All seems not to be over for businessman and CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema over fraudulent charges levelled against him as the United States Department of Justice has alleged that billions of naira stolen from the Presidential Amnesty Programme by a former head of the office, Mr. Kingsley Kuku, were transferred to bank accounts in the United States where they were laundered and used to purchase airplanes to start Air Peace as well as luxury homes and vehicles.
The United States government describes Mr. Onyema as Kuku’s business partner, who laundered at least $44m through US bank accounts.
In November last year, the United States DOJ in a statement announced Mr. Onyema’s indictment and charge for 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.It also said the airline’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, was charged with bank fraud and committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.
The US DOJ which has been conducting a discreet investigation into Kuku and Air Peace, 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.”
Kuku served as Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta Affairs and was Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Office under President Goodluck Jonathan, who served from 2010-2015. Coincidentally,he was deported from the United States last year by the Department of Homeland Security over immigration fraud.
Air Peace, which was launched in 2013, is Nigeria’s largest carrier with a fleet size of about 23 airplanes.
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.”
“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, 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.
It was reported that early 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.
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, the DOJ said.
“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.”
Onyema established Air Peace Limited in 2013, and by the end of 2018, it had gained the largest share in Nigeria’s domestic air travel, according to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
The airline also recorded tremendous breakthrough in foreign travels, flying to more countries in Asia, Europe and Africa than any other Nigerian commercial flights operator.
Earlier this year, the company announced it was expanding both its fleet and destinations, which would include Atlanta and Houston, and effectively asserted its place as a blue-chip entity in the Nigerian aviation industry.
There have been allegations that the man behind the thriving airline had been involved in multiple layers of sharp practices spanning several years in the United States.
Within hours after the indictment was made public, Mr Onyema released a statement pushing back strongly against the charges. He said he would vigorously defend his honour in court, but did not indicate whether or not he would be heading to the United States soon.
However, he briefly addressed how he raised funds to start Air Peace in an April 2017 interview with City People, an entertainment weekly based in Lagos.
In the interview, Onyema denied being a front for former first lady,Patience Jonathan. According to him,he had never met her in his life.
A graduate of law from University of Ibadan. He moved to Lagos in 1990 and initially joined a law firm, where he worked for a few years before going into real estate.
It was in real estate that he said he became fortunate from selling lands in Lekki and other priced areas in the Nigerian commercial capital.
“By 2008, I was receiving about 18 per cent interest on my deposits. I was building estates from interest alone,” he told City People.
He said it was in 2008 that he discussed launching Air Peace with his wife, and getting a licence for the airline took several years with exhaustive efforts.
“I brought my finances into it (Air Peace) while getting support from the banks too,” Mr Onyema told the magazine.
“When I had gone halfway with the acquisition of my aircraft, I discovered that it was more than I thought. So I borrowed money from the banks.
“Fidelity Bank is there for anyone who cares to see. I pay the bank daily from sales. It is automatic,” Mr Onyema said.
Since then, Mr Onyema said Air Peace has become so successful that commercial banks can no longer pass on any opportunity to do business with it, even as he emphasised that the company was whole owned by him.
“I have integrity and every bank that knows my pedigree like Fidelity would readily do business with me,” Mr Onyema said. “I equally borrowed from Zenith but not as much as I did with Fidelity. This is how I set up my airline. For the record, I own Air Peace 100 per cent.”