Chairman/CEO of Air Peace Airline, Allen Onyema, won nationwide accolades last month when he voluntarily offered to evacuate Nigerians who were willing to return home due to xenophobic attacks in South Africa without charging a dime. In a few weeks, the airline will celebrate its fifth anniversary, and he spoke with ONUOHA UKEH, IHEANACHO NWOSU, FEMI BABAFEMI, CHIDI NNADI and CHINELO OBOGO on how the airline almost relocated from Nigeria because the Federal Government refused to grant it an Air Operators Certificate (AOC). He also spoke on the many challenges the company has faced and its plans for global expansion.
It’s been five years since Air Peace was established. How has the journey been from inception till date? What have been your challenges?
We have everything to thank God for, it has not been easy but God has been very kind to us. To me, Air Peace is God’s airline and I am only managing it for him. It has been quite exciting but sometimes it has been frustrating. Air Peace has been able to overcome the hurdles we met on the ground when we started. Expansion has been very massive; from seven aircraft in 2014 to 26 at present. In a short while, more brand new planes will be coming into Nigeria. Air Peace will be the airline to watch in the coming yeare, by God’s grace.
In another five years, where would you want to see Air Peace?
With the right support from everybody, we are sure that Air Peace would have taken over as the number one, not just in Nigeria but in the entire African continent.
When you started the business, you must have experienced some difficulties and would have learned some valuable lessons along the way on how an airline should function effectively. Are there ways government policies have affected your operations?
When we started, it was very turbulent and frustrating. You must have heard the story about how we struggled to get Air Operators Certificate (AOC) for over two years even when we brought in seven aircraft and we demonstrated a lot of capabilities. Despite the fact that we tried to do everything to be the best, the AOC wasn’t forthcoming. We brought in experts from Britain to undertake our maintenance 24/7, even when we signed a contract with the world’s number one vendor for our spare parts, when we brought in over 200 staff to ensure that the airline is the best, the AOC didn’t come. If not for our love for the country, we were almost pushed to go and float the airline in another country.
I created Air Peace just to provide jobs for Nigerians and not because I wanted to make money. I’m not here to enrich myself; I’m just here to touch people’s lives. We have employed about 3,000 direct staff in four years and created over 9,000 anciillary jobs. So, imagine the jobs that Nigerians would have lost if we decided to go and establish the airline in another country. There were people who fought me and who didn’t want me to set up this airline but, at every point in time, God always sent a Good Samaritan to help. On the day we were to shut down, after waiting for the AOC, officials of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) came here in 2014 and they were alarmed at what was going to happen if we bailed out. They stopped me from shutting down and, within one week, we got the AOC that we had been looking for for almost two years. The rest is history.
Many people were fighting me, not knowing that they were fighting God. Since I was born, something always happens to those who fight me unjustly. If someone hurts me and I cry to God about it, there would always be a problem because what I am doing is for God. If I had decided to leave my capital in the banks, they were ready to give me over 15 per cent profit, whereas Air Peace wasn’t giving me over 4 per cent, so I knew what I was going into. I was convinced that one aircraft could create over 1,000 direct and indirect jobs, and that is why I went into it. If I am giving 3,000 Nigerians direct jobs, that means I am putting food on the table of over 400,000 Nigerians.
The other day, I went to see those that handle our catering and the man in charge told me that he employed about 400 people just to work on Air Peace catering and I started shedding tears. I was happy because I felt God was using me to do something right. If you come to our office, especially on Thursdays, you will see hundreds of youths looking for employment. The other day, I came and I saw them in front of our gate; there were over a hundred of them and I told my staff to collect their CVs and interview them. I can’t wait for our new planes to arrive so that I can create more jobs even though we are getting over-bloated.
But people are fighting me. There are a lot of people in this country who want us down and some of them are even in high places, I am not hiding it. I pity them because they are fighting against God. Some people don’t care if companies like Air Peace that contributes to Nigeria’s economy folds up. That’s too bad. Government alone cannot do everything; that is why we decided to help in evacuating Nigerians from South Africa when we did because of the diplomatic impasse that would have come up if the government had decided to do it. What we are doing is because of the love for our country. I am not working to enrich myself; I cannot live in more than one house or drive more than one car at a time. I have been driving one car for over two years even though I have others. If those who are supposed to help business are helping business, this country would be better for it.
You were actively involved in reconciliatory efforts for militants in the Niger Delta, which subsequently led to the restoration of relative peace in that region. Are you still actively involved, considering that your job in Air Peace is time-consuming?
How can I give up such service to the nation? It’s like giving up my life. I went into the Niger Delta to save this country, spending millions of my money and staking my life. Without what we did over there, only God knows what would have become of this country. I bankrolled the entire faculty of University of Rhode Island’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, to train me and my staff so that we can go into the Niger Delta and confront the militancy problem. The likes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi used a non-violent approach to bring about change in their various countries, so I felt we could also take that approach for peace resolution.
The people of the Niger Delta complained about what they were going through and no one listened to them; so, they took up arms and the economy of Nigeria suffered as a result. At the time I intervened, Nigeria was producing about 500,000 barrels of oil daily for a country of about 180 million people. I looked at the situation and asked myself what I should do and that was how I went in with my own funds, no one gave me anything and no one asked me where I got my money from then. But when I floated an airline, everyone wanted to know where this guy was coming from. Then different false stories started flying around in an effort to bring me down, but they don’t know that they are fighting against God.
When some northern youths gave the Igbo quit notice, I stepped out and met with them until the issue was resolved. I brought together youths from Arewa, Miyetti Allah, OPC, IPOB and other groups and brought in experts from the United States to train them on skill enhancement for one week and I later sponsored all of them to the United States for more training for two weeks and it cost me millions.
That is why, after the evacuation, when one of the lawmakers who said I should be honoured was speaking, he reminded his colleagues about the efforts I made towards peaceful resolution of conflicts in Nigeria. In fact, one of the people, Tompolo’s brother, who benefited from our transformation effort, is now a legislator. We took them to South Africa and the United States to train them and when they returned to Nigeria they didn’t want to go back to the creeks. I had begun all these efforts and was very active in reconciliatory efforts before the late Umar Yar’Adua became President. As President, he sent for me to ask me what could be done to bring an end to the restiveness in the Niger Delta. I can boast of being the forerunner of the Amnesty programme that restored peace in the Niger Delta.
When I was doing all that, no one looked my way; the only people who looked my way were those who were benefitting from the crises and didn’t want it to stop. They wanted to kill me but couldn’t succeed. It wasn’t the militants that didn’t want militancy to stop. It was the politicians and others on the fringes who were benefitting from the crises and were making a living from it.
Let me tell you something that will shock you. During the hajj, I didn’t apply because I didn’t want to struggle with anyone, but I did hajj this year. I flew for some northern airlines because I wanted the money to remain in the country. I got a contract from another country to fly pilgrims for hajj for $10,200 per hour and they were giving me 1,350 hours guaranteed. Multiply this amount and you will see how many millions of dollars that would be. I rejected it and my MD, Toyin Olajide, was mad with me. I rejected the offer because some northern airlines appealed to me to help them as foreign leasing companies had blacklisted Nigeria and airlines cannot run without leased aircraft. What is saving Air Peace is that we own all our planes. The northern airlines couldn’t get lease from outside the country, so the only thing left was to opt for charter, instead of dry lease, and by the time they are through with the hajj, there would be no money left as charter is very expensive.
I took almost half of the amount to lift pilgrims for them and I brought out my triple sevens (Boeing 777) for my northern brothers. I rejected the offer of foreign airlines who couldn’t give my people lease and made my planes available for them to go for hajj.
When Rabiu Kwankwaso, the former governor of Kano State, was sponsoring some students who made First Class from the North to schools in India, I sent my 777 to take them to India for a very low amount that no airline would charge. I see them as Nigerians. These are some of the things I do without anyone knowing. So, it hurts me when someone tries to hurt the airline.
You were involved in the reconciliatory process in the Niger Delta, and people are asking why you were not involved in mediating in the issue of IPOB vs the Federal Government.
When you want to go into such issues, you try to study the history of that complaint, then you devise ways of tackling it. Myself and Mohammed Danjuma went to see Nnamdi Kanu when he was in Nigeria. I had to take permission from the Federal Government before going so that no one would accuse me of being in cahoots with them. The day we were to go, Mohammed came in full Hausa regalia and I waited for him in my village in Anambra State. My father, who was alive then, supported me because he always supported whatever I did. When I was going into the Niger Delta, people were alarmed but he told them to leave me because my God is with me. So, while we were preparing to go and meet Kanu in Umuahia, which was at the height of the animousity, my father told me that they might attack Mohammed because of the way he was dressed. But he then told me that if the IPOB guys were to kill Mohammed, I should allow them to kill me first; my father sacrificed me for this country.
On our way there, we stopped somewhere in Imo State, I told my security escorts that if the IPOB boys attacked them, they should drop their guns but that if they were not ready to die, they could turn back and I won’t sack them. I have been with my security team for over seven years; all of them are from the North, except one who is Igbo. I told them not to shoot anyone but that anyone who felt he would shoot should go back. Even though I strongly believed that we won’t be attacked, I was just taking precautions.
We went into Kanu’s house in the afternoon. We saw him and no one harmed us and we were well received. I don’t want to go into the details of what we discussed but what I am saying is that I believe in the unity of this country.
For someone who owns a company that makes over 100 flights a day, what is your day like?
I don’t have any life and that is the truth. My world revolves around trying to help people. I have only one phone and one number, which even truck pushers and barrow puhsers have. My life begins and ends in my office. I have no social life. A lot of people feel that because I’m rich, it means I am enjoying life, but it’s not true. I close work very late and I have to run through my mails and text messages. Then I sleep by four and sometimes I’m awake by 6:30am. In those days, I used to go to the airport very early to see what they were doing, but I don’t do that anymore. When I wake by 6:30am, I pray over all my aircraft and cover them in the blood of Jesus. I call each aircraft by name and pray over it before they start for the day. By 10am, I’m in the office again; I work Sunday to Sunday. I do all these not because I like money but because the airline is sustaining a lot of families. We treat our workers well and I don’t know the person who can resign because of our welfare package.
Our medical welfare for all our staff covers six members of the family. The medical cover includes surgery. We do a whole lot for our staff and when they are happy, I am happy. Instead of owing, salary I would rather borrow money to pay our staff.