Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema, is a Pan Nigerian who believes in the Nigeria Project. In this interview with Charles Ajunwa and Ahamefula Ogbu, he revealed how he risked his life traversing the oil-rich Niger Delta to pull militants from the creeks, changing their mindsets, their deradicalisation, training and equipping them with various skills. He also spoke on sundry issues
What is your belief system?
I don’t know what you mean by that but I believe absolutely in God and I believe that He is my refuge and I don’t fear anything. I also believe in Christ as my personal saviour.
How do you handle mind boggling incidents of near air mishaps?
Airline business is not a business for the faint hearted, it is one of the most difficult businesses under the sun yet the least appreciated. If you leave your money in the bank, Nigerian banks will be giving you double-digit interest rate but some of us have reasons to go into it and that is to create jobs. Seeing the faces of over 3000 people earning their means of livelihood over here because of the platform one has provided, I glorify the Lord God Almighty, He alone deserves to be praised, that is what makes me happy. If you look at the myriad of problems, challenges and the fallouts of owning an airline, it is enough to kill somebody. Until your planes come back in a day, at the end of every day, if there is one plane still remaining in the sky, so will your whole world remain with that plane in the sky. Nobody prays for anything, I believe that Air peace is God’s own, God is only using me as human being to run Air Peace. Because of God’s protection of Air Peace, I know what I am talking about, nothing will happen.
What you call near miss is not near-miss anything; those are things that will happen and it is because we are excited people in this country. Any little thing that happens in this country it is over-celebrated in the media and made to look extraordinary. All over the world, planes fall out of the sky or worse things happen; in Nigeria if you notice that a dashboard light comes up and you decide to do air return; and that light could be as a result of faulty switch, it could even be that the switch is okay but there are some dirts covering it, it will be giving wrong signal but the pilot must have to take precautions, you don’t assume totally so you go back to base, not life threatening, the next thing 200 people almost crashed because of air return; two million people almost died because of air return in so airline. At times it makes me wonder if people are praying for accidents because of the way we react when there are issues other people would not bother reporting.
The other day we were going to Owerri and the pilot discovered there was no fuel in Owerri and decided to turn back. Every plane has maximum take-off and landing weights, for safety, you are not allowed to put beyond that weight or the plane could wobble out of the sky, so in aviation that is why you may travel from here to the United States when you get there you won’t see your bags, it is not missing, it was deliberately removed to reduce the weight. So that day we were going to Owerri and there was an overweight of luggage if we were to carry too much fuel so we can take more luggage and load up fuel when we get there. We took off, after Benin when you start coming down, we contacted Owerri which said they had fuel and they said they no longer had fuel, that the fuel they told us they had was bought by a private jet, meanwhile, we told them to keep the fuel for us. We had to turn back after Benin and announced to the passengers the predicament. If that aircraft had continued to Owerri, what would have happened was that the plane would have been stranded, it will land but won’t be able to go anywhere. Anytime fuel finishes in Owerri it takes about three weeks to get fuel there and it will affect other flights. The pilot turned back to take more fuel and drop some bags. As soon as they landed back in Lagos, one girl they said was in Big brother posted that she survived an air crash and the thing was trending everywhere, I don’t know if she was praying to die. Whenever we have any incident, no matter how minor, it pains because the schedules of passengers will be disrupted. For example, this is rainy season, anyone that says his performance will be 100 per cent the person is deceiving you.
How did you feel the first time you entered the aircraft and saw Nigerians that you were able to bring back from South Africa as a result of Xenophobic attacks?
I felt good and I thank God Almighty for using me. I allowed God to talk to me, so I was happy that God used me to touch lives and to save the lives of those who were stranded for years. So I felt good. When they are talking about what one has done for them and that if not for you maybe they would have died, lost their properties. They were holding hands there- Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Edo singing our National Anthem, so I broke down. I felt happy that at last, God has used me to bond Nigerians together. A lot of people thought they were all Igbo. No, you have seen the statistics. I knew it was not just Igbos in South Africa because I was doing business there. I used to train and transform militants there since 2005. I knew but people thought it was one section of the country. Thank goodness they have seen the statistics coming out from the federal government.
What is your advice for the Nigerian youths?
I want every Nigerian youth to shun vices of internet fraud, Yahoo Yahoo fraud, prescription drug both in consumption and marketing. Drug kills. It’s not only when you pick up a gun to shoot somebody that you kill the person. In fact, death through drug is even worse. When you sell a drug, you are committing murder, you are attempting murder.
So the youths should come out of it and every youth should look around him and look for those challenges around his environment within his country and proffer solutions to those challenges. You become a millionaire when you proffer solutions to challenges around you that nobody has proffered solutions to. You begin to look for those challenges in our country that don’t have solutions yet. If you are the first to proffer solution to such challenges you become a millionaire before others even set in. So youths expend their energy looking for what they can contribute to the country and in the long run that will make them. I’m a good example of that. What I did in the Niger Delta, yes, of course, I made money. Why wouldn’t I but I didn’t set out to make money? I was spending my own money training militants because I saw hopelessness, I saw helplessness in the region. Businesses were taking a flight out of Nigeria then, foreign oil companies were almost closing down, foreigners were running away and oil production went down to about 500,000 barrels per day in 2005 at the peak. It was a lost battle because the militants knew the terrain more than even everybody. I now started thinking about how could I be of help to my country. For a country of about 200 million and 177 million people then depending on 500,000 barrels of crude oil. That was the recipe for disaster to come. So, I decided to do something about it. The first thing I did was asking Joy Emeli, my staff, here how can we help? God Almighty is my witness, that was what happened and I remembered that nonviolence because first of all, you have to study what was the issue.
The militants believed the South-south was marginalised. They believed they were the ones producing the oil, they were not getting anything from it and they decided to engage the authorities. They felt nobody listened to them when they were civil and they now decided to take up arms to attract attention. But, then, criminality also set in. Armed robbers that were not from Niger Delta relocated to Niger Delta because it was fashionable to be called a militant than to be called an armed robber. So people who have no business in the Niger Delta, criminals from every part of this country relocated to Niger Delta to be committing crime and feeling good about it, not hiding about it and that was the beginning of militancy.
The first task for me was how do I change the narratives. I decided, okay, that nonviolence education should be the way out. If they were looking for equity the best way wouldn’t be by resort to arms. It should be tackled through another means other than violence. Violence begets violence, I now remembered nonviolence education. I now remembered that other struggles in the past led through violence never succeeded but those ones led through nonviolence succeeded because nonviolence philosophy knows no defeat. It works with the soul and it works with love too.
Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolence education to bring down British Rule in India without encouraging his followers to attack any Briton. In fact, it was the other way round. When you attack a non-violence practitioner, he does not attack you back. If you slap me now, what do you expect? You will expect that I will slap you back with even more force and velocity. But if you slap me and you are expecting me to slap you and I looked at you and say ‘God bless you, thank you’. My brother, you are finished. So those who don’t do violence are courageous people. Those who do violence are cowards, the inarticulate. So those of us who are practicing nonviolence it’s a very powerful thing. Mahatma Gandhi used it in India. Lech Walesa of Poland and his solidarity movement; it was a nonviolent movement. They never used encouraged violence.
Lech Walesa used it to bring down the all-powerful Communist regime in Poland in 1981 without encouraging any violence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who was my mentor used the nonviolence philosophy to bring down official segregation in the United States of America. By law people were segregated then, he used nonviolence actions to bring it down. So history is replete with many places and of recent when South Africans were fighting wars with Apartheid regime it never worked. But when they decided to apply the nonviolence actions they got what they wanted on a platter of gold. So I decided that I will go all out. But then I didn’t know anything about nonviolence, where do I go from there. I now decided to research and I discovered the man that worked with Martin Luther King in his civil rights days Dr. Benner A. Jr, he is here in my shelf and I wrote him. He was a director at the Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, University of Rhode Island, United States. I said I would like to train myself and my staff about 22 of us, that I would like to train them in nonviolence so that we can come back here to train others in order to arrest the Niger Delta issue.
He that was noble, he said that he would want me to write an essay not less than 400 words on why we should be admitted to the university to do that programme . I wrote and they gave us admission. We went to the American Embassy and they didn’t give us visa. They thought maybe I was leading a group of people to run out of the country. We tried three times, they didn’t give us and already we have paid for the programme. I wrote to them and said, ‘Please, the embassy will not give us visa. Why not come and help my country. Come down to Nigeria and teach me. I’m ready to pay your faculty for everything’. He now said, ‘I want to go and see this Martin Luther King of Nigeria’. That I reminded him of his former boss, who never said no to challenges.
On the day, he set foot on the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, he said ‘Nigeria and Niger Delta will never be the same again. It had just started today’. The rest is history.
So he came, trained me and my staff. We did two more programmes. Then he took us to South Africa to do another two weeks programme at the King Luthuli Transformation Centre to deepen it. We came to Nigeria and started going to the creeks to pick these people and that was a dangerous assignment. I started reaching out to them through different people, through parents, through moles and other means. I started training and transforming them, bringing them to Eko Tourist Beach Resort in Akodo for the Nigerian training. The other leg took place at the King Luthuli Transformation Centre in Johannesburg.
Everywhere in Niger Delta people started singing a new song ‘Nonviolence, Nonviolence’. One day, he asked me, what is the most powerful organisation in the Niger Delta? I said the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC). Do they support what is happening there? I said yes, they do. That the political wing. How do they get to the position of their leadership? I said it’s through elections and their elections are always well contested. He said okay. He said I want you to identify a good mobiliser, an orator, a good leader who will take on that leadership. And I reminded him that their motto was ‘By Any Means Necessary’. He shouted. But he now told me the strategies that we need to change the leadership of the IYC.
That was how Dr. Chris Ekiyor emerged. So the first thing we did was to identify Dr. Chris Ekiyor, a medical doctor, a young man who was once the president of University of Benin Students’ Union, a good mobiliser and an intelligent man. We now identified him and we included him in our training programmes, trained him here in Lagos and also trained him in South Africa. We approached the American Embassy, gave them the dossier and they gave him visa. We took him to United States to further his training, brought him back and helped in bankrolling his election and he won. On the day he won, his speech was ‘Now No Violence, Struggle Through Intellectual Engagement’. But he was shot more than five times and he almost lost his life. So this thing can never be complete without the story of Dr. Chris Ekiyor.
It’s not only Allen Onyema, but there are also a lot of people we came in contact with. We used them and it worked. So Chris almost paid with his life. It was a good cause that we were all fighting. Chris was helping in bringing out people in training and transforming militants.
After travelling abroad, we bring them back, push them back to the camps to also do work there and convince others to come out until President Yar’Ádua took over and contacted Timi Alaibe. The President asked questions about me and Timi confirmed to him that what I was doing was working. The president then told him that security report was saying that if I was supported that militancy in the Niger Delta would be a thing of the past. At this time, the oil companies had already started bankrolling me. Shell started it all, Chevron joined. So all the oil companies started bankrolling me, my programme became very powerful, very known all over the world. We never rested and the rest is history. President Yar’Adua wanted Tompolo and all the rest to be trained so that they could get transformed, come to have meetings with him. So he believed that if I could train the leaders, I will put them in better stead to be able to hold meetings with him. May his soul rest in peace.
But they refused when Timi went to meet them, they thought he was employed to get them arrested. After much persuasion, they sent their boys and they picked some worst people. It was the transformation of those people, the 600 commanders I was told that made President Yar’Adua say ‘If this guy could do this let me give them amnesty’. So he proclaimed amnesty. ‘I believed in Allen Onyema organisation for ethnic harmony in Nigeria, he will train and transform them’. Because that transformation was the most important aspect of the amnesty programme without that transformation we can’t do the other training like the integration programmes. It wasn’t an easy assignment. People thought it was vacation I did. So I spent everything I got trying to solve the issue of making sure that the economy of the country was not battered. Putting my life on the line as at that time, I didn’t know what was propelling me. I was happy doing it, dining with them, sleeping with them wherever they slept. I was having sleepless nights. And they are very intelligent people, people thought the ex-militants were idiots. No. They need to be respected, they are very intelligent people. We were able to channel their energies to other productive things.
That is my story. Why I’m telling you this story is that I discovered a challenge and I applied myself to it to proffer solution to my country. I didn’t expect to get money from that but the money came. I proffered a solution, without that solution maybe Boko Haram would have been a child’s play. What those boys had that we destroyed at the Enugu dump, I don’t think Boko Haram had it.
So, I feel fulfilled working for my country. I’m a good example of ‘Think of what you can do for your country and not what your country can do for you’. I want every youth of this country to think that way. Continuously look for that thing you can do, don’t look down on yourself. Look for what you can do and that goes for everybody. Nigeria is a virgin country, we don’t need to go elsewhere. We don’t need to seek separation or whatever. We don’t no matter our differences. Even the differences we are having now could help make us stronger later. We should not give up hope on the nation. No, no. We have gone through the civil war so nothing could be worse than civil war and we came back together. All we need is to do things that could bring back unity. Let’s fight for each other and not against each other. Let the Igboman fight for a Northerner, let the Northerner fight for Igboman, let the South Westerner fight for people in the East and let the people in the East fight for them. Let’s fight for each other.
I want Abdullahi to wake up tomorrow and say the federal roads in the South-east are dilapidated, federal government what are you doing. Let people from the North take up the gauntlet and start agitating. What do you think an Igboman will feel about such people? Love. You will feel wanted in your country. But if you allow an Igboman to be the one fighting for himself that will irritate the polity.
Same way, an Igboman should wake up and say the people of the North they need irrigation for their farms, the federal government you must provide irrigation for proper agriculture for the North. The vast land of the North is the hope of this country. Not oil. The vast landmass of the North, quote me, is the hope of this country in the future. Most countries are diversifying out of oil. China I think it’s not even up to 10 years nothing like oil again should be used. Things are being discovered daily that would replace oil. Now, is the time for us to key into other things especially agriculture. The North will feed this country when that time comes but we have to begin now. So we in the South should not think so much about our oil now.
Yes, there is inequity in the system. We should address this inequity with love remembering that tomorrow will come when we will need each again in another sphere. So the 388 ethnic nationalities that make up this country their diversity should be our strength and not our albatross.
What do you consider the most painful thing that has happened to you in life?
The loss of my parents
What has been the most joyous moment in your life?
The birth of my children especially the birth of my daughter because I believe my mom came back, that’s why her name is Nnenna.
How close are you to her?
I am close to all my children.
Not closer to Nnenna because of the circumstances of her birth?
Normally for men, sometimes you are usually soft and given to your daughters and most female children.
What puts you off in people?
Deceit, wickedness, treachery.
What attracts you to people?
Open-mindedness and kindness.
You work so hard, how do you unwind?
Honestly, I can’t say unwind, just like on very few occasion, when I am not out of the house, friends will come to the house in the evening, I don’t go out, we sit down in the house and have a drink. I don’t drink alcohol, but I like seeing friends being happy. I can provide it not to get drunk. In the office here I use to play table tennis with staff; I play for two hours, have my shower and continue work but in the last eight months, I have not played.
What is your most prized possession in life?
My family, it is not money. We don’t worship money, whatever we do, we do it for humanity and God.
Have you ever had a near life incident?
Oh yes, I have faced armed robbery. I have been attacked by robbers twice. Armed robbers have been to my house before but they didn’t hurt me; robbers have picked me on the road in my car, put me on the back seat and drove off but God told them to stop and let this man go down, in less than seven minutes they stopped and asked me to go down and they took my car away and that car was recovered within hours from them and they were killed. My sisters reminded me that nobody goes after me and remains or succeeds and it has been like that in my life. Anybody that comes after me and hurts me and I feel hurt, one thing or the other happens to the person and I don’t wish it for anybody so when people are hurting me I feel sorry for them because one thing or the other will happen to them.
How would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a good citizen, a kindhearted man, a God-fearing man, a man who is willing to promote and engender anything that will encourage love and unity in this country.
So it will be proper to describe you as a man of peace.
Yes, I’m a man of peace.