When few years ago Allen Onyema entered the country’s aviation industry with just two planes, then industry leaders such as Arik and Medview would have laughed derisively at this calm looking, deep eyed JJC who ‘thought running an airline was okrika trade.’
If they did, they would probably be biting their fingers now and gaping in awe at what has become of Onyema’s airline, Air Peace.
In every sense, Onyema is a phenomenon; a trail blazer who has proved that with determination, one can succeed even where the government with limitless resources failed. This is a voyage into the personality of the man who now owns the most dominant air line in Nigeria, and whose quest to take on the world has seen him in Dubai and aiming at China.
Sitting calmly in the white sofa at his office, two prototype aeroplanes with the conspicuous Air Peace logo placed on each end the centre table, Mr. Onyema, the company’s CEO, the man behind the Air Peace mask, spoke barley audibly – about life, Air Peace, and everything in-between. Success, he said, is about focus, setting out your plans and following it through.
“When we started this airline we outlined our growth pattern and we have religiously followed it.”
Onyema has walked his talk, efficiently running the odd-defying airline that now embodies the largest black nation’s aspirations; it’s a response to Ethiopian Air, Emirates, British Airways and the likes – there are already suggestions that the airline should be adopted as a national carrier, to bridge the country’s missing gap in the industry.
Nigeria had signed up to the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) and the Open Skies Agreement which allows reciprocal, unrestricted access to airports in each participating country in a bid to ease passengers’ stress of connecting flights.
The agreement has enabled such airlines as Ethiopian, Emirates, British Airways, Air France, Ethihad and the likes to access virtually all of the country’s airports, putting local and usually smaller airlines at a disadvantage. Yet, because the country has no airline of international repute to enjoy same privileges elsewhere, the agreement has only worked to its disadvantage.
It is estimated that the country’s airline operators are incurring an annual loss of about N700 million on account of the agreement.
It is this gap that Air Peace could conveniently fill. It has emerged the only airline in the country, besides the defunct Nigerian Airways, to operate for five years without having a major incident; has built positive reputation globally and is well primed to step into the gap with necessary government support.
On June 5, Air Peace began flights to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, becoming the country’s flagship carrier to the Arab nation. And according to Onyema, it is only the first of many steps.
“We already started our international operations into Sharjah and into UAE,” he said. “And we are not just doing Lagos-Sharjah alone; we are also doing every destination in Nigeria to Sharjah and Dubai. We have an agreement with SATA, the people in charge of Air Arabia and some other airlines.”
For an airline that began operations six years ago, in 2013, Air Peace has been a bit of a marvel; a testament to the Nigerian possibility.
In April, Onyema sealed a deal for 30 brand new Embraer 195-E2 aircraft with an order for initial supply of 10 aircraft. The deal is worth $2.1 billion, a massive investment by any standard. Earlier in September 2018, the company had placed an order for 10 Boeing 737 Max 8, which has been delayed on account of the brand’s technical challenges – an offshoot of the Ethiopian and Malaysia air misfortunes.
With over 23 planes already in its fleet, Air Peace has since conquered the country’s air space, emerging its largest. With the new orders, Onyema aims to take on the world.
“The Federal Government of Nigeria has given us six destinations – Mumbai, Guangzhou, China, Atlanta, Houston, Heathrow and Johannesburg. We have started Sharjah; the next to come in is Johannesburg.
“We will start our Johannesburg flight before August 30; we have already started setting up our structures in Johannesburg. We are looking for a partnering airline in Johannesburg so that when we drop you in Johannesburg, our partner will take you to Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and others cities and even beyond South Africa, to Lesotho and to some other neighbouring countries around.
“We are looking out for partner airlines to do that. Air Peace does not just want to do Lagos to Johannesburg only; we want to be able to have these alliances with other airlines to be able to move Nigerians and the flying public seamlessly to destinations they will want to go.”
It doesn’t end there: “We might be starting India and South Africa almost the same time or at most September by God’s Grace,” he said. “The Indian community in Nigeria is yearning for Air Peace to come in. You must have heard from their Ambassador in Nigeria. They want a direct flight from Nigeria to India; so they are in the forefront, they are the ones pushing and the federal government has designated Air Peace to that destination.”
The CEO is confident of the future. Since the airline entered the country’s airspace, it has continued to break new grounds, growing from strength to strength. Not many would have expected so much of Air Peace when it came on stream in 2013, promoted by quiet and a relatively unknown Onyema.
But the Benin, Edo State born – of Anambra parents – peace and conflict resolution expert has shown that with determination, it can be done. Air Peace has not only survived in an environment that has seen the rise and fall of many greats, but has also thrived.
“Our activities in the aviation market have been proving skeptics wrong” he said, and “to their positive shock.” The secret, he said is building trust with relevant stakeholders.
“We never short-changed any foreign or local entity, we never told familiar stories when it gets to paying foreign companies and even the locals for goods and services rendered.”
Then something more interesting: “We have never defaulted in paying back our loans,” he said. “Most times, we liquidate our loans long before their tenure. These foreign financial institutions plus local banks in Nigeria trust in the ability and integrity of Air Peace to honour obligations to the letter. So many foreign financial institutions have been approaching us.”
Air Peace’s success has inevitably robbed off on the country’s image. A country now largely known for all the wrong reasons: corruption, crime and terrorism, the airline has helped to tell about the other side, the true Nigerian spirit; it has shown the global flying community that Nigeria can get something right.
“With the way we are going, the perception of Nigeria as a fraudulent nation is being corrected by Air Peace on the international arena,” Onyema said.
“Nigerians may not realise the extent to which this airline has gone to improve foreign financial institutions’ perception of our nation. With Air Peace, foreign entities have gradually started changing their perception of Nigeria and Nigerians. In Air Peace, our most cherished asset is our integrity.”
A patriot, Onyema said part of the reason he is pursuing the international routes is to ease the suffering of Nigerians, who often have to go through lots of stress connecting flights to many parts of the globe.
On the economic front, he noted that the international operations would also help the country’s economy, “create more jobs in the nation’s aviation and allied sectors and offer travellers exceptional choice.”
But the Air Peace CEO has one complaint. The Bilateral Air Services Agreement, according to him, should be looked at a second time to because, according to him, it is one-sided and of no benefit to local stakeholders, and has put the indigenous ones at a disadvantage.
He solicited for government protection of domestic carriers, as the non-restriction of foreign airlines in Nigeria’s air space threatens the growth of domestic companies.
He, however, praised the President Muhammadu Buhari government for the removal of value-added tax and waivers on aircraft spares, but requested for more support as Air Peace becomes the national carrier of Nigeria for the Lagos-Dubai route.
Born in Benin City, Edo State in 1964 of Anambra state parents, Onyema had his early education in the ancient city before proceeding to Government College, Ughelli, Delta State. He graduated from the college in 1984 and subsequently secured admission to the University of Ibadan where he read law.
It was while studying at Ibadan that he developed interest in peace and conflict resolution. He had notably led a team of other nine students to Zaria in search of peace at the height of the religious crisis in the city. Upon their return from Zaria, they formed what was known as Eminent Friends’ Group with the aim of promoting ethnic harmony amongst Nigerians.
Onyema would establish branches of the organisation in various states of the federation after his graduation in 1987. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1989 and he started his legal practice in 1990 in the Law Firm of Nwizugbo & Company where he rose to become the Head of Chambers by 1992 before leaving to establish his own firm, ONYEMA & CO.
He also set up a property company, Allen Onyema & Company and an import trade outfit, Continental Business Links Ltd. He set up Air Peace in 2013.