President Muhammadu Buhari has been urged to ensure that troubled Chairman & CEO of Air Peace Airline, Mr. Allen Onyema is given adequate support to secure his constitutional rights in his quest to clear his name against charges of money laundering and bank fraud levied by the United States Department of Justice.
Onyema was indicted by a grand injury for alleged $20 million fraud and money laundering. But he has vigorously denied the charges, saying: “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.”
Reacting to the indictment, Nzuko Umunna, an influential body of professionals of Igbo extraction warned that “The usual pattern of throwing our citizens under the bus whenever they are faced with charges in foreign jurisdictions must be reversed starting with this case. For once, the Federal Government should activate its much-touted citizen diplomacy, a model that has been elevated to a fine art by the United States itself.”
The association of influential technocrats spread across the globe expressed “shock and deep concern” on “the frenzy with which anti-graft agencies have already set up a ‘special panel’ that has swung into action even on a weekend to fish for evidence to convict a Nigerian citizen. With hindsight, the United States is not accustomed to such frenzy or even cooperation when their citizens are at the receiving end of these indictments in foreign jurisdictions.
It also tends to give vent to the conspiracy theory making the rounds that this is more of a grand design to liquidate another thriving Igbo business mogul than any attempt at combating alleged fraud. A similar fate was suffered by Messrs Cletus Ibeto, Ifeanyi Ubah, Willie Anumudu and Innocent Chukwuma of Innoson fame, to name a few. This is highly unacceptable in a nascent democracy with a very fragile economy.
“This view is also supported by the reported statement by the anti-graft agency that one of the banks that wired the funds through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) ‘has been on our radar for a while’ and was ‘implicated in the $115million poll bribery scam in 2015.’ This is a clear case of bias for which the agency ought to recuse itself entirely from the investigation.
“Even more reckless is the statement by the Personal Assistant to the President on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie who through her verified Twitter handle practically convicted Mr. Onyema even before he has had any opportunity to face the charges, contrary to the clear provisions of the 1999 Constitution which holds every citizen innocent until the contrary is proved. Onochie’s assertion that ‘American laws go after those who break them. What a man sows….’ is the height of insensitivity and recklessness.
“Given that she is a personal aide to Mr. President, there is an urgent need for The Presidency to clear the air on whether the Federal Government has already convicted Mr. Onyema of the charges even when Nigerians expect that he should be given full protection by the Buhari Administration especially given that he was only recently celebrated by all Nigerians for his patriotic role in airlifting stranded Nigerians out of South Africa at the peak of xenophobic attacks and recommended for national honours by the National Assembly as a model in patriotism.”
Nzuko Umunna noted that “while we are committed to a just determination of the case in the national interest, Air Peace remains the largest airline in Nigeria and West Africa,” adding that “its collapse is not in Nigeria’s strategic economic and national interests, aside from the incalculable losses and hardships this will cause to the flying public and its teeming direct and indirect employees.”
The association also noted that the US grand jury system is not foolproof and has been widely criticized by leading lawyers’ associations such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the American Bar Association (ABA). According to Nzuko Umunna, “It is noteworthy that the influential ABA has described the grand jury system as ‘being a mere rubber stamp for the prosecution without adequate procedural safeguards,’ while NACDL has made several proposals towards a reform of the system by ‘an obligation to present evidence which may exonerate the target or subject of the offense and the right for targets or subjects to testify’ among others.”