Nigeria: Allen Onyema, CEO of Air Peace, chased by US justice
Allen Onyema is a national hero who repatriated at his own expense hundreds of Nigerians who had been victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Now, the founder of one of Nigeria's leading airlines is accused of money laundering by US courts.
“Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud. Onyema set up various innocent-sounding multi-million-dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.”
These are the words of Robert J. Murphy, an investigator with the Atlanta, Georgia, division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), after the indictment for fraud and money laundering on 22 November of Air Peace CEO Allen Onyema.
Onyema, so far the embodiment of the self-made-man, is suspected of having laundered more than $20m when buying Boeing 737s in the United States. According to American law enforcement, he bought the planes in question with funds from the accounts of several NGOs belonging to him.
“Unfounded and strange allegations”
Onyema immediately rejected these accusations. “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, recalling that all transfers had been made through the Central Bank of Nigeria. “These allegations are unfounded and strange,” insisted A.O. Alegeh & Co, counsel for Onyema, adding that their client “is waiting [to] be able to refute them in court”.
On social networks, the hashtag #IStandWithAllen, with supporting photos, has spread.
And for good reason. Since September, the 55-year-old CEO, who is often seen sporting the traditional Igbo red hat, has been a national hero. He did not hesitate to mobilise his planes at his own expense to repatriate hundreds of his fellow countrymen who were victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
Onyema refused to accept the destiny of becoming a local Shell employee
Prior to this, Allen Onyema was known for his company’s instant success, reflecting his spectacular personal rise.
Born in Anambra State, in southeastern Nigeria, Onyema, the youngest of nine siblings, refused to accept the destiny of following in his parents’ footsteps and becoming a local Shell employee. “I wanted to be free. I felt that by staying in Warri [one of the cities where he grew up], I could not escape family pressure,” he told the Nigerian press.
He became a lawyer in 1989 and the following year moved to Lagos, where he practised for a few years while investing in real estate. He then opened his own legal practice and developed other business activities.
At the beginning of the decade, he won various contracts as part of the amnesty programme set up by Presidents Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan.
To stop attacks on oil infrastructure by Niger Delta militants, the authorities promised compensation and jobs to rebels who would lay down their arms. Peace was good for business, and Onyema knew how to make the most of it.
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A giant with feet of clay
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In 2013, Air Peace was born. The company benefited from the growth of the sector and the chronic difficulties of its competitors, including Arik Air. In a few years, Air Peace had increased the number of flights (national and regional), bought more than 20 aircraft and employed some 500 people.
In November 2019, the airline announced the launch of international routes to Dubai, London and Houston, among others, while being the first African company to order the latest E195 jet from Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.
Too good to be true?
Before the action of the American courts, signals of weakness had already appeared.
In an open letter published in 2014, Niger Delta activist Diepreye Dikibo accused Kingsley Kuku, former adviser to President Jonathan on the amnesty programme, and Onyema, then a consultant on the project, of using public funds to launch Air Peace.
Rumours even suggested that the first lady, Patience Jonathan, nicknamed Mama Peace, was the true owner of the company.
Risk of extradition?
Onyema dismissed these charges, claiming to be the sole owner of Air Peace, whose aircraft bear the names of his children and his wife. But four years later another doubt surfaced. “I am surprised that such a small company has $1.17bn to buy ten 737 MAX at once,” American aviation journalist Enrique Perrella tweeted in 2018 after the signing of a contract with Boeing was announced.
It provoked the ire of Nigerian internet users, but no answer from Allen Onyema.
Will his new worries bring down Air Peace?
Does the patriotic and devoutly Christian entrepreneur risk extradition to the United States?
“The accused is presumed innocent,” the US courts recall. But for Onyema, the skies are getting darker.
“Commercial aviation is a turbulent business in Africa,” he said philosophically in 2015.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.