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Allen Onyema, Man of the moment

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It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before his deeds sought him out. Allen Onyema, CEO of Nigeria’s leading airline, Air Peace, has finally come to limelight, after years of diligently working to promote peace and national cohesion in a country riddled with perennial crises – be that religious, ethnic, communal or criminal.

For those familiar with the man who has, for years, silently did the largely thankless job of resolving some of the worst conflicts the country has yet seen, the buzz about his recent gesture of airlifting “as many Nigerians as are willing to come back home from xenophobic South Africa”, might appear awkward. For in truth, it is just Onyema doing what he has always done: helping those whose lives are under threat.

“A lot of people think I just came from nowhere because of Air Peace,” Onyema said on Arise TV, “Air Peace is just a small part of me.”

Air Peace is not by any means small. But it might not be out of place to suggest that it is only a small part of a man who was at the heart of the effort to resolve Niger Delta militancy, as well as the effort to bring to an end, the Zango-Kataf crisis of decades past.

When Onyema announced his evacuation plans fortnight ago, in the wake of the renewed xenophobic killings and looting in a country that ironically prides itself as the “Rainbow Nation”, many may have received it with skepticism. Nigeria has become a country where the loyalty of many people lie with their religious or ethnic groups, and where patriotism is hardly expressed beyond lip service.

Indeed, when the announcement came, many a social media pundit suggested that he only made the move because the Nigerian victims of the xenophobic attacks were “his brothers.” But when eventually the names and states of origin of those evacuated emerged, such pundits silently ate their words.

“It is in my character to do things like this,” he had continued on the Arise interview. “It is not my first time of doing things like this for my country. During the time of militancy in the Niger Delta, I went, without guns, to arrest the menace.”

Then a quote that ought to be pasted on the walls of the practitioners of the ruinous politics of greed and personal aggrandisement in the country: “I cannot go to the grave with my wallet, houses or my bank account,” he said. “But I can go to the grave in peace with the kind of legacy I left behind.”

Onyema’s Air Peace had air lifted 187 out of the over 700 Nigerians who had registered to return a fortnight ago. The government of South Africa had frustrated others and prevented them from leaving. Last week, second batch of 319 people returned. The total number of those registered to return as at last week stood at 1,004, out which 817 are remaining.

Onyema who had devoted a whooping N280 million for the evacuation exercise says he is willing to bring back as many people as are willing to return.

“We are willing to do as many flights as are necessary to carry all Nigerians who are willing to come back home.”

Honour to Whom it is Due

On Wednesday, the country’s House of Representatives honoured the Air Peace CEO for his service to the country. It was another emotional affair, like the day he tearfully welcomed the national anthem-singing first batch of returnees.

“You have brought tears to my eyes again. I have never been so honoured in my life,” Onyema had told the lawmakers.

House Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, had asked that the Order Paper for the day be temporarily suspended to allow the lawmakers to receive Onyema for recognition. The Chief Whip, Mohammed Monguno, ushered him into the chamber and lawmakers to show their appreciation.

“This is one of our epic moments in the chambers, Gbajabiamila had noted. “We hereby commend Mr. Allen Onyema and recommend him to the Federal Government for higher honours in Nigeria.”

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Accolades have continued to pour in. Governor of his home state of Anambra, Chief Willie Obiano described him as man who “exemplifies the principle of solidarity with the human family and commitment to the common good.

“As is already well known, Chief Onyema went into airline business five years ago to create jobs for Nigerians, enhance business opportunities in the industry for our citizens and enhance Nigeria’s presence in global business.”

Across social media, Nigerians were in unison in their praise for a man who now epitomizes the country’s possibility.

A twitter user with the handle @Coolmajor, wrote, “Allen is the owner of Air Peace who took his plane to South Africa to evacuate Nigerians. I hope he gets the honour he deserves.”

Success Idowu @Idowu553 said “Over 600 Nigerians are on their way from SA. The first batch of the returnees have arrived Lagos. The second batch will be airlifted tomorrow free of charge by Air Peace airline. One man volunteered to send his aircraft to Johannesburg to bring our stranded brothers and sisters back home.”

Before South Africa

It was a few days ago, before South Africa happened, that BusinessHallmark had the opportunity to sit down with the man of the moment. He spoke about life, the success of the airline he launched in 2013, but which has already conquered the country’s airspace and is taking on the world.

Calm, peaceful and calculated, with two prototype aero-planes with the conspicuous Air Peace logo placed on each end his centre table, Mr. Onyema had told 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.”

He is a man who walks histalk, 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 had 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.”

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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.

“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,” he had said.

“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 didn’t end there: “We might be starting India and South Africa almost the same time or at most September by God’s Grace,” he had noted.

“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.

“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 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 has 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.”

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