It will be really sad if indeed the problems of Tony Allen Onyema is political as is being bandied in some quarters and also perhaps being confirmed by people like Presidential Spokesman, Lauretta Onochie, who has made plain her disdain for the businessman. We all know that when an action has systemic importance to a nation, it needs to be handled with great caution. We know that about our banks; a number of them are considered ‘too-big-to-fail’ and some had been bailed out in the past.
Onyema’s Air Peace is presently Nigeria’s largest airline, which has made forays into international routes as well. I dare say that for me, Air Peace was love at first try and I instinctively knew they were a serious-minded bunch from get go. If that airline goes down, our aviation sector will shrink to almost nothing. I am not sure we would easily find someone as bold and aggressive who can drive the sector the way Onyema and AirPeace have in recent times. This is not to say we should pamper Onyema and overlook financial improprieties and fraud. No. What we should do, is own the process, not sit around and allow the USA to ‘chop our dollar’, in what could amount to a ‘reverse 419’. Apologies to Nkem Owoh for using the ‘chop your dollar’ analogy.
There are a number of lessons to be learnt from the Air Peace saga. From comments on the matter so far, it seems certain that some people believe funny business practices that are taken for granted here can simply be exported to other countries. Then there is the fact that in today’s world, it is either one conforms or sticks out. And there are consequences for ‘sticking out’ to be noticed. Our idea of attaining success and prosperity is different from what is understood in foreign lands. Elsewhere, when someone shows that he possesses a lot of money, people want to be sure of how such money was acquired. Nobody is impressed by the overnight success stories that confuses us here. For example, the way our politicians spend money here is enough confirmation that they have looted the country blind. Here, we say they are generous. They are nice. Elsewhere, they get prosecuted. Or perhaps it is the fact that to be allowed into the rich club even in western countries there is a profile you have to meet. You probably have to be a blue-eyed Caucasian to get away with stuff. Anyhow, most people abroad live from hand to mouth, programmed to work daily and earn just about enough to survive. The assurances of a good health and education system is there. The transportation network is solid and subsidized. But very few people are permitted to have so much money such that they could live as kings. With this reality, it has become incredibly difficult especially for a Nigerian to have access to bank accounts abroad these days. People treat us with much suspicion and even condescension. We could see in the Onyema case how Bank of America summarily and suddenly closed one of his accounts and issued him a bankers’ cheque of $4,000,000 to go do whatever he wanted with. They don’t care how much money you have or whether you will be stranded with your cheque/money.
The summary of the Onyema case, is that he opened accounts in the United States and Canada, to facilitate aircraft purchases. He controls the accounts. Letters of Credit issued at this end have his American company as beneficiary. The transactions are usually inflated and the excess over invoice remains abroad. This is a fraudulent transaction even though almost every billionaire we celebrate in these parts today have been involved in this business in the past or are still involved. One key impetus is the ‘spread’ between official and market dollar rates. Most businessmen will like to access government dollar at N306, send the money abroad and reimport to sell at N358. It will be incredibly difficult to prevent this happening so long as that unnecessary spread or gap remains, or for as long as – with connections – some powerful guys can obtain exchange rates that are far below the market rates.
But something more interesting is going on. In the 36-page charge sheet written by an upper Federal court in the State of Georgia, USA, several references were made to how Tony Onyema took advantage of, or defrauded FDIC-insured American banks viz Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo. I wonder how he did that, because they didn’t advance him any credit. They were mere clearing banks for monies transferred from Nigeria. Again, Onyema allegedly loads or pads the value of the aircrafts he intends to buy. The excess remains with these American banks and $14million is presently trapped in them, which the American government wishes to ‘chop’. It is not their money. It is ours. It is Onyema’s; it is our local banks’; it is the Nigerian public’s and taxpayers’. The Americans have cleverly inserted themselves into the deal in order to totally ‘kolobi’ the entire funds. We know the game and all we can do is appeal to them.
It is even surprising that they do not care that Air Peace has bought a number of Boeing airplanes from them. Onyema did not put the funds into drugs or anything illicit. He played straight in that regard. We hear from some quarters that he cancelled his 737 Max pre-orders as a result of the ill-fated Ethiopian crash and is now being punished for it. Is this true? I know the Americans to be very astute and pragmatic business-people. They are usually focused on the big picture. So perhaps we have to let them know that this Onyema guy poses a major key-man risk to the aviation sector here even if he may not be squeaky-clean in his dealings. They have to temper justice with mercy and find a way that Air Peace will continue to obtain parts for her fleet. The Americans should also know that if Boeings start to drop off the skies anywhere in the world, because they cannot access spares, it will not be good for Brand America as a whole, and the European Airbus will cash in. It is that simple. I would propose a fine; after which the American people should help straighten out Onyema’s dealings with his customers out there.
I am not supporting crime please. However, we know that we still live in the age of robber-barons here. The Americans know how it works too. Before the advent of the Bill Gates’, Zucks, Jobs’, Welches and so on, robber-barons had the USA. Through the 1920’s 30’s 40’s they reigned. Some of the biggest financiers were bootleggers. We learnt that JF Kennedy’s dad was one. People like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and so on, were known to fix prices for the whole nation, to rig markets and crowd out competition in the most vicious manners. Today they are still revered around the world. Donald Trump, America’s current president boasts of how he avoids taxes and for a real estate magnate, he would have bent a rule or two. Making money is never easy. Those who want a lot of it, whether to fan their egos or to make global impact, soon find themselves at crossroads where the rules have to be bent somewhat. Those who pray to have lots of money really do not know the sacrifices involved and what these big guys pass through.
So, please America must not ‘chop’ our dollar. They chopped our dollar in the Haliburton case, and the Willbros case, and many other cases, where big companies defraud us here, bribe our small-minded leaders, deliver substandard projects, and end up paying the fines to the USA while Nigeria (and its tons of poor people), get nothing. I know that it is also not only Nigeria. In 2016 for example, the USA fined Standard Chartered for opening accounts for Iranians in Dubai. $350million was the payout. Facebook was fined $5Billion or so too. This seems to be a very good cash cow for American governments. We like the fact that this makes everyone sit up but we just cannot afford these losses ad infinitum. SERAP, among others had raised this issue of why the USA sits on all these moneys in the past.
As per local ‘bad belle’ people, including unfortunately those in government, who say that Onyema is on his own and that government will not get involved, I ask that they change their ways and give this a second thought. Americans and Europeans push drugs, plan coups and run weapons of mass destruction around the world but we see the way their countries defend them. Many of those who say Onyema is on his own and cannot understand the complexity of this case simply suffer some sort of inferiority complex. We must begin to stand up for our own. We must begin to think more kaleidoscopically and futuristically. We must begin to sometimes borrow from the playbooks of the superpower countries, after all it is they we hope to emulate in terms of development. Lastly our people in government must begin to show a full sense of human dignity on behalf of all of us. Readers will notice that I don’t support Nigerians doing crimes all over the world and I believe we shouldn’t display a sense of entitlement in other people’s countries. But I believe this case is different. The Onyema I see is someone who has suffered penitence for whatever his past crimes are, for the sake of Nigeria. The dedication I see in and around Air Peace is remarkable. Running an airline is crazy business. Running one with standards and ambition is a different ballgame. I see the quality of staff Air Peace engages and I know the sort of risk they take to maintain that quality. Many have come and gone. Where is Albarka, or IRS, or Bellview? Where is First Nation, ADC, Medview, and many others who have seen just how tough it is to run in that sector? Making money in that sector is almost impossible. But here we have someone who is mad enough to put all those planes in the skies on a daily basis, saving Nigerians a lot of stress and ensuring we have something close to a robust aviation sector. And all some of us can do is disdain him and wish for his downfall? He hasn’t murdered anyone. He should be fined, not jailed, because he is important to this economy. He should also not be victimized for political reasons. I urge a rethink of the Onyema saga.