Allen Onyema, the Nigerian businessman who owns the country’s largest airline, was indicted by U.S. authorities on charges of fraud and money laundering.
He allegedly moved “more than $20 million from Nigeria though United States bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes,” according to a statement by the U.S. Department of Justice. The company’s chief of administration and finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, was charged with bank fraud and identity theft in the same case, the statement said.
Onyema, who is also the airline’s chief executive officer, allegedly used export letters of credit that were supposedly to fund the purchase of five Boeing 737 passenger planes by Air Peace to get banks to transfer the money, according to the Justiced Department statement. Supporting documents from a U.S. registered company owned by Onyema “were fake,”it said.
He then allegedly laundered over $16 million of the proceeds by transferring it to other accounts, the Department of Justice said. More than $3 million of the transferred funds allegedly came from accounts of organizations set up by Onyema to promote peace across Nigeria, according to the statement.
Onyema and Eghagha deny all the charges and will “vigorously defend” themselves, according to a statement prepared by their lawyers, A.O. Alegeh & Co. “The allegations are unfounded and strange,” said the statement that Onyema emailed to Bloomberg.
The Air Peace boss “looks forward to an opportunity to rebut these allegations in court,” the statement said.
Onyema founded Air Peace in 2013 and the carrier now offers numerous domestic routes in Nigeria as well as flights to other West African destinations and Dubai. The Lagos-based carrier recently won praise for repatriating Nigerians from South Africa during a wave of xenophobic violence.
“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,” Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Robert J. Murphy said in the DOJ statement.