By Lanre Adewole

The last time the whole nation rallied behind Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, chair of Air Peace airline, like it is doing now, he ended up with a controversial indictment for alleged $20 million bank and wire fraud/money laundering by a combo of United States’ security, judicial and crime-busting agencies.

The indictment was unsealed on November 22, 2019 to tumult in Nigeria and elsewhere. That was four years and five months ago.

Weeks earlier, the South Africa xenophobic attacks of September 1-5, 2019, targeting foreigners who were mostly Africans in Johannesburg and other mean-spirited towns like Jeppestown, Alexandra, Katlehong, Coronationville, Crosby, Brexton and Hillbrow, had earned the businessman a cult status in Nigeria, after stepping into the void created by the doddering Buhari administration, to rescue trapped Nigerians, and deliver hundreds home safely, FoC (free of charge), while the federal government bumbled around what should be its primary responsibility.

It was an unforgivable and unforgettable embarrasing meltdown in the corridors of power in Nigeria. Then Onyema stepped in and became the David of the moment, who wiped away the shame of a nation, confronted by its own Goliath in an administration you pray never to have its kind again. Like the women of Israel who got David into Saul’s hit-list by singing “Saul has slain his thousands, David has slain his tens of thousands”, after the son of Jesse slew Goliath to end Israel’s shame, Nigerians, across ethnic and religious lines, sang the praise of Allen, as the Light of God (meaning of Ifechukwu) in Nigeria’s moment of darkness.

On November 16, 2019, the House of Representatives topped the national praise with a standing ovation for him. Onyema was in the moon. The media formed a beeline to honour the man of the moment. Then, America threw a wrench, unpacking a suspcious indictment on November 22, just five days after the Abuja honour.

The businessman cried blue murder. Nigerians were torn, between standing gidigba behind their hero and giving the allowance that America isn’t usually frivolous with criminal investigations though its agenda can be poorly-concealed.

Brands, especially in the media community, had to cancel public celebrations already earmarked, for Allen’s patriotism, heroics and numerous peace offerings for humanity, which predated the South African xenophobic madness. In the indictment, his efforts at forging peace across Nigeria, were thrashed as diluted fraud, with a portion from Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division reading, “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.”

Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, wrote, “Onyema setup various innocent sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.”

U.S Attorney Park, further alleged that “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.”

Allen and Air Peace, were investigated by The Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Commerce, and Department of Treasury.

Three years and one month after, the case collapsed like a house which Jesus said was built on sand, but Onyema had lost his moment and momentum. He was enthusiastically looking forward to be honoured alongside other worthy global citizens at the 70th founding anniversary of the now-doyen of Nigerian media, Nigerian Tribune in 2019, but both parties had to amicably withdraw from the plan, due to the dolorous moment.

About five years after the saga, Nigeria is being compelled to rally behind Onyema again, as sky-fight escalates between his Nigerian airline and foreign airlines, over international routes. Trade wars are always nasty and messy, but Onyema whether opportunistically or altruistically, has again, emerged the defender of Nigerians’ interest and the fear is real that the West, notably America and Britain, will come for him again, over the lucrative London route. Britain, despite handing America its independence, has settled into playing the boi-boi of its former colony and when their interests align totally like the trade war against Air Peace, experience, suggests they won’t stop after tasting blood. They usually walk away from attritions when the carcass is useful to no one.

That is why Onyema can’t afford to be excessively exuberant in handling the sky-fight. Of course, he would have to pore through flying, leasing, financing and all international aviation engagement rules, to ensure up-to-date knowledge and warn all his men/women, to play by the rule. Any slip, no matter how negligible, would surely be used against him, and the experience of the last time, should teach him, that Nigerians, despite the dearth of quality heroes/heroines, don’t cling, for too long, especially once a whiff of scandal, is established.

Thankfully, Allen has an idea of what it means to be hunted, even if back home. In a March, 2019 interview with Sunday Tribune, which headline I borrowed for this piece, he said, “Aviation is a very serious business that does not forgive any mistake” and replied his then-home-based critics (mostly in Buhari’s government) with, “People should stop thinking about where I come from and stop treating me as “this Ibo man”. Have they bothered to ask that if this man should shut down Air Peace tomorrow what would become of the fate of Nigeria at large?

“To set up an airline is not easy. So why are they trying to de-market us? More worrying is the ethnic angle, with them saying; ‘greedy Ibo man. He bought dangerous aircraft to kill Nigerians and has refused to send the planes back’. Meanwhile, we don’t have such planes. We are becoming a wicked county where success is not appreciated.” Now, Onyema has home support, but he is playing away in a shark-infested business climate, he would have to dig deep, to survive. I wish him the peace he said running Air Peace, has taken away.