Although lawyers to Air Peace Chairman, Chief Allen Onyema and the international airliner’s chief of administration and finance, Mrs. Ejiroghene Eghagha, said in a statement Saturday morning that Onyema and Eghagha were willing to prove their innocence in court, the standing view in Aso Rock is that the charges of bank fraud and money laundering and aggravated identity theft brought by the US District Attorney in Atlanta against the Air Peace chiefs was a conspiracy designed to put a blight on the toga of Nigeria’s international image and cause considerable embarrassment to the country’s leaders.
To which end, a source at the Villa told Huhuonline.com that at the direct instructions of President Muhammadu Buhari, the federal will not honor any request by the US government to extradite Onyema and Eghagha to the United States to stand trial; despite the extradition and mutual legal assistance treaty between Abuja and Washington DC. The source said, news of the indictment and the arrest warrants issued against Onyema and Eghagha infuriated the President who reportedly ordered the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN), not to even contemplate any such request to transfer Onyema to the USA.
“Onyema is an honest, hard-working philanthropist who represents what is best about Nigeria. He has a very generous and big heart as we saw during the xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa when he transported Nigerians back home free of charge. Now they are trying to destroy him with bogus and frivolous charges of fraud and money laundering even though all the money he transferred to his accounts abroad passed through the CBN. They did not even pretend to hide their plot as they have gone ahead and seized over $14 million from his accounts without hearing from Onyema and before trial has begun. What happened to the rule of law and due process which they like to lecture Africans,” the source quoted Buhari as saying. Continuing, the source said Buhari saw the seizure of the funds as a sinister plot to destroy Air Peace and compared it to the P&ID $9.6 billion judgment debt scam against Nigeria, and vowed to fight it.
In his first official reaction to the indictment, the AGF said the US government had neither officially communicated Onyema’s indictment to Nigeria nor requested his arrest or extradition based on the mutual legal assistance agreement on criminal matters between the two countries. “We have not received any request from the United States based on existing Mutual Legal Assistance between both countries,” the AGF stated. Asked whether Nigeria would accede to a such request if received, Malami said, “It would be subjected to justifiable, objective legal analysis and review to evaluate the evidence, just like any other such request based on MLA between Nigeria and United States,” he declared.
The AGF’s comments came after Onyema denied the allegations against him, describing them as strange and unfounded. A statement by his solicitors, AO Alegeh & Co. Legal Practitioners, denied all the allegations and vowed that their client would defend himself against all allegations in the court of law.
Eghagha, who was charged alongside Onyema, has also vowed to defend herself against the fraud charges, insisting they are untrue.
According to the statement by Onyema’s lawyer, “We hereby state that he (Onyema) 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 lawyers also noted that 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.”
The US authorities have already frozen about $14.2 million in different bank accounts linked to companies registered by Onyema. Some bank accounts linked to Air Peace in the US and Canada have been frozen with their substantial balances as part of the investigation. Nigerian Justice Ministry sources expressed consternation that US law enforcement authorities indicated in the indictment document that efforts had commenced to secure final forfeiture of the funds, even when trial had not begun.
Onyema has personally denied the allegations, saying they were contrary to his character as a person and as a businessman. “I can confirm to you that all allegations are false and are in no way in line with my character as a person and as a business man whose only aim has been to build Nigeria and improve wellbeing… 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. 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.”
The US Department of Justice had on Friday stated in a statement signed by US Attorney Byung J Pak, alleged that: “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 allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud. We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”
The Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division, Robert J. Murphy, while commenting on the indictments, also stated, “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.”
Similarly, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office, Thomas J. Holloman, said, “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. 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.”
On his part, Special Agent in Charge, Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama, said, “Onyema set up various innocent sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam. 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 US Attorney Pak, “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.
But Aso Rock sources quoted Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari as telling the president that charges against Onyema were spurious, baseless and entirely without merit. The standing view in the Villa is that the AGF should stonewall any efforts by the US government to get Onyema extradited to America where he would be humiliated and treated like an ordinary criminal. A source quoted Kyari as directing the AGF to adopt the same stone-walling tactics that stymied efforts by the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, to extradite Senator Kashamu Buruji to the United States over drug related offences. That case engendered legal fireworks between both parties because the treaty under which the NDLEA was seeking to extradite Senator Kashamu dates back to 1931 when Nigeria was still a British colony.
Sources close to the AGF told Huhuonline.com that the FG will be looking at previous extradition cases to establish starre decisis (respect for precedent). A case of significance involved one George Chidebe Udeozor who was charged with the offences of conspiracy to commit involuntary servitude, harbor an illegal alien, and encourage an illegal alien to come to, enter and reside in the USA. Also, Udeozor was accused of involuntary servitude and harboring an illegal alien for financial gain at the US District of Maryland. The request was made by the diplomatic representative of the Embassy of the United States of America Abuja, for Udeozor’s surrender. In an appeal filed before the Court of Appeal in Lagos against the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which lead judgement was delivered on June 9, 2004 by Justice Dongban Mensem, the issue of the extradition treaty between Nigeria and USA was one of the four grounds of appeal. In that case, Udeozor said there was no treaty but the court affirmed the treaty’s existence because it has become part of Nigerians laws.
According to the second ground of appeal in the case, Udeozor said the trial Judge erred in law “when he held that the word “may” as used in section 20 of the Extradition Act was permissive and not mandatory and that the section applies only to commonwealth countries which America is not part of.”
Dwelling on the issue of who has power to grant or make orders as regards extradition request, the court held that: “Section 20 actually reposes the responsibility and powers to ascertain the conditions for acceding to an extradition request on the Attorney-General not on the Court. “By the provisions of the Act, the Hon. Attorney-General, who is the Chief Legal Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, has the discretion to exercise the power. Once he has ascertained that there exists an offence which falls within the Extradition Act, and he so orders, the duty of the court is delineated, the court is circumscribed to not question the exercise of discretion by the Hon. Attorney-General.
“Only upon cogent and compelling reasons challenging the proper exercise of such powers may the court inquire into the manner of its exercise. The powers of the Attorney-General in this issue is similar in extent as when the Hon. Attorney-General initiates a criminal proceedings or enters a nolle prosequi in a criminal matter. The court does not question that exercise.” The court noted that the general rule is that extraditable crimes must be those commonly recognised as malum in se (acts criminal by their very nature) and not those which are malum prohibitum (acts made crimes by statute).
Explaining the interpretation of section 6 (1) and (2) of the Extradition Act, the court stated that it is the duty of the Attorney-General to receive the request for the surrender of a fugitive criminal in Nigeria, adding that Section 6 (2) of the Act reposes the discretion in the Attorney-General to signify to the court that such a request has been made and he does that only after he satisfies himself on the basis of the information accompanying the request, that the provisions of section 3 (1-7) are met.
“Nothing in the Act gives the court the powers to question the discretion of the Hon. Attorney-General in those matters. In the absence of any serious challenge to the proper exercise of discretion by the Hon. Attorney-General for the Federation, the Court must uphold the official integrity of the Hon. Attorney-General, and presume that he carried out his duties as prescribed by section 6(1) and (2) of the Act,” the court maintained.
It is obvious that Onyema and Eghagha will not be travelling to the USA anytime soon and they will most likely be represented by their attorneys once the case goes to trial.