‘Under every rock, we found a lie’: How the bid to be English football’s first black owner unravelled – The Athletic

Matt SlaterMar 26, 2024

In the second of our series about the men who want to buy English football clubs, we tell the story of Dozy Mmobuosi, whose Tingo group of companies promised to bring European football to Sheffield United. It was some tale. But none of it was ever going to happen.

This is part of a five-part series about prospective investors and what their interest in English football says about their ambitions and the game itself.

Part one was on Chris Kirchner, who came close to taking over Derby County and was then found guilty of fraud and money laundering.

In the 1990 gangster classic Goodfellas, the protagonist Henry Hill goes for the ultimate flex on his first date with future wife Karen by leading her through the kitchen of the coolest club in New York, skipping a queue outside, to a front-row table that has just been laid for them.

It is a scene that encapsulates the movie — Henry and his friends don’t wait in line — and it ends with a question that underlines the point.

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“What do you do?” asks Karen.

It is a question I asked Dozy Mmobuosi last year after I had been led through the basement of The Dorchester hotel to sit across from him at the Chef’s Table — “the best seat in the house”, a private dining room separated from the kitchen by a glass wall that can be transparent so you can watch your meal being made, or opaque so that nobody can see who you have invited.

I had been summoned to London’s Mayfair for a clear-the-air meeting with the 45-year-old after his bid for Sheffield United, then of the Championship, now in the Premier League.

On February 2, 2024, The Times reported the “Nigerian technology billionaire” was “close” to buying the Yorkshire club for £90million (now $115million). The newspaper said Mmobuosi’s company Tingo Mobile had been valued at $7.6billion and the deal was subject to Mmobuosi passing the EFL’s owners’ and directors’ test but “so far no problems have arisen”.

The story was followed up by several British and international outlets, who noted Mmobuosi had just graced the cover of GQ Africa and launched the Dozy Mmobuosi Foundation at a ball held at The Dorchester.

Within 48 hours, dozens of stories had been published with new pieces of information and photographs lifted from Mmobuosi’s social media accounts and Tingo’s website. There were snaps of Mmobuosi looking dashing by a fireplace, one with his arm around the British heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua, several of him in black tie with the Nigerian presidential candidate Peter Obi and the Senegalese-American singer/businessman Akon, and one in more casual attire at his desk in front of a laptop.

 

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A post shared by Dozy Mmobuosi (@dozymmobuosi1)

According to the clippings, as well as owning Tingo Mobile, he had just launched an online marketplace called Tingo Foods, was building Nigeria’s largest food-processing plant, had opened a business school and started a mobile cancer-screening service in Nigeria. Oh, and he was expanding into Ghana, Malawi and the United Arab Emirates. The Sheffield United takeover was “imminent” and his personal fortune was “north of £5billion”.

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In fact, he was so confident of taking over at Sheffield United, that he told reporters he had already paid a non-refundable deposit of almost £10million to the club’s Saudi owner Prince Abdullah. For a club that had been struggling to pay basic bills and transfer instalments, Mmobuosi’s millions were a lifeline.

Four days after The Times scoop, The Athletic reported that Tingo Airlines — Mmobuosi’s aviation business — had not got off the ground. This was despite him claiming you could “fly with Tingo Airlines today” from London to Nigeria in November 2020 and the UK-registered company having £1billion in share capital.

Further examination of these claims revealed that the company’s business address — a rented flat near Luton — had been removed from the website of Companies House, the UK’s registrar of companies, because it was “invalid or ineffective and was forged”. Furthermore, Tingo Airlines was facing an active proposal to be struck off because it was late with basic paperwork.

There was also no evidence that Tingo had the UK Air Operator’s Certificate or it had been “in the process of obtaining” any aircraft. The pictures of planes on the company website, which was riddled with missing links, were photoshopped versions of stock pictures of an Airbus A321. Whoever added the Tingo livery also added some extra windows and removed a door.

Mmobuosi responded with a flurry of media activity, including long interviews with CNN and the former England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand on his YouTube channel FIVE. The confusion with the airline was the pandemic’s fault, apparently.

The club, meanwhile, continued to say absolutely nothing about Mmobuosi or the takeover, which they thought had been the PR strategy agreed with his team. Some of his team were a bit confused by the media blitz, too, but the game was afoot.

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Before meeting him at The Dorchester, I was warned Mmobuosi was “upset” about The Athletic’s coverage of his takeover attempt, so I should expect a frosty reception. And that is what I got, but not from the self-styled tech billionaire wearing a baseball cap from the University of Oxford’s Said Business School.

The frostiness came from the gentleman sitting next to him, a British football agent who tried to impress upon me the importance of getting on the “right side of this story”. In not very subtle terms, I was warned our coverage of Mmobuosi’s attempt to become English football’s first black owner might be perceived as racist.

I tell this story to highlight some of the people Mmobuosi fooled and why so many of them wanted to believe him. And that is why I am not naming the agent — he is embarrassed enough.

Because the trail of unpaid bills and salaries Mmobuosi has left behind in the UK will make it even harder for any legitimate African entrepreneur who follows him in trying to buy an English football club.

Seven weeks after our meeting, Mmobuosi issued a statement to deny that his Sheffield United bid was failing. By then, it had already failed.

By early June, his business empire was revealed to be an illusion, with a damning report saying the Tingo group was “a worthless and brazen fraud”. As 2024 ticked over into 2024, Mmobuosi was charged with three counts of fraud by the U.S. Department of Justice and accused of running a global scam of “staggering” scale by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which said Tingo Mobile had less than $50 in a Nigerian bank when Mmobuosi claimed it had $460million. He denies all the charges.

Mmobuosi did answer my question, taking nearly two hours to explain how his Tingo group of companies would harness the power of Nigerian farmers to conquer Wall Street, feed the world, cure cancer and bring European football to Bramall Lane.

It was some tale. But none of it was ever going to happen.

In February, Mmobuosi took a trip to the Highlands with the British fashion designer Ozwald Boateng to look at a whisky distillery that was up for sale. They flew north on a private jet with Mmobuosi’s chef and PR team, while a bouncer drove one of Mmobuosi’s rented Rolls-Royces up from London to meet them at the other end.

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The Times reported Boateng saying Mmobuosi had “an almost magical quality”. There is no suggestion that Boateng is anything other than another person who was enchanted by the Mmobuosi mirage. Boateng has not responded to The Athletic’s requests for comment.

On that trip to Scotland, the group stopped off for a quick tour of Ardross Castle, the location for the hit BBC TV show The Traitors. Mmobuosi had told the owners he was interested in buying the place.

Mmobuosi in 2022 (Adam Fussell)

In his interview with Ferdinand, Mmobuosi said his first conversation with an English club owner was with Crystal Palace’s co-owner John Textor. That conversation, however, went no further than a visit to a game and a late-night drinking session with Textor’s advisor and Mmobuosi’s bodyguards.

Southampton were another club Mmobuosi once expressed an interest in, while associates of his — most notably the British lawyer Chris Cleverly, the cousin of the UK’s home secretary James Cleverly — were linked with West Ham in 2021. None of these bids got anywhere.

Starting conversations about investments has never been a problem for Mmobuosi, born in Lagos in 1978. His first business was selling second-hand clothes at school at the age of 13.

According to media profiles written about him in Nigeria in 2020, he also sold “general provisions” at school and was nicknamed “The General”.

After being home-schooled, he claims he gained a bachelor’s degree in political science and then a master’s in economics from Nigeria’s Ambrose Alli University, before earning a doctorate in rural advancement at the Universiti Putra Malaysia, although that establishment has no record of a Dr Dozy.

His legend states he became a promoter of beauty pageants and concerts across Nigeria between 1999 and 2002. And during this period, he and his father launched the company that would later bestride the globe: Tingo Mobile.

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Originally known as Fair Deal Concept, its first product was his father’s ebook about the “419 scam”, perhaps the most infamous of the advance-fee scams that anyone with an email address will have encountered. Trivia fans and “Nigerian princes” might be interested to know that 419 is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code which deals with fraud.

Mmobuosi & Son then got into internet domain names, ringtones and solar panels. By 2005, Mmobuosi was in sole charge and it seems there is no faddish item that Tingo could not at least try to sell.

In 2013, he landed on the idea he has spent the last decade flogging: phones for farmers. His story — and he is sticking to it — is that Tingo Mobile has distributed 30million phones and has more than nine million customers who use Tingo devices, with pre-installed Tingo apps, for banking, checking the weather and getting the best prices for their produce.

This service has earned Tingo Mobile hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, apparently, although there was an unfortunate mix-up in 2017, when Mmobuosi bought £60,000 worth of fuel for his “device assembly facilities” with cheques that bounced. He was charged with eight counts of fraud and appeared in court in Lagos in 2018.

The result of that trial is unclear, with Mmobuosi later claiming the dispute was settled by arbitration.

By 2019, having moved to the UK, Mmobuosi wanted to share the myriad opportunities presented by Tingo with investors everywhere, which meant floating it on the world’s most famous stock market for tech companies: New York’s Nasdaq.

Tom Winnifrith, a business journalist turned share-tipster, has ridiculed Tingo’s numbers on his personal website and the shareprophets.com platform since September 2022.

Winnifrith said his acerbic pen was drawn to the “obvious con” by the colourful cast of characters connected to Tingo; men such as Leslie Greyling, the UK-based South African penny-share investor who has twice been convicted of fraud and was deported from the U.S. in the 1990s.

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“Greyling is a walking red flag but Tingo’s financials did not stand up to even basic scrutiny,” says Winnifrith. “They had a subsidiary claiming to have hundreds of millions in the bank but borrowing from another, while one of their Nigerian food businesses had revenues that equated to 600 per cent of the market share.”

InsightX, a UK-based due diligence agency, had also highlighted numerous “reputation risks” in a detailed report it prepared on Mmobuosi for an English club he looked at before Sheffield United. Among its concerns were Mmobuosi’s links to the former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, whose time in charge of the African state has been mired in corruption allegations.

So was his flirtation with football a stunt to create headlines about his business acumen and wealth? And to promote Tingo Mobile, which he had just merged with a public company for the second time in just over a year?

The most recent merger was with an obscure tech firm called MICT. It had very little going for it apart from the Nasdaq listing Mmobuosi had long been pursuing for Tingo. Both mergers involved the creation of hundreds of millions of new shares for Mmobuosi and senior staff at the companies in question.

 

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A post shared by Dozy Mmobuosi (@dozymmobuosi1)

Last month, Mmobuosi was asked by the Nigerian website Vanguard if he regretted bidding for Sheffield United. He said he does not do regrets but was more experienced now, adding his only intention was to “connect a city as disenfranchised as Sheffield, and a company as disenfranchised as Tingo”, and that his money helped the club pay its bills and get promoted.

“This story has not been told anywhere because it’s not a sexy story: a black man rescued the club,” he explained.

On Valentine’s Day last year, the EFL issued a statement to say it had seen “some evidence of source and sufficiency” of funds from Mmobuosi but it had been “awaiting a response for some time” on a “number of additional queries”.

Four days later, The Athletic reported what some of those queries were: three county court judgments against Mmobuosi and his companies for nearly £40,000 in unpaid rent and bills. We also raised questions about the numbers Tingo was claiming in its filings to the U.S. financial authorities.

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Mmobuosi and a large team of advisers met the EFL at its Preston headquarters in late March but the league had heard and seen enough to know this takeover was over. And by May, the picture looked very different for the club and Tingo Group, the renamed MICT/Tingo Mobile mash-up. Sheffield United’s financial problems had been cured by promotion and Tingo Group’s share price had cleared the $5 mark.

Then, on June 6, Hindenburg Research, a New York-based firm that has been exposing fraudulent companies since 2017, dropped a bomb on Tingo.

While it undoubtedly does help to police the stock markets, Hindenburg’s motives are not entirely altruistic, as it is also an activist short-seller, which means it makes money on the companies it targets by betting that their share prices will crash.

The bet on Tingo certainly came in, as its share price more than halved on the day Hindenburg’s scathing report was published.

Titled “Tingo Group: Fake Farmers, Phones and Financials — The Nigerian Empire That Isn’t”, the report started with the sentence that Hindenburg was shorting Tingo’s shares because “we believe the company is an exceptionally obvious scam with completely fabricated financials”. It went downhill for Mmobuosi from there.

According to Hindenburg, Mmobuosi had lied about inventing a payment app, he did not have a doctorate, Tingo Foods’ claimed operating margin would make it the most efficient food business on the planet, the food-processing plant Tingo said it was building is an empty field, its accounts were full of nonsensical numbers, no customers could be found in Nigeria’s fields and its offices were empty. On and on it went, raining punches on Tingo’s head.

“Overall, we think Tingo is a worthless and brazen fraud that should serve as a humiliating embarrassment for all involved,” it concluded. “We do not expect the company will be long for this world.”

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Tingo Group tried to hit back, pointing out that Hindenburg was a short-seller and therefore had skin in the game, and dismissed the report as “misleading and libellous”. Tingo added that it had appointed the international law firm White & Case to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations.

In August, Tingo issued what it believed was an explanation for Hindenburg’s mistaken findings but that just prompted another takedown by the research firm and the share price tanked even further. When asked if it conducted Tingo’s external review, White & Case said it did not.

“When you have looked at as many frauds as we have, you can feel like you’ve seen it all before,” says Hindenburg’s founder Nate Anderson. “But usually the management of these companies will have told one or two lies about a particular deal or new product.

“Tingo was different. They had fabricated an entire conglomerate. Under every rock we looked, we found a lie. I had never seen that before.”

You cannot keep a good man down, though. By October, Mmobuosi was posting pictures of new houses he had funded in Malawi for victims of a cyclone and signing an agreement with the Pakistani state agency for tech development. There are no pictures or news stories about this agreement on the Pakistani agency’s website or social media channels but the houses in Malawi appear to be real, as the African country gave Mmobuosi a diplomatic passport for his trouble.

 

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A post shared by Dozy Mmobuosi (@dozymmobuosi1)

Why he might need one of those became apparent in December, when the SEC opened civil proceedings in New York against Mmobuosi and three of his companies for what it described as a “massive… multi-year scheme… to defraud investors worldwide”.

Its 72-page complaint was damning. For four years, it said, Mmobuosi had concocted bank statements, invented revenues and faked customers. For instance, around the time he was trying to buy Sheffield United, he filed documents in the U.S. that said Tingo Mobile had more than $460million in the bank in Nigeria. In reality, it had less than $50.

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It also laid out how he had paid for his lavish lifestyle in London and the deposit for Sheffield United. Last year, he sold more than $10million worth of Tingo Group stock and $2m of stock in another of his companies, Agri-Fintech. He also allegedly pocketed a $10m intracompany loan meant for the purchase of handsets and “siphoned off” an additional $16m from Tingo Group’s accounts to his own.

In January, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation charged Mmobuosi with three counts of fraud that carry prison sentences between five and 20 years each.

“Dozy Mmobuosi allegedly orchestrated a massive scheme to inflate Tingo Group’s financial statements and make it appear as though the cellular and agriculture companies he founded were profitable and cash-rich companies when, in fact, they were not,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.

“With this indictment, Mmobuosi’s alleged deceitful scheme comes to an end.”

The media release also described Mmobuosi as “at large”.

If you think that suggests he has gone to ground, think again. Mmobuosi has given numerous interviews to journalists in Nigeria over the last 10 weeks, telling them these allegations are “unfounded”, he is preparing his defence and is still a resident in the UK and “cannot be said to be at large”.

None of the people he owes money to in the UK has seen him, though, and neither do they expect to.

Meanwhile, Sheffield United’s owner Prince Abdullah is seeking legal advice on whether he might have to return Mmobuosi’s deposit to the U.S. authorities as it would be considered the proceeds of crime.

As for Mmobuosi, he is fighting on and “writing a book that tells my side of the story”, as he told Vanguard last month.

The Tingo comeback starts here.

(Design: Eammon Dalton. Photos: Adam Fussell; Matt McNulty/Getty Images; SportImage/Getty Images)

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Based in North West England, Matt Slater is a senior football news reporter for The Athletic UK. Before that, he spent 16 years with the BBC and then three years as chief sports reporter for the UK/Ireland’s main news agency, PA. Follow Matt on Twitter @mjshrimper

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