Allen Onyema: The face of Nigeria
Let me confess that even though I fly Air Peace every now and then, I am not its huge fan. And this, for no other reason than I’m not adventurous when it comes to the choice of the airlines I patronize – locally or internationally. But, locally, I’m sold on Arik. I am a Lufthansa person. And, even though I fly often, I am, usually, a nervous wreck in turbulent weather, no matter how slight, I have a childlike trust in Lufthansa. I transferred that trust to Arik.
When Arik first made its majestic entry into our skyline, it seduced us with its fleet of modern aircraft, a couple of them, “tear rubber.” But for me, the icing on the cake, then, was that a subsidiary of Lufthansa was maintaining its fleet. If it is being maintained by a Lufthansa subsidiary, I reasoned, then, it’s okay. I bonded with many of Arik’s staff members, the crew members in particular, so much so that they know my state of mind during turbulence, and are always on hand too, both at once, tease and reassure me. But today, I am doing what I rarely do on this page. Here I am, giving a deserved salute to Allen Onyema, and by extension, his airline, Air Peace. Allen Onyema, Chairman of Air Peace, Welcoming South Africa Returnees.
When Onyema founded Air Peace in 2013, I took little or no notice. But, I was forced to when the Airline’s fleet began to increase. And, I prayed it wouldn’t fall victim to the infectious disease which usually sends our domestic airlines to their early graves. I began to have sympathy for the airline when the subtle blackmail against it over its ownership started.
While some people swore it belonged to the former First Lady, Patience Goodluck Jonathan, perhaps, because she is proudly called Mama Peace, and that Onyema was fronting for her, others insisted that he was fronting for the former Aviation Minister, Senator Stella Oduah. Nigeria has a thriving gossip and fabrication industry! Onyema knows this, so he ignored them, and trudged on. When he added a Boeing 777 to the fleet, I said to myself, this Airline has survived, and that, in spite of a number of subtle and not-too-subtle obstacles thrown its way by regulatory bodies.
Today, Onyema and his Airline have made Nigeria proud. They have wiped shame off our faces. They have rendered to Nigerians a service their government, ordinarily, wouldn’t have, urgently, rendered to them. When the Xenophobic attack on Nigerian citizens and other foreigners started, Onyema stood up to be counted. While the Nigerian Government spoke the diplomatic language, Onyema took action. As the old saying goes, he took the bull by the horn. He offered to evacuate Nigerians who were willing to leave South Africa. With clearance from the Nigerian Government, he deployed his Boeing 777 to South Africa to bring them back, free of charge. It was at a huge cost to his business. While Onyema was doing this, there were many Nigerians many people expected to either do something or say something.
There, we all saw and watched, shocked, as the businesses of our brothers and sisters were looted. Their shops were vandalised, and set ablaze. They were beaten black and blue. Luckily, the Nigerian High Commissioner informed us that no Nigerian was killed. Yet, I expected outrage from every Nigerian. Unless I missed it, I neither read, nor heard, any of our former Heads of State or former Presidents condemn South Africa. But, perhaps, they were engaged in behind-the-scene diplomacy. I, also, never read any statement condemning the outrage in South Africa from any of our billionaire businessmen. Perhaps, they were considering their business interests in South Africa. But, in all these, the loud silence from the former Governor of Imo State, now a Senator, Rochas Okorocha, shocks me most.
Okorocha, you would recall, was so enamoured with South Africa and its former President, Jacob Zuma, that he erected a life-size statue of Zuma in Owerri. At the time Okorocha did this, Zuma was drenched in corruption allegations. He had, earlier, been involved in a sexual scandal with an HIV positive woman. Our countrymen, particularly, Okorocha’s Igbo stock, were being killed in South Africa, yet, that was the time Okorocha chose to celebrate Zuma in Imo.
At the time, he said that honouring Zuma would stop South Africans from killing his Igbo brothers. Not true. Less than two weeks later, two Igbo boys were killed in South Africa. Now, in the instant case which attracted international outrage, Okorocha has said not a word. He is not outraged enough to ask Imo State Government to get rid of Zuma’s statue. Or ask his boys to arrange to do so. And, sadly too, Imo youths are not outraged enough to storm the place and destroy Zuma’s annoying statue.
Instead, like their counterparts across the country, they were ignorantly aiming at so-called South African concerns in Nigeria. Bad business. South Africa has no concerns, as such, here. Those concerns are franchised. They are owned by Nigerians. So, for Nigerians, it was a loss, loss situation. For the records, South Africa’s hostility towards Nigeria did not start today. The country and its black people have always disliked us in spite of the role Nigeria played towards their freedom and their liberation from the minority white South Africans.
Even though Nigeria is not a frontline state, Nigeria not only joined in the liberation fight, it carried their ‘wahala’ (problem) on its head. Many of their compatriots, including former President Thabo Mbeki, studied, for free, in our best universities. They carried Nigerian passports. Obasanjo was one of the world’s eminent persons who negotiated Nelson Mandela’s freedom. When Mandela was released from prison, Nigeria was the first African country he visited to say thank you. He came with his, later, estranged wife, Winnie.
As a young reporter, I covered that visit. General Ibrahim Babangida was the President. Mandela, pointing and smiling, at Winnie, said publicly, that but for Nigeria and, then First Lady, Maryam Babangida, Winnie would have “walked naked”, without a dress to put on. Mrs Babangida supplied all that. From Lagos, we drove down to Obasanjo Farms where a dancing Obasanjo received Mandela and Winnie. I was taken aback that when Mandela died, Nigeria had no role to play. Obasanjo did not even make a speech.
South Africa holds Nigeria in absolute contempt. It is the reason why its authority does nothing while its people slaughter and maim our people. It is the reason why its authority claim it’s not Xenophobia. It is the reason why South African Police look elsewhere while they deal with our people.
It is, also, the reason why something as frivolous as “they are taking our women from us” would be a reason to maim, kill, loot and raze business premises and residences. And, South Africa is not remorseful. For years, the Nigerian government played the nice guy. No longer. Mercifully, it’s talking tough now. But it didn’t think of evacuating its citizens who wished to come back until Onyema stepped in. He offered to evacuate them free of charge, with his hard-earned money- over N280 million, he says. He risked his Boeing 777 to do so. What if South Africa had siezed it? And, in spite of the deliberate delay by South Africa to let those willing to leave to do so without a hitch, he parked the aircraft there, paying parking fees. Now, our people are coming back in scores. They have found out, late, that whatever, and wherever, home is the best. I watched the returnees mob Onyema and sang our National anthem, as he received them, and like him, I almost shed tears.
But our people should not take things for granted. Let them not think that somebody will come to their aide next time. It is important to behave oneself when one is in a foreign country. Abide by their laws. Forget about taking their women from them, there are serious allegations of drug peddling and other criminal activities levelled against some of our people in South Africa. These allegations cannot be ruled out, plus our people are loud and mouthy. You cannot stay in people’s country and, ride roughshod over them. Be calm, and do your legitimate business.
But, back to Allen Onyema, he has become Nigeria’s face, our real face, not that of 419 and cybercrime. Onyema is who, and what we are – compassionate, our brothers’ keeper. He is a patriot. A national hero. And deserves to be celebrated. We should. The Federal Government should bequeath him with national honour. His airline should be supported. As for me, he has won me over for Air Peace with his patriotism. I am reassured that with him as the Chairman, Air Peace will not toy with our lives. So, let me end this write-up by quoting what Onyema said after welcoming the first batch of returnees. He said: “I put together over N280 million in order to bring these people back. Air peace decided to bring them back free of charge. “Nobody paid us a dime. We decided to do it free of charge for our country, and for our people. “When I stepped into the aircraft to welcome them, they mobbed me and started singing the Nigeria National Anthem. “There was nobody there singing about separation. They felt proud to be Nigerians. They rose in unison. That drew tears to my eyes”. Brother, I clap and, I bow!
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