He is blind to race and place; only sees people. He has been a detribalised restive soul from infancy which metamorphosed into chilling childhood adventures. He practicalises virtually every imagination that comes to his mind, leading to only possibility notions. That’s Chief Allen Onyema, owner of Air Peace Airlines. He does not retaliate any wrong but when unjustifiably inflicted with pain, nature always avenges for him. Onyema shares the story of how he started life, value for women, general attitude to life and more with Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu. Excerpts.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood was good. I have always been an adventurous child right from the beginning. Even among my peers; I have always been saying or suggesting some things that we should do and they will like… not achievable, we can’t do this as a kind of answer and in those days, I will undertake to do those things myself. At the age of eight, I saw my father and his elder brother fighting and I didn’t like that. In order to bring about peaceful resolution of their issues, I ran after my father’s elder brother. I ran away from the house and was able, with the help of people, to locate where he was living in a remote village somewhere. Remember I was living with my parents in the city and as should be, they were looking for me. They brought me to his house from the garage, when he saw me, he sent for his brother that your son is in my house o, so, my father didn’t do anything about it and I was the only son then. That was the beginning of the end of their feud. So I have been a peaceful person in my life, so at the age of eight – nine years, I had already engendered one successful reconciliation between feuding brothers, that was me. In all my life, I have been doing things like that.
Where were you born and in what circumstances?
We were living in Benin and there was a festival going on in the village and my mother went home as most women went home for that festival. Two days before she was to go back, she started having pains. The hospital where she was undergoing antenatal was in Benin all these while, my father had gone back after the festival and my mother was to join the following week. That same day she was to go back to Benin she started having labour and my father had gone back to Benin with his car so nobody to take her to the hospital. They were to trek to the hospital; coming out of her own house, she had done barely 500 meters and she couldn’t hold it any longer so she branched into another clansmen’s house and had me right there. So I was born in somebody’s home. Message was sent to my Dad and he sent his driver back to the village and they took us back to Benin maybe after two weeks or so. So I grew up in Benin a little bit and some other in Warri and that also shaped the way I think because right from childhood, I started mingling with people from other tribes and I didn’t see them as different. So my love for people transcend ethnicity and religion and all those kind of considerations.
Tell us some fond memories and adventures as a child?
See, I have always been an adventurous person right from childhood and when as an adventurous child, there was no room for pampering, nobody pampered me even though I was the only son. My father was not rich, he wasn’t poor; how do you judge someone who was feeding well? Had cars, so I was born into that kind of family, seeing my father having all those kind of things, so we were okay but I refused to be okay; I refused to belong, I was like a street boy because I was always playing, I was always on the street looking for my friends. I could go without food for 24 hours growing up. What use to give me joy was whenever I was with my friends. Once I was in company of my friends, I never remembered food. I use to be very slim; it was my wife that taught me how to eat. Before, I could go 24 hours I won’t eat, I will just be drinking Coke. It was when I married that I started eating. If you look at my wedding picture you will see how slim I was, food was never one of my preferences; I never disturbed myself about food but a good crowd was always my preference, so growing up, I did not allow anybody to pamper me, my father was not the type to pamper a child, neither my mother. I was the only son for a long time and when I was to go to secondary school, some of my father’s friends would tell him to go and cook your son o, you know those days people would say you need to do this you need to do that but my father never believed in all those trash; my father never believed in juju and he brought us up like that to the extent that none of us in my family believes that there is anything like juju.
Some pastors will even say oh there are principalities and there is juju but we don’t believe; we just look at it as another form of 419. We don’t believe because if you bring it, I will kick it away, I will use my hand to throw it away. The only thing that may affect us is what you eat but to say you sit down in one place and conjure up something, we don’t believe it in my family because that was how we were brought up.
My father never stopped me because I could play football from morning till night. I have a wound by the side of my laps, I got that wound because my mother was pursuing me, I ran and fell. I was a good child but not always staying at home was a problem, I always looked forward for morning, I never liked sleeping and till date I don’t sleep. Most times I go to bed 3a.m., 3:30a.m. and I could wake up 5:30a.m. and I have come to realise that it is not good but I have been like that since childhood because I always looked forward to going to meet my friends so that we play football, sports, I love sports. I was adventurous, there was a day a vehicle was passing in front of our house, I think that was in Onitsha and I just looked at it, looked at it and I said what if I stoned this car now? I was a kid, either 10 years or so and I picked a stone and threw on the windscreen gbaaa, I just wanted to try whether it will break and the man screeched to a halt and I took to my heels and ran away. Because of that I knew they will beat me and I didn’t come back, I was in the bush till the next day, they were looking for me and my mom was crying. It was adventure.
Because of adventure, I danced for these people that vend drugs in the streets, those people who used to play Congo music those days. I was in primary school and my parents never knew I was doing that because one day we closed from school and were going home, we saw those people selling medicine, playing music and dancing and we told the man we can dance o, so the man recruited us and we started dancing. I was just less than 10 years old so we started dancing for the man. Every morning on my way to school I will dance and the man was using us. He gave us singlet, then raffia palm on our waist with bells on our legs and we will be dancing and people will be throwing money; at the end of the day, he will just give us only puff puff and ice water until one day someone told my dad that I saw your son on Bida Road dancing. So someone asked my father, Michael, why should you of all people with your money allow your son to be dancing for people and my father said what are you talking about, that was how he drove to the place and almost committed murder.
No. The man, I was only a kid. I was enjoying the popularity, oh look at that boy that dances for JC, so everybody loved us. We were not dancing it for money, just the fun, we were enjoying ourselves but it was going to affect our education, even at times, my sisters would say brother, you know you would have been one useless person by now if something didn’t happen that stopped you from these adventures, it was an adventure and we were enjoying it dancing for the man. I could sing all those Congo songs and you think I understand Congo language because whatever you learn as a kid you will hardly forget it. In fact, when I meet some Congolese and I sing for them at times, they marvel. During my father’s burial recently, I went on stage and performed with Ebenezer Obe, I went on stage with Rough Coin and I think I did the same thing with KC the Popo Master and they were shocked but Ebenezer Obe’s own, because my father used to like Ebenezer Obe. So growing up as a kid, we used to listen to Obe a lot in my house. Even though I schooled in University of Ibadan, I don’t speak Yoruba much but I understand it, not everything anyway but I love Obe’s music till date, that was why when my father died I decided to honour him by bringing Obe to perform and that day I was on stage performing with Ebenezer Obe, singing it very well.
Didn’t being adventurous get you into trouble with your parents?
No, because I didn’t really indulge in vices, my adventure is I might sit down here and be thinking , let us try and manufacture medicine; then we go into the bush and be plucking leaves and try to mix them together. If we are playing football and somebody sustains injury, we will say let us try and invent something that can be curing wounds, those were the type of things I was doing and I will pluck some leaves, squeeze them, extract the juices, mix them, even stems from trees then we put it on and it will be very painful but in the end those wounds would be gone.
So there was no time you played pranks?
The only pranks I played was dancing for medicine sellers and throwing stone at someone’s windscreen to see if my stone could break it.
How were you able to combine such restive life with education?
I was a brilliant child. I was very intelligent, I don’t know if I am still intelligent now. Even up to secondary and university, my friends will tell you; I will be playing football, I am a sports person, all I need is to see your notes, I may not have attended the class. I could read anywhere, I could prepare for my exams in a party; once I am determined to do something I will do it. I could be there and other students dancing and the inspiration comes, I start reading there. I never read anything twice, any note, once I read it, I never go back to it again and I will now come back to teaching the others and they will marvel. I was not involved in pranks, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink and still don’t drink or smoke. I didn’t involve myself in anything. I use to flock around women a lot growing up but I never knew woman till I was in the university because I respect women, I don’t believe that women should be sex objects. Women have far more useful values than being sex objects, you know a lot of men see women from the point of sex, I don’t. Women are my best friends.
Seeing you are now very successful and prominent, how do you handle very beautiful women throwing themselves at you?
Very easy. Because I am not seeing her the same way every other man is seeing her. I see her like a human being like I would see every other man and that a woman is coming after me does not make me lose respect for her, I don’t. Some guys if a woman tries to toast them or something they will start telling everybody, no, it doesn’t mean I will fall for that but I understand where she is coming from, she sees a man she likes, she wants to become your friend, so when they get close they see that I am too deep, and when they notice that I am too deep, those of them who may have wanted something beyond friendship will start regretting ever making such moves because they want to be your friend for life and they know going beyond that could cause frictions. I have a lot of friends and they could tell me anything, the same way they discuss with fellow women and I respect women because I love my mother.
What then is your guilty pleasure?
Do I have any guilty pleasure? In fact the only guilt I feel is not having enough time with my children but thank God for the kind of wife I have. I live for other people. All these things you see I do, I do it for other people, I work hard to keep other people happy and sometimes, I neglect my family. My son said one day, “Daddy do you know we don’t really know you because you are always working.” I don’t have any social life; my life begins from my house to the office, my office home. I use to club perhaps 10 or 20 years ago but not anymore, I don’t have any social life now.
Where did you get the character strength you exude; from your Dad or Mom?
I took from both. I like both of them equally. I am very close to all of them and my character trait from both parents too. My parents were very kind, however my father was stronger and firmer. My mother was overtly kind and may not be able to know when somebody should be put in his place and I imbibed that trait from my mother too. I took the other side from my father, so a good mixture for me.
What was the relationship between you and other siblings given your adventurous nature?
We had a cordial relationship but I used to beat my immediate younger sister, Tina a lot. Oh God! I never liked her because she was talking too much, so we were always fighting and I was always beating her because she would never keep her mouth shut but now she is the closest to me. Those attributes of her are still there, you don’t try her but we were children then.
For a man who sees women beyond the physical, how did you meet your wife?
I went to Abuja to do a job for my principal then, Chief Nwizugbe and Co, I met her in Abuja. When I saw her, I said kai, I like this Hausa girl because she was dressed in northern wear and I told her that I would want to marry her and that was not a good approach, so she didn’t find that funny. First of all I was in my early 20s talking about marriage. She was a Youth Corper and her friends told her that Igbo, especially Anambra men don’t marry early until they were in their 40s which was a lie or maybe it was happening in those days, so she didn’t take me seriously, she didn’t like the approach. I trailed her to the place of her primary assignment, which was the Corporate Affairs Commission and told her that I mean it and really want to marry her but she didn’t believe me until I did a lot of flying to Abuja to and fro every morning till one morning my sister was going to get wedded and I was buying stuff for my sister, kind of send forth items, fridges, television beds and all sort and when I got home, my mom said “you need to tell us who your girlfriend is? Your dad and I have been talking about it.” I was shy because I never had that type of discussion with my parents like marriage and girlfriends because I was too young. At night, about 3am, I felt someone sitting by my side and that was my mom, she woke me up. You know when parents want to tell you they want something and are serious about it, she said they were serious about what they told me. I asked her why she was interested in girlfriend, I don’t have. Already I had started making money in Lagos and was living in a guest house instead of a normal house; so they felt I was living a careless life but I wasn’t.
What happened was I had a lot of friends, I faced my property, real estate business, so I was buying and lawyers were coming to take my property to sell and I give them commission. I was big. I already started being big by 1991. For my friends, I will pay for rooms for them; while they were there with their girlfriends. I would be in the bush looking for fallow lands to buy and sell. So I was very busy but my friends were busy enjoying the money with their girlfriends. So, when they enter into trouble, my name will come out in soft sells and they didn’t like it. My dad told me he wanted me to get married in five year time, however ”we want to know who that person would be, stay with one person so that me your mom and your uncles can go and meet the parents of the girl so that in five years’ time, you will be mature.” I said okay, no problem. In the morning I went to her and said I have seen someone I want to marry but she is Hausa and my mom said Hausa, I said yes and she asked do you like her I said yes, do you love her, I said yes. Meanwhile I didn’t know my wife’s full name, I only know her as that Hausa girl and she was pretty and she looked like one of my cousins too and I said this one looks like us, that was another attraction. She said “do you like her, I said yes and she said ehn, she is a human being.” Why I told my mom that was so that her fellow women would not be harassing her. You know to Igbo, anybody after Nsukka is Hausa, Benue is Hausa, everywhere is Hausa. I didn’t tell them I didn’t know her full name and I thought she was Muslim but I didn’t care, I don’t discriminate based on religion. My mom told my Dad, who said he even liked it that way.
They asked me to invite her to my sister’s wedding so they can see her. That became a problem for me because the girl has not agreed to talk to me or have anything to do with me. I got back to Lagos, went to Abuja and told her my parents want to see you and that also angered her. You don’t know me yet your parents want to see me. To her, I was trying to use marriage to get her down and she didn’t like that. I tried to convince her, to cut a long story short, few other people talked and I am sure she started seeing other people liking me in their office and that must have sent her some signals. She agreed and we went together for my sister’s wedding. That was the first and last she was to see my mother because my mother died without any atom of symptom of kidney failure. She was never diagnosed of that before. Within four days of feeling feverish, they said her kidney failed, that’s how I lost my mother. I now decided and married her. I was very close to my mother, I loved my mother so much, very peaceful woman. That was how I told my father that’s the girl and he asked if I was ready and I said yes, that was how I got into early marriage, that’s my story.