“Patriotism is love of country. But you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen. We don’t always have to agree, but we must empower each other, we must find the common ground, we must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good.”
The Federal Government owes a debt of gratitude to the Chairman/CEO, Air Peace, one of Nigeria’s leading airlines, Barrister Allen Onyeama, for saving the lives of his countrymen when they needed help most. He is currently an uncrowned celebrity patriot, whose kind gesture resonates across ethnic boundaries in the country.
But for his quick intervention, many of the returnees, who bore the brunt of the recent xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa, including Nigeria, would have paid with their dear lives. In spite of the global condemnation and opprobrium that greeted the latest bout of the unprovoked attacks, terror was literally let loose, as ramping South African youths continued to protest the presence of foreigners in their country. Yet, efforts by Air Peace to achieve speedy evacuation of Nigerians willing to return home met a brick wall. The airline’s B777 aircraft deployed for the operation was kept on standby for several hours by the South African authorities by insisting on a fresh profiling exercise as against the one earlier conducted by the Nigerian High Commission. The situation led to several hours of delay before 187 out of more than 300 willing returnees were airlifted back to Nigeria. So also the second batch, which arrived in Lagos on Wednesday after a prolonged process of profiling. The rest is history.
It was in recognition of this rare show of patriotism that the House of Representatives ushered Onyeama into the Green Chamber on Tuesday amidst loud applause. The House Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, addressing the members at the plenary, recommended him for national honour in recognition of his kind gesture. “We hereby commend Mr Allen Onyeama and recommend him to the Federal Government for higher honours in Nigeria,” the Speaker said. President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to comment on the suggestion.
For others in his position, they would have made capital out of the situation, using the gesture as a bargaining chip for business patronage from the Federal Government. But Onyeama shocked his audience, revealing that he had to sacrifice his landing right in South Africa which he had just got to evacuate the willing returnees back home, in addition to a whopping sum of N280 million he committed to the project.
With tears of joy, he told the lawmakers: “I did not do it spontaneously, nor did I do it for publicity. I had to mortgage my landing right in South Africa, because I just got the landing right before the crisis.
“I did not give a damn. I never did that because I know that I will not go to heaven with any dime.
“I have never been so honoured in my life. You have brought tears to my eyes. I would not have been able to do this if the Federal Government did not allow me or assemble those people for me to evacuate.”
That was a show of humility. And, of course, the Federal Government could not have done otherwise as a responsible government. But on the flip side, it was a case of double whammy of no profits, no landing right for the proprietor of Air Peace. Though Onyeama did not give the details of what he had gone through to secure the landing right which he had to mortgage to secure the lives of his countrymen, one would rightly hazard a guess of the troubles he must have passed through to get the node of the authorities in a country that does not hide its hatred and disdain for fellow black men.
It, therefore, goes without saying that Onyema deserves all the applause that comes his way not only for his patriotic gesture, but also for his patience and level headedness that saw him through the cumbersome process of profiling that culminated in additional parking charges for Air Peace aircraft in Johannesburg. All these, he did, not for economic benefit, but for the safety of lives of his countrymen, women and children.
With or without the so-called ‘Presidential handshake’ or award of honour as suggested by the lawmakers in the House of Representatives, Onyeama has written his name on the sand of time. And his place is forever settled among the pantheon of heroes.
Barrister Allen Ifechukwu Onyema is a native of Mbosi town in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, South East region of Nigeria. As the first out of nine children of his parents, Onyeama went through a tortuous elementary education before he moved on to attend premier university, the University of Ibadan, where he studied Law. Thereafter, he attended the Nigerian Law School between from 1987 to 1988 and was called to the Bar in 1989. By virtue of his uncle’s position, Capt. J.O.W. Onyema, a master mariner and Head, Crude Oil Export Terminal, Forcados, Barrister Onyeama had opportunity to work for Shell after his Law School, but he preferred the law practice to the plum job in oil industry.
After a painstaking effort to secure a place for the practice of his profession, he got an offer from the late Chief Vincent Amobi Nwizugbo who gave him the opportunity to learn in his chambers without salary.
However, not too long after, he placed him on a monthly salary of N500. Within two years of display of brilliance, he was made the head of the chamber where he voluntarily resigned to establish his own law firm and a successful real estate business.
According to available information, Onyeama now has a fleet of 23 Air Peace aircraft providing passenger and charter services in major cities of Nigeria and many West African destinations and the Middle East.