Air Peace, the private airline founded in 2013 by Allen Ifechukwu Onyema celebrated its fifth anniversary this month. The company has been riding a wave of terrific publicity since September when by responding to the ugly xenophobic wave of attacks in certain pockets of South Africa, its founder and chief executive made a bold decision that placed him in the spotlight and earned him loads of commendation.
While the government dithered in coming up with a comprehensive diplomatic response that puts the lives of Nigerians front and center, and while criminal minded Nigerians went on a shameful “retaliation” spree targeted at legitimate businesses, Onyema quietly mobilized an airplane and according to him expended over 230 million to evacuate Nigerians who were willing to return home.
Onyema managed this feat with staff and equipment of Air Peace- the cabin crew waived their allowance- without any major input from the government. Explaining his motivations on Arise Africa, Onyema said, ‘’I saw the gory pictures of people dying, I saw the pictures of helplessness I saw the pictures of hopelessness too… from my own countrymen so I decided to do what I had to do.” Convinced of the urgency of his rescue mission, Onyema called up the foreign affairs minister and outlined his plan. He offered to do it at no cost to government because according to him, “when you start talking about money, you start wasting time.”
You have seen the video by now considering it has since gone viral. It lasts about 2 minutes and 30seconds. The Air Peace Boeing 777 has just touched down Lagos. Allen Onyema is introduced to the passengers who immediately overwhelm him with hugs, whoops and handshakes. He can’t help himself, the tears flow freely. Not done yet, the passengers break out in song that is both gratitude expression and loyalty pledge before rounding up with the national anthem.
The scenes from the airport marked a rare bright spot in an otherwise ugly saga. Onyema, a private citizen was able to inspire both patriotism and faith in country, features that have been on constant short supply.
The work of nation building demands input from all kinds of citizens regardless of strata and Onyema was able to put the unlikeliest of allies, capitalistic big business at the center of the conversation. It is almost impossible to recall the last time Nigerians were presented with genuine reasons to believe in the country anew but Onyema with his incredible act of generosity uncovered a new layer for what it means to believe in the Nigerian project and contribute deliberately instead of only seeking gain. For a moment in time, Onyema briefly reintroduced Nigerians to the twin concepts of selflessness and patriotism.
Man of peace
Cynical folks looking to dismiss Onyema’s actions as another case of ethnic solidarity, considering a significant proportion of the stranded victims are from his part of the country are simply ignorant of Onyema’s antecedents. The term detribalized Nigerian has become cliché, abused by people who have failed to fully grasp both the concept of nationhood and the traumas of colonialization. And it isn’t quite clear what Onyema’s politics are, or even the extent of his engagement, but his quiet activism has been the advancement of nationalism.
His belief in Nigeria isn’t merely lip service and he has repeatedly led by personal and professional example. He told This Day following the evacuation, “Let’s think about nationalism and when I am talking about nationalism I am talking about broad nationalism, not ethnic nationalism, I am Igbo, I am Yoruba, Fulani, or Hausa. We want to do something to encourage broad nationalism, when Nigerians will first and foremost say I am Nigerian before start talking about other things.”
Outside his businesses, Onyema has been involved in the not for profit sector, preaching his message of peace and nation building. Before he became recognized for his work with Air Peace, Onyema was a leader in non-violent conflict resolution with his Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN). He reportedly happened upon this path when as a Law student in the University of Ibadan, he led a group of nine of his colleagues to Zaria to help quell a riot that sprung from ethno-religious disagreements.
Onyema kept at it and founded FEHN to pursue this agenda. Some of his successes include facilitating the reconciliation following the Idiaraba ethnic violence in 2003, the re-opening of Ladipo market, both in Lagos. Onyema’s FEHN also facilitated interventions in the crises which festered between Yorubas and the Hausas at the Lagos abattoir as well as high level discussions between the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the Arewa youths.
Onyema executed the Nigeria Forever Project in 2004 which he says, took him to all 36 states of the country preaching his own idea of a broad-based nationalism, a considerable and thankless effort, considering that ethnicity is embedded in the Nigerian DNA.
At the peak of the crisis in the Niger Delta, Onyema put together personal funds to sponsor willing young persons from the region to undergo nonviolence training and transformational programmes. Onyema’s on the ground work soon attracted partnerships from oil Companies, government and even the international community. Onyema’s FEHN was commissioned by the federal government to train and transform over 600 youths. It has been reported that the landmark federal government amnesty program that followed was built on the back of the work that Onyema and his partners had done in the region. He observed to Vanguard, “What I did in the Niger Delta area is two million times bigger than the (South African) evacuation. What I did in the Niger Delta restored the economy of this country that was nose-diving as a result of violent militancy.”
Born in 1964 to the family of the late Michael and Helen Onyema of Mbosi town in Anambra state, Allen Onyema was the first of the nine children that followed. His late mother Helen could not make it to the hospital in time for his birth and so it was that Allen Onyema arrived this world in the home of a kinsman in Mbosi, Ihiala LGA.
His family was based in the old Bendel state and Onyema spent his formative years in Warri and Benin City. He was called to the bar in 1989 but turned down the relative safety and comfort that a job in Shell, arranged through a family connection, would have brought. He recalled in a sit down with City People, ‘’That meant that I was going to remain in Warri and, that, I never liked. I wanted to be free. I felt that working in Warri would still keep me under parental care and control but I wanted to be on my own.”
The young Onyema left for Lagos in 1990 in search of the golden fleece. With no immediate income, he resorted to squatting in an apartment in Oshodi, trekking long distances and joining overcrowded trains to Lagos Island.
Following months of pounding the pavement, Onyema joined the firm of the late Chief Vincent Amobi Nwizugbo on Martins Street, Lagos Island. Initially placed in an apprenticeship position, Onyema worked his way to a full-time staff position and within a short time, he was promoted to head of the chambers. During this period, Onyema had started dabbling in real estate and the successes recorded from his dealings led him to set up his own private practices, in law and in big business.
He met his wife, Alice Ojochida a native of Kogi state in Abuja and by 1993 at the age of 27, Onyema was married. Alice Onyema now serves as the vice chairman of Air Peace.
A new chapter
No surprise that Onyema’s decision to venture into the high-risk world of aviation was not inspired by any well researched business or profit and loss imperative. He had no experience save for a botched cargo plane business experiment but his desire to provide jobs for his compatriots was unquenchable. It seems a very naïve way of approaching business but Onyema has somehow stayed the course and kept his head above water, becoming a loss leader in the sector in the space of five years.
Disillusioned by the impact of his philanthropic gestures- the same people kept on returning to him for help- he was actively considering options that merge both his business and philanthropic instincts to provide more permanent relief for a large cohort of his teeming beneficiaries. A friend mentioned to him that one commercial jet could create a thousand opportunities and this comment sparked the idea that created Air Peace.
Onyema was warned that the sector is capital intensive and over regulated but the idea of employing a thousand people kept him going through the weeks of foundation research and the initial setbacks. He studied the failures of airlines that had come before him, developed a business plan and hired the consulting services of Gbolahan Abatan, the owner of Air First, an aviation consultancy company. Onyema credits a lot of the early successes to Abatan. Hear him, “I learnt a lot from Gbolahan. He was introduced to me by Mrs. Evelyn Tanko of the NCAA… Even though we fell out at a time, I will never fail to acknowledge his contributions to what I know today and what Air Peace is today.’’
Onyema had purchased three 32-seater Dornier 328 jets when he found out they didn’t have the capacity to generate a thousand jobs a piece. Instead of restricting himself to reaping profits from the jets, he powered forward with his plans. That would mean purchasing a much bigger Boeing or Air Bus plane and running a full-blown commercial line. He sold some of the Dornier jets and persisted with his convictions.
Getting the Air Operators Certificate (AOC) that is pivotal to operating as a business was another hurdle that proved unscalable even after assembling a fleet of seven aircrafts. Dogged by high level rumors of deliberate sabotage on account of his provenance, Onyema was close to packing it in and quitting when Ben Adeyileka, then the acting director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) intervened to save the entire enterprise. The AOC soon materialized and Air Peace was a go.
Today, according to company statements, Air Peace employs over 3000 people directly and indirectly and supports a small allied industry, bringing to fruition, Onyema’s dream. Interesting to see also is that Air Peace is virtually run by women. 22 0ut of the 30 management positions including vice chairman, chief operating officer and chief of finance and administration are occupied by women with a lot of the stations headed by women. Earlier this year, the company recorded the country’s first all-female led flight crew, days after producing Sinmisola Ajibola, its first female captain. Onyema thinks it is good business letting women take charge. “Women are running the show in Air Peace. You could see why we are succeeding. They are very good and dedicated.”
All of these challenges have not insulated Air Peace from perpetuating some of the same ugly practices the airline met on ground when it comes to service delivery. Flights are still merged and rescheduled without the courtesy of properly informing or compensating customers, cancelled and delayed flights are still the rule rather than exception and this year alone, increasing concerns of safety have been awakened following disturbing incidents involving Air Peace aircrafts. The Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) has also accused Air Peace of committing several safety infractions due to persistent failure to report serious accidents and incidents involving its aircraft.
The company has been bullish with expansion plans, introducing new West African and middle east routes. Most of the bad press was however been drowned out by the South Africa rescue mission and any serious company would do well to consider a thorough review of its operations. Renewed respect usually comes with greater scrutiny and Air Peace must be seen to be above board if it is to adopt a broad, mainstream position. Onyema reflects on the entire episode, “I didn’t envisage the outpouring of love and commendation people have shown us. I did not know it would be like this. What gladdened my heart and made me to shed tears inside the aircraft when I went to receive them was because of what they were saying inside there. I saw Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Ijaw, etc clinging together, holding hands and shouting ‘Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria.’ They were proud, and I felt grateful to God for using me to bond my nation. This is what I have worked for all my life, a peaceful Nigeria.”