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On ethnicity, Nigerian business men and US government allegations of fraud

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By Tabia Princewill

Allen Onyema, Air Peace
Allen Onyema

A FEW years ago, former Niger Delta militants alleged that Air Peace, owned by Mr. Allen Onyeama, was founded with funds from the Presidential Amnesty programme overseen by Kingsley Kuku, then Special Adviser on Niger Delta affairs to former President Goodluck Jonathan.

At the time, the militants claimed that Mr. Onyeama’s NGOs were being used to execute Presidential Amnesty contracts. The fact that an NGO was allegedly used to do business is one of the many reasons why regulation surrounding civil society organisations should be reviewed, not to stifle the sector but simply because laws governing NGOs are lax and all manner of abuses routinely occur with allegations such as these constantly resurfacing.

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Proximity to power in Nigeria has often been the easiest way to do business and some might even argue that it is not possible to attain true wealth in our country without knowing someone in government who could either support a company’s monopolistic tendencies or outright tax evasion, allow them to break the rules and other injunctions which ought to create a level playing field in society.

To be clear, even though Mr. Onyeama was reportedly indicted by a grand jury in the United States due to allegations of bank fraud to the tune of 44 million US dollars (which he swiftly denied), an indictment is not a conviction. Mr. Onyeama still has the luxury of defending himself in court and not just the court of public opinion. The rather interesting element is the way this case has been turned into a matter of ethnicity, rather than a judicial or criminal matter.

Various Igbo socio-cultural groups have released statements calling the indictment a “witch-hunt”, claiming America is “against” the Igbos and deliberately choosing to concoct false charges to embarrass Mr. Onyeama. Interestingly, this is a far cry from former President Jonathan’s famous statement which once expressed such confidence in American institutions: “America will know” he once said, thus absolving himself of any allegations of wrongdoing while in office stating that the US government with its investigative machinery, surveillance systems and vast security apparatus “would know” if crimes were being committed at that level.

The question is, why would the US decide to single out Mr. Onyeama for “persecution”? What is the strategic interest of the US regarding Mr. Onyeama’s legal issue, or that of any Igbo man or woman for that matter?

In short, what does the US government gain from supposedly “attacking” Igbos as some groups were quick to claim? More importantly, the transactions were reportedly made through the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN.

This latest scandal must be carefully managed and looked into by the Federal Government because it affects the reputation of all Nigerians. International institutions are already so weary of Nigerians who are often mistreated by foreign governments who choose to assume the worst of us based on what they’ve heard or read about corruption in this country.

In August 2018, Obinwanne Okeke, a.k.a Invictus Obi who was once celebrated as an outstanding entrepreneur, was indicted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for cyber fraud totaling $11 million. He is currently standing trial. It is doubtful the FBI, or the US Department of Justice knows any individual Nigerian’s ethnic origin. The average American can barely pronounce Nigerian names talk less of differentiating a man from Calabar from another from Osun.

Why do Nigerian business men seem to run into so much trouble abroad? The US government seized Jide Omokore and Kola Aluko’s assets after the Justice Department said they laundered money through the US. Then Acting Assistant Attorney General said: “the United States is not a safe haven for the proceeds of corruption”. These cases all raise uncomfortable questions about entrepreneurship and financial regulation in Nigeria which ethnic considerations should not obscure.

We all claim we want an end to ethno-religious strife but once any one is accused of wrong doing, it is impossible to have a conversation about the allegations without someone attempting to bring up their ethnicity as a reason why said allegations should be ignored, no matter the facts or evidence presented by the prosecution. On social media, when some “yahoo boys” or fraudsters are arrested one sees people say “he might be a thief but he is our thief”, or “who holy pass” or “the man is very generous, leave him alone” as excuses for wrongdoing.

Excuses for wrongdoing

In Mr. Onyeama’s case, the assertion that he should be supported by all Igbos simply because he is Igbo, or that he should be given “full protection” by President Buhari as some sort of reparation because Igbos are seemingly being “witch-hunted” is curious to say the least.

So is the belief that if Mr. Onyeama stands trial Air Peace will shut down. Surely Air Peace has a board of directors, advisors, shareholders and stakeholders to whom it reports? A business of that nature can’t possibly be a one man show.

Clearing one’s name is of utmost importance, especially because Nigerian business men as far back as the 1980s have been indicted by various successive governments in the United States for alleged involvement in one financial crime or the other, thus sullying the reputation of the entire country and business community.

Mr. Onyeama who was so recently praised for his role in evacuating the Nigerian community in South Africa should want to clear his name in a way that would leave no doubt as to his self-professed innocence.

The idea behind the “innocent until proven guilty” principle was to allow everyone, no matter how high or low their status, to have their day in court, not to shield anyone from answering questions if and when allegations occur.

Buhari

THE President said he would not accept excuses from underperforming governors from the All Progressives Congress, APC.

Many campaigned and came to power on the strength of his own personal brand, he thus urged them to pool their resources to set up programmes which will have an impact on Nigerians.

The Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, representing the President in Jos, Plateau State, at the Federal Government and Progressives Governors Forum summit said: “early in 2019, Nigerians overwhelmingly re-elected me as President. That election was a referendum on not just my leadership but also on our party. Some state governors were re-elected while new ones also came on board. To whom much is given, much more is expected”.

Unfortunately, the majority of our people still do not know their basic rights and have very low expectations. When standards are low, governments underperform. We must educate citizens and teach the concept of accountability and project monitoring. Civic education should take pride of place in the Nigerian school curriculum.

Mental health

HUMAN Rights Watch, HRW, an international NGO, has asked the Federal Government to ban institutions which abuse individuals suffering from mental health conditions. Many are chained or locked up in dubious facilities claiming to be rehabilitation centres.

Nigeria needs better regulation of traditional health centres and faith-based institutions. HRW asked President Buhari not to “tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation”. The group also stated that often times government does not acknowledge the abuse which goes on in centres run by health ministries, choosing to focus on private institutions.

Many people have seen the gruesome pictures of children and adults chained to each other, obviously malnourished and wearing dirty, torn clothes. Too many sectors in Nigeria are poorly regulated and the average person does not have a sufficient understanding of what exactly mental health challenges are.

So long as there are no public awareness campaigns, people will continue to see such issues as shameful or even a product of “demonic influence” as one commonly hears, rather than a medical condition.

Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.

Vanguard

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