The airplanes used to start private Nigerian airline, Air Peace, were bought with billions of naira stolen from the Nigerian Government Amnesty Programme, the United States Department of Justice has alleged.
The Justice Department said Mr Kingsley Kuku, Special Adviser to Former President Goodluck on Niger Delta Affairs and the Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, transferred the funds to bank accounts in the United States where they were laundered and used to purchase airplanes to start Air Peace as well as luxury homes and vehicles.
Kuku served under the ex-president from 2010-2015 around the time Air Peace was launched. The Nigeria’s largest carrier debuted in 2013 and boasts of a fleet size of about 23 aeroplanes.
THEWILL citing sources with direct knowldge of the case, reports that the DoJ, which has been quitely looking into Kuku and Air Peace, has formally written to the Nigerian Government under the Treaty for Mutual Legal Assistance between both countries.
The report noted that the DoJ has asked for the transfer of the case files of investigations on Mr Kuku, who was deported from the United States last year over alleged immigration fraud including that of Allen Onyema, the airlines’ CEO and Prince Chibudom Nwuche, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, who allegedly laundered at least $8m from the amnesty programme and other individuals and companies linked to Onyema.
According to THEWILL, the US government describes Onyema as Kuku’s business partner, who laundered at least $44m through US bank accounts.
The DoJ in another letter about three weeks ago asked Nigeria for bank account records of “Air Peace Limited, Ifechukwu Allen Athan Onyema, Tarere Vivenne Kuku alias Nnamani Chika Vivienne, All Times Peace Media, Every Child Limited, Foundation of Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria and Allen Onyema and Company, Global Spectrum Energy Services Plc” amongst others.
“Records should be for the period between April 1, 2010, and the present…” the DoJ said in the letter seen by THEWILL.
In November last year, the United States DoJ in a statement announced Onyema’s indictment and charge for bank fraud and money laundering for moving more than $20m from Nigeria through United States bank accounts in a scheme involving false documents based on the purchase of airplanes.
It also said the airline’s Chief of Administration and Finance, Ejiroghene Eghagha, was charged with bank fraud and committing aggravated identity theft in connection with the scheme.
“Onyema allegedly leveraged his status as a prominent business leader and airline executive while using falsified documents to commit fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak.
“We will diligently protect the integrity of our banking system from being corrupted by criminals, even when they disguise themselves in a cloak of international business.”
Robert J. Murphy, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division commented on the indictment and said, “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.
“DEA would like to thank the many law enforcement partners and the subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who aided in making this investigation a success.”
Thomas J. Holloman, IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Office, said, “This case is a prime example of why IRS-CI seeks to partner and leverage its expertise in an effort to thwart those seeking to exploit our nation’s financial system.”
“With the importance of our banking system to the movement of money around the world, those attempting to use intricate schemes to commit bank fraud through the use of falsified documents and other means should know that the odds are now heavily stacked against them as law enforcement is combining its talents to protect the sanctity and integrity of the nation’s financial system.”
Acting Special Agent in Charge Robert Hammer, who oversees HSI operations in Georgia and Alabama, said, “Onyema setup various innocent-sounding multi-million dollar asset purchases which were nothing more than alleged fronts for his scam.”
“I’m proud to be part of a team of law enforcement agencies that come together to identify and attack criminals that attempt to profit from the exploitation of our nation’s financial systems.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment and other information presented in court: Onyema, is the founder and Chairman of several organisations that purport to promote peace across Nigeria, including the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony, International Center for Non-Violence and Peace Development, and All-Time Peace Media Communications Limited.
It said beginning in 2010, Onyema began travelling frequently to Atlanta, where he opened several personal and business bank accounts.
Between 2010 and 2018, over $44.9 million was allegedly transferred into his Atlanta-based accounts from foreign sources.
In years following the founding of Air Peace, he travelled to the United States and purchased multiple aeroplanes for the airline.
However, over $3m 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.
Beginning in approximately May 2016, Onyema, together with Eghagha, allegedly used a series of export letters of credit to cause banks to transfer more than $20m into 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 appraisals proving that Air Peace was purchasing the aircraft from Springfield Aviation Company LLC, a business registered in Georgia.
However, 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 appraisals 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 $16m of the proceeds of the fraud by transferring it to other accounts, the DoJ said.
“Allen Ifechukwu Athan Onyema, 56, of Lagos, Nigeria, and Ejiroghene Eghagha, 37, of Lagos, Nigeria, were indicted on November 19, 2019, on one count 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. Additionally, Onyema was charged with 27 counts of money laundering, and Eghagha was charged with one count of aggravated identity theft.
Meanwhile, the Air Peace has dismissed the allegations as untrue, false and a rehash of untrue stories via a statement from the airline’s Solicitors, Alegeh & Co.
It said in the statement dated September 7, 2020 that Kuku was never a shareholder or director at Air Peace. It also added that he never purchased any airplanes for Air Peace.
The statement reads, “We are solicitors to Air Peace Limited and Chief Allen Onyema. Our clients have just become aware of an online story claiming that Kingsley Kuku, the former Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta Affairs and Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Office purportedly used “billions of Naira stolen from the Presidential Amnesty Programme to purchase airplanes to start Air Peace.”
“The online story, in a bid to appear credible, refers to the United States Department of Justice as the source of this ‘information’.
“On behalf of our clients, we hereby state unequivocally and for the records that the said online story is untrue, false, baseless and a rehash of old, false and untrue stories.
“Kingsley Kuku did not at any time purchase any airplanes for our client, Air Peace Limited and he is not a shareholder or director of Air Peace Limited.
“Kingsley Kuku is not in any way and/or manner connected to and/or involved in the ownership and operations of Air Peace Limited.”
The statement further explained that Air Peace was set up with legitimate funds and the story was an attempt to tarnish the client’s image.