“Except and only when we fight for each other can we become a nation.”- Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema
The good that men do live during their lifetimes and beyond. This is in contrast to Shakespeare’s words in Julius Caesar that ‘the evil that men do live after them. Perhaps better known as the owner of Air Peace by many, Chief Allen Onyema is a man who is bestriding the African air space like a colossus. A patriotic Nigerian and a shrewd businessman committed to a liberated Africa, Onyeama is imbued heavily with the milk of kindness; a virtue that has informed his major successes, chief of which was the initiative to bring peace to the once fiery Niger Delta region of the country, and in which he played a principal role. His passion to touch humanity has seen him pay the heavy price of almost being a stranger to his own family. The amiable barrister, real estate mogul and business tycoon spoke with some journalists in his Lagos office about his achievements, airline, the Niger Delta peace process, challenges, a few things bedeviling the African society and other sundry issues. MANNY ITA was there.
Speaking about what his greatest achievement is Chief Allen Onyema popped our eyes and tingled our ears with how he passionately fathomed a solution for warring militants in the Niger Delta region, which resulted in the amnesty granted the militants and the resultant peace in the region today.
“My greatest achievement is being instrumental to the peace we have now in the Niger Delta. If anything happens in the Niger Delta it affects the whole country, sine the income of the country is dependent on the Niger Delta region.”
“At a time when youths of the Niger Delta took up arms, killing as a way of addressing the issue of nationalization, the country was in trouble. They began in 1998 and by 2004, oil production had come down to about 1.5m barrels per day from 3m barrels. So that was a disaster waiting to happen. The military could not contain them. Foreign oil workers were being kidnapped, Americans, Britons were being kidnapped. Chevron, Shell and other oil companies could not prospect oil peacefully, oil institutions were being burnt. In fact most of the oil companies stopped prospecting onshore, but the boys still went offshore to destroy facilities and took some hostage. So the Nigerian nation was being disrupted, the economy of the country was being disrupted and businesses were taking flight out of the Niger Delta region. Non Nigerians were scared to come into Nigeria. The American State department issued a warning to travelling US citizens not to come to Nigeria. So it was another civil war facing us. That was the time I stepped out and started thinking about how to help my country. I am a firm believer of what you can do for your country, not just what your country can do for you, so I resolved to address the issue. I never look down on myself, neither do I look down on others. I believe in myself and what I can do. God has given each of us power, you just have to explore yours. My sincerity helped me to begin to think of how I can help address the issue of violent militancy in the Niger Delta and that was when I realized that non-violence education was the best way to go. I remember Mahatma Ghandi used non-violence education to bring down British rule in India without having to encourage his people to take up arms, and they got what they wanted. What was the issue in the Niger Delta? The Niger Deltans felt they were the ones producing the wealth of the country, yet nothing to show for it, so they took up arms believing that was the best way to go. I decided to bring in another option, a more positive option, one that would bring a win-win situation. I was not trained yet in non-violence but knew it was powerful because it works with the soul. I remember that Martin Luther King jnr. used it to end official segregation in the US, without having to encourage his followers to kill anybody. In 1981 Lech Wałęsa used it in Poland with his solidarity group to bring down communism in that country. History is replete with examples where non-violent change worked effectively, so I decided to tow that line. The fist thing I did was to writ to the University of Rudderland center for peace studies in the US to give 22 of my staff and myself admission so I could have the expertise to come to Nigeria and go to the Niger Delta region to confront the violent militants. The US however did not give us visas; we tried a few times but they refused. So I wrote to the university again and asked them to bring the faculty to Nigeria, saying I would fund it for the sake of my country. The director of the center then was Dr. Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jnr’s number 1 aide during the civil rights days in the 60’s. I didn’t know I could attract such an international figure but God has his ways. He replied me saying because I had been very persistent and persevering, he was would like to come to Nigeria and see this MLK of Nigeria. So because of my interest, persistence and seriousness about what I sought to achieve, he brought the entire faculty of the university’s center for peace and non-violence studies to Nigeria. I funded it. No government gave me money. I used my hard earned money to see peace reign in my country. So they came and trained us. After the initial training, I went to South Africa, got some more training and came back to Nigeria and went to the creeks of the Niger Delta and began pulling out these boys. I won’t bother you explaining how we got them and used them to get others, because those are things that may be wanted for use tomorrow, so it is better kept under the hat.
Bringing the militants to Lagos for training was another huge risk as we were sought by their leaders to silence. I took them to the Eko Tourist beach where they were trained and from where they were moved to South Africa to further their transformation and changing their mindset from the belief in the efficacy of violence as a tool. That is what we achieved. Let me tell you something, anybody in violence wants out of violence. They don’t like it; the suicide bomber doesn’t like what he is doing, the terrorists, armed robbers, kidnappers all don’t like what they are doing but they don’t know how to quit. Non-violence education provides the route to liberation from the clutches of violence, and when they get it, they become so happy they couldn’t trade that freedom for a billion dollars. All this was in 2005. Soon after, the oil companies realized the importance of what we were doing. Chevron was the first to contract me to expand the scope of the programme, and when Shell joined in, non-violence became a household name in the Niger Delta. It was not long before other oil companies also joined in bankrolling me. In 2007, the new government of late President Yaradua (may his soul rest in peace) took over governance in the country and they sent for me saying they had a security report about me and what I was doing, asking how I achieved that. I became a hunted person by the hierarchy of the militants and Shell had to be putting me in different hotels such that for one full year, I could not see my young family. To cut a long story short, these were what led to the granting of amnesty to the militants and the resultant peace in the region. The crude oil production that had nosedived when we started peaked to 2.5m to 3m barrels per day. That remains my greatest achievement.”
It is amazing that someone would be so passionate to provide jobs for his countrymen that against all odds and hurdles, he would persist on floating a full blown airline. This is the story behind the entity Air Peace.
“My first call is law. I was called to the bar in 1989 and began practicing in 1990. By 1991, I went into real estate and I also had a trading company dealing with import and export trade, so I had things going for me at a very young age. After sometime I was making money, helping people and was involved in philanthropy. I had thousands of people in my foundation going to school; even today we instructed the bank to settle the fees of another batch of students. Then there are those who come seeking funds to begin one business or the other, and no sooner would they come back asking for more even though I knew some were taking advantage of that. It was then that my father asked why I didn’t just set up a company and employ these people instead of giving them money. My father was a strict disciplinarian and had a strong influence on me. There are businesses that do not employ a large number of people and turn up huge profit and others that can employ a large number but with low turnover. So I started looking for one that could employ the critical mass of unemployed people in this country. There’s a lot of poverty out there and I don’t believe that I’m going to go to the grave with my wealth or bank account, but the legacy one leaves behind is what matters. In the course of searching for the kind of business to invest in, so as to create massive employment, someone suggested I go into aviation, saying that just one Boeing 737 could provide up to a thousand jobs. This was in 2007, I had no prior training in aviation and I naively believed. It’s true that airline business could give jobs to many people. I have seen it, having over 3000 workers in Air Peace, but not at the magnitude of one aircraft to a thousand people, otherwise I would have 28 thousand workers at the moment, with 28 airplanes. The sincerity to create jobs was there and I believed, that is why I went into aviation.”
“When we started, we got a consultant who was running a private charter company to help set up the airline and the first thing we did was to buy an aircraft. He made me buy Dornier jets, which are smaller planes for charter. We bought the first jet in France, an executive Dornier 328 jet. From there we went to the Dornier jet factory in Germany and bought another one and from there we went to the US to buy the third Dornier jet. When we returned to my apartment in London I brought out a bottle of wine so we could toast to our achievement. It was then I said, ‘so these three jets would give jobs to 3000 people.’ He said no, explaining that it was a very lucrative business I was going into, as at the time charter was booming in Nigeria, and that all I needed were two beautiful girls to market the charter, two set of pilots for each aircraft and four engineers for maintenance or I could register with another company for maintenance. He said I didn’t need more than 30 people and I’d be making more than a hundred thousand dollars per day. My countenance changed immediately and I became very angry instantly. He asked what happened and I told him making more money was not what I wanted. I was moody throughout that night and could not sleep.”
“The next morning he asked what I really wanted and I told him an aircraft that can give plenty of jobs, and not one that would enrich me. He then said a Boeing 727 was what I needed if I wanted a full blown airline but warned that it was a risky business with massive capital outlay and little profit. So instead of coming back to Nigeria, we went back to the US where we bought one of the Dornier jets and the man was surprised to see us just after a week. I told him that what I actually wanted was not a Dornier jet but that I did not intend to return the one I earlier bought but would want a Boeing 727 for a full blown airline. When he asked why I wanted to go into domestic schedule flight operations, I replied him that I wanted to create jobs in my country. He looked at me and asked if I was serious and I told him I was and asked if it could create massive jobs to which he answered in the affirmative. He asked if I knew it was risky and I said yes but if handled properly could be okay. Again he asked if I was sure I wanted to venture into that and I said yes. He then got up and hugged me, saying it was the first time he was seeing a Nigerian who came out there saying he wanted to help his people. He was touched to the point he said he would help and asked which of the Boeing 727 I wanted, and I said the one with short wings. I knew next to nothing about aviation so every description of mine was with the hand and I was humble enough not to pretend about what I knew and what I didn’t. He said that was a 727-800 and asked why that choice. I said because it is the type Arik Air used in my country and everyone loved to fly Arik. Then Nigerians were of the belief that if it was not wingless like Arik’s, it was not safe aircraft. But then he made me understand that such an aircraft was not meant for a 30/60 minute. When he plotted it, he saw the longest trip was an hour 30 minutes and said such an aircraft was built for 4 to 6 hour journey in the least, as using it for lesser duration would cause unnecessary cycles on the engine. I did not even know what cycles meant. I was naïve and just had money to invest. He looked at me perplexed that I wanted to go into aviation, when I asked what cycles meant. He said the engine was expensive and should not be risked for a 30 minute one hour journey since it was meant to fly longer hours. Because of my passion to help my people, he said he did not want me to fail and that I should go and come the next day, saying he won’t sell that aircraft for me. When we went the next day, he took us to a company he had some aircrafts at and said he would sell me classics. He sold me four of those planes for peanuts because he was so excited and just wanted to help, seeing that I was passionate about helping people in my country. He did all the C-checks and when we came back to Nigeria, it took about 2 years to get my license (AOC) to begin operations as an airline. This was in September 2013 and we commenced operations October 2014.”
“I then sold the Dornier jets to a British Airways subsidiary called Sub Air. I sold two of the jets. I don’t like private jets because I don’t like flying alone. I like flying with the passengers and it was only on two or three occasions I found myself inside that jet. I have also put it up for sale to the factory in Germany where it was bought. Two days ago myself, my wife and my four children flew from Abuja and people were saying it was dangerous and risky for my entire family to travel in one aircraft and I said my life and that of my family were not better than those of the one hundred and eighty lives aboard the aircraft, and I believed in what I am giving the people.”
Nigeria has been without a national carrier for a long while and you are probably one of those who wondered or thought Air Peace was the national carrier of Nigeria. Well, the boss clears the air on that.
“Air Peace is not a national carrier but a flag carrier just like Arik, Bellview etc. Flag carrier means your country has given you a destination, a certain reach to fly and you fly the flag of the country. America doesn’t have a national carrier; Southwest, United, American Airlines are not national carriers. British Airways is not a national carrier but owned by IG group.”
“Air Peace is the biggest airline, not just in Nigeria but in West Africa but we do not see ourselves as the national carrier of Nigeria. There’s equal stake for any airline that can fly the flag of the country.”
As it is said, ‘No pain, No gain.’ Every meaningful endeavor comes with its fair or unfair bit of challenges. Air Peace was not without some in the course of establishing it.
“The biggest challenge was getting our license, then equipment and also getting the right people to work with. Setting up the engineering department was another challenge, being one I pay great attention to. We decided to contract a British company to take charge of our maintenance department because I wanted them to also bring up our people in terms of what they do. Of course foreign exchange was also a challenge.”
From humble beginnings, Air Peace keeps expanding and improving, breaking new grounds, and of course for an outfit established with the sole purpose of touching lives, why not? The airline has been exploring more possibilities and is set to open up routes to the Caribbean, China and other routes as the chief disclosed.
“We have been talking to governments in the Caribbean, Antigua and Jamaica. There’s no direct flight from Africa to the Caribbean. We did the inaugural flight to Montego Bay to showcase we have the equipment. Air Peace has three Boeing 727 which could be deployed on that route twice or thrice weekly. That is what we are targeting and the process has begun. In a no-distant future, we are going to start the Caribbean connection when we take people from Africa to the Caribbean and bring people to Africa from there.”
Have you ever wondered why travelling across Africa is very expensive? For many who do not travel Africa, the answer to the question seems like someone sticking a knife to his own neck.
“This happens because of connectivity issues. The governments of Africa are still not opening up. For e.g. my country gave me the Cote d’ Ivoire route to fly. As I speak, it has been four years and I have not started flying that route because when we got there to set up our office, they slammed us with high, discriminatory charges. Meanwhile Nigeria is always playing the big brother, allowing everybody to come in free. Flights from many African countries come into Nigeria free but some treat us differently in their countries. When you charge up to $10,000 as landing fee in a country, how many passengers is the aircraft carrying? So indirectly, they push us out. But we are going back there. I give them up to June this year to put things right otherwise I intend to go to court to stop their aircrafts from coming into Nigeria.”
“We wrote to Togo in regard to starting the Lagos-Lome route, they wrote back to us stopping us saying they will not allow us, meanwhile their own aircrafts come to Nigeria as many times as they like. I find that very insulting so I’m preparing to go to court. So you see some African countries are hostile to others especially in franco-phone countries and this makes things difficult. Senegal was another place we spent two years before kicking off. We’re now travelling Johannesburg, South Africa, we are about to start our Dubai operations and we came back from India few days ago. We’re also going to China. We want to use Lagos as a hub, mop up people from Abuja and distribute. So Air Peace is growing, from 7 to 25 aircrafts, now 13 more have joined plus 10 Boeing 727 max.”
Made in Nigeria planes feasible?
“That would not be wishful thinking because I believe in the power of the human mind. But I think there are more things we could do as a nation for now, like fixing infrastructure, other than manufacturing planes at this stage.”
Everyone is naturally endowed with a talent which when harnessed or honed early makes life very meaningful. Business to Chief Onyeama is a talent discovered at a very interesting age.
“I discovered my business potentials at the age of 12 hawking football on the streets.”
You may have suspected it but it is now authoritative that Africa is the current big pie.
“Africa is not only the future but the NOW. This is where to be. We should not look down on ourselves. The problem with African governments is that of leadership. There is another scramble for Africa. The first scramble was in the 50’s and early 60’s. Another scramble is coming and Africa should resist it. We should believe in ourselves. We have all it takes. The resources in one African nation can feed the whole of Europe. We are sitting on wealth in this country and every African country is blessed. We should not because of lack of infrastructure keep running west. Let us salvage here because this is where it is presently happening. The Europeans, Asians, Americans, everyone wants a piece of Africa, so why are we looking down on ourselves? We need to change the way we do things.”
The publisher of Effizzie Magazine( Princess Joy Esamah with the CEO of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema.
A message for Africa
“First of all, Africans should start believing in themselves and do away with mental slavery, believing they are not good enough. I’m not saying everything is ok in Africa, but nowhere is better either. What you see is what you get. We overly orchestrate our shortcomings to the outside world, making them feel special. We are compassionate people. Yes we have issues but God created us differently. We must change our perception of ourselves.”
While many were busy counting the losses of Air Peace during the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Chief Onyeama was busy evacuating Nigerians from the former apartheid enclave. For the boss who knew just what to do, it was more a matter on national dignity to intervene.
“South Africans were busy fighting other Africans claiming that they had come to take their jobs, killing some in the process. They were blind to the multi-national companies that are taking away billions but talking about people who were artisans, helping them do odd jobs they couldn’t do and helping their economy. In order to stigmatize them, they were called criminals. Many Nigerians are languishing in different prisons around the world for things they know nothing about. That stigma played out in South Africa and they were looting, burning and killing Nigerians. Some members of their government were making remarks that were so undiplomatic, making people suspect there was some official connivance.”
“I am a non-violent expert. I knew what I could do to stop xenophobia. A few things led me to South Africa. The first was to bring respect to my country, to save the lives of both Nigerians and South Africans and also to stop xenophobic attacks. I felt the best thing to do was to send my planes to evacuate Nigerians. Evacuation is not a good thing for any country. If every country starts sending aircrafts to evacuate their citizens from any country because of insecurity or any other reason, it sends a wrong signal to the world and that wrong signal would affect any country adversely, which would make the country have a rethink. So that was what I set out to achieve; to save my national dignity, to save our honor to bring back our people, to save lives and ultimately to stop xenophobia.”
“So when I sent my jets to go and bring Nigerians back home free of charge. South Africa knew there was problem. They did not want the planes to land; they did not want to give us permit. It took a lot of diplomatic tussles for that to happen. They tried to intimidate Nigerians that their passports would be stamped denying them entry for up to ten years, because they knew the effects of such an evacuation. After two attempts of evacuating Nigerians their government stood up to stop xenophobia. So I succeeded not only in bringing honor and prestige to our people but also saved the lives of our people as well as that of South Africans who could have possibly been counter-attacked, while of course putting a stop to xenophobic attacks. I love my country, I love Africa and what I did was to save the African continent. The government of South Africa sat up the moment I began the evacuation.”
People like Chief Onyeama certainly do not come a dime a dozen, and not a few would wish for a person like him as their governor or even the president of Nigeria, given also his compassionate side. But as 2023 draws near, towards where would the chief incline?
“Everything I do, everything I have done both in the past and presently, I don’t have any political motivation behind them. This is how I have been right from my high school days. I used to share with indigent students whatever my parents gave me. I could share all my provisions and go hungry. For Air Peace, it’s not really about money. After Covid-19 stemmed and the lockdown was eased I recalled every staff of Air Peace and restored a hundred percent of their salary and even gave them bonus. I am happy just seeing thousands of people earning their livelihood from this place. I have no political ambition.”
Manny Ita of Effizzie Magazine and Chief Allen Onyema CEO of Airpeace
Needless to say how Covid-19 made many businesses moribund with many downsizing or laying off workers. The airlines were one of the worst hit globally. Many are still smarting from the effects, but it is interesting how Air Peace survived the turbulence and stayed afloat.
“It was turbulent for everyone, for airlines worldwide. We had over 25 planes parked and not working, yet insurance had to be paid just as maintenance had to go on. Someone asked me recently if I had blood pressure during that time and I said NO. I don’t treat my businesses as for my personal enrichment. What am I looking for? So I was not bothered in that regard. What bothered me was that we had to ask our workers to go home, like leave without pay. Immediately the government opened up the skies again, I began to recall them. At a point I slashed their salaries just to conserve funds and accommodate everybody. As soon as things improved, I paid back the salaries that I slashed and restored their salaries a hundred percent; they were not expecting that. The minimum wage in Nigeria is N18,000, but the minimum wage at Air Peace is N45,000 and this is for unskilled workers like cleaners, janitors etc. So I walk with my head tall. My happiness is seeing other faces working at Air Peace happy.”
Chief Onyeama’s philosophy about life is just as plain and noble as the man is.
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That I why I believe that unless my brothers and sisters, i.e. mankind are invited to my table of prosperity to share, my own happiness is non-existent.”
Very many people successful and not usually have points in their lives they wished they could reverse and correct, and for Chief Onyeama, who has a large heart….
“No. I have no regrets.”
It can be intriguing trying to imagine how such busy people as the chief manage to balance their busy schedules with family demands. It is actually very touching.
“I have not been able to balance that. I have to be truthful; my family suffers in my absence and with my children it sometimes feel like they do not know their father. Sometimes they accuse me of doing more for others than them. I close late at night and don’t have any social life. When I should perhaps have enjoyed life was in 2004 to 2008 when I was in the Niger Delta helping my country. For one full year, my young family did not see me. The younger of my children once said “daddy you know we don’t know you”. When he left I shed tears because what he said was the truth. For everything there is a price and my family is paying the price for what I do for my country, for a united society. So I really have not been able to find that balance.”
If the motivation to enter into real estate was by the same emotions that birthed Air Peace
“No. Real estate was for the pursuit of money and not necessarily to create jobs.”
On what countries Chief Onyeama has lived outside Nigeria, it is humbling to know.
“I have stayed in Nigeria all my life. There’s a lot to achieve here. Tell those in the diaspora to come back and apply the wealth of experience they have. They should think about things they could bring home, not necessarily money. It could be services not had here, it could be ideas. Africa is a virgin continent so there are lots to be done here. People go abroad for opportunities which is ok, but we must think of what we could bring back and make our land better and bigger. I brought in non-violence conflict management into the country for the first time and made billions. It is no secret. So there are many things to be done here. Africa is a virgin continent waiting to be tapped.”
Source of inspiration
“I fear God and feel his presence in my life. I know he loves me and even when things seem upside down. God always comes in, so I get inspiration from the fact of my knowledge that God loves me.”
One thing that keeps the chief going
“The desire to touch lives of people because we’re surrounded by abject poverty. So that is my drive. There are other businesses I am into and others yet I am trying to explore. It’s all because I want to touch humanity. Aviation may give you fame but not make you necessarily richer. There are other businesses I do that bring in money. For aviation it’s not money, maybe fame, but it creates jobs and well paid jobs.”
Biggest wish for NIGERIA.
“Unity. Nigeria is a country of 378 ethnic nationalities. That diversity which is supposed to be our source of strength has become an albatross which should not be. The country would blossom if all these ethnic nationalities bring their attributes to the table. America is a melting pot of all ethnic nationalities in the world. The moment anyone gets that passport, what they profess is that they are Americans. Here what we profess is ethnicity. A Nigerian would see another Nigerian abroad and look away because they’re not of the same tribe. I want Nigerians to be able to fight for each other instead of against themselves. I would love to see an Igbo man fighting for a Fulani man, a Hausa man fighting for the Yoruba man, the Yoruba man fighting for the minorities. Except and only when we fight for each other can we become a nation.”
Have you ever seen an Air Peace aircraft? They are all named with specific names of people…yes real people and it is both instructive and somewhat hilarious to know what inform these names.
“I believe in family. A lot of decadence in society happens because of the lack of family life. If you believe in family you will be careful about the things you do so as not to soil the name of your family. That is why my first airplanes were named after my wife, my four children, my mother and my father. When I bought subsequent planes, I named them after my uncles and aunties. My father had five siblings. My mother has nine children and I am the first. So my siblings came next and for now, we are on my cousins.”
And after your cousins?
“Maybe grandchildren” (Laughter)
It was really a wonderful, exciting, informing and edifying session discussing with Chief Allen Onyema.