The Chairman/CEO of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema, in this interview, said the decision to deploy his aircraft to evacuate Nigerians in South Africa was driven by nationalism. He spoke to journalists when the first batch of returnees. Chinedu Eze who was there brings the excerpts:
What prompted Air Peace to undertake the voluntary evacuation of Nigerians free of charge?
First, I need to make a clarification. We left Nigeria and they told us we have 640 people that would be airlifted. We said okay, we have the capacity to do two flights immediately. I was ready to deploy two of our Boeing 777s, and they said no, that we should do one at a time. We got there at 4:00 am South Africa time on that day, and there was nobody on sight and we were supposed to depart South Africa at 8:00 am. So Air Peace arrived on time for the airlift. Our 18-man crew left for Johannesburg, and was on ground in Johannesburg waiting. The flight was supposed to depart by 8:00 am, that flight never departed until many hours later.
So I need to clarify this. That it wasn’t Air Peace that caused the delay. The truth is that the South African government tried to frustrate us. In the spirit of diplomacy, our government officials are not supposed to say this, but as a private citizen I have to say it. South Africa authorities frustrated us. At a time, they checked in only 20 passengers and they told us that their system broke down. They didn’t want them to go, because you know evacuation is not a good thing for any country. The boys had resolved to go home. They started singing national anthem, the Air Peace crew were resolved that they were going back home with Nigerians. We were there until we brought 187. So, others were not allowed to fly. So we took those who were allowed to board the flight. As soon as our Consul General tells us that they are ready with the next batch, we would deploy our aircraft. They have not come back to us; to tell us they are ready. I was to do another flight today (last Thursday) if they were ready, but they are not. I was surprised when they informed us that the number of Nigerians willing to leave South Africa has increased to 1000, from 640 before. The Nigerian High Commission in South Africa is working very hard to put them together so that we will go and bring them back. The earlier they put them together the better for us. I don’t want to send in a wide-bodied aircraft of 364-passenger capacity and come back with only 200 passengers; because it costs a lot of money. I would have preferred lifting about 320 in the first batch. So, the earlier they complete the documentation of our brothers and sisters and get them ready for the flight, the better for us. Now about motivation to do it; it gives me joy to do God’s work. It has been in our pedigree to do things like these. A lot of people who know us know that such a thing is very easy for me to do, I didn’t have to think twice about it. I was at the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority(NCAA) office and we were having a meeting and I was seeing television tapes of the stigmatisation in South Africa and I used to take ex-militants to South Africa to train and transform them. So many of the people in South Africa are trapped, a lot of the people had wanted to come back some four years ago but nobody to bring them back, no flight ticket, nothing. If you go to Bloemfontein, a highbrow out of Johannesburg, do you know that as a visiting Nigerian person they will be hanging around you? The moment you finish eating somebody will come attend to you, it as bad as that. So what I did immediately not thinking twice, was to say the best thing to do instead of losing more lives was to take them out. Some of the people that came on the flight had no parents; their fathers didn’t come with them. Some of the returnees told us that some people were taken on their way to the airport; that the South Africans were still robbing and killing them. And they even told us to send an aircraft directly to Cape Town, because the journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg would be very dangerous for them. The danger is still there, and when you see clips of what South African are still saying after the evacuation, I mean, if your Foreign Minister comes out to say that the whole country is full of drug pushers then you can understand the tacit support on the official side. So, the motivation there was to save our people, to do something that others will look at and say okay this is going to bond the country. So I decided to call our Foreign Affairs Minister and told him that I wanted to evacuate Nigerians and that I wanted to do it free of charge. He talked about the financial cost and I said Air Peace would bear it. I am not going to go to my grave with my bank account or wallet, but I will go to my grave peacefully with the legacies I leave behind. So it is not something difficult for one to do for one’s country. It is not about Allen Onyema, the Air Peace Crew both flight and cabin crew refused to be paid allowance. They left Nigeria the previous day about 11:30 pm and got to Johannesburg about 4am. And they stood up for 24 hours for their country and they refuse to take their allowances.
They said this is our own contribution for this national assignment and they called it a rescue mission because they were being frustrated from taken Nigerians out. So they saw it as a national assignment, it was like war for them and they need to be honoured.
Are you taking this all alone and do you intend to also invite some of your colleagues in the airline business to see whether they can assist in getting this done?
You see this kind of action takes a lot to do; it is not just money. It must be in your pedigree for you to be able to do it because the financial implication is huge. When a Boeing 777 takes off empty without passengers for a six hours flight, you are committing about N37 million. So it is not something you cajole anybody to join, I just want to do this willingly. Air Peace is ready, as long as there are Nigerians ready to leave that enclave, so is Air Peace ready to deploy our equipment and get them out. We want to send a signal to the larger Nigerian society that we should move away from obsession with money and people who make money. Let’s think about nationalism and when I am talking about nationalism I am talking about broad nationalism, not ethnic nationalism, I am Igbo, I am Yoruba, Fulani, or Hausa. We want to do something to encourage broad nationalism, when Nigerians will first and foremost say I am Nigerian before start talking about other things. What we have done with this evacuation is to tell the world, you don’t know what is happening now, all over the world, Nigeria is being respected because of this evacuation. Because this is what Americans are known for. If you threaten their citizen, they send in official planes to go and move them out. So we have been able to tell the world that nobody breaks Nigerians. We may have our differences within, but nobody can bend the resolve of Nigerians to be together.
But this is a huge sacrifice that you have made?
It is just my love for humanity that is all. If you know my antecedent, I have always done things like this. Remember when I held the Nigeria forever project that took me to the 36 states of Nigeria, where I was preaching one nation, where I was preaching broad nationalism in 2004. I did it singularly, I funded it myself alone, taking me and my over 2,000 followers round the 36 states of Nigeria in 2004 and doing the first Nigeria forever project which was supposed to encourage broad nationalism as against ethnic nationalism in Nigeria.
You remember what I did in the Niger Delta, how I started transforming the militants on my own before the oil companies and government realised what I was doing and keyed in. So it is always in my antecedent to do things like these. It is something I love doing for my nation. Because I believe I cannot go to my grave with my wallet, my bank account, but I can go to my grave happily and peacefully with smiles and some legacies that will endure the test of time. So I did it in support of humanity, for the oneness of this nation and I did it in support of the federal government.
Were you frustrated with the immigration issues in South Africa?
Of course we were frustrated because this is a big bird (the aircraft); we deployed our Boeing 777 that could take 320 passengers, they profiled 320 for us to take today. We arrived South Africa 4am and didn’t depart until almost 5pm. That was about over 12 hours delay just for nothing. They told us that the South Africans were threatening the evacuation.
At a time when they had profiled only 20 people they didn’t want to continue profiling and you couldn’t have send this kind of big bird (aircraft) to go and take 20 people. We had some issues with them, they took some Nigerians who would have travelled, they scared a lot of Nigerians who would have been on this flight because they are saying they want to know how they even got into their country in the first place.
The High Commission of Nigeria was surprised. At the end of the day we brought in about 187 people, so they are about 140 short of the number we would have taken. However, we are awaiting the directive of the Nigerian High Commission over there. The moment they come back to us, that maybe tomorrow we have another number to come and pick, we will dispatch them. Even this night another set of pilots can go into this airplane, return to South Africa this night to bring in another batch of Nigerians. The Nigerians are happy; I saw some people that their parents couldn’t return, but they sent their children ahead of them in order to gather their things. I saw so many of them in tears but tears of joy that at least they are alive to see today. So this is an opportunity for every Nigerian to understand that we can always make a difference. This is an opportunity and we have demonstrated to the world that no outsider can break our bond in this country. We may have our differences, but of course even people of the same parents may have differences, not to talk of people of different ethnic groups. We have about 378 ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria. We may have differences, but the good thing is that in our 50 years of living as Nigerians we don’t want to go our separate ways. We want to be together and we demonstrated to the world that we want to be Nigerians and remain as Nigerians.
Away from the evacuation, you recently talked about aero-politics as a hindrance to the growth of Nigerian airlines. Can you explain further?
I have always said that our government should play aero-politics on our behalf because we discovered that Nigerian airlines are deliberately being frustrated by international aero-politics. It is not the fault of our government and I am sure the president is very keen in promoting indigenous investment in this country; that I can assure you. This government removed duties from commercial aircraft import and commercial aircraft spares. So that is a very huge support for airlines in Nigeria. However, when it comes to international aero-politics, there is a lot waiting to be done. If you don’t play the politics right, you get your fingers burnt. Nigerian airlines have been on the receiving end over the years and of course all these other countries would bring one policy or the other to protect their own.
This is important for government to give serious consideration because the indigenous airlines are the ones providing the jobs. In Air Peace, you have over 3,000 staff, in Nigeria one person working takes care of about 10 other people. So Air Peace is taking care of over 300, 000 Nigerians every day. These people could have been unleashed onto the streets and they will do some things that are not okay. So, there must be a conscious effort to protect indigenous airlines in this country. Government has done a great deal by removing all sorts of taxation like import duties and all that. Without that, Air Peace would have not have been able to own the size of fleet we own today. So I am very grateful to the federal government for that. It is not the fault of the federal government, Nigerians are very good people and the government is good. Nigeria and Ghana, we want to play by the rules but these other foreign countries don’t.
Domestic airlines are angry over the multiple entry points in Nigeria. But the argument is that it is what passengers want?
The multiple designation and multiple frequencies being given to foreign airlines should be stopped. Nigerian airlines can never grow if Turkish Airlines and other airlines fly from Istanbul, to Abuja. From Abuja to Port Harcourt and Port Harcourt to Abuja, Abuja back to Istanbul. This is not done anywhere.
Protecting us is not just bringing up policies to hound an airline but also stopping some of the decision of giving these multiple frequencies. It will go a long way to protect Nigerian airlines. If Turkish airlines is interested in Port Harcourt passengers, let Turkish airlines either fly straight to Port Harcourt, from Istanbul and fly back to Istanbul. They can look for a Nigerian airline to partner. The Nigerian airline will be acting as a feeder, by so doing you are increasing the financial status of these Nigerian carriers and that will promote jobs. All the 34 foreign airlines flying in this country, all their staff put together is not even up to 100 people. Air Peace alone is putting out about 3,000, with about 1,000 ancillary staff in the last four years. Likewise, at Aero, Sanusi is doing a great job with Aero, reviving the place, trying to give Nigeria her first real MRO (aircraft maintenance facility). That is what we are saying. The government should help us stop the proliferation of destinations and frequencies to these foreign airlines.
So, the argument that multi-designation is what the people want is flawed. You cannot impoverish the country doing that kind of thing. See every government has good intension; it is dependent on you and me to offer the right advice. There is no government that will wake up and want to diminish its economy, no. No government does that; no government will deliberately want to do that. It is the quality of advice the government gets that is the problem, and that advice will come from the media, will come from stakeholders. So we need at all times to protect the government too by giving them good advice. Let us help indigenous airlines to succeed; the government is on a good track by giving us all the waivers they gave us. The next thing is the ravaging of this country by foreign airlines. If that is not stopped it will continue to deplete our reserves through the money they repatriate out of this country and trying to pretend that they love us more than they love themselves. If we get it right, with the right policies in aviation, there are so many rich people in this country that can even turn aviation round but a lot are not ready to come into aviation because they are scared of certain policies. Policies of multi- designation of frequencies to foreign carriers will not encourage Nigerian investors to invest in the sector and keep the jobs and the money here.