked with potholes and without the benefit of any bituman to keep the dust down. We next turned into a small alley and stopped in front of steel gates leading into a house compound. After honking his horn to alert the gatekeeper inside, the nephew parked his car outside and motioned me to drive the BMW through the gates, which were then closed behind me.

The yard was quiet. The nephew led me into the main hall of the house where his uncle was sitting in a well padded armchair. I greeted the uncle, who told me that he was Johnson, and he asked me my name. I responded by telling him my stool name, which prompted much laughter – I asked him why he was laughing, and told him in Twi that I am a chief and suggested that he may wish to be more respectful. With that he was more serious, and asked to see the car.

We went back outside. Mr Johnson walked around the car once, asked that I open the bonnet, and once that was done, he glanced briefly at the engine compartment and motioned that I close the bonnet. He started to lead us back to the house, when something seemed to attract his attention outside the compound wall. “Oh, there is that troublesome Frenchman,” he said. The head of a man who was apparently quite tall was visible above the high walk-in gate, and the nephew went over to talk to him while his uncle and I returned to the hall.

Almost immediately, the “troublesome Frenchman” was in the room with us, a very big black man with tribal marks on his face which showed he was not from the local area. The uncle and nephew asked if I spoke French, and when I indicated no, they began to tell me the story about this new visitor.

They told me that they had met him three days earlier at the town of Elubo, the western border crossing to Cote d’Ivoire. They told me that he was having difficulty clearing a trunk through Customs, and they assisted him by loaning him $3,000 to pay the Ghana Customs officials. He told them that the trunk contained jewelry which he was bringing to sell in Accra. When they arrived in Accra, they kept the trunk while their new Ivorian friend went off to get the money to repay them. He was now before us, begging the uncle and nephew to release the trunk so that he could take it and sell the goods to an interested party, which would then enable him to repay them the money that they had loaned him.

Mr Johnson was quite adamnant – he was not letting the trunk go without the money being repaid. I suggested to the “Frenchman” that he bring his customers to the house so that they could buy the goods there. He said it was not possible, and then he asked me to beg on his behalf to have the trunk released. I reminded him that I did not know him, nor did I know the other two men in the room. He than asked to speak to me outside.

We stepped out onto the small veranda that led off the front door. Once out of the earshot of the other two, he confided in me that the trunk did not contain jewelry as he had told them. He explained that that is the reason that he could not bring his customers to the house. “So, what is in the trunk?” I asked him.

“Money,” was the reply, “not jewelry.”

“So there is no problem. If there is money in the trunk, why don’t you open it now, pay them what you owe them, and be on your way?”

“I don’t know these men and I have no witness. Unless you can be my witness…” he looked at me with mournful eyes, desparate for my assistance in this grave matter.

Of course, I just wanted to get on with my own business – to find out how serious about my BMW Mr. Johnson was, and move ahead with the rest of my day. I agreed, and my Ivorian friend seemed relieved. We went back inside.

I returned to my seat while my friend stood, waiting for me to explain our new proposal. “If you bring out the trunk, my friend will pay you your money”, I said.

The nephew immediately reponded “What does he take us for? Does he think we are fools? We are not going to give him his trunk until he gives us his money.” The uncle nodded in agreement.

The nephew continued to protest but I cut him off. “Abotre [patience], my friend, abotre. Just bring the trunk and let the man open it and he says he will pay you the money.”

The nephew continued to mutter his disagreement but went into an adjoining room and returned, carrying a box covered in brown wrapping paper. It appeared to be quite heavy and he struggled as he set it down in the middle of the room. The Ivorian began to carefully undo the paper  but the nephew impatiently pushed him aside and ripped it off, exposing a grey metal trunk of the type often used by students to store their personal belongings when they are attending boarding school. The Ivorian produced keys and unlocked two padlocks that secured the trunk, and opened the lid.

Mr. Johnson leaned forward and then let out a gasp, “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed. The nephew also leaned forward from the other side with a similar response. The lid of the trunk still obsured my vision, forcing me to also lean forward to peer inside.

Of course I had the advantage of being warned of the contents and so I just smiled at what I was looking at – neatly stacked piles filled the trunk, leaving no space, and each pile consisted of sheets of bills, four crisp one hundred dollar American bills in each sheet. The nephew became quite agitated. “We should call the Assemblyman.” As if to reinforce the idea, he repeated it, “We should call the Assemblyman.”

The Ivorian, with a serious look on his face as if it were quite normal to see a trunk filled with money, asked for a bowl of water to be brought to the room.

As the nephew scurried out to fetch the bowl, I turned to Mr. Johnson. “My friend, you should immediately phone the police. This is a scam, a 419. You must call the police immediately.”

Part 2 to follow