Mr Allen Onyema, a lawyer, is the chairman of Air Peace. He tells the story of his life, particularly his battles with perceived enemies, to SHOLA ADEKOLA.H
How was childhood for you?
Growing up was beautiful. I was born into a God-fearing family and had a very humble background. My father was a businessman, while I grew up in the Niger-Delta, from Benin to Warri and now in Lagos. I attended Government College in Ugheli and the University of Ibadan where I studied Law.
What do you do to unwind?
I don’t have time for unwinding. The aviation business takes more than 24 hours from me in a day because I work round the clock into the next day. I go to bed most times around 4a.m and by 6:30. I will be awake and start listening to the news. Even if I want to sleep, people will be calling from the airport. Some people will get to the airport with 25kg of luggage and they want to board without checking it and once a staff refuses them, they start calling me. You know every Nigerian is a big man. They call and start saying: “Allen, can you imagine your staff not allowing me to take my luggage in? I have travelled from Miami to Brazil and to South Africa and from there to India and nobody has ever asked me not to take 25kg with me” and start using foul words. In the process, they wake you up. Sometime, some will even call to complain that my cabin crew is not as beautiful as they expected and that I have to do something about it. So, in this business, you have to attend to so many issues. It has so many challenges. You really need to be on your toes in order to be more effective. So, I don’t go to parties and clubs; I spend my time in my office. My life has been from home to the office, from office back home. I don’t really have time. Even on Saturdays, I just sit down; sometime, I watch football. I am a [Borrusia] Dortmund [FC] fan and I hope Arsenal fans will still continue to fly Air Peace (laughter).
There must be things not known about you…
I am a proud Nigerian from the South-East and the national Chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN). I love humanity. I do not discriminate. I love God. That is why I’m trying to do things for the sake of God. About the secret that I have, when I was in primary school, I would abscond from school to go and do street dancing for medicine sellers who put on music to attract buyers on the street without my parents knowing. The man would engage me and I would be dancing to attract customers. Some people reported me to my father. When my father saw me performing, he almost rammed his car into everyone there. I don’t think it’s a secret because a lot of people know about it.
You have a thing for Niger Delta militancy and its struggles…
In my life, I have been a peacemaker from childhood. I have told the story of how I reconciled my father with his elder brother when I was nine years old. I saw both of them fighting and I never liked it. Weeks after, both families stopped talking to each. It went on for almost a year. One day I ran after my uncle, my father’s brother; both families were not in good terms with each other. I ran away from house; I ran to my father’s brother in a remote village in Anambra State. They were looking for me. The brother called my father and told him; look, we saw your son. I had told them at the motor park that I missed my way and that I was living in a town around Awka where I knew my Uncle lived. So, the motor park people took me there without the knowledge of my parents. I was the only son then. Now I have seven sisters and a brother. My father never asked me to be brought back. So I began to live with his brother, his number one enemy. At the end, they had no choice but to come together
And the Niger Delta amnesty story?
I went to the University of Rhode, Rhode Island, USA, to study Peace Building because I was disturbed by the carnage that was going on in Nigeria. The incidence of violence was on the high around 2004 when the Sharia issue, ethnic riots were common. So, I started my peace initiative from the North. I was the one that designed and executed the project called First Nigeria Forever Project. The programme was to encourage and promote nationalism. It took me to the 36 states preaching peace. All the emirs in the North, including the late President Shehu Shagari, Sultan Maccido, the late Emir Ado Bayero of Kano and all of them, applauded what I was doing. I was spending my money. In 2004, I submitted a proposal to the then Ministry of Information. The Federal Government liked what I was doing. I was to be paid almost N200 million to take the projects to the 36 states they paid only N350,000. Another person that gave me money was former Kaduna State governor, Ahmed Makarfi who, after seeing what I was doing, gave us N250,000 which was not enough to fly my followers all over the country in a single flight. I was selling my estate, spending my money to preach peace in my country and nobody asked where I got the money from. But years after, I decided to float Air Peace Airline and they started asking where I got money from; ‘he must be corrupt’. I have never worked for government and I’m not a politician, but nobody asked the question about where I got money to preach peace around Nigeria. Anywhere there was problem in Nigeria, I would go there. Nobody in Nigeria, including the security agencies, asked me then where I got the money I was using to push the peace programmes. Sincerely I was not doing this for money. It was when I felt I had done enough in the North that I decided to move to address the Niger Delta militancy.
Deciding on strategies must have been a different thing for you
Initially, I did not know how to go about it. Just as the country was losing revenues, so my search took me to the U.S. I wrote them that I wanted them to train me, train my staff so that we could go to Niger Delta and educate them, but the American Embassy would not give us visa. Thrice we were denied visas. I wrote to Dr Bernard Lafayette and begged him to come to Nigeria to set up a facility here to train us. He came to undertake the programme here. I trained about 50 of my staff and we held another programme, which was attended by about 200 people. After that, we entered Niger Delta and worked on how to confront the militants. If we were not trained, we would not have been able to handle them because it was a dangerous assignment. That was my first assignment. For a year, I couldn’t see my family. My wife even thought I was going mental. I remain Nigeria’s greatest unsung hero for what I did. Without me, the militants would not have given up. Without me, Niger Delta would have been worse and Nigeria would have been worst for it because at the time I went in, oil production had gone down to about 500,000 barrels per day. Businesses were taking flights out of the region; foreigners were leaving the country; oil installations were attacked, while kidnapping became rampant. It was not an easy battle for anyone, including the military, until I introduced a non-violent style which changed the world of individuals doing this violence. I trained and transformed over 3,000 of the militants with America’s support until amnesty was granted. I was training them in Nigeria and taking them to South Africa to deepen their transformation and before I knew it, America started attending the programme and later started supporting us. Shell came in and started bankrolling me heavily. Shell was even keeping me in different hotels to protect me. Different groups and people joined to support me to do it. At a point, Chevron joined me and Akwa Ibom State government under Obong Victor Attah. At a point, I was no longer spending my money. When the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over, he called Timi Alaibe and asked him if he knew me because he had a security report that I was doing well with the Niger Delta militants. Timi said yes and also said that some of those I had transformed had been employed by the NNDC. The president told Timi to get me to get the leaders of the militant groups such as Tompolo, Ateke Tom and others if I could train them so that they could be in the state of mind when they come and discuss with him. Timi went to them, but they refused to attend out of fear of being arrested. However, they decided to send their commanders, the worst of their boys. It was the transformation of those ones that informed Yar’Adua’s decision to grant amnesty to the militants. That is my story.
Why airline business?
In 2010, I was flying with my American partners to Obubra, in Cross River State and for whatever reasons, the airline management gave us a smaller aircraft instead of a bigger one. Many customers who had already been checked in, could not fly. I was among them. They did not even tell us anything. We protested. The station manager then used foul words on my entourage and that offended me. Angrily, I told him they were not serious and I was going to challenge them as I would float my own airline. The intention to float an airline, however, did not come in 2010, but in 2007 when I was looking for ways to give back to the society. How could I be in a country where, despite its potential, people could not get employed? Around you is high poverty. People always come to me to ask for money to do business and when you give them, they will come to you again and again. Someone called and said instead of giving these people money, why not create a business that would employ people? It was at that point again that somebody told me to go into the aviation business and that a commercial Boeing 737 could employ about 1,000 people. I started studying and I became passionate about it. In less than four years, Air Peace has employed over 3,000 people. In a country where minimum wage is N18,000, Air Peace pays N35,000 for cleaners. So, all those trying to bring me down are fighting God and they will have themselves to blame at the end. I don’t owe oil marketers. I don’t owe my workers. I don’t owe anybody and I don’t launder money coming from Air Peace because any money coming from Air Peace is used for Air Peace. I don’t go diverting it into other estates or launder it into other businesses. Air Peace is growing everyday because I went into the business not for money but for mankind. If not because we announced in February that we were not employing until May, you would have seen about 2,000 people here looking for jobs. Creating 3,000 direct jobs has created another 9,700 other jobs, so the airline has created about 10,000 jobs in Nigeria.
It must be tough handling all these requests.
People come from Yola, Sokoto, Maiduguri, South-East, South-South and South-West because they heard of one Allen Onyema in Lagos, a chairman who could come out of his office on a Thursday and call for 200 CVs from amongst the over 2,000 and will employ all of them. Thursdays are like a stadium here. People troop here to look for jobs. I will come out of the office and ask for people who had come all the way from the North in night buses to be interviewed. Today, Air Peace is a mini-Nigeria. I don’t discriminate against where you come from. The Managing Director of Air Peace is Yoruba; I am Ibo, while my Human Resources Manager is a Yoruba. My Chief of Staff is an Urhobo and a woman too. I don’t discriminate. At Air Peace, my management is made up of about 90 per cent women. Some people are even wondering if I plan to go into politics. I am not a politician.
Who are those after you and why?
People should stop thinking about where I come from and stop treating me as “this Ibo man”. Have they bothered to ask that if this man should shut down Air Peace tomorrow what would become of the fate of Nigeria at large? You cannot just pick up an aircraft immediately because it’s not like a car. To set up an airline is not easy. Something happened with Ethiopian Air and Air Peace is suffering it in Nigeria. What is our own business there? Initially, they said they were using old planes; those aircraft are junks, etc. When we bought new ones, they said our aircraft is unsafe and they are now calling for my head, as if the incident happened to Air Peace. Deliberate falsehood, some of them even said we have four of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in our operations. We don’t have 737 Max 8 in our fleet. Last year, we ordered for 10 of it and we should be applauded for buying 10 brand new planes. However, our order can only be actualised in about four years time, not now. We don’t have Max 8 aircraft in Air Peace. So why are they trying to de-market us? More worrying is the ethnic angle, with them saying;”greedy Ibo man. He bought dangerous aircraft to kill Nigerians and has refused to send the planes back”. Meanwhile, we don’t have such planes. We are becoming a wicked county where success is not appreciated.
Like many entrepreneurs, you favour female managers…
I don’t believe in sending out someone’s daughter to prostitute in the name of doing business. We don’t give our female staff target because of this. Do your work and bring results, but we are not going to tell you that you must bring N1billion target. I frown on organisations and individuals who encourage subtle prostitution in the name of doing business. They overstretch these girls, blackmail them while most girls succumb just because they want to be able to put something on the table. Companies, especially banks, should de-emphasise this.
So, what is the attraction with females?
People tried to get me, but I have never fallen into temptation. I’m not Saint Allen, but if you don’t draw a line between your business and certain tendencies, you will have yourself to blame. Some people often say; ‘Allen, your cabin crew members are very beautiful. How do you cope with these girls? if I were you, everyday, I will take one or two. That’s what they tell me. To me, it can’t happen. Some people come here to look for job, but they are not really here to work. Rather, they are here to get Allen. We have seen some of them. When we employ them, they will resign because they could not get Allen. It has happened several times and on my own, I have sacked somebody for behaving inappropriately towards me that same day. You have to be strong. I am friendly with all my staff, both males and females, but there must be a line. So I have never been tempted. I have a beautiful wife.
What role does your wife play in Air Peace?
She is the Vice Chairman. She oversees the finance department. Not that she works at the finance department, but she signs all the cheques. She has almost become an employment agent. I am sure she has single-handedly employed over 1,000 people for Air Peace. Like me, she finds it difficult to say ‘no’. At times, I used to check her. My wife is from Kogi State; so, many orphans from the state are working here today. She specialises in engaging orphans all over the country; both the educated and the uneducated are given jobs that they are qualified for.
How do you make up time for her and the children?
Truly, I don’t have time for my family. Sometime ago, my children asked me to take them on holiday. I traveled with them, but I was on my iPad throughout monitoring Air Peace. I am a very passionate person. Anything I do, I put in a lot of passion. So, they did not enjoy my presence as I had to rush back to Nigeria. Aviation is a very serious business that does not forgive any mistake.
There must be things your new status doesn’t permit you again. What are those things?
I still stop on the road to buy and eat my corn and pear. I still stop by the roadside if I see roasted plantain. I can even stop to buy those ones with sauce and eat with policemen. Because of my security, I cannot be free again. You cannot just go anywhere and say you want to observe quietness. By the time you are sitting down, 200 people would have recognised you and come to you. I think I used to be happier when I used to earn N500, but now, I don’t have peace of mind. A lot of people have the perception that you are happier when you are richer. The only happiness I have is to see the faces of thousands of people that depend on me for their livelihood full of happiness.