By Chidiebere Nwobodo
One of the greatest inspirational speakers of all time, Earl Nightingale, postulated that everything begins with an idea. Scott Belsky took it further with his famous quote that it is not about ideas alone but the grit and wit to make the ideas happen. All men desire to walk on the water of greatness but only those whose faith has conquered the fear of failure will dare step out of the boat. Like Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed: faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the entire staircase. Allen Onyema comes to mind. Having seen and heard the pathetic stories of failures and calamity that had befallen airlines in Nigeria’s aviation sector in the last few decades, it must have taken the faith of walking on water for Onyema to step out of the boat of imaginations to make the idea of Air Peace a reality.
Starting a business in an environment where only a few have succeeded can be quite challenging. But floating an airline in a nation where most young airlines in the past either went bankrupt or got grounded as a result of one problem or another can be terrifyingly difficult. The psychological trauma, the fear and anxiety that you are about to enter the dreaded terrain where stories of failures far outweigh records of success can be very discouraging. This must have been the dilemma Onyema faced when the idea of heralding the biggest airline in the country first raced through his mind. Something happened. He got possessed by the spirit of patriotism—a spirit that make leaders to sacrifice for the sole gain of their nation. A spirit that makes soldiers willing to lay down their lives for the love of country.
In 2014, Air Peace was born with the main goal of creating jobs for Nigerians and putting the nation on the global aviation map. It began operation with seven aircraft; the first airline in the history of the nation’s aviation sector to start commercial flights with such huge number of aircraft. A new airline is required by law to start operation with no fewer than three functional aircraft, but Air Peace began with seven—that is, entering a challenging business environment with the heart of a lion. Before the advent of Air Peace, the lifespan of airlines in the country used to be very short, marred by stunted growth. Eight years down the road, Air Peace has been a tremendous success story that has come out of Nigeria’s aviation industry in more than three decades. It has leapfrogged from operating seven aircraft on a few local routes to having over 40 aircraft in its fleet, connecting not only states in Nigeria but becoming the nation’s gateway to the world via its international routes—Dubai, China, Johannesburg, Israel, etcetera.
It made history as the first indigenous airline in a single transaction to have purchased 13 brand new airplanes with its acquisition of Embraer 195 aircraft. As at today, Air Peace has over 4,000 direct workforce and 9,000 indirect jobs, thereby fulfilling one of the cardinal objectives of floating the airline, which was to create jobs for Nigerians. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most airlines retrenched their staff, Air Peace was the only airline that did not sack any of its employees—thanks to the empathic leadership of its chairman, Onyema. The aviation services the airline is offering Nigeria’s flying public could not have come at a better time in the nation’s chequered history than now. With unprecedented level of heightened insecurity on our roads, increasing demand for air transportation, it could have been a double jeopardy for Nigerians to have been constricted to a few airlines with limited capacity, if Air Peace were not in the picture today.
In my quiet moments of meditation, I have thought of what could have been the fate of the nation’s aviation sector today without Air Peace, together with the exemplary leadership Onyema is providing in the industry, under the umbrella of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON). When the aviation sector was on the verge of total collapse, airlines were contemplating closing shop as a result of excruciating difficulties posed by high cost of aviation fuel, scarcity of forex for spare parts, burdensome taxation and crippling poor infrastructure, Onyema took it upon himself, acting on behalf of AON, to resolve some of the logjams and quagmires that would have put the industry in reverse gear. His sleepless nights, unending meetings with government officials and National Assembly members, etcetera, saw the aviation industry remaining afloat. When exploitation of Nigerians by foreign airlines became insufferably worrisome, Onyema rose to the occasion to defend the interests of Nigerians and Nigeria.
I can still remember vividly the unfortunate xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa in 2019. At the height of the crisis, several nations of the world sent rescue teams and aircraft to evacuate their citizens from the then troubled nation. Nigerians over there were abandoned like chickens without a mother hen. Onyema, through Air Peace, took it upon himself to rescue stranded Nigerians in South Africa, free of charge—at his own expense. He was not prompted to do it. He did not do it because of any political ambition. H he did it for the sole love of the country. Nigerians will not forget such a patriotic gesture.
Air Peace, via its corporate social responsibility, has also rendered alot of support to the nation, especially in the area of education and sports development. Last year, it entered into a N300 million sponsored deal with Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), which made it the official airline of the national football team. Onyema, as a paragon of patriotism who understood the potent force of sports in uniting the nation, has been supporting the national teams immensely in most of their recent outings.
As Air Peace celebrates its eighth anniversary, Nigeria celebrates an airline that has become an embodiment of nationalism and patriotism. Imagine the world without anyone. Imagine the ocean without water. Imagine forests without trees. Imagine Nigeria’s aviation industry without Air Peace.
Thank you, Allen Onyema, for daring to walk on water. Like Scott Belsky said: it is not only about an idea alone but making it happen.