TRUTH be told, recent developments around the financial and aviation industry smack off a smear on Allen Onyema and his Air Peace airline. The avalanche of unclear news bits on the corporation’s recent acquisition of five aeroplanes strikes many like a bolt from the blues.
While those who bandy the information seem to allege graft because they hear it said elsewhere, those who offer some things that they pass as explanation still come across to pundits as still begging the question, those who crave coherent narratives receive reports that confuse them more. Many are not really amused at the obtuse and confounding nature of the communication.
The reports appear to be planted to make the lay man circumguess rather than understand the issues at stake. Worse of the situation is that some now invent their own meanings on the matter.
Therefore, many are at loss over what really happened; what it means; where it all emanated from and where the whole spin is heading to. They wonder how the talebearers plan to convince them and make the narrative fit the image and conduct of the person allegedly involved.
Beyond society’s worries over the befuddling of the matter, there are some major issues of concern that heighten people’s anxiety, prompting such questions as: why this? Why him? Why now? Sure, there are a lot of ‘whys’ which only a critical probe will unearth.
Given Chief Onyema’s somewhat distant-from-public-glare profile hitherto, prying into his background to get clues to unraveling the ‘whys’ may be difficult. Similarly, being of reserved personality, seldom at parties and rave-report celebrity events not much can be scooped from his social contacts.
But there is enough knowledge of his very humble background and very grassroots oriented personality.
Onyema, 56, a Nigerian legal practitioner and entrepreneur, owns Peace Airline, a frontline operator in Nigeria’s aviation industry which has, within the last six years shouldered so many responsibilities illustriously that it could arguably be said to have blazed a trail in the sector.
Notwithstanding Air Peace’s impressive performance in her local and international routes since 2013, the airline recently expanded into hitherto some plumo routes as well as local ones. In the third quarter of this year, the airline bought five new Boeing 737 aeroplanes to boost its fleet.
As a corporation, the airline took the passionate corporate service nature of its chief executive officer, Onyema, who is a philanthropist, peace promoter and front man of several charities. Last month, at the height of xenophobic killings in South Africa in which Nigerians in the country were among prime targets, the firm showed its deep root in corporate social responsibility activities.
While the massive killings of other Africans and plundering of foreigners’ businesses raged in South Africa and some Nigerians were stranded in the bloodletting frenzy of wild and heady Johannesburg without hope of rescue, Air Peace brought succour to them, free of charge.
The regime of free flights from South Africa to Nigeria and return cost the Lagos-based Peace Airline several billions of naira that at one instance of the evacuees, upon touch-down in Murtala Muhammed Airport,
Lagos, the Nigerian returnees burst into emotions and sang Nigeria’s anthem for Onyema who was on ground to receive them. The rescue Nigerians-stranded-in-South Africa gesture is so unique that National Assembly invited Onyema for recognition and moved that federal government should bestow a national honour on him.
The evacuation of Nigerians was only a recent CSR act of the firm whose record shows remarkable antecedence in sports philanthropy, education scholarship and community-support charity.
Added to these are the several not-for-profits initiatives which Onyema have been promoting or funding since 2010. Notable among them are the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development,
All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited, and Every Child Limited. Those bodies initiated at the period of heightened indigence, brigandage and activism against the Nigerian state in the Niger Delta area where the nation’s crude oil exploration was ebbed and the Boko Haram onslaught which badly challenged the country’s territorial integrity in the North East area set apart Onyema as a brave, very society-conscious entrepreneur.
Though it does appear that not many of his fellow entrepreneurs in Nigeria and across Africa as well as some in the corridors of power are very comfortable with his unconventional approach to operating big business (which I will be surprised if he does not sense that) he kept on using his enterprise to solve people’s problems directly.
In the last one decade, he has established his commitment to the missions of the organisation which is quest for peace and unity of all peoples of Nigeria irrespective of tribe or creed.
Hence, when the report emerged some days ago that Onyema is fingered in a $20m (twenty million USD) money laundering scheme in United States, one sought seriously to know what the crust of the matter was.
According to reports, United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, Onyema and Air Peace’s Head of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, were linked to bank record manipulation and identity theft.
Attorney Byung J. ‘BJay’ Pak was cited in a statement as claiming that Onyema used his status as a prominent business man and airline executive to tender false documents “to commit fraud” in the recent purchase of five Boeing aircrafts in the U.S.A.
Onyema, refutes the allegation. His point: “all transactions we carried out were through the Central Bank of Nigeria. The Air Peace CEO said all transactions were done through the Central Bank of Nigeria.”
Onyema emphasised that he has never laundered money in his life. Though observing that the claims are only allegations which the claimants are yet to prove or indict him or his firm, the CEO emphasised that he never committed any $20 million fraud in the U.S. as now being bandied.
Describing himself as a business man whose only aim remains to build Nigeria and improve the ordinary people’s wellbeing. In a recent press statement to clear his name, Onyema stated thus: “I am innocent of all charges and the US government will find no dirt on me because I have never conducted business with any illegality.”
He adds: “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 court.”
The issue appears to be the acquisition of the five Boeing 737 but when you pause and check again, you begin to sense it is about the charities linked to Onyema.
At another check, you notice the name of a U.S-based company, Springfield Aviation Company which is reportedly, not in operation, farther into the claims Onyema’s travels since 2013 were cited, they go ahead to cite the tracks of a certain $3m payment for some clients’ services in U.S. and an approximate $16m that allegedly passed through unclear routes.
The narrative becomes very convoluted from one paragraph of the attorney’s statement that one begins to wonder what is amiss. One thing evident in the text is that the purchase of aircrafts may not even be the misdemeanour after all. Yet, that is where they hang the flag of the said graft.
But the most ridiculous part of the allegations is the hue and cry about the sum, $20m. This is why: current price tag of the least Boieng 737 -700 according to the aircraft providers’ Statistica.com is about $90m. And that is not even the brand Air Peace procured. There is a Boeing 737- 9 which currently costs $442m.
So, this $20m in question, is it the cost of the tyres of the aeroplanes or what?
Are we made to believe that Onyema and his Air Peace were so in lack that they had to cut corners for $20m but they were able to buy five brand new Boeings? That, to me, is cheap argument unless there is more to it than explained.
And why is it that just within days of this cheap smear (what I call it) some local Nigerian airlines have emerged forcefully in some routes that Air Peace holds sway? One suspects some local and international collaboration in this ‘taint-him-anyhow’ plot.
Onyema’s lesson here is in the wise counsel of forest guides: in whatever you do, never stand between the mother bear and her child.
But Nigerians are watching the movie now, waiting to see how it will end. My word on the development is drawn from Willan Faulkner’s powerful sentence in the lead page of Chapter Two of Zig Ziglar’s book, ‘Better Than Good.” The wise man Faulkner urged, “listen to the voices.”