Allen Onyema: In the league of extraordinary Nigerians

While South Africa and its officials are still flip flopping as to whether the xenophobic attacks on various nationals in their country are justified or morally and diplomatically wrong, especially to sister countries that stood tall for them in their time of need notably Nigeria; Nigerians have moved on and are returning to their fatherland, and all the purported and ill-advised retaliatory attacks on South African investments in Nigeria have seized. The South African President had seized Late President Mugabe’s funeral as an opportunity to apologise to the world, and specifically to the countries targeted by his countrymen’s xenophobic attacks. Nevertheless the world booed him as the attacks continued, with far even worse effects on foreign nationals with businesses in South Africa. Why I strongly believe that South Africa is yet to be truly apologetic and intent on stopping the xenophobic attacks is because of the double speak of its officials who are at the centre of this theatre of xenophobic attacks. During the crisis, we heard the Deputy Minister of Police of South Africa, Bongani Mkongi, publicly decry why foreigners have made South Africans second class citizens in their own homeland. The most recent unrepentant posturing of the South African officials was just 3 days ago, when the city mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, said in a live CNBC Africa interview that he had nothing to apologise for. Is in South Africa ending any time soon?

Nigerians moving on means returning back home from an adventure of business in another man’s land where life and property are being threatened. This has been magnanimously made possible and easy by no other person than the Chairman/ CEO of Air Peace, a Nigerian airline operator. The FG had provided some airforce jets for the evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa but it would have been rather arduous in view of the number of Nigerians wanting to come home. Mr. Allen Onyema offered of his own volition to come to the rescue of his countrymen by providing free and comfortable safe passage home by dedicating an entire aircraft from his fleet of just 24 aircrafts for the continuous trips to and fro South Africa, till all those affected were safely home. At first, some pessimists felt that no one would want to come back from South Africa, so Mr. Onyema was just scoring cheap publicity points. Some felt he must have struck some underhand deal with government and he was either going to get paid or enjoy some form of compensatory patronage. As it turns out, patriotic Nigerians live and breath amongst us and are ready to make sacrifices for the good and benefit of other Nigerians alike.

Mr. Allen Onyema started Air Peace primarily because he wanted to employ Nigerians and provide job opportunities. As he once quipped, “if I had wanted to just make money, I would have just invested in banks and other financial instruments and earned the money at double digits rates right”? He discovered that a single aircraft could provide jobs for 150 people and so he thought, wow, why not make money and provide employment for people to also earn a living and look after their families? Air Peace started with a charitable intent or notion surrounding it and by God, it has turned out to be of great help and succour to needy Nigerians who needed an ‘Air Peace’ at the time they needed peace the most in their lives. Mr. Onyema christened his airline Air Peace in such a way that it encapsulated his visions and aspirations for Nigeria and Nigerians; peace. Detractors had tried to scandalise his business by alluding it to some sort of ownership by former First Lady Dame Patience who has been forfeiting billions of Naira from illicit wealth to the nations single treasury account. Air Peace is owned and was started by Mr. Allen Onyema who was an ordinary Nigerian, living and toiling in Lagos, navigating through the tough and challenging ways of livelihood. From rail transport, to trekking, to bus rides, it was a life of struggle,  but with a renewed hope everyday that he would make a living that would make a difference. Today, Mr. Onyema is no ordinary Nigerian, but an extraordinary Nigerian. Not because he owns Air Peace, but what he has done with his Air Peace and how he has touched the lives of Nigerians by providing airline services without charging a dime.

We have had a total of 501 people that have been brought back home courtesy Mr. Onyema and an estimated 800 are presumed lined up, ready to be airlifted back home. Some say it cost Mr. Onyema around 300 million Naira for this noble cause but when you think of it in proper business terms, including risking a newly acquired landing permit in South Africa, not even a billion could repay Mr. Onyema, were this to go south. It’s so heartwarming and gladdening to see that Nigerians are good and ready to do good. This act of Mr. Onyema is encouraging and drips of belief that there are millions of well meaning, patriotic Nigerians with nationalistic appeal to their endeavors, both in and out of government. That Nigerians, irrespective of religious or ethnic inclinations, are ready and willing to step out there and do things that are not self serving, but for the benefit of us all is so refreshing. Some voiced out that the ‘poor treatment’ of the xenophobic issue by the Nigerian government was because the victims were of Igbo extraction. As it turns out, Ogun state has had the highest returnees so far. We must find a way of dropping this drab of ethnic colouration that keeps dragging us back.

The National Assembly has done well by honouring Mr. Onyema and recommending him for national honors and I believe my own aspirations and hopes for Mr Onyema are well represented in that. I saw Mr. Onyema break down in tears as he was hailed and celebrated by the returnees, singing the national anthem. I also couldn’t help but let out tears of joy and pride as I tried to capture how much Mr. Onyema has exemplified what patriotism and selflessness means; at a time very thin lines bonding us along ethnic and religious divides exist. Well done Mr. Onyema and we are all proud of you. In our wishful thinking, the search for a national carrier may not be too far as we now see Air Peace as our national carrier for now. As the government is spending billions on indigenous businesses to prevent capital flight, an aviation collaboration between the FG and Air Peace may not be a bad idea if I were Alh. Hadi Sirika. Air Peace with a foreign operator to superintend government’s stake for fear of abuse may be the way as government of course shouldn’t handle businesses. A few more aircrafts to add to Air Peace’s fleet of 24, with a few 737-800s for International routes form part of my wishful thoughts. But what do I know in my little patriotic cocoon? For now, it’s Air Peace everywhere I go.

Tahir is Talban Bauchi

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