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BOOK REVIEW

Journalist Yepoka Yeebo, in ‘Anansi’s Gold,’ tracks the con man behind the stories of Ghana’s lost gold

John Ackah Blay-Miezahfile photo

From Charles Ponzi to “Paper Moon,” Americans have long been fascinated with con artists. And in the past few years, interest in frauds has grown exponentially — Shonda Rhimes’s recent miniseries about Anna Sorokin drew a huge number of viewers, and many of us kept checking social media feeds to learn what sentence Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes would get.

But while Bernie Madoff and Martin Shkreli have become household names, John Ackah Blay-Miezah has not, at least not outside of his home country of Ghana. In her book “Anansi’s Gold,” journalist Yepoka Yeebo tells the fascinating story of the person she calls “perhaps the greatest con man of the twentieth century” — and it’s a wild tale indeed, brought to life by Yeebo’s intricate research and compelling prose.

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Blay-Miezah, born in 1941, came early to the art of the hustle, although his first efforts weren’t shady. As a middle schooler, he sold kerosene to afford the fees for his Anglican school, where one of his schoolmasters found him to be polite, if “a bit of a kiss ass.” Later, though, he found success as a young healer, “making more money selling stories than kerosene.”

Blay-Miezah left Ghana in 1959, telling family and friends that he would be attending the University of Pennsylvania. He never actually enrolled at the school, though, instead working as a busboy at a Philadelphia club. He later returned to his homeland, where he attempted to meet the president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, claiming he had dreamed about an attempt on the politician’s life. While the leader of Ghana’s Special Branch later claimed that Nkruman and Blay-Miezah did meet, Yeebo writes that it might never have happened: “In other versions of the story, [Blay-Miezah] and Nkrumah never met. The security services concluded that Blay was either a threat or a kook, and he was not allowed anywhere near the president.”

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Blay-Miezah didn’t let the possibly fictional encounter get in the way of the scheme that would make him a notorious fraudster. After Nkrumah died in 1972 — he had been deposed in a coup six years prior — Blay-Miezah concocted a story based on “a combination of half-remembered news bulletins, CIA propaganda, and prison-yard gossip.

Nkrumah, Blay-Miezah claimed, had stashed millions of dollars worth of Ghanaian gold in Switzerland during his presidency, and asked Blay-Miezah to serve as the protector of the so-called “Oman Ghana Trust Fund.” Blay-Miezah wanted to bring the gold back to Ghana, but there was, of course, a catch — “before the Swiss would release the money, Blay-Miezah had to show that he had met all the conditions Nkrumah set up to govern the Trust Fund. And for that, he needed funding.”

And funding he got. False rumors that Nkrumah had smuggled gold out of Ghana had circulated for years, making Blay-Miezah’s lie somewhat plausible to those who wanted to believe. Even skeptics fell for the tall tale: “There was also, many people thought, the possibility that Blay-Miezah did have the money. However he got it — and by now, there were several stories floating around — money didn’t smell. And if it was even a fraction of what he claimed, people wanted in.”

The Oman Ghana Trust Fund did not exist. But with help from people he met in Philadelphia, Blay-Miezah convinced a lot of people that it did for years, despite warnings from the US ambassador to Ghana, Shirley Temple Black, and an FBI investigation into an “import-export” company he had cofounded in Pennsylvania that was actually in “the business of Nkrumah.”

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After years of assuring investors that their money would come back to them — tenfold, fiftyfold, even more — Blay-Miezah died in 1992. His fraud did not die with him. As Yeebo writes, “Decades after his death, people are still telling his story and are still hunting for Nkrumah’s gold.”

Writing about a con as convoluted and extensive as Blay-Miezah’s is no easy endeavor, but in “Anansi’s Gold” — the title is a reference to the trickster god of West African folklore — Yeebo does a phenomenal job explaining how one lie took on a life of its own, one that still hasn’t ended.

Yeebo’s success is partially due to the rich context she brings to the story. Early in the book, she charts the modern history of Ghana, which had previously been colonized by the British for more than 130 years. She also dedicates a chapter to Nkrumah, the revolutionary who had pressed for independence, and who served as the nation’s president for more than five years.

The history proves vital in understanding the success of Blay-Miezah’s long con. Ghana, she writes, “was a country ripped apart by colonialism, then given no time to heal. Before Ghana could mourn its losses, or rebuild, it was set upon by vultures from around the world and destroyed from within by opportunistic crooks. These were Blay-Miezah’s people: military dictators, unscrupulous businessmen, ruthless spies, and corrupt politicians.”

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Yeebo’s substantial research — based on interviews, archives, government reports, and the like — is nothing less than awe inspiring, and her prose is careful and self-assured, often outraged, sometimes dryly amused. (She frequently refers to Blay-Miezah as “our man,” lending the book a kind of entre-nous tone that doesn’t sacrifice the seriousness of the subject matter.)

“Anansi’s Gold” is a fascinating story brilliantly told, and a fine addition to the canon of nonfiction that deals with shady people doing shady things for shady reasons. It’s also a clear-eyed look at the dangers of blind trust and unchecked rumors: “[T]he story of Dr. John Ackah Blay-Miezah is not just a story about a con man,” Yeebo writes. “It is a story about how the world works: about how lies change history, and about how so much of today’s world is built on lies. Blay-Miezah matters because he was not the exception — he was the rule.”

ANANSI’S GOLD: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World

By Yepoka Yeebo

Bloomsbury, 400 pages, $29.99

Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.