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Controversial clergyman at heart of foiled USD 6 million fraud attempt on AU premises

AU officials say organization hesitant to keep forex in Ethiopia as fraud runs rampant

The African Union has filed charges with the Federal Police Commission against Belay Mekonnen, a clergyman and deputy general manager at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Patriarchate, following an alleged attempt to defraud the international organization of more than USD six million.

The charging documents filed on April 16, 2024, state that Belay attempted to withdraw USD 6.05 million from AU accounts using fraudulent paperwork. Belay’s identification is attached to the charging documents, which were also copied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Belay was a leading figure in a group of clergymen who attempted to form a breakaway patriarchate in Oromia last year.

On April 15, 2024, officers at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) branch located inside AU headquarter premises in Addis Ababa were approached by an individual who presented documents requesting the withdrawal of over USD six million from AU accounts at the bank.

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The CBE branch was opened two decades ago to specifically manage AU accounts. It has since grown to include accounts belonging to the African Center for Disease Control.

The withdrawal request under four allotments was made using forged AU stationery used for bank transfer orders (BTOs). Documents seen by The Reporter reveal the individual indicated construction works and machinery supply for an unspecified AU project as the reason for withdrawal. 

The bank officers made a precautionary phone call to the AU finance department to confirm the withdrawal before finalizing it. Alarmed, AU officials immediately instructed the bank to abort the transaction.

The individual was promptly detained by security and taken to the Federal Police Commission headquarters by Mexico Square.

Madalisto Muuso Lowole, head of the Financial Management division at the AU Commission, also immediately sent a written statement to the Crime and Traffic Accident Investigation department at the Federal Police Commission.

He told heads of the department that the documents requesting the transfer of varying amounts of money from AU accounts to the accounts of four separate individuals were all forged.

“The unauthorized BTOs in question mistakenly displayed a colored AU emblem, which is a breach in protocol, as the AU tradition dictates monochrome logos for all banking directives. Discrepancies are evident in the stamp impressions on these documents. The sequence of disbursement voucher identifiers presented is flawed. There is clear inconsistency in the typeface used. The signature claiming representation of Betelehem Wogayehu and Hamza Sahl are illegitimate and have been determined to be forgeries. The identities associated with Betelehem Wogayehu and Hamza Sahl, whose signatures were presented, have been revoked from the AU’s panel of authorized signatories since January 9, 2024. A magnitude of other security measures as outlined in the banking mandate were found to be either unfulfilled or entirely absent in these four BTOs,” reads Lowole’s statement.

Sources disclosed that other members of AU and CBE staff are testifying to the police.

Abie Sano, president of the state-owned CBE, confirmed the incident to The Reporter.

“No money was withdrawn from AU accounts at CBE. Somebody tried to use forged documents to withdraw but he was detained on the spot. There were fraudulent intentions and an effort to take money but we managed to thwart it. The guys who tried it are under police custody. That’s all I know,” said Abie.

The President of the country’s largest commercial bank said the would-be fraudster was missing key knowledge on how Ethiopia’s forex system works.

“Basically, cash cannot be just given out in foreign currency. The fraudster didn’t even know this when he came and demanded the amount in cash. Unless the guy had a dollar account in this country, the money could not go anywhere, even if it was transferred. Fraudsters come to our bank daily. It’s normal since we run a bank. But we always find out before they succeed. We are taking them to justice. CBE is liable to protect its customer’s accounts. We are doing that. The AU has not complained to us officially so far,” said Abie.

Attempts to reach the Federal Police Commission for comment went unanswered.

Sources at the AU told The Reporter that the organization’s financial officers are considering keeping its forex outside of Ethiopia.

“This is the third time our accounts have faced fraud. We are worried because the fraud is now being attempted by respected people. We have no guarantee that officials won’t do the same one day. We are losing trust so we’ve decided to hold only a small amount of forex in Ethiopia for salaries. It’s forcing us to consider keeping the organization’s money abroad,” said an AU official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Courts have signed off on an extension of police custody for the individual apprehended at the CBE branch on Monday while the Commission carries out an investigation.

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