(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.
The meteoric rise of one of the world's largest Ponzi schemes in Nigeria
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.
"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.
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.
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 unsuccessfully attempted to stop financial transactions related to MMM and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Nigeria (SEC) warned investors about the scheme.
Taking it further, Nigeria's parliament directed security operatives to arrest MMM promoters, but in spite of these efforts, Nigeria has yet to officially criminalize MMM.
A spokesman for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Wilson Uwujaren, said they are monitoring the scheme.
MMM Founder, Sergey Mavrodi, in his open letter to the Nigerian government confirmed that the number of MMM members in Nigeria is 3 million. He also said: "MMM produces nothing, but nothing gets out of the country either. The money is just redistributed among the citizens of Nigeria. It gets from those who are richer to poorer ones, in this way restoring social justice. What's wrong with that?"
The government's position is unsurprising to MMM participants: they claim CBN wants people to keep money in the banks which will in turn be used to further enrich the country's wealthiest.
"The CBN we know has not in recent times made people-oriented policies, most of their policies favor the rich and that is what MMM has come to do -- reduce the gap between the rich and the poor," Chukwuemeka said.
Olasope added that the government is against the scheme because few people still save money in banks.
"I don't think any bank will pay you interest of up to 5% in a month when you keep money with them, but MMM pays 30%. CBN officials know that MMM will make Nigerians to stop taking money to banks so their best approach is to make it illegal," he said.
The MMM conversation has been extended to churches, where the official position varies from one place of worship to another.
At the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the country's largest Pentecostal church, some pastors are allowing MMM promoters to pitch the scheme to members from the pulpit. While others are against it, many are at crossroads.
Pastor Agbede Mayowa, who heads a branch of the church in Lagos, said MMM is a real dilemma for clergymen. Instead of having a position in the scheme, he said he is promoting an open conversation on the subject among members of the congregation.
"I have been inundated with messages and calls on MMM. 'Pastor, is it a sin? Should a Christian be involved?' Personally, I don't think it's a sin even though I have my reservations. Most people however think otherwise," he said.
Ibadan-based economist, Lekan Adigun said the wide acceptance of MMM in Nigeria in spite of numerous failures of similar schemes is not in line with industry edicts; it preys on the economic recession and citizens' desire for quick wealth.
"According to the Alexa ranking, MMM's is the fifth most visited website in Nigeria, more popular than Facebook. It has also shown that Nigeria isn't really a mobile first nation and getting the support of the government is overrated," Adigun said.
"I think techies should leverage this MMM craze to promote online payment adoption. We'll be solving two problems at once. We'll ease pressure on banks and then entrench online payment if the burst is well managed," he said.
Many experts believe that by not banning MMM, the Nigerian government positions the country as a target for copycat programs.
"It is really unfortunate that even though many Nigerians have lost money to similar Ponzi schemes in the past, the Nigerian government is still reluctant to go hard on MMM.
"When MMM eventually collapses, which will definitely happen, the exploitation of the citizens will continue under different names. This is going to be very harsh on the people of a country that is currently in recession," said Adigun.
For MMM, experts believe that its next task is to ensure that its community in Nigeria continues to be its firm advocate and the pyramid scheme is sustained for as long as possible while for the Nigerian government, restoring people's confidence in the banking sector is essential in addition to finding a way to ensure that activities of Ponzi schemes are regulated and protecting the funds of participants -- even when they act against government directives.
MMM Nigeria didn't immediately return a request for comment from CNN.