The United States and the Air Peace CEO Saga: Beyond the Quest for Citizen Diplomacy

Allen Onyema

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

On Friday, November 22, 2019 the United States Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta, released an official statement to the general public. In the statement, it was alleged that Mr. Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and founder of Air Peace, a Nigerian airline, had engaged in money laundering of more than US $20 million from Nigeria through his US bank accounts.

Also, in the same statement, Mr. Ejiroghene Eghagha, the Chief of Administration and Finance of the Air Peace, was charged with bank fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with the Air Peace Scheme. As charged in the statement by the US Attorney, Byung J. “BJay” Pak, ‘Onyema allegedly leverage his status as  prominent business leader and airline executive, while using falsified documents to commit fraud.’

Before the issuance of the official statement, a complaint was filed against Mr. Onyema at the Magistrate Court for the Northern District of Georgia on  December 20, 2018. A motion to seal the complaint was not only filed, an order for the complaint to be sealed was also approved by Janet King of the Magistrate Court. Besides, the US court sought the collaboration and support of the Canadian government by seeking to brief it about the matter and requesting for the arrest of Mr. Onyema in the event he travels to Canada. 

In this regard, on September 5, 2019, US prosecutors not only moved a motion to brief the Canadian government, Magistrate Russell Vineyard also granted the motion for Canadian authorities to be briefed and also signed a corresponding warrant of arrest. In the words of Samuel Ogundipe of the Premium Times, ‘the corresponding warrant authorises Canadian law enforcement agencies to arrest Mr. Onyema if he enters their jurisdiction.’ It is against this background that, on November 19, 2019 Mr. Onyema was indicted by a federal grand jury,  that a defendant information sheet was issued to assist him in defending himself against the 35 charges levied against him, and that, also on November 22, 2019 the US Department of Justice made the indictment a public knowledge.

Nature of the Indictment

The United States attorney made it clear that the United States ‘will diligently protect the integrity of United States banking system ‘from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.’ More important, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division, Mr. Robert J. Murphy, has it that ‘Allen Onyema’s status as a wealthy businessman turned out to be a fraud. He corrupted the United States 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 United States Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation.’

And perhaps most importantly, Thomas J. Holloman, the IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office, also said ‘with the importance of our (United States) banking system to the movement of money around the world, those attempting to use intricate scheme to commit bank fraud through the use of falsified documents and other means, should know that the odds are now heavily stacked against them, a law enforcement is combining its talents to protect the sanctity and integrity of the nation’s financial system.’

But perhaps quite disturbingly, is the mania of perpetration of the alleged offence. As explained, from 2010, ‘Onyema began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts.’ More than $44.9 million was transferred into the Atlanta-based accounts in between 2010 and 2018. He founded the Air Peace in 2013 and ‘travelled 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 Communication Limited, and Every Child Limited,’ all of which Onyema acceptably founded.

As from May 2016, the allegation is that ‘Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export Letters of Credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20 million into the 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 appraisal proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.’

It is, however, noted in the official statement that ‘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 appraisal 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.’

It is on this basis that Onyema, 56 years old, and Eghagha, 37, were indicted on November 19, 2019 on one count charge 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. More significantly, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, while Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft.

What is particularly noteworthy in the official statement is the paragraph on admission of preliminary innocence of the suspects. As noted, ‘members of the public are reminded that the indictment only contains charges. The defendants are presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the governments burden to prove the defendants’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.’

It is not only against this background that the quest for the application of Citizen Diplomacy should be explicated and understood, but also the denial by the suspects of any engagement in any form of money laundering as alleged by the United States. As the Air Peace Chief Executive put it, he is innocent of all charges and the US government will find no dirt on him, because, in his words, ‘I have never conducted business with any illegalities… I never laundered money in my life, neither have I committed bank fraud anywhere in the world. Every kobo (smallest coin of the national currency) 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.’ 

And perhaps more significantly, Mr Onyema has it that ‘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.’ This statement is quite befitting of a very patriotic citizen that Athan Onyema is. If Mr. Onyema is innocent, what really will the Donald Trump administration be up to? Is the indictment a reflection of the America First policy of the Washingtonian administration? This question is pertinent because it has been argued that the Air Peace has not been in good business relationship since April 2019 with the Boeing in the US and is now hobnobbing with the Brazilian counterpart, meaning that the indictment appears to be aimed at defending American interests and not necessarily that there really is a big deal with the indictment. In other words, is it that the indictment is politically motivated? If the financial transactions were done through the Central Bank of Nigeria, is the bank an accomplice? Is there any intention by Donald Trump to use the indictment to score political points for the purposes of his re-election campaigns, since it has become crystal clear that Donald Trump wants re-election as a matter of do-or-die .

Whatever is the case, many issues have been raised as a result of the indictment. A school of thought has posited that the Government of Nigeria should not extradite Mr. Onyema to the United States for trial. Good but not tenable a suggestion: if the Government of Nigeria refuses to extradite him, will the international responsibility of the Government not be called to question for disregard for the principle of sanctity of a bilateral agreement? 

What about the rule of reciprocity? What about situations in which enemies of Nigeria are aided and abetted in Europe and America and are also given refuge there? Will Nigeria qualify to request for the extradition of the fugitives? The position of this school of thought should not be encouraged, especially that Mr. Onyema himself has shown preparedness to defend himself in the US. The challenge for the Government of Nigeria is therefore to ensure his safety and fairness in the dispensation of justice in the US.

Another school of thought has it that Government should deploy citizen diplomacy in dealing with the matter. For instance, the Nzuko Ummuna, an influential Igbo group, has observed 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 Nzuko Ummuna group observed further that ‘with hindsight, the United States is not accustomed to such a frenzy or even cooperation when their citizens are at the receiving of these indictments in foreign jurisdictions.’ The frenzy being referred to is 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’ (vide Daily Sun, November 26, 2019, p.1)

In this regard, what is the place of citizen diplomacy? Is it applicable? In other words, what is the relationship between money laundering and citizen diplomacy? What again is the place of extradition? Will Onyema and Eghagha be extradited in the event of trial in the United States? Will the trial be in the national interest? In fact, what really is the national interest at stake?

Money Laundering and Citizen Diplomacy

As provided in Article 6, s.1 (a)(i-ii) of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC, 2000), money laundering is ‘the conversion or transfer of property, knowing that such property is the proceeds of crime, for the purpose of concealing or disguising the illicit origin of the property or of helping any person who is involved in the commission of the predicate offence to evade the legal consequences of his or her action.’ 

But what is a predicate offence in this case? Section 2(c) of the same Article provides that ‘predicate offences shall include offences committed both within and outside the jurisdiction of the State Party in question. However, offences committed outside the jurisdiction of a State Party shall constitute predicate offences only when the relevant conduct is a criminal offence under the domestic law of the State Party implementing or applying this article had it been committed there.’

In addition, paragraph (ii) says money laundering is ‘the concealment or disguise of the true nature, source, location, disposition, movement or ownership of or rights with respect to property, knowing that such property is the proceeds of crime.’ In the eyes of Abdullahi Shehu, PhD, and Director General of the Inter-governmental Action Group against Money laundering in West Africa (GIABA), the word, ‘conversion,’ has a ‘broader meaning than ‘concealment’ and can include the changing or converting of one currency into another. The terms ‘conceal’ and ‘convert’ should not, therefore, be used synonymously.’

On the basis of all these definitions, however, where does the purchase of aircraft by the Chief Executive of the Air Peace and the payments for the purchase fall in the context of money laundering? Regarding the charges of bank fraud, how would the charges be sustainable if it is true that all payments for the five aircraft purchased were made through the Central Bank of Nigeria? 

Meanwhile, what appears to be the major concern of the Americans is probably that Mr. Onyema is the owner of the various companies from which he drew money to pay for the five aircraft he purchased from the Boeing company. While waiting for developments on this, can citizen diplomacy be useful in addressing the allegations? The answer cannot but be far-fetched without first putting the understanding of citizen diplomacy in context.

In understanding citizen diplomacy, it should first be noted that the word ‘diplomacy’ is a short form for international diplomacy, and therefore, diplomacy is about the conduct and management of inter-state relations. Regarding citizen diplomacy, it is an important aspect of a nation’s foreign policy. As we have noted elsewhere (vide Bola A. Akinterinwa, Nigeria’s Citizen Diplomacy: Theoretical Genesis and Empirical Exegesis (Ibadan: BIP, 2010, p.57), citizen diplomacy is more developed in the United States than in any other country of the world.

As conceived in the United States, citizen diplomacy is about the ‘engagement’ or ‘involvement’ of the citizens in official diplomacy, It is useful to note here that there is a fundamental difference between official diplomacy and public diplomacy, which is a chief component of official diplomacy. Public diplomacy, from the name, is directed at the public within the country, while official diplomacy is targeted at sovereign states. In this regard, public diplomacy is to garner public support for the Government’s war efforts and to ‘advance the justice of our (United States cause – our principles and values” – while simultaneously undermining our opponents’ claim to the same. Any activity that is not engaged in doing, at least, one of these two things, is not public diplomacy,’ Robert R. Reilly has argued in his “No Substitute for Substance” (vide The Journal of International Security Affairs (Israel), No.17, Fall 2009).

Put differently, citizen diplomacy is one of the many techniques of managing official or diplomatic negotiations and relationships. On the basis of the theory of ‘multi-track diplomacy put forward by John McDonald and Louise Diamond, there are nine tracks or channels of conducting diplomacy. They are official diplomacy, which is considered as track one; unofficial diplomacy in which professional conflict resolutions are involved; international business negotiations and exchanges; citizen exchanges (lecturers, professionals, etc); international research, education and training efforts; activism; contacts and exchanges between religious leaders and followers; and public opinions and communications programmes.

Considered grosso modo, citizen diplomacy is the second accepted channel for conducting diplomacy. Chief Ojo Maduekwe, nationalist, egg-head, and unrepentant defender of black dignity, introduced the concept of citizen diplomacy into Nigeria’s foreign policy in his capacity as Foreign Minister. In his eyes, at the epicentre of Nigeria’s foreign policy should be Nigerians; foreign policy must seek a synergy with domestic policy; foreign policy making and implementation must be democratised to include all Nigerians from all walks of life; Nigeria must be guided by the rule of reciprocity or ‘diplomacy of consequence’; and Nigeria and Nigerians must not accept to be criminalised by the international community, simply on the basis of the despicable conduct of a few Nigerians.

With the various channels of conducting diplomacy and with the conception of citizen diplomacy by Ojo Maduekwe, there is little citizen diplomacy can do to meaningfully address the charges brought against Mr. Onyema, unless citizen diplomacy is interpreted to mean diplomatic protection under private international law, and in which case, there must have been unfairness or denial in the dispensation of justice and the accused also holds the citizenship of Nigeria. Consequently, there is the need to go beyond the quest for deployment of citizen diplomacy. One leeway is to take advantage of the Donald Trumpian advice to all other leaders of the world to adopt the principle of their country first, that is, ‘Nigeria First.’ This can be followed by the deployment of citizen diplomacy to secure fairness and prevent denial of justice. More important, with the active engagement of the Association of the Retired Ambassadors of Nigeria (ARCAN) in foreign policy evaluation, advantage can be taken of it as an instrument of citizen diplomacy.

In spite of this, the fundamental challenge to address cannot but remain how to reconcile the rule of law with other interests. Should the Government of Nigeria be promoting disregard for law? Is it not law that should always guide the protection of any interest, including national security interest? Whatever is the case, the Government of Nigeria will need to know its onions in handling the matter, as the case has the potential to create a very serious public hostility against it in the event of extradition. The Nigerian public appears to look at the indictment, more as a political vendatta than a legal inquiry and prosecution. In other words, there is a conflict between domestic public interest and Nigeria-US bilateral extradition agreement. Thus, Nigeria’s sovereignty is in direct competition with the US sovereignty.