...it’s a witch hunt – legal experts.
Widespread condemnation and allegations of possible witch hunt have continued to trail the ‘indictment’ of Chief Allen Onyema, CEO of West Africa’s largest airline, Air Peace and the airline’s head of finance and administration, Ejiroghene Eghagha, over an alleged fraud indictment by the United States Department of Justice, with many pointing out that the issues surrounding the indictment appear suspicious.
The US Justice Department, it would be recalled, had in a statement on Friday, said it had indicted the duo over what it called multiple charges of money laundering and bank fraud to the tune of over $20 million.
The US agency had alleged that Onyema and Eghagha committed aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.
The agency, pointed out, however, that the indictment only contained charges and the accused remain innocent until proven otherwise by the court.
Subsequently, it moved to forfeit Onyema’s $14 million in his US bank accounts. Court documents showed that already, $4,017,852.51 had been seized from JP Morgan Chase Bank held in the name of Springfield Aviation Company, LLC.
Other funds that may be forfeited are $4,593,842.05 held in Bank of Montreal in the name of Springfield Aviation and $5,634,842.04 also held in Bank of Montreal in the name of Bluestream Aero Services.
Yet in a related move which many have described as an overdrive, the US government issued a warrant for Onyema to be taken into custody.
The warrant was signed by an American magistrate of the US District Court of the Northern District of Georgia, Justin Anand, on November 19, authorising the US Marshals Service to take Onyema into custody.
However, Onyema has vehemently denied the allegations and vowed to appeal against the charges.
In a statement on Saturday, the Air Peace CEO said he never involved himself in any illegal dealings in the US or elsewhere.
“As the press statement clearly stated, these are indictment that only contains charges. I am innocent of all charges and the US government will find no dirt on me because I have never conducted business with any illegalities,” he said.
“Be rest assured that I also have my lawyers on this and these mere allegations will be refuted. I never laundered money in my life, neither have I committed bank fraud anywhere in the world. Every kobo I transferred to the US for aircraft purchase went through the Central Bank of Nigeria LC regime and all were used for the same purpose.
“The American companies that received the funds are still in business. I never took a penny from any US bank or Nigerian bank. I am willing to defend my innocence in the US courts,” Onyema stated.
Many legal experts and opinion leaders have continued to pick holes in the alleged indictment, even as many have continued to call on the Nigerian government to do all it can to protect the Air Peace boss against what they say might be an attempt to tarnish the image of the country and run down a Nigerian business that has continued to make global impact.
“There are grounds to question this sudden indictment of a Nigerian who has been doing business for decades in the US, and for many years he has never been found wanting,” noted Barrister Oladotun Hassan, Secretary Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Lekki branch and president, Yoruba Council of Youths Worldwide.
“It raises fundamental questions. I worry about the timing too. And it’s not surprising that there is growing suspicion of many Nigerians over the motive behind targeting our own distinguished Onyema.”
Hassan who is also the secretary general of the Nigerian Ethnic Nationality Youth Leaders Forum (NENLF), had in a statement on Saturday, jointly signed by Alhaji Yerima Shetimma, chairman of group and president, Arewa Consultative Youth Forum; Mazi Okechukwu Isiguzoro, deputy chairman and president, Ohaneze Ndigbo Youth Council Worldwide as well as Barrister Pereotubo Oweilaemi, the group’s publicity Secretary and president, the Ijaw Youth Council Worldwide, threw their weight behind the Air Peace boss, alleging that the indictment was an attempt to destroy one of Nigeria’s finest.
“We have been following with keen interest the conflicting narratives coming out of the United States regarding the purported indictment of Nigeria’s foremost philanthropist, Mr. Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyeama,” they had said in the statement.
“As law-abiding citizens, we recognize the involvement of the US Court and would not want to take a prejudicial stand on the matter. But much as we appreciate the involvement of Judiciary through the Office of the US Attorney, we feel there is compelling reason to question this sudden purported indictment of a Nigerian who has been doing business for decades in the US, and for many years he has never been found wanting until now. This raises fundamental questions about the bad timing and the growing suspicion of many Nigerians over the motive behind targeting our own distinguished Allen Ifechukwu Onyeama: a detribalized Nigerian par excellence.
“We are beginning to see a pattern that portends or smacks of a conspiracy by his business rivals in Nigeria, working together with their American and other foreign collaborators to rubbish one of the few outstanding philanthropists in Nigeria.”
The coalition also said Onyema has over the years built a reputation as a promoter of peace and a hard working man, and cannot be allowed to be dragged in the mud by what they called a “conspiracy.”
“It smacks of a grand conspiracy to see how the man is being prejudicially molested, pushed and pulled in many directions with accusations yet to be determined via a fair hearing trial by any court of competent jurisdiction in his fatherland, much less that of the United States.
“It is on record that Onyeama’s multiple investments in Nigeria have been helpful not only as windows of job opportunities for Nigerians from diverse backgrounds but his philanthropic gesture is seen as a classical example of excellence and humanitarian service via Corporate Social Responsibility.
They consequently condemned what they called an “ongoing media trial” of the Air Peace boss, noting that it was unfortunate given that the indictment was never a conviction but a mere allegation, while emphasising that much as Nigerians will not object to a legal action by any court in world, “we will never, ever fold our arms akimbo and watch helplessnessly and hopelessly as one of our finest is being coerced and pulled down in broad daylight, without an iota of any subsisting clear evidence from a joint investigation between the US law enforcement agencies and their Nigeria counterparts to determine the veracity of the claims before unleashing this dreadful move, deliberately aimed at tainting the image of Onyeama.”
Across social media, Nigerians have continued to question the indictment. Allegations of conspiracy are rife.
“Hope they have also indicted Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim for fraud and money laundering?” queried journalist and social media commentator, Simon Utsu.
“This guy has spent over 1 billion USD to purchase airplanes from Boeing. This is a non issue to me. These monies have passed through a maze of channels over the years. So there’s a chance of rules being bent along the line. Same way the British had issues with Roman Abramovich two years ago. His visa issuance was delayed and it took Israel offering him citizenship to make the Brits use their heads. He would have simply abandoned England for another country and moved along with his investment portfolio.
“I know the United States are ruing their losses after the cancellation of operations and production of Boeing’s 737 max aircraft in the aftermath of the fatal Ethiopian airlines crash earlier this year.
“I understand all pre-orders were cancelled including those made by Air Peace. This should have led to losses in tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars. I may be wrong, I may sound paranoid but this could be their way of bullying him into forfeiting the monies he deposited while making the pre-order, so their losses are reduced.
“They claimed they had dirt on him since 2010 but kept allowing him into their country to make huge purchases year in year out and only came out with this news when Boeing had her worst year ever in a long time?” he wondered.
In his own remarks, former Aviation Minister, Femi Fani-Kayode pointed out that Onyema is a profoundly good man and not a rogue or a fraudster.
”An indictment is not a conviction until proven by a law court. I have no doubt that he will weather this storm and will be vindicated in the end,” the ex-minister said.
Banker and aviation finance expert, Ikenga Ezenwegbu, also noted in his own submission, that the issues may simply have to do with possible structuring of payment, while not ruling out a witch hunt as according to him, the expansion of Air Peace is a threat to Western airlines.
“He probably didn’t use good US aviation experts in structuring purchases and payment for other things,” he said. “The indictment clearly states that monies were received via letters of credit into his various accounts offshore in the US and he appropriated those funds as he decided. That’s money laundering in the US.
“The flip side is to find out if he is not servicing the loans obtained here from where those funds were transferred as LCs.
“It’s like collecting a loan from a Nigeria bank for buying a big bus in the US and receiving money into your accounts in the US which you claimed were the agents and eventually deciding to utilize the funds to pay for four leased buses, tyres and spare-parts. He is not being accused of stealing or wire fraud. His CFO who is also indicted, allegedly played a role in the transaction, meaning that it was a company act. Most Nigerian bank customers feel that if they disclose all, the banks might not approve the loans.
“With a good lawyer, he will settle for a plea bargain, pay and move on. I assume that all the money in question came from Nigerian banks. What is being queried is the mode of handling of the money into US bank accounts belonging to him which borders on Money Laundering. Trust me, the US will make him forfeit some money in the listed accounts.
“Proof of intention will play a huge role to attenuate the weight of the act. If USA colonizes Nigeria today, almost all our business men and women, including US businesses operating in Nigeria, would be in Kirikiri.
“I have been overseeing the Aviation Finance department in a bank for over 11 years and I can tell you of the intrigues beyond what is writable on social media. It is serious. Once you misdeal, your sins would be splashed in your front so as to whip you into line.
“Air Peace’s international expansion is a threat to western airlines. But Allen played into this. He should have used seasoned US aviation consultants who would have received these funds, baptized them and made them holy for use in the western world. But this comes at a fee. He obviously was trying to save costs.
”He should go for the best US aviation and financial crimes lawyers and a couple of high profile US lobbyists to now bargain for a soft landing.
“This is where perceptible countries fight for national interest. The Nigerian Government should weigh in here or all of us will start traveling by road. I won’t be surprised if they don’t.”
Similarly, Mike Umealo, a public affairs commentator and president, LBMM Message and Media Ltd, pointed out that the indictment very likely has to do with Onyema not paying necessary taxes to the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
“The ‘fraud’ indictment of the Air Peace Chairman is as a result of issues with the IRS of the US government.That is the extent which the ‘fraud indictment,’ covers.
“At the end of the day, he may actually be in the clear after paying whatever his tax obligation may be. Many US firms often go through such conflated conflagration.
“The current US president is currently at the Supreme Court of the United States fighting to keep his tax documents secret. If the Supreme Court of the United States, SCOTUS rules against him, he will most likely resign and negotiate a way out to avoid incarceration.
“Whatever happens, know that the Air Peace Boss is a Black African; a billionaire black man contributing to humanity will always be a global risk. Perhaps you don’t understand. But if you make little effort, you will understand that this is more like “targeting loopholes” than discovery of “concentrated fraud.”
“This situation was not created by his enemies in Nigeria; IRS don’t work with Nigeria or with Nigerian whistleblowers.
“Interestingly, investigation is still ongoing. The funds didn’t come from US banks. The funds came from Nigeria and when you move funds between US banks, it is usually suspected to be “attempt at dodging certain levies” considering the name “Nigeria.”
“Sometimes the banks will write you and invite you for an interview. A busy foreign based business man with bank domains in the US may not always meet up the dates and times of his appointment. If this happens, his transactions are turned over to authorities. The blood of IRS is money!
“Nothing more than that. It is not as if he defrauded any US bank or any other entity. Air Peace is a legitimate enterprise.”
In the mean time, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on Saturday, raised a ”special panel” to investigate the charges against the Air Peace CEO.