The meteoric rise of one of the world's largest Ponzi schemes in Nigeria

(CNN)In spite of the government's warnings against it, many Nigerians continue to invest in Mavrodi Mundial Movement (MMM), a Russian company that was responsible for one of the world's largest Ponzi schemes of all time.

On 13 December, the company said it was 'freezing' all confirmed accounts. While many that are opposed to the scheme believe the suspension may be an indication of an imminent collapse, MMM Nigeria assured its members it was only freezing the system for a period of one month.
"The reason for this measure is evident. We need to prevent problems during the New Year season, and then, when everything calms down, this measure will be canceled," the administrator said in a message sent to all members.
In spite of the indication that things may not be in order with MMM, Ifeanyi Okoro and some other members remain confident in the scheme.
    The founder of the MMM financial pyramid Sergei Mavrodi waves as he leaves the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow, 22 May 2007.

    Confidence remains

    "Even with this minor setback, I still strongly have confidence in MMM. The government and the press will amplify this but we all know that MMM is not going anywhere," Okoro said.
    Joe Sanya revealed that he had already invested NGN1 million in the scheme. While expressing confidence in MMM, he warned that the only thing that could harm the system is the fear the news would instill fear in MMM's prospective members and confirmed account holders.
    "The abrupt action of MMM has brought lot of fears and panic already which could even in itself crash the system. Guiders will have to come up with a plan to put the mind of Nigerians at ease. I don't know how they will do that but it has to be done. We need a constructive counter move from MMM against the enormous negativity going on via social media right now or else my one million naira and those of my friends will be gone."
    Michael Mbah, an MMM Nigeria top guider, added: "This is a temporary measure to save the system and saving the system is saving our money. Our money is safe. By January, the system will be back and it will be stronger."
    How did MMM successfully convince many Nigerians to look away from the facts, warnings and experiences elsewhere? The key is understanding how MMM works.

    'Like a charity'

    A member is required to make payments directly into the bank account of another member. When this is successfully done, the payer is qualified to receive three times what he or she paid from someone else.
    The scheme was launched in November 2015 in Nigeria but it got popular in 2016 and its philosophy is to financially empower its members who are committed to helping one another. New members are often recruited into the scheme by the promise of 30% monthly return on their investment and higher returns when they offer to assist members that ask for financial assistance.
    When Chibuzor Chukwuemeka, a young Nigerian professional first heard of the scheme from a friend, he said he thought it was a scam. But since he joined about four months ago, he has had no regrets.
    "I will tell you that MMM has empowered me financially," he told CNN.
    Isaiah Olasope, a university lecturer, said he joined the scheme with NGN50,000 (about $158) and was able to make a profit of NGN60,000 (about $190) within two months. He noted that the best approach to succeeding is via referrals and paying as soon as possible.
    "I would have continued, but I stopped after I made more than what I put into it," he said.
    The scheme is especially popular among new graduates and the unemployed, and even entrepreneurs like Lydia Aborishade, who said she was able to get a tangible return.
    "It's like a charity organization where you provide and get help. If you help someone, you get twice what you give," she said.
    MMM floor ad

    The government: 'It's fraudulent'

    The scheme markets itself as a charity, which is why it celebrated its first anniversary with a Humanitarian week held from Nov 13th -- 19th 2016 by donating relief materials worth NGN5 million to two internally displaced persons' camps in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja.
    But the Nigerian government has been unequivocal in discouraging citizens from participating. Through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), it urged citizens not to get involved in MMM, calling it fraudulent.
    "We've heard about the activities of MMM, but I want to warn you against it because they are wonder banks that are not regulated. Desist from participating, because they are fraudulent," said Hajiya Kadija Kassim, ‎head, Consumer Protection Department of the CBN.
    CBN also