True Spies Episode 128 Veil of Beads, Part 3: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful
Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies.
NARRATOR: Veil of Beads, Part 3: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I've always said that undercover journalism, if you're not passionate, don't get into it. Journalism is like a hot kitchen. If you don't have the ability to stand the heat, you get out. It's difficult but who said we thought journalism was going to be a tea party?
NARRATOR: If a man makes a life out of fighting corruption, he must become acquainted with controversy. With danger. With threat.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We knew people would fight. What we had to do was to think on our feet and get appropriate remedies to forestall or to quell any form of threat that comes.
NARRATOR: But how to quell the danger that comes with pandemonium? How to protect yourself from the vitriol of the exposed?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We became people’s darling in one minute and became persona non grata the second minute. There were court suits left, right and center. There were open threats.
NARRATOR: There are precautions one can take, of course. Methods to avoid the worst of the fallout from a particularly explosive story.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We had to relocate from our office. We had to do so much to keep ourselves alive
NARRATOR: But sometimes precautions are just the sweet little lies we tell ourselves in order to continue.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We met at palace mall in Accra and that's how our meetings go. We meet at very public and busy places because if they were trying to shoot, you have a lot of difficulty in aiming. So that was the last discussion we had. And then when he left, I sent him messages that evening of what to do. And then the next day, he was shot and killed.
NARRATOR: A man dedicated to creating change, gunned down on the street, moments from his home. A continent left reeling from a shocking scandal. A world-class journalist, grappling with the loss of a colleague and a friend. And the inevitable question: why not me?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: It was a sad day for us. A sad day for me, especially when I got the information that we were the two people targeted. I, on that day, was visiting a friend of mine's mom who was in the hospital. The only reason why I wasn't shot was because I was working in an area where there were just too many people and if they shot there, they were going to be in serious trouble.
NARRATOR: In the previous two episodes of True Spies, you’ve met Anas Aremeyaw Anas. An undercover journalist who has made a speciality of exposing injustice and creating real change for voiceless communities all over Africa. For that work, he has attracted praise from world leaders and everyday citizens alike. But he has also made powerful enemies. Enemies who would rather see his Veil of Beads retired for good. His career has brought him into direct contact with professional criminals, murderers, witch doctors, drugdealers, and crooked prison guards. And yet the investigation that would finally teach him the ultimate cost of his work? A documentary about The Beautiful Game.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: See football is a very important component of the average African, the average Ghanaian, because football cuts across the rich and the poor. Football is what unites the country together for a common purpose.
NARRATOR: But if football has the capacity to unite a country – it also has the ability to divide it. And for a long time, Anas had been interested in precisely this phenomenon.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: What really got me into football investigation was a stadium disaster that happened in Ghana.
NARRATOR: The Accra stadium disaster of 2001 erupted when police fired tear gas on the crowd at a match between the country’s two strongest teams. The ensuing stampede left 126 people dead.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: And I happened to have personally visited the morgue. And as a young reporter, I was shocked. The number of people who had died as a result of tear gas from the police. So I asked myself why would tear gas be thrown in a crowd? And the answer is simple from the commission of inquiry reports. What happened was that there was a penalty and everybody in the stadium felt that the referee who gave that penalty had been bribed. Whether that was true or not, it was in the grapevine. And so people decided to jump onto the field and fight, which led to the police throwing tear gas.
NARRATOR: The suggestion of foul play had played on Anas’s mind for more than a decade before he decided to find answers. In the interim, he had succeeded in shining a light on wide scale corruption in Ghana’s courts - detonating a bomb at the very centre of society in the process. And yet he sensed that this story might be more incendiary still.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: If there is corruption in the political setting, they expect to sit in an atmosphere where it's free and fair, and they expect to get that from their football. They expect to win. They expect to lose. What they don't expect to have is to have corruption.
NARRATOR: When foul play was suspected - crowds could become extremely volatile. Just as they had at the Accra stadium.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: On some occasions, referees were even killed by mobs because they had made the wrong decision.
NARRATOR: And while Anas’s interest in the story was growing, so too was his capacity to tell it.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: You grow in this profession organically. My work grew from one stage to the other in a very systematic manner. First of all, not many people were used to undercover journalism. And so it was new, people were learning about it and the impact. Secondly, people were also shocked at the findings that came out and people were also dreaded by the fact that the people who the work affected were very dangerous people in the society. ‘So how were you doing it to stay alive?’ And people were also fascinated by the fact that the rich and powerful would always end up suing me in court and then would still lose. Even the judges scandal, I was sued over 66 times by different people, different judges here and there, but they all lost because if you have the evidence, there's no way, no amount of pressure will cow you into docility.
NARRATOR: As Anas’s reputation grew - and the impact of his work spread further - young aspiring journalists began approaching him, seeking mentorship.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: People became more confident and realized that, ‘well, this is a person I'm safe with. I can take my story, take my burden to that person. And if he can help, he will.’
NARRATOR: In the previous episode of True Spies - you met one such journalist. The Malwaian reporter, Henry Mhango who enlisted Anas for an investigation into the ritual murders that haunted the community where he had grown up. Another of the aspiring journalists to knock on Anas’s door was Ahmed Hussein-Suale.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Ahmed Suale was a student of the university of Ghana. He was a very passionate personality, and very quiet, and almost like my character, very quiet. He thinks deep like I do, so immediately I saw him and he came to me. I knew that he had some talent that ought to be developed for work in future.
NARRATOR: By this time, Anas had started his own investigations company, called Tiger Eye, to help him handle the sheer quantity of stories that he was being beckoned to. He decided to give Ahmed a trial run as a Tiger Eye investigator.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The first assignment he did was fine. The second assignment he did was a complete mess. He got himself arrested in the cells in Ashaiman and I had to go and free him. What he did that led to the arrest was totally unnecessary. It was nothing that we had discussed. So once I took him out, I knew that was the end. He wasn't going to work with Tiger Eye again, so I let him go after that.
NARRATOR: That’s that, then. Probationary period over. ‘D’ for Dunce on the report card. Best of luck on all future endeavors.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: But a year after that, he was still knocking on the door and begging to be given another opportunity to learn. So I brought him back, trained him and he seemed to have learned quite a lot.
NARRATOR: Ahmed would never repeat his early blunders. He quickly climbed the ranks of Tiger Eye.
HENRY MHANGO: I discovered when he was here in Malawi that he was the director of investigations, and the most trusted boy for Anas. He was a cool guy, but he was a dangerous journalist.
NARRATOR: Henry Mhango first encountered Ahmed on the ritual killings investigation in Malawi. The two bonded immediately amidst the emotional stress of that horrific case.
HENRY MHANGO: He really liked working with me. He really loved me and he could be very open with me. He could share a lot of advice. He could share a lot of his skills. We were moving like twins.
NARRATOR: Even after that investigation came to a juddering, violent halt - Ahmed nurtured his relationship with Henry. He saw it as his duty to spread the methods and ethos of Tiger Eye investigations across the continent.
HENRY MHANGO: So he said, “Henry, I'm seeing one problem here. And I feel like as someone who has been mentored by Anas, you have to champion this. I feel like there are so many stories that need to be exposed out there. I feel like people are suffering out there because they don't have a strong voice that would voice for them.”
NARRATOR: With his unwavering dedication to the cause, Ahmed established himself as an indispensable part of Anas’s team. His right hand man.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: At Tiger Eye, we operate on a need-to-know basis. You have to have a proven track record to be able to get the general overview of what Tiger Eye does because we share information in layers. But Ahmed got to a stage where he could see a general overview of whatever was happening within the company.
NARRATOR: So who better to lead the most sensitive investigation Tiger Eye had ever approached? When Anas finally decided to tackle corruption in football, it was Ahmed whom he entrusted to run the large-format sting operation that he had in mind. It would not be a straightforward assignment.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I had read deep enough to know that what was happening in Ghana was not just a Ghanaian story but had happened across the length and breadth of our continent.
NARRATOR: Proving a culture of corruption so large would be extremely difficult. But Anas was still haunted by the scenes from the morgue after the Accra stadium disaster years earlier.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Is it true that poor officiating led to these disasters? This is what I set out to find. If we had that evidence, we could put in a lot more stringent measures to keep football very clean for the poor to enjoy, and to ensure that FIFA's goal of fair play is adhered to in all sectors of our society.
NARRATOR: So where does one begin on this gargantuan task? Corruption has long been whispered about in the world of football. But there’s a reason it is so rarely exposed. Anas and Ahmed knew that this would not be a case of simply approaching a referee and asking to buy a goal or two - the whole thing handily caught on film. As with any business, there would be a process. And Anas believed he knew where that process began.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I was aware of the mafia within the football circles. We had to infiltrate to get into the works of the mafia and understand how money was given to referees at what times.
NARRATOR: Using Tiger Eye’s contacts embedded in Ghana’s criminal underworld, Anas and Ahmed soon began to build a picture of how one could swing a game. They learned that corrupt referees had strict rules about who they would do business with. Trusted contacts only. If a football club wanted to buy a result, they would dispatch an official representative from the administration to negotiate terms. So Anas and his Tiger Eye team would first need to pass themselves off as avid advocates for various teams in the Ghanian league.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: What we did was to become ardent supporters, either of the supporters union of that club, or we had gone in as the public relation wing of the team.
NARRATOR: Posing as members of the supporters union, the Tiger Eye operatives would approach a representative of the team, saying they’d like to contribute some money toward the assured success of their beloved club at their next fixture.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We only went to the team rep and told him, “Yeah, we know that this game is very important and we know that you always pay to win. But this time we, as supporters, have decided to give this money towards that. However, we want to go with you so that you pay the money.” And, virtually on all locations, they agreed. So we go with them and we make the payments.
NARRATOR: With agents infiltrating supporters unions all over the country, Anas quickly began to get a sense of the scale of corruption among the country’s referees.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: It was in this investigation that I realized that you could even buy a yellow card. You could buy a red card. You could decide how many goals you want in a particular match. You could fix a match. You could do anything once you had the money.
NARRATOR: And as the Tiger Eye agents became familiar with this black market, they learned that the buck didn’t stop with the lowest level of on-pitch officiator.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I also got to know that it was not just about giving money to the referees. You needed to give money to the match commissioners who together would sit with the referee and agree that this is how many goals we want to have.
NARRATOR: Over a two-year long sting operation, Anas, Ahmed and their undercover team acquired a wealth of filmed evidence. Enough to prove, beyond doubt, a culture of widespread corruption in the Ghanian football league. But they sensed the story didn’t stop in Ghana alone.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: When I started getting Ghanaian referees, then I started asking myself, “What if it’s happening on the Africa level? So there was the WAFU cup.”
NARRATOR: The WAFU Cup - or the West African Football Union’s annual tournament - contested amongst 16 nations. Anas wondered if victory could be bought so cheaply, even at this most prestigious of occasions.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: So I got into it and there were referees from South Africa, Kenya… many other people who were all part of this. And I realized that it was the same story. And if you had money to pay, it was good enough. The people would take it and they would poorly officiate and people would win, and I understood why people sometimes would beat referees.
NARRATOR: The more they dug, the more they understood the inflamed passions of crowds across the continent. And what if the problem was even bigger still?
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: I ask myself, “But if this is happening in African football, it must as well be happening in the world of football. Could there be leaders in FIFA who are also corrupt?” That is what took me to the FIFA executives.
NARRATOR: Anas Aremeyaw Anas has always followed investigations to their conclusion. He has made a career of pressing ahead where others would let sleeping dogs lie. But FIFA is one of the most powerful sporting organizations on the planet with a near limitless resource of money and influence to interfere with his investigations. Is this really a tussle he wants to get into? You know enough about Anas by this point to realize that he never even thought twice about going after FIFA itself. Together, Anas and Ahmed concocted a plan to catch one of the football association’s biggest fishes in the act of accepting a bribe.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We went undercover as sheikhs in Dubai and Ahmed, myself, and another colleague, we were the main sheikhs of the event. So we were the interface of the big meetings that happened.
NARRATOR: Decked out in the full traditional dress of sheikhs, and posing as wealthy businessmen from the United Arab Emirates, Anas and Ahmed began negotiations with the president of the Ghana Football Association, Kwesi Nyantakyi.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Who’s also an executive member of FIFA and also an executive member of the Confederation of African Football.
NARRATOR: In other words, someone with the power to create and break football fortunes in Ghana and beyond. For a price, of course. Anas and Ahmed claimed to be interested in becoming the main sponsors of Ghana’s premier league, and wondered, perhaps, if there was anything they could do to expedite the process? When the official showed up to his meeting in a Dubai hotel room, he was in a most helpful mood.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: He took a bribe from us, collected the money to allow us to be the sponsors of the Premier League in Ghana. And he was going to make some money on the side and still he took money from us. And we captured all this on video.
NARRATOR: A $65,000 sweetener - offered and accepted with all the ceremony of a spare breath mint. The filmed exchange was the last piece of the puzzle. Evidence to prove that Ghana’s football association was lousy with corruption, from the lowest league games all the way up to the international stage. When Anas and Ahmed released their investigation, just one week before the 2018 Football World Cup was to take place in Russia, the impact was enormous.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The referee association of Ghana sacked over 80 referees from their association because of the bribes they had taken. I had to petition FIFA. Eventually, Kwesi Nyantakyi got banned for life and was charged over 500,000 Francs or something.
NARRATOR: And the consequences didn’t stop there. The entire Ghana Football Association was dissolved. For a whole year, not a single official fixture was played. Ahmed had always been invested in creating change for the citizens of Ghana but he never could have predicted the scale of impact of this story.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: When the whole league was banned, the president was commenting about it. The ministers were commenting. People on the streets were commenting. Everybody. It taught me that football is part of our community and our society. And people genuinely love it and want to see it clean. And another big thing that happened was that it wasn't as if these crimes were not known in our community. They were known even to the highest level of FIFA, but this hardcore evidence of one of the biggest names in world football taking money was such a shock to people. We had many referees, so that when the referees were removed, the professional league could not survive. So the question was, how were we surviving all these years with all these people who were bribe takers? How were we doing it as a society? So I got shocked by the level of the corruption and how impactful and how society rose up to embrace this story.
NARRATOR: Yet for all those loudly declaring the Tiger Eye investigators heroes on the streets of Accra there were, of course, those who felt otherwise. With more than 100 officials exposed by the investigation. Enemies lurked all around.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We were getting threats from everywhere, everywhere from the local to the middle, to the divisional, to Africa, to the world, we were getting threats.
NARRATOR: Of course, threats were nothing new to Anas. That’s why he wears the veil of beads. That’s why he closely guarded the identity of all who work with him, including his most trusted colleague: Ahmed.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: What we've done is we've created a protective shield that makes you see the beads but you don't see the people behind the beads. So even people within Ahmed’s community didn't know him until a politician showed his picture on public television.
NARRATOR: In 2018, an influential Ghanian MP used his own television station to release images of Ahmed, imploring his viewers to attack the journalist should they encounter him. It is impossible to say whether this directly led to what happened next.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: Ahmed felt very safe because he thought he was within his house and within his community and nobody could touch him. I remember very well a day before his death. We met at a palace mall in Accra. We were working on putting evidence against one of the people in the football story. So that was the last discussion we had. And then the next day, he was shot and killed. Henry Mhango had been in contact with him just days earlier, about a collaborative project they’d been working on.
HENRY MHANGO: I didn't believe that. I didn't believe that Ahmed had been shot dead. And up to date, I still don't believe that he’s dead. Whenever I'm seeing his face, I feel like Ahmed is still there in Ghana. And one day he's coming back to Malawi to shake hands with me. That's the picture that I'm having toward him.
NARRATOR: For Anas, the process of grieving would have to be delayed.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: It was a difficult time for the team, the entire team, everybody. And look, I couldn't get my head around it, but the difficult moment was who next was going to be shot? And I had a lot of people around me. How do you bring them all around and make sure that they are all safe? So immediately, that was my preoccupation. Ahmed was gone. How do you protect the rest? So we had to go to our strong rooms, go to various hideouts, make sure that the people were not together. You had distributed all of them perfectly well so that you don't get another casualty. It was after two days that we realized that, whoever the attacker was, we had confused that attacker very well. He couldn't detect us.
NARRATOR: It was only once he was assured the rest of the Tiger Eye team was safe that Anas could feel the loss of his friend and colleague.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: It was a difficult loss. It was a really difficult loss. But then this is what kept us going. Any time we were working in difficult environments Ahmed would say that, “Boss what we are doing is almost service to God. So I want to assure you that if you are killed today, we are not going to give up. We are going to soldier on.” Then I said, of course, “If I die, I don't expect you guys to stop working. You should work harder.” Then Ahmed turns around and says, “However if any of us should die, it shouldn't dampen the spirit of the group. The group should still persevere and fight and move forward because what our enemies are expecting is for us to die.” So that statement, which Ahmed made, not only in front of me, but in front of other colleagues, is what kept us going. We knew that if we had stopped working, we would have not been fair to Ahmed’s wish.
NARRATOR: And so Anas has taken his late colleague’s words to heart. For Solomon Serwanjja, who runs the African Institute of Investigative Journalism, Ahmed’s assassination serves as a reminder of the danger of this line of work.
SOLOMON SERWANJJA: There is a bounty of money on Anas Anas’ head. Has he stopped? No he keeps going. So many journalists globally have lost their lives, especially investigative journalists. Those who are investigating corruption of tough government officials who have had several of them gunned down. Those that are infiltrating into mafia, cartel rings who have been gunned down. And this sends shockwaves down our spines who are still practicing. And then you get to think, “Why should I keep this? Like, why should I keep risking my life?” You know? “Am I gonna change the world?” When you get to hear stories of Ahmed being gunned down on the streets in cold blood. Think about what that message sends to journalists across the continent.
NARRATOR: It’s in countering that current of fear that the African Institute for Investigative Journalism finds its purpose.
SOLOMON SERWANJJA: My dream was… How can we keep investigative journalism alive on the continent? And that's how it was born. It's increasingly becoming risky to do investigative journalism and journalism in Africa. And this is why we need to work around it. What do we do to protect journalists? Why should we care? Why should I care that a journalist has been beaten in Ghana? Because if I don't stand up, someone else is gonna be beaten the next day. And that could be me. My passion is to know that, Anas Anas, before he drops the mic, that there is someone else he has handed the mantle to, right? That he has mentored and nurtured another Anas Anas to take over or so many Anas Anases. All of us who have been in this game are able to nurture and mentor the next investigative journalists in the newsroom as we grow of age, as we move out. And that has been my passion and that's what we are doing at the African Institute for Investigative journalism.
NARRATOR: The work of handing over the mantle has already begun for the Godfather of African deep cover journalism.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: The ‘I am Anas’ phenomenon is not just about me. I'm just an originator of a concept that many people have embraced, people like Henry Mhango, that you are talking to in Malawi have all started wearing those shields. And so the idea is to train more people, to have the capacity, to do the work I do across the continent.
NARRATOR: If Anas is successful in his mission to empower journalists across the African continent then we may never even know the moment he decides to retire his veil of beads for good.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: It is not about taking off the mask, it's about empowering more people to stand up and own their problems and not expect Western journalists to fly down, to want to be the ones telling the story.
NARRATOR: For now, Anas continues to investigate stories in Ghana and beyond. He does so in the memory of his fallen colleague, Ahmed Hussein-Suale, and in the name of all of the voiceless citizens who continue to suffer in the face of corruption.
ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS: We continue to work because it's a movement. We have to shine light on society and make it better.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. On the next True Spies we'll join the 30-year hunt for a mole within the highest ranks of American intelligence.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas is famous in Ghana for his investigative journalism, His stories - including Enemies of the nation - explore corruption and have exposed crime throughout Africa. His immersive journalism follows three basic principles: naming, shaming and jailing. Anas has gone undercover as a Catholic priest and as a bartender in a Chinese sex mafia ring in Ghana.