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Allen Onyema… the patriot with Air of Peace

By Chuks Nwanne
21 September 2019   |   4:22 am
The first attempt at evacuating Nigerians in South Africa, who had indicated interest to return home as a result of xenophobic attacks, failed.

Managing Director of Air Peace airlines, Allen Onyema

The first attempt at evacuating Nigerians in South Africa, who had indicated interest to return home as a result of xenophobic attacks, failed. Not because the management of Air Peace reneged on its promise to donate an aircraft for the operation, the plane was on standby. It also had nothing to do with the Federal Government not being proactive, far from that.

While the team was getting set for the free airlifting, it became obvious that the operation could not start as scheduled due to lack of proper documentation. Investigation revealed that some of the affected Nigerians did not have travel documents and their passports had expired. So, when the new date for the airlifting was eventually announced, expectations were high.

On hand to receive the first batch of returnees on September 11, 2019 was Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, in the company of Air Peace Chairman, Mr. Allen Onyema, and other officials of agencies such as the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).

The long wait eventually came to an end at about 9.37p.m, when the B777 aircraft, with registration number 5N-BWI, which departed OR Thambo International Airport, Johannesburg, landed and taxied at the Cargo Wing of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The returnees included adults, children and infants.

First to gain access into the plane was Onyema, who was received by the flight crew. As soon as it was announced that the Air Peace boss, who had spent a whopping N280 million to effect the evacuation, was to address the returnees, the entire cabin erupted in jubilation.

From applauds to chants of praise, the returnees comprising people from different ethnic backgrounds, echoed the National Anthem. At this point, Onyema, who was accompanied by placard carrying airhostesses with inscription ‘Say No To Xenophobia, couldn’t hold back emotions; he broke down in tears. All through that day, his name trended on almost all social media platforms for his patriotism.

Just this Wednesday, the Federal House of Representatives held a session in honour of Onyema. The House passed a resolution asking President Muhammadu Buhari to give a National Award to the Anambra State native in recognition of his patriotism, which the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, asked the Clerk of the House, Patrick Giwa, to transmit to the President immediately. The lawmakers also vowed to give the first priority to Air Peace when flying to any part of the country.

The Speaker, shortly after saying the opening prayers, had asked that the Order Paper for Wednesday’s plenary be temporarily suspended to allow the lawmakers receive Onyema; Gbajabiamila asked the Majority Leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, to move that Onyema be allowed into the chamber.

As soon as the Chief Whip, Mohammed Monguno, ushered Onyema into the chamber, lawmakers took turns to embrace and shake hands with him. The rare show of patriotism has earned Onyema the epithet of ‘a true Nigerian.’

The Speaker particularly commended Onyema for his patriotism, adding, “I believe that we are all witnesses to what he has done for our brothers and sisters in the last couple of weeks. We watched the scenes of Nigerians on TV being reunited with their families and friends; the emotional scene was brought about or made possible by only one man among many men; a businessman who is into business like every other businessman to make money, but who sacrificed his wealth and business, and at no cost – and I dare say at a loss – deployed his aircraft to bring back our brothers and sisters who were facing danger in South Africa.

“This is a feat that should be commended. And we hereby commend Mr. Allen Onyema and recommend you to the Federal Government for higher honour in Nigeria,” he said.

Onyema, who got a standing ovation from the lawmakers, said, “You have brought tears to my eyes again. I have never been so honoured in my life.”

He said the evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa has brought respect to Nigeria across the world.

Onyema noted that the pressure on South Africa forced the country to apologise to Nigeria and other African countries, adding, “It wouldn’t have happened if the evacuation hadn’t taken place,” he said.

Among lawmakers, who spoke was a member from Delta State, Julius Pondi, a former Niger Delta militant. Pondi revealed that Onyema had extended his philanthropy to other parts of the country long before the Air Peace evacuation. “I came in contact with Onyema in 2005 when he was operating a non-governmental organisation, Foundation for Ethnic Harmony. Then, the struggle and agitation for the Niger Delta was at its peak. On his own, he brought out young men from the creeks to embrace peace. I was in the creeks; but I am now a law-making militant.”

The legislator hinted that Onyema used the NGO to train the militants in Lagos, in affiliation with the University of Rhodes Island.

“I attended the first batch of it and the second was in South Africa. I was trained in South Africa along with others.

“When in 2010, the then President (Umaru) Yar’Adua proclaimed the amnesty, about 79 to 80 per cent of all the 30,000 militants that were granted amnesty were all trained by the same NGO.

“I want to join everybody in this House to thank Mr. Onyema that “you have done well.” I am a living testimony of all the good things you have done. Today, I am a ranking member of this green chamber because at some point, you were part of the formation stage in my life and I thank you for that,” Pondi submitted.

Born 1964, in Benin City, Edo State, Allen Ifechukwu Onyema had his early education in Benin, before moving to the prestigious Government College, Ughelli. Having obtained his Higher School Certificate, he proceeded to the University of Ibadan (UI) for a degree in Law.

As an undergraduate at the UI, Onyema’s appetite for peace made him to lead a group of nine students to travel to the ancient city of Zaria to quell a raging religious and ethnic riot that claimed lives. As a result of the publicity he and his colleagues received on return to their campus, their enthusiasm grew, leading to the formation of Eminent Friends’ Group, with the objectives of promoting ethnic harmony amongst Nigeria’s diverse ethnic nationalities and fighting the incidence of violence of all forms in our nation.

At the Nigerian Law School in 1987, he combined his studies with social activism bothering on engendering peace in Nigeria. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1989, and started his legal practice in 1990 in the Law Firm of Nwizugbo & Company from where he rose to become the Head of Chambers by 1992. He later resigned from this law firm to establish his own outfit Onyema & CO. He equally floated the property Company of Allen Onyema & Company and an import trade outfit, Continental Business Links Ltd.

Today, Onyema is not only the National Chairman of Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN), he has also been appointed into the Executive Board of The Global Nonviolence Conference Series Inc. USA, with notable world leaders as Hon. Dr. Andrew Young and Suarez Ramos as members. By this appointment, which was confirmed in April 2007, he became the second African ever to be so appointed to the Global Board.

His works of peace, particularly in the area of transforming the restive youths of the Niger Delta region, has earned him several national and international honours and recognition.

“If you know my nature, I’m pro this country; I’m very pro-Nigeria. I’m very pro-humanity, I’m a very peaceful person; I love peace. I know what I did in Niger Delta; it’s only passion that could make me embark on that dangerous assignment. When I saw that the military had failed in the Niger Delta, when I saw that a country of over 170 million people was producing only less than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in an economy that is dependent on oil, when I saw that businesses were taking flight out of Nigeria because of kidnapping, when I saw that the entire Niger Delta was engulfed in a lot of mess, I came out,” Onyema said in an interview with The Guardian.

An apostle of non-violent approach to conflict resolution, Onyema could be described as a good example of ‘think of what you can do for your country and not what your country can do for you.’ As a young man, he was spending his hard earned resources, seeking ways of arresting the situation in the Niger Delta.

“I started studying non-violence education very early. I remember it was used by Mahatma Gandhi in India to bring down British rule, without him encouraging his people to take to violence. In the Niger Delta, the people felt marginalised; they felt that the water they drink is as black as your shoes. Yet, nothing is coming their way. And when they tried to present their case in a civil way, nobody listened to them. Therefore, they took to arms. So, I wanted to change the dynamics that you can get what you want without using arms,” he recalled.

Onyema addressing the House of Representative during his reception on Wednesday

Determined to find a lasting solution to the problem, Onyema wrote to the University of Rhodes Island Center for Non-Violence and Peace Studies, USA, asking them to train him, alongside his 22 members of staff, to return and help transform Niger Delta militants.

“They gave us admission, but the American Embassy didn’t give us visas. I persevered on three occasions, but they didn’t give us visas. I wrote to the University and I said, ‘please, help me save my country, can you come to Nigeria to teach us this non-violence education?’ For me, it wasn’t about going to America.”

With approval from the university, Onyema bankrolled the sponsorship training of his 22 staff in the first instance, and then another 200 people.

“I now started going to the creeks to pick people to train and transform. I took some journalists to South Africa and America to see what we were doing because people didn’t believe what they were hearing. Between 2005 and 2007, I was pulling off people and transforming them. Parents, whose children were militants, were coming to me to say, ‘please, help me transform my child.’ That was when America started looking my side. South African government cooperated with us; they started giving us visa to go to King-Luthuli Transformation Centre in South Africa for their second training. The Americans started giving us visa to come to America to deepen their transformation by going to civil right museums and other places of learning in non-violence.”

He continued: “I was doing these things with my own funds and nobody asked me how I made my money; some were even thinking maybe I wanted to go into politics. But this is me right from childhood; I love peace. I was doing it for my nation. Nobody asked where I got the money; I was selling my estates to do that,” he revealed.

Unfortunately, as soon as Onyema floated Air Peace, there was controversy over the ownership. In fact, he was accused of fronting for some powerful politicians.

“Suddenly, everybody became interested, ‘how did he get money? Who is he fronting for? So, this is Nigeria where we belong. I’ve done things for this country that I deserve to be given one of the highest awards ever. It was my programme that led to the amnesty being given to the militants; it led to relative peace everybody had in Niger Delta today. When Shell discovered what I was doing, they came in and started bankrolling it in millions; Chevron and other oil companies joined.”

It is widely believed that Onyema’s programme paved way for the amnesty to Niger Delta militants by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

“He called the then MD of NDDC Timi Alaibe to ask questions about me and he told him that, ‘yes, even the people that he trained, I’ve employed them.’ Yaradua then said, ‘okay, let him train their leaders.’ But they didn’t want to go because they thought it was a ploy to get them arrested; they decided to send their commanders. It was the training of 600 commanders that proved to the whole world that the programme was working because the American Embassy was coming to the training ground at the Eko Tourist Beach Resort.”

On how he arrived at Air Peace as name for his airline, Onyema explained, “Like I told you, all my life, I’ve been in peace building; I’m the owner of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria, I’m the owner of All Time Peace Media Communications, I’m the owner of the International Center for Non-Violence & Peace Development. So, when I wanted to float the airline, I was tinkering with names; I wanted to use the name peace. So, I named it Air Peace in line with my other businesses; I didn’t know I was courting problems. They now aligned it to somebody, who has alias of ‘Mama Peace’, who I’ve never met in my life. Up till now, I’ve never met them,” he insists.

Though a commercial venture, creating jobs for teeming Nigerian youths, was a major factor in setting up Air Peace. For Onyema, that’s enough satisfaction.

“My satisfaction comes from knowing that God is using Air Peace to put food on the tables of millions of people in this country. God is using Air Peace to give direct jobs to about 3000 Nigerians and about 9000 ancillary jobs. And when I say 9000, I’m not kidding. Sky Care that supplies us catering, I went there and saw one big warehouse and I saw about 300 to 500 people working there. And the man said all these people were employed because they are doing Air Peace catering, ‘as you were expanding, we are expanding them.’ I shed tears that day. That means, indirectly, I employed those 5000 people; they were working on different things,” he noted.

Urging the government to encourage indigenous investments in the country, the Air Peace boss said, “That’s the only time we begin to solve, to some extent, the issue of insecurity; when you take people out of the streets. In America, what does it take to give you their green card? If you invest $500,000 and prove that it can create about 10 to 20 jobs, they give you green card and give you red carpet. We have to change; black man has to change his nature. Nigeria has to change; let’s begin to support each other. Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Urhobo… let us begin to support ourselves. It’s only when we fight for each other that we can survive as a nation. But when we continue fighting against each other, that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

When Onyema tells you he’s busy, indeed he is.

“It’s unfortunate that I don’t have time for myself anymore; I don’t have a life. I don’t socialise; I don’t go to clubs. Friends don’t see me, nobody sees me anywhere; I spend my time here. I come to the office and once I close late, I go home and continue working till about 3.30a.m when I go to bed; I don’t sleep. By 5.30a.m, I’m awake, reading mails. Like we are here now, I must have had about 400 mails; I must read all and follow all that happens. If any aircraft takes off, I know; we have flight monitoring gadgets on our planes. If you start the engine, I know; if it takes off, it reports to me. If it lands, I get another mail. If you switch off the engine, I know. So, I follow all these things; it’s not a job for the fainthearted.”

He continued: “My youngest son made first class in Engineering in the UK, the one before him made second-class; both of them are graduating and I’m here, my wife went. I’m here because there are issues you have to face. It hurts me. My children called me the other day, sat me down and said, ‘dad, you know we don’t really know you anymore,” and I shed tears. When I do this, people should not think I want to enrich myself, no; there’s no money here. I was better off collecting interest from the bank; I was better of doing my other businesses. But this business called airline business creates the kind of massive job opportunities I’ve never seen in my life; that was why I set up Air Peace.”

In 2007, when Onyema was looking for avenues of giving back to the society by creating jobs, he was advised to look towards airline business.

“I trained myself on the job; it’s my passion that is holding me. At times, you feel frustrated and you feel like shutting down. But let me tell the whole world that Air Peace will not shut down. If people are forcing me because they know I could be emotional at times and I want to shutdown, I won’t shutdown. If I look at thousands of faces of people, indigent families that depend on Air Peace, I’m not going to shut down; I’m going to persevere,” he declared.

Typical family men, all the names on Air Peace flights are actually names of his family members, including his children and late parents.

“Family is everything,” he noted, adding, “If you come from a good family and you take family very seriously, we won’t have violence. When I was going to school, I comported myself because I was afraid of doing certain things that will make my family not to be proud of me; it matters to me a lot. It matters to me what my children think about me. All those names you are seeing are members of my family.”

While his first four planes were named after his four children Nnenna, Chinonso, Obinna and Ugochukwu, the next two additions were named after his parents Michael and Helen Onyema.

“The next one was named after my wife. When I finished, I entered my uncles and aunties; my father had six siblings. Then, I entered my own siblings; we are nine in number. The next ones are cousins, the same Onyema. From there, I will be going to friends and people that impacted my life. They are all proud of me; at least my father saw his own plane before he died. His brother, who died in 2016, wasn’t fortunate enough; his plane was in Europe undergoing painting when he was dying of cancer in London; he was actually looking forward to the day he would enter it.”