Allen Onyema

When in September, in the wake of Xenophobic attacks on Nigerians, Air Peace Limited Chairman, Allen Onyema volunteered to fly Nigerians in South Africa back home, the entire nation was awash with his praise. Nigerians were being brutalised and killed by savage South Africans. There was uproar in the land and a ‘Good Samaritan’ offered to help. Onyema was dubbed a hero.

He had told Nigerians that the venture he intended venturing into would cost his airline a whopping N280 million. He kept to his words and did evacuate stranded Nigerians in South Africa back home without charging a penny. Since then, the name of the Air Peace boss has been on the lips of most Nigerians. That singular act helped his airline and image to soar internationally.

The House of Representatives even recommended Onyema for National Award for evacuating stranded Nigerians in South Africa during the xenophobic attacks. The motion was moved by Abdulrazak Namdas (APC-Adamawa) which was unanimously adopted at the plenary.

Namdas had said that the Air Peace boss evacuated Nigerians in danger in South Africa for free. Namdas also added that none of the affected Nigerians was directly related to Onyema, saying that he acted purely on love for his compatriot.

Speaker of the House,  Femi Gbajabiamila had said Onyema was one Nigerian that stood up in the face of xenophobic attacks to ensure that stranded Nigerians were reunited with their families. He said Onyema was one among many men who used his planes to bring back Nigerians facing imminent danger in South Africa.

“First, it was 178 persons, then 320; I am aware that another Airbus has gone to bring more Nigerians home. Onyema had done this even at a ‘loss’ and at great personal cost; this is a great feat for commendation. We thank and commend you, we urge all Nigerians to emulate this conduct Onyema has displayed,” Gbajabiamila had said in September.

But now, the pendulum seems to have changed. Is the Nigerian hero becoming a villain so soon? Many were shocked, bewildered and traumatised when the U.S Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office Northern District of Georgia on Friday, 22 November, 2019 accused Onyema of money laundering, bank fraud and financial scams. The US indicated that Onyema, along with his airline’s Chief of administration and finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha has been charged to court, implying that they may have been arrested in the US.

“Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, 56, of Lagos, Nigeria, and Ejiroghene Eghagha, 37, of Lagos, Nigeria, were indicted on November 19, 2019, on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud, and three counts of credit application fraud. Additionally, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, and Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft,” a statement from the US said.

Onyema and Eghagha were accused of moving more than $20 million from Nigeria through US banks in a scheme ‘involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes”. The two Air Peace chiefs were investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Commerce, and Department of Treasury.

Onyema and Eghagha

Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Garrett L. Bradford, Deputy Chief of the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section and Lead Strike Force Attorney, Irina K. Dutcher, and Christopher J. Huber, Deputy Chief of the Complex Frauds Section, are prosecuting the case, with assistance from the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section and Office of International Affairs.

Here is the full indictment as released Friday in Atlanta:

Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, the Chairman, CEO, and founder of Air Peace, a Nigerian airline, has been charged with bank fraud and money laundering for moving more than $20 million from Nigeria through United States bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes.

The international airline’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, has also been charged with bank fraud and committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.

Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.

“We will diligently protect the integrity our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”

Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division commented on the indictment, “Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud. He corrupted the U.S. banking system, but his trail of deceit and trickery came to a skidding halt. DEA would like to thank the many law enforcement partners and the subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”

“This case is a prime example of why IRS-CI seeks to partner and leverage its expertise in an effort to thwart those seeking to exploit our nation’s financial system,” said Thomas J. Holloman, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office. “With the importance of our banking system to the movement of money around the world, those attempting to use intricate schemes to commit bank fraud through the use of falsified documents and other means should know that the odds are now heavily stacked against them as law enforcement is combining its talents to protect the sanctity and integrity of the nation’s financial system.”

Air Peace

“Onyema setup various innocent sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam,” said acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama. “I’m proud to be part of a team of law enforcement agencies that come together to identify and attack criminals that attempt to profit from the exploitation of our nation’s financial systems.”

According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment, and other information presented in court: Onyema, a Nigerian citizen and businessman, is the founder and Chairman of several organizations that purport to promote peace across Nigeria, including the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, and All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited.

Beginning in 2010, Onyema began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts. Between 2010 and 2018, over $44.9 million was allegedly transferred into his Atlanta-based accounts from foreign sources.

Onyema is also the CEO and Chairman of Nigerian airline Air Peace, which he founded in 2013. In years following the founding of Air Peace, he traveled to the United States and purchased multiple airplanes for the airline. However, over $3 million of the funds used to purchase the aircraft allegedly came from bank accounts for Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited, and Every Child Limited.

Beginning in approximately May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million into Atlanta-based bank accounts controlled by Onyema. The letters of credit were purportedly to fund the purchase of five separate Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace. The letters were supported by documents such as purchase agreements, bills of sale, and appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.

However, the supporting documents were fake — Springfield Aviation Company LLC, which is owned by Onyema and managed by a person with no connection to the aviation business, never owned the aircraft, and the company that allegedly drafted the appraisals did not exist. Eghagha allegedly participated in this scheme as well, directing the Springfield Aviation manager to sign and send false documents to banks and even using the manager’s identity to further the fraud. After Onyema received the money in the United States, he allegedly laundered over $16 million of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts.

Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, 56, of Lagos, Nigeria, and Ejiroghene Eghagha, 37, of Lagos, Nigeria, were indicted on November 19, 2019, on one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, three counts of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit credit application fraud, and three counts of credit application fraud. Additionally, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, and Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft.

Members of the public are reminded that the indictment only contains charges. The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial”

Onyema’s defence

Reacting to the allegations, Onyema’s counsel, A.0. Alegeh said the allegations against his client were false and unfounded.

“On behalf of Allen Onyema, we hereby state that he strongly denies and will vigorously defend himself against the allegations made against him by the US Attorney in Atlanta, Georgia in relation to purchase of Aircraft, Aircraft spares and Aircraft maintenance.

“None of the allegations involve any third party funds but relate to his funds utilized in the Airline business. There is no allegation that any Bank [in the United States, Nigeria or elsewhere], Company or individual suffered any financial or any loss whatsoever.

“The allegations are unfounded and strange to him. Allen Onyema has a track record built on honesty and integrity and will take all necessary steps to clear his good name and hard earned reputation. He looks forward to an opportunity to rebut these allegations in Court,” he said.

On the allegations against Mrs Ejiro Eghagha, Air Peace’s Executive Director, Alegeh said they were false.

“On behalf of Mrs Ejiro Eghagha, we hereby state that she strongly denies and will vigorously defend herself against the allegations made against her by the US Attorney in Atlanta, Georgia in relation to purchase of Aircraft, Aircraft spares and Aircraft maintenance for her employer.

“None of the allegations involve any third party funds but relate to funds belonging to her employer and utilized in the Airline business. There is no allegation that any Bank [in the United States, Nigeria or elsewhere], Company or individual suffered any financial or any loss whatsoever.

“The allegations are unfounded and strange to her. Mrs Ejiro Eghagha has built her reputation as a seasoned, honest and responsible person and will take all necessary steps to clear her good name and hard earned reputation. She looks forward to an opportunity to rebut these allegations in Court,” he added.

Nigerians react

Nigerians have started reacting to the allegations indicting Onyema of fraud.

One of such people was former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, who defended Onyema, saying he is not a rogue or a fraudster.

Fani-Kayode defended Onyema

Fani-Kayode said the an indictment was not a conviction and that an allegation remained a mere allegation until it was proven in a court of law.

He wrote on his twitter handle: “An indictment is not a conviction. An allegation remains a mere allegation until it is proven in a court of law.

“Allen Onyema is not a rogue or a fraudster. He is a profoundly good man and a patriot. I have no doubt that he will weather this storm and that he will be vindicated.”

Also, the Nigerian Ethnic Nationality Youth Leaders Forum (NENYLF) had warned that nothing must happen to Onyema. The coalition also accused business rivals of Onyema of collaborating with some people in the United States government to harass the businessman whom they called one of the finest in Nigeria.

The coalition consists of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF), the Ohanaeze Ndigbo Youth Council Worldwide, the Yoruba Council of Youths Worldwide and the Ijaw Council Worldwide.

Yerima Shettima: Leave Onyema alone

A joint statement signed by their various Presidents, Yerima Shettima, Mazi Okechukwu Isiguzoro, Aremo Oladotun Hassan, and Barrister Pereotubo Oweilaemi, respectively, said they would no longer fold their arms and watch individuals with passion to rescue Nigeria brought down through allegations like the one currently being suffered by Onyema who had, for long, done business with the US.

Some analysts were of the view that Onyema was being persecuted because of his rising profile and that he might be a victim of international politics. But Onyema has to prove his innocence, to let the world know that he is untainted and incorruptible or within a short time he will move from grace to grass and from a hero to  a villain.