Two days to Christmas in 2020, Solomon Kalu and Clinton Uweshi, the owners of Tonso Elite Enterprise, were about to get away with approximately N10 billion.
A week before, they had failed to pay their investors on the due date. An investor who had N70 million with them went to Abeokuta, where the company was located, to confirm what was going on. He was assured that the delay was a mistake and that investors would be paid their money. With that assurance, he paid his own investors N6.8 million from his N7 million savings, hoping that Tonso Elite would pay him as promised. That did not happen. It was a money heist.
On December 22, Tonso Elite had an affiliate meeting in Abeokuta, with close to 40 middlemen who were registered under them and had brought in hundreds of millions of naira for the company. The middlemen had registered their individual companies under Tonso Elite and whatever money investors gave them, they sent it to Tonso Elite as investment. At the meeting, food and drinks flowed, and Kalu and Uweshi encouraged the middlemen to work harder, to do more marketing. They also gave them tips on how to get more investors. Beneath the laughter, trouble was brewing and none of the 40 middlemen knew about it.
DINING WITH THE ‘DEVILS’
Some of the middlemen had well-established offices from which people gave them funds to invest. A source who worked very closely with Tonso Elite told FIJ that some of the middlemen had brought in as much as N200 million to N400 million, and in total all the middlemen brought in approximately N10 billion.
The next day, December 23, Tonso Elite had their Annual General Meeting, with their staff in attendance. It was in this meeting that the business director asked one of the investors who was close to Kalu and Uweshi if he thought everything was right. It was a strange question considering the bubbly atmosphere and positive energy. People had been calling for the past few days complaining of not receiving payments. It was while this conversation was going on that Uweshi sent a message to the business director stating that they would need to stop payment. When asked what was wrong, Uweshi was said to have responded that the money was with the broker.
All along, many of those who had invested money with Tonso Elite kept asking questions about their investment but never got a response.
A LONG, UNENDING LIST OF VICTIMS
On October 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic had dealt a blow to economies and jobs, Boluwatife Oludemi learned about Tonso Elite Enterprise Limited from her sister and invested N60,000. In a month she got back her money with a 20 per cent interest, N72,000. Encouraged by this, she put in N1,940,000 in December with the hope of making similar returns. Her sister had been investing with Tonso Elite for months, and from all indications it seemed like a legitimate and credible business to trust, even though she did not know where the office of the business was located.
Bolu had been careful to avoid ponzi schemes. In Nigeria, different ponzi schemes had come and gone, in which many had lost millions of naira. But now, this did not look like a ponzi scheme. Tonso Elite Enterprise had said they were investing money in agriculture, forex and real estate despite not having a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) validation.
Bolu’s investment package was supposed to be returned in March but barely a week after she put in the money, she started hearing rumours that Tonso Elite Enterprise was not paying people back. By the time the new year started, there was nothing encouraging to look forward to. The rumours were confirmed as truth and Bolu’s money was going to be part of the many millions that would be lost to two of Tonso Elite Enterprise owners, Solomon Kalu and Clinton Uweshi.
‘CALM DOWN, GOD LOVES YOU’
All attempts by Bolu to reach out to Tonso Enterprise through Facebook, Instagram or email came back with no response. The money Bolu had invested was partly hers and partly her husband’s, which he was to use to pay for his school fees for a school abroad. She had calculated that by March, she would get the money back. But in January, when she was to receive part payment she could use for her children’s fees, the money didn’t come through.
Then a video of Kalu and Uweshi surfaced on the Internet. They were finally ready to address their investors. FIJ received a compilation of over 80 names owed a total of N72 million. Kalu, who appeared to be reading from a paper, said they would commence payment on February 1.
“We ask you guys to calm down, and Tonso Elite is definitely here to serve you better,” Kalu said. Uweshi mentioned that the company would liquidate their assets. He finished his speech by saying, “God loves you, God loves us all, as we go through this period.”
Bolu became hopeful that they were going to pay and still remains hopeful that they would. Several months after, no payment has been made.
PLAYING GAMES WITH THE NAME OF GOD
On September 20, 2020, Kalu and Uweshi appeared on Rubbin’ Minds, a Channels Televison programme hosted by Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, to discuss on entrepreneurship. Kalu and Uweshi had started Tonso Elite Enterprise and were to celebrate a year anniversary on September 26, 2020. On the show, Ebuka asked, “and in one year you’ve been successful, you’re saying?” Kalu’s claim was that “with God I’ve been trying.”
Ebuka further questioned if the reason for the success was the kind of products Kalu cultivated as a farmer or if agriculture was “just that profitable”. Kalu would explain he was also into real estate. The combination to unlocking wealth, it seemed, was real estate and agriculture. The duo, dressed in black and pink suits, cut across as the new generation of young Nigerian entrepreneurs who thrive in spite of the situation of the country.
Just before they went on Rubbin’ Minds, they had opened a branch in Awka, Anambra State. Their plan was that in the next two years they would open branches in Abakaliki, Owerri and Enugu. They had an ambition to go continental and even global, and they acted in the manner of young professionals in the corporate world.
A DUBIOUS CSR STRATEGY
With the ubiquitous presence of investment companies popping across the country, Tonso Enterprise came across as genuine to many young Nigerian investors. In 2020 they had gone on a spree of corporate social responsibility projects by distributing sanitizers and handwashing stations. In July 2020, Uweshi and his partner Kalu donated contactless mobile handwashing stations to the Ogun State police headquarters as part of Tonso Elite’s corporate social responsibility. The Commissioner of Police, Kenneth Ebrimson, received the handwashing equipment and urged the company to deliver handwashing equipment across the states in the country. The company was barely a year but seemed more keen on publicity that further convinced investors of their genuineness. On that same day, they donated the same facilities to the secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Ogun State and the Ministry of Health in the state, where it was received by Dr. Ayinde Adesanya, the Permanent Secretary.
But it didn’t stop here, Tonso Elite partnered with the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in Ogun State to give scholarship to 50 students. This announcement was made on September 24, 2020 on an Instagram live. This was two days to their one-year anniversary, and less than two months to the announcement that they would be unable to pay back investors.
FIJ spoke with Mercy Abimbola, another investor with Tonso Enterprises who had been investing with them for over six months and had put in N1.9 million. She had first started investing through a middle-man before investing directly. Her goal was to raise enough money to open a boutique to increase her streams of income. The middle-man who was known to a friend of hers worked closely with Kalu and Uweshi. He had assured her that the company was doing well.
‘I WISH I LEFT MY MONEY IN MY ACCOUNT’
Mercy was left in debt and had to take loans to pay back loans.
“Life has been tough, really tough,” she told FIJ. “I wish I kept my money in my account and I was just looking at it whether it grew or not. I regret that my money got stuck there. I regret it.”
FIJ spoke with Vincent, the middle-man who had access to the company’s forex trading. But when the company started losing money he was not informed. The explanation was that Tonso Elite’s brokers were holding the money but that Kalu and Uweshi were not running anywhere.
However, in February, Mercy’s friend was informed by another colleague that there was no money with any broker and that Mastermind Empire Alliance, another investment management company that Tonso Elite had announced a partnership with on October 23, 2020, had lost all the billions of money. This was a suspicious explanation, especially when it was learnt that there was no document backing up the partnership between both companies.
In celebration of this partnership, Tonso Elite had announced an additional 5 per cent on all investments. On a post made on their Instagram page, they announced, “In the merriment of our Investment and Business partnership with Mastermind Empire Alliance Ltd, we have no doubt this partnership would expand our scope and capacity; and allow us to serve all our ever supporting investors better. We are offering additional 5% on all investments made this week, regardless of the plan, it’s a great opportunity to merry with us.”
This increased ROI from 20 per cent to 25 per cent for short-term investments and 30 per cent to 35 per cent on long-term investments. On their Instagram bio they wrote “Creating Financial Stability”, but when FIJ checked their last post, it was made nine weeks ago with the message: “We will come back stronger #togetherwegrow.”
Vincent told FIJ, “How the whole thing is looking like a scam is this: they are so young, and to an extent, you can’t be owing billions of Naira since September, and no one would suspect with your reaction. So it looks like it was staged. They were so professional even with the way they talked.”
Vincent explained that he would rather believe they faked their reaction to all the money lost and not that the whole enterprise was built on a lie.
POLICE COMPLICITY AFTER PREVIOUS GIFTS
FIJ learnt that Kalu and Uweshi were arrested in Ajah and were transferred to the police headquarters in Ogun State. However, with an already established relationship with CP Ebrimson, at the Ogun State Police Command, it was easy for them to be released. FIJ placed a call and sent a message to the Ogun State Public Relations Officer but no response was received.
FIJ also reached out to Kalu and Uweshi through calls and text messages, but the calls were not answered and messages were not replied.
Lekan Dauda, the CEO of Creat Naija, a media organisation with a network across Nigerian universities, was approached by Tonso Elite to be their media partner in July 2020. Tonso Elite signed some of Creat Naija’s ambassadors as their campus ambassadors, leveraging on Creat Naija’s campus network across the country.
Many of Creat Naija’s audience, trusting the partnership, invested their money into Tonso Elite. Dauda told FIJ that he personally lost N8 million and that N100.4 million was lost from those who invested in Tonso Elite through Creat Naija.
In December, Tonso Elite told Dauda that they want to “stop payments due to the high influx of withdrawals”. As the media partner, Creat Naija wrote articles explaining the situation and calling for calm. The company itself had been caught in an issue it had no idea of, and a business it was not involved in. Calls from friends, families and strangers demanding for their money or an explanation to their money hit Dauda’s phone. His brand and person were trusted and were on the verge of being damaged. Dauda had to inform the public that Creat Naija and Tonso Elite were two different companies that dealt in different things.
The human cost of this investment has been on relationships; marriages and friendships that span years have been strained. For Dauda, whose wife, mother-in-law and parents also put in their money into Tonso Elite, it has taken both a mental and physical toll on him.
“Till today, nobody has been able to reach them,” Dauda said when asked of his last contact with Kalu and Uweshi.
Despite being earlier arrested by the police, Dauda said the Police claimed not to be able to find the duo, who were supposed to present themselves at the police station every two weeks. After the first time, they stopped and can no longer be located.
The communiques released by Kalu and Uweshi periodically has been the only contact they have with their over 4,000 investors. None of those communiques present any assurance that the millions of money owed would ever be paid back.
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