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It reads like “a shitty Hollywood B” film. A Polish entrepreneur has caused a storm by claiming that his Nigerian business partners tried to take over his startup and that they used the police to try to arrest and extradite him to Nigeria, while trying to blackmail him of $300 000.
Marek Zmyslowski’s post last Thursday (14 February) on Medium has rocked Nigeria’s tech scene. Days later, the hashtag #Marek was trending as eighth highest for Nigeria on Twitter on Saturday (16 February).
Zmyslowski (pictured above) co-founded Jumia Travel, that quickly became one of the biggest hotel booking sites in Africa, in 2015 he started hospitality software company HotelOga.
The Polish entrepreneur claims the company was later rebranded to HotelOnline, Håvar Bauck, the chairman at HotelOnline disputes, saying that the now-defunct HotelOga was a different company, using HotelOnline’s technology.
Polish entrepreneur Marek Zmyslowski has caused a storm by claiming shady Nigerian business partners tried to take over his startup and used the police to try to arrest him
“Like in a shitty Hollywood B movie, I was quickly given an offer. A shady individual told me that all my problems will go away, all I need to do is to send a symbolic sum of a couple of hundred thousand dollars to a specific bank account,” he wrote in a previous blog post in January.
He says he was at the Warsaw airport on 14 January last year, preparing to fly to London to see some venture capitalists and friends, when he was arrested by the Polish border security. They were acting on a notice filed by Interpol (via Nigerian police) for his arrest.
He was told that he was wanted by the Nigerian government on fraud charges — for allegedly stealing money from an investor and his CFO — and would be held in custody until it could be decided if he should be sent to Nigeria or not.
‘Done over by Godfather’
He claims the only evidence in the case was that of a victim statement — and that the Nigerian police had not filed any other evidence on the Interpol system.
He claims the man behind the fraud claims is a “very prominent businessman” who along with private investors in Poland and India, helped fund HotelOga (all as minority shareholders) when he left Jumia, with which he was involved with at the time, in 2015
He describes the Nigerian business man, as someone with “his hands in many different sectors, strategic for the Nigerian economy”.
“He had also powerful friends that allowed him to keep those hands there. Someone you want to have as a ‘Godfather’ in a hostile business environment. Where you definitely don’t want to be, is when the ‘Godfather’, your support system, turns against you,” he writes.
He claims that a conflict between him and the Nigerian investor (who he refers to only as “The Godfather”) arose around the “company vision and management style”. At one point he claims the investor tried to, together with the startup’s CFO, kick him out of the management board and take control of the company.
While his team, co-founder and other shareholders stood up for him, he claims the conflict, “paralysed” the startup’s operations for months and almost bankrupted the company.
“We were able to save the company by merging with our biggest competitor from East Africa. This allowed me to exit the company and remove myself from the equation, hoping that this move will (sic) release the tension between stakeholders,” he said.
Zmyslowski’s Nigerian business partner however, says the Polish entrepreneur is spinning a lie (see this story).
He says following this arrest at the Warsaw airport he was lucky to have his case assigned to a young Polish public prosecutor, “who could see that something is wrong here”.
“The day I was arrested, he has (sic) requested the Nigerian police to send the full documentation of my case. After all these months, they still haven’t sent anything. What they did send, however, was the request for my extradition. Again with no supporting documentation. I was released the next day.
“Polish Ministry of Foreign affairs has sent to its Nigerian counterpart a formal request to explain the situation and give any information about the actions against me. Guess what? It’s been six months and just like the Police, they’re yet to give a reply (sic),” writes Zmyslowski.
‘Pay to make it go away’
He writes that on the day he left Polish custody he received a call from his Nigerian banker who informed him about the police order to freeze his bank accounts.
“The second call came from a Nigerian journalist, that got a tip from ‘someone’ about my arrest and wanted my comments. Someone really wanted to give me some bad press. The only people in Nigeria that knew at that time about my detention in Poland, were the Police officers behind the arrest warrant.
He said the third person he spoke to that day, was the “Godfather’s” lawyer.
“Her offer was pretty simple. If I pay $300 000, my problems with the Nigerian justice system and Interpol will go away. And my image in the media will remain untarnished,” he said, adding “that’s how some people secure their investment returns”.
“Still, I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet. The Red Notice was put into the system on December 22nd. That was just one day after I landed in Poland to spend Christmas with my family. That was my first time in Poland in many months. I was let free from custody just because Poland does not extradite its own citizens.
“Have (sic) I been stopped in any other frequently visited country, the situation would have been (very) much different. I would be rotting in a Nigerian jail and probably confess to anything, just to get out, just like the ‘Godfather’ planned.” he writes.
He said he then decided to fight the case and has recruited a team of lawyers from Nigeria, the US and Poland, specialised in international crime and Interpol abuse. He claims he’s received support from a number of organisations, including Fair Trials, Open Dialogue, Amnesty International and Bill Browder, a former biggest foreign investor in Russia, who he calls “probably the most famous victim of Interpol abuse triggered by corrupted Russian officials (author of the book Red Notice)”.
He says he was told by Nigerian authorities that the documentation of his case “got lost in court archives”.
All this time he says “Godfather’s” lawyers kept up the pressure for him to pay up. “They said the Nigerian government will push hard for my extradition. The ‘Godfather’ himself was so confident that in a phone call admitted who got paid to chase me, and who to pay to clean this mess. Because in the end, he was just teaching me a lesson and wanted to help,” he says.
‘Not Godfather’s first victim’
He says after phoning friends in Nigeria he discovered that he wasn’t the only victim of the “Godfather’s”. “Two other founders of very well known, established Nigerian fintech and ecommerce companies opened up to me about their experiences. And those were not pleasant stories, to say the least,” he says.
He says he decided to first sue the Nigerian Police in the Nigerian Federal Court. “We had nothing to lose, but so much to win. Nigerian police, in order to defend themselves, would have to present to the court the documents they used to build my conviction case. Those documents, that we were so desperate to find so we could fight them. Police could also decide not to show anything and risk losing the case. If we were lucky enough to get a fair Judge, outside the “Godfather’s” circle of influence, this might actually work,” he writes.
He said the police then decided not to attempt to defend the case in the court, “just to protect themselves from being exposed for taking bribes”.
“On July 23rd, 2018, the judge ruled in my favour. My arrest warrant was struck down, bank freeze was ruled as illegal and I was even given a 2-million naira in compensation ($5500 dollars).
Last month he said in a Medium post that the police had not yet paid and he was trying to figure out who he should call to get the amount paid.
Still on Interpol list
He still needed to get Interpol to remove the Red Notice from its systems, to avoid arrest again. This, he said, was no easy thing to do.
“It takes the super global police only a couple of hours to put you on the wanted list. It can take years to take you down,” he writes.
“Why is Interpol just putting all these arrest warrants from the shadiest countries without any proper background check, but applies the time-consuming and financially-destructive procedure to undo it?” he asks.
He says the extradition request and the Interpol arrest warrant are framed now and hang in his office, next to other diplomas and prizes he’s won.
“What happened to me could never have happened in a democratic country with a rule of law. It would never happen to me in the European Union or the USA if I chose to run my businesses there,” he says.
While he calls the time he was in Nigeria until January last year the “five most stressful years of my life” in a January post, he claims his love and belief in Africa remain unshaken. We have so much to win together.
He said he plans to write a book about his story and would donate all the income he made from sales of the book to giving laptops and coding lessons to the smartest pupils from the poorest families in Northern Nigeria.
This is a developing story.
Editor’s note (18 February 2019): HotelOnline chairman Håvar Bauck wrote to Ventureburn subsequent to the publication of this article to inform us that in the original article Zmyslowski refers to HotelOnline as a rebrand of HotelOga, but that this is not correct.
“This is not correct, as now-defunct HotelOga was a different company, using HotelOnline’s technology. We started merger talks 2017, but pulled out, as our due diligence showed that the transaction was not viable. HotelOga collapsed shortly after.”
We have updated the article accordingly, and to reflect that it was
Zmyslowski himself who referred to HotelOga being rebranded as
Featured image: Polish entrepreneur Marek Zmyslowski (Facebook)