Allen Onyema, the chairman of Air Peace Limited, was indicted by the United States government on November 19 on charges stemming from an alleged $21 million fraud.
The announcement elicited an instant chain of conspiracy theories specifically targeted at exonerating the accused by stoking fragments of political, religious and ethnic division.
“This is not good for Allen, our bros. But I sense he’s getting himself too much into politics without advice,” Chuma Nzeribe, a former two-term member of the Nigerian House of Representatives from Anambra State, said in a broadcast message on WhatsApp hours after the indictment was made public.
That post was amongst the earliest insinuations that claimed that Mr Onyema’s run in with American authorities was politically-motivated.
In the hours that followed, several different but related conspiracy theories would emerge from both mainstream and fringe commentators on social media — ultimately coalescing around the need for all Nigerians to rally behind Mr Onyema and dismiss selfish plots by the Americans to take out a major competitor in the lucrative aviation market.
Variants of the claim also include how the charges might have been triggered by Mr Onyema’s popular repatriation of Nigerians stranded in South Africa amidst deadly xenophobic attacks in September.
Proponents of this theory said Mr Onyema’s action did not go down well with President Muhammadu Buhari because those repatriated were purportedly only Nigerians of Igbo origin. This, they claimed without evidence, led the president to instigate Americans against him.
Over 600 Nigerians were repatriated from South Africa over the xenophobic row. Of these, 485 were flew back home for free by Air Peace, out of which only 251 were Nigerians from five predominantly Igbo states of Abia, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo and Anambra, according to the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, which coordinated the exercise.
Another claim said the Americans felt slighted by Mr Onyema’s purported decision to stop doing business with American aeroplane manufacturer, Boeing, in favour of Brazil’s Embraer.
While Air Peace placed orders for Embraer planes, the transaction only began in April 2019, five months after the initial complaint was filed. In the wake of Ethiopian Airlines disaster involving a Boeing 737 Max, Air Peace announced it would not cancel its orders for the problematic model, and there is no evidence that the deal first announced in September 2018 had been called off.
Others said Mr Onyema has indicated interest in running for president in 2023, and his political detractors from Lagos to Kano have been lining up to weaken him ahead of the next election cycle. The claim said Mr Onyema’s political future had been bolstered by his voluntary repatriation of his fellow citizens at a crucial moment.
But Mr Onyema, 57, has not publicly disclosed his intention to run for office, and two of his associates dismissed the rumour when reached by PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday morning.
Still, other theories have continued to spring up daily, all aimed at diluting Mr Onyema’s indictment without any supporting evidence.
The following is a chronology of Mr Onyema’s path to indictment as obtained by PREMIUM TIMES:
December 20, 2018 — Magistrate complaint filed against Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema at the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
December 20, 2018 — A motion to seal the complaint was filed.
December 20, 2018 — An order for the complaint to be sealed was approved by Janet King, a magistrate attached to the court.
September 5, 2019 — Prosecutors moved a motion to brief Canadian authorities about the case and seek a corresponding warrant of arrest against Mr Onyema.
September 5, 2019 — Russell Vineyard, a magistrate attached to the court, granted the motion for Canadian authorities to be briefed about the case and signed a corresponding warrant of arrest. The corresponding warrant authorises Canadian law enforcement agencies to arrest Mr Onyema if he enters their jurisdiction.
November 19, 2019 — A federal grand jury indicts Mr Onyema on 35 charges bordering on criminal conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering.
November 19, 2019 — A defendant information sheet was issued for Mr Onyema.
November 19, 2019 — Justin Anand, a magistrate attached to the court, issued a warrant of arrest against Mr Onyema in the United States. Mr Anand also issued a warrant of arrest against Ejiroghene Eghagha, Air Peace’s head of finance and administration, who was indicted alongside her boss.
November 22, 2019 — U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of Mr Onyema.
November 23, 2019 — Messrs Onyema and Eghagha issued statements denying all the charges and added that they would establish their innocence in court.
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