By Abimbola Adelakun
There is a probability that if the predicament facing the CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, had happened in, maybe, July or August this year, he would have landed on a hard ground. He is lucky that his travails began after he had become a public hero, and that must explain the maudlin sentiments that have accompanied his recent indictment by the FBI. We can all recall that he saved our collective Nigerian faces from shame when, earlier this year, he sent a plane to South Africa to repatriate fellow Nigerians who were stranded there in the wake of the xenophobic attacks. By stepping up to take up the responsibility of the Nigerian government to its citizens, Onyema touched many people’s hearts. Between September and October, he transmuted from just another cold-hearted businessman to a national hero.
Such generosity — and given the amount he claimed he spent on that philanthropic act — is not commonplace. Onyema won us over, and he was unilaterally conferred with the Man of the Year award by social media commentators. Trinity House, a church on Victoria Island, Lagos, presented him with the 2019 Humanitarian Service Award. He gave several interviews where he preached about integrity and faith, and his love for Nigeria. In an interview, he claimed he could not hold back his tears when the aircraft he sent to airlift Nigerians arrived, and his countrymen embraced him in gratitude and sang the national anthem. Our heads swelled at all these reports. Looking back at that moment, I sense Onyema milked that moment to build his myth as a quintessential patriot.
That was why we were all deflated when the FBI came calling against him with allegations of bank fraud and money laundering in the USA. Meanwhile, Onyema has denied all the charges and until proved otherwise, he remains innocent. But against the context that I have elaborated, it is understandable why some people see the indictment — and the timing —through the lens of conspiracy theories. They believe there is some ethnic, racial, and transnational agenda at work against Onyema. How could they have thought otherwise when his charity towards the victims of xenophobic attacks victims softened the ground for him? Even if he were eventually proved guilty, some people would still insist the FBI indictment was nothing more than a charade to bring down a beloved figure.
Here is the problem: Most of us — Nigerians, that is — have never lived in a social system that indicts people for one crime or the other on account of their guilt alone. In Nigeria, when people get into trouble with the law on corruption, it is not because they sinned but because they fell out of favour with the powers that be. If their sins were ever about corruption, politicians who rob their constituencies blind and ship money to their houses with bullion vans would not be garlanded as the father of the nation while an occasional hapless fellow with relatively lesser sin is marched to prison. There is no crime of corruption in our society as things stand. The crime which people commit and for which the law goes after them is misplaying their political cards. That factor partly explains why the contestation and negotiation of power through elected and appointed positions is a literal war. I think we have overemphasised the money that people look to loot when they are either appointed or elected into public office. But much more than money is that Nigerian leaders want to permanently hold on to power as insurance against accountability for their sins. You cannot blame the Nigerians that see the trials of Onyema as an agenda against a patriot. They have never lived in a different world.
We cannot divorce the sentiment colouring Onyema’s case from his good deeds to the nation. Unlike other politicians such as James Ibori and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha who also faced corruption charges from abroad, Onyema is not holding a political post. His generosity was special because he did not have to do what he did. Many of his countrymen understandably feel obliged to him in his trying times. Really, what else is philanthropy but a strategic system of buying obligations from people? There is always something to give back, and that is why some of us are cynical about benevolence from rich and powerful people. What they get in return many times outweighs what they give.
These days, when I hear of billionaire-pastors and oil magnates building primary schools, buying dialysis machines, offering to fix the roads on behalf of the state, or giving billions to displaced Nigerians from the northeast region, I withhold mawkish emotions of gratitude. Philanthropic acts are potent because we are compelled to be grateful, and the obligation of gratitude can be binding in some other inconvenient ways. I understand that charity can be necessary to redress certain urgent situations, especially in cases where the sanctity of life is at stake. We do not live in an ideal world that Chuna Achebe describes in Anthills of the Savanna, where he advocates a world in which charity would be unnecessary. For a long time, we will continue to need the rich to open their purses for the so-called less privileged. Despite our obligations to Onyema, however, we need to retain a clear-headed attitude towards his indictment. Rather than be sceptical to the point of credulity, we should remain open-minded. We must not fall into the trap of blindly defending our countryman because he once made us feel good about being Nigerians.
At the last count, different ethnic organisations and individuals across Nigeria are standing up for Onyema. The list of his supporters will continue to grow as his case with the USA advances, and I worry about the impact such detribalised sentimentality will have on the government. Will they give him up for extradition or try to play the hero in the forthcoming drama? We need clarity on this case because it will set a precedent for the future, and that is the more reason we should suspend sentiment and let things play out rationally.
That said, it is quite heartening to see the defence of Onyema cross ethnic borders. Come to think of it, even Miyetti Allah is standing up for him and alleging “western conspiracy” in his travails. I don’t think that kind of inter-ethnic solidarity for someone facing corruption charges has ever happened before. When all of this is over — regardless of how his case turns out — we should take a second look at Onyema and ask what about him evokes such patriotic sentiment. Maybe there is something about this moment that is instructive for achieving national cohesion, who knows.
Finally, here is a point that needs to be reiterated: on this indictment, we should not abandon Onyema to the ruthless American justice system for the simple reason that he is a Nigerian citizen. We do not need to use him to grandstand a purported zero-tolerance for corruption. If he has to face a trial in the US, Nigeria should pull diplomatic levers to ensure he gets a fair trial. Those worried about how Nigeria would treat him had a point when they complained that presidential aide, Lauretta Onochie, already convicted him before his trial officially started. While Onochie’s tactlessness might have given weight to the suspicion that some powerful forces have it in for Onyema, they need to understand that Onochie is an emotionally unintelligent being who combines hucksterism with an abject lack of manners. Nothing she says should be taken seriously enough to push us into a further default defensiveness on this case. What should matter overall is that we stood for the right principles despite our moral obligations to a fellow Nigerian, especially one who has been generous to us in our hour of need.