Baba's Big Bucks

African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko opened his checkbook and stole Miami's heart. Not surprisingly, that wasn't the only thing he stole.

On Saturday morning, March 14, Hussain Mohamed Salim was driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, when he received a call on his pager from Mohammed Ayyoub. In addition to being the branch manager of the Dubai Islamic Bank in Abu Dhabi, Salim also served on the bank's finance committee, which oversaw the institution's day-to-day operations.

Salim thought it odd that Ayyoub, who managed the bank's main branch in Dubai, was trying to contact him so early in the morning, and he called back using his cellular phone. "He immediately asked, 'Where are you, Hussain, at the moment? Are you far away or close to Dubai?' I told him I was [about eighteen miles outside Dubai], on my way to the office," Salim remembered. "Ayyoub said there was a very important matter to discuss. He said he wanted to inform me about it right away."

Ayyoub went on to say that he didn't wish to talk in his office and wanted to meet somewhere away from the bank. They agreed on a site -- a parking lot on the outskirts of the city. Salim arrived first and a few minutes later Ayyoub pulled up in his green Range Rover. Salim was still confused about the clandestine nature of this meeting when Ayyoub slipped into the passenger seat beside him.

Salim asked what was wrong. Ayyoub began by telling Salim that he had made a terrible mistake. He said he had fallen under the spell of an African man and had been transferring money to him abroad. "I was shocked," Salim recalled. "I asked, 'What is the amount? Is it ten million dirhams?'"

(The dirham is the currency of the United Arab Emirates. Ten million dirhams would be slightly more than $2.7 million.)

"More than that," Ayyoub replied. "It's a big amount."
"How much?" Salim asked again.
Ayyoub couldn't bring himself to say the number aloud and so took out a piece of paper, wrote on it, and passed it to Salim. There, on a four-inch-square scrap, Ayyoub had written the figure in ballpoint pen: 891 million dirhams.

Approximately $242 million.
Salim could not believe his eyes. Ayyoub anxiously explained that he was trying to figure out a way to get the money back but he had been unable to reach the African man. He told Salim that auditors from the United Arab Emirates' Central Bank -- the country's main banking authority -- were conducting their annual audit and were asking questions about some of the wire transfers. He had stalled them, but they were becoming insistent.

"I asked how he had transferred so much money without approval or authorization," Salim later recalled. "Ayyoub said he had been under the influence of, or pressured by, the rich man to transfer the money." The rich man had told Ayyoub that he could make the money magically reappear whenever he wanted so Ayyoub shouldn't worry about forwarding him the funds. Ayyoub told Salim he had been trying to call the rich man for several days, to no avail. (The bank's telephone records would later show that as soon as government auditors began their review, Ayyoub dialed the man's phone number in Africa more than 150 times over several days.)

Ayyoub was hoping Salim might have a suggestion about what to do, but Salim was dumbfounded. "I did not know what to tell him or what to think," Salim testified in a subsequent affidavit. "So much money transferred with no authority. I thought, maybe the bank is sinking." After the two men parted, Salim drove to the home of the bank's chairman, Saeed bin Ahmed Lootah. "I was not sure how to start. What to say?" Salim remembered. "I told him the story. He was incredulous. 'What? Ayyoub did that? What's the amount? When did it happen? Why did he do it?'"

Other officers of the privately owned bank were called to Lootah's home. "The general reaction of all the people at the chairman's house was shock," Salim added. Ayyoub was then summoned and he repeated his story. This time, however, Ayyoub divulged the name of the rich African.

He said the man's name was Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko.
He called him Baba.

Miami's mystery man may be a mystery no longer. For more than a year Baba Sissoko charmed South Floridians with his lavish spending and calculated acts of charity. He bought condos on Brickell Key, purchased dozens of luxury automobiles in South Dade, and spent millions in the shops and boutiques of Bal Harbour. He gave $300,000 to Miami Central High School so its marching band could attend the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, donated $1.2 million to Camillus House, and once tipped a masseuse $10,000.

He did all of this while fighting a nasty legal battle with the U.S. Attorney's Office over his arrest for attempting to bribe a Customs agent who was holding up the transfer of helicopters from Miami to the tiny African nation of Gambia. Eventually he pleaded guilty to paying an illegal gratuity, spent 43 days in jail, and several weeks under house arrest before being deported this past November. His exploits were chronicled by local and national media, including New Times, which published three stories about him between September and November 1997.

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