Deploying the stern, unswerving focus of early aviators, entrepreneurial spunk of the Elon Musks and Bill Gates and compassion of the Dangotes, Prince Arthur Ezes and Tony Elumelus, founding Chairman/CEO of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema, cuts a swathe through the tough forest of industry challenges, quirky ‘aero-politics’ and curious detractors to sustain one of Africa’s biggest flyers, writes Louis Achi
At the level of small talk, you could hardly get the better of Chief Allen Onyema, the founding Chairman and CEO of Nigeria’s aviation behemoth – Air Peace. But for the plucky, unassuming lawyer and entrepreneur more at home with analysis and action, this trend of dialogue could pall easily. He certainly needs these traits.
The modern aviation industry is certainly not for the lily-livered. With the ever-increasing demand for flight and innovative new technologies on the horizon, the coming years are set to be very exciting. Nevertheless, to achieve its potential, airlines, airports and subsidiary companies need to overcome the challenges of the aviation industry sooner rather than later.
Increasing volatility in the energy, geopolitical and economic environment, security, digital transformation, tweaking customer experience, fluid national and international regulatory operating environments, realignment of information management from different data bases, implementation of IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) standard targeting improvement and enhancement of how customers make bookings are just some key arenas that forward looking operators must navigate to survive. Besides effectively managing and retaining talent in the industry, the new normal birthed by the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic which almost stifled the sensitive sector of course cannot be left out of the laundry list.
According to Ernst & Young, a multinational professional services firm, understanding the aviation industry’s biggest challenges and issues in 2019, 2020, and in the future, will enable companies to gain a competitive edge in the race for sustainable, profitable growth. It is against the backdrop of these tough hurdles that Air Peace is clearly setting the standards for airline operation in Nigeria, while expanding its international footprint.
Air Peace, flying domestic and international routes, is a private Nigerian airline founded in 2013 with its headquarters in Lagos. Within seven eventful years, the carrier has grown its fleet to over 30 wide and narrow-body aircraft with four more on order or planned.
Waylaid by detractors
Curiously, since Chief Onyema delved into the challenging business of aviation by floating the Air Peace Airlines, a business he conceived to create jobs to the teeming unemployed citizens, so many negative stories have trailed this vision. Some of the allegations range from the ordinary through the bizarre and to the absurd.
His words: “Suddenly, everybody became interested, ‘how did he get money? Who is he fronting for? So, this is Nigeria where we belong. I’ve done things for this country that I deserve to be given one of the highest awards ever. It was my programme that led to the amnesty being given to the militants; it led to relative peace everybody had in Niger Delta today. When Shell discovered what I was doing, they came in and started bankrolling it in millions; Chevron and other oil companies joined.”
From THISDAY checks, since 1992, Chief Onyema had become successful in business, real estate and law practice. By 1995, he had already owned estates in Lagos and other cities in the country. This was before he veered into the business of Nonviolence Conflict Management with which he contributed majorly to the peace in the volatile Niger Delta.
Initially, some allegations held that Air Peace was owned by the former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, with Onyema as a front. Eventually, the former Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah’s name also came up.
Apparently leaning on the wisdom that the more the merrier, Timi Alaibe was also named as the owner of Air Peace. Then, Kingsley Kuku name was dragged in. Both were co-ordinators of the Amnesty Programme that helped end the Niger Delta militancy.
Pretty few know that long before Kuku’s appointment, Onyema had already been a major player in the programme. There is no other organization on the continent that is involved in the Kingian Nonviolence Transformational Training of violent people except Allen’s Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN). His organization has always been the obvious choice because of its track record of expertise in handling people of violent disposition.
It could be recalled that he made history in Obubra, Cross River State where for over a year he held the place down for his nation, ensuring no life was lost there. He handled the transformational programme of the entire 30,000 ex-militants registered under the Amnesty in Obubra. The role played by his group was attested to by the international community that visited there. These services were of course handsomely paid for.
By as far back as 2005, Onyema had decided that violent militancy must give way to intellectual discourse. He started training youths all over the country in nonviolence principles and practices. He took the philosophy to the Niger Delta and started training youths and militants. He took them abroad for further trainings. It’s worth noting that at this time, there was no amnesty programme.
It was not until 2006 that Shell, on noticing the impact being made by one man for his country, contacted Allen to allow them bring militants from their host communities for this training. Chevron, also on noticing that the programme was making waves and changing lives of hitherto violent persons, keyed into Allen’s world too. They were all paying for both the local and foreign programmes of Allen running into millions.
As a result of the reports reaching the Presidency under Yar’Adua then about the impact of Onyema’s programme in the region, Timi Alaibe was instructed to appeal to the militant leaders to allow their wards go for this transformational programme and this happened. Willy-nilly, these moves foreshadowed the critical role Onyema was to play in Yar’Adua’s novel amnesty programmed that reined in militancy in the region. The rest is history.
Onyema had once expressed his ‘irritation’ about a perennial rumour that he had been fronting for Patience Jonathan in operating Air Peace, saying he had “never met” the former Nigerian First Lady in his life.
The University of Ibadan law graduate revealed he grew up in Warri, but moved to Lagos shortly after graduating from the University of Ibadan and becoming a lawyer in 1989. When he moved to Lagos in 1990, he initially joined a law firm, where he worked for a few years before going into real estate. It was in real estate he became fortunate from selling lands in Lekki and other priced areas in the Nigerian commercial capital.
His words: “By 2008, I was receiving about 18 per cent interest on my deposits. I was building estates from interest alone.” He revealed it was in 2008 that he discussed launching Air Peace with his wife, and getting a licence for the airline took several years with exhaustive efforts.
According to him, “I brought my finances into it (Air Peace) while getting support from the banks too. When I had gone halfway with the acquisition of my aircraft, I discovered that it was more than I thought. So I borrowed money from the banks. Fidelity Bank is there for anyone who cares to see. I pay the bank daily from sales. It is automatic.”
Since then, Onyema said Air Peace has become so successful that commercial banks can no longer pass on any opportunity to do business with it, even as he emphasised that the company was wholly owned by him.
The Controversial US ‘Indictment’
A Nigerian-owned, offshore based online publication had reported late last year and rehashed the same report recently that the founder of Air Peace, moved more than $20 million from Nigeria and other sources through US bank accounts in a scheme that involved organizations he founded in his home nation and false documents related to the purchase of airplanes. The publication quoted the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia.
But the Chairman/ CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, has described bank fraud and money laundering allegations by the United States Attorney as false and directed his legal team to do the needful..
Responding to the shocking allegations, Onyema described them as false, stating that he “has never laundered any money whatsoever as every aircraft bought was transacted through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).”
Onyema said: “I can confirm to you that all allegations are false and are in no way in line with my character as a person and as a business man whose only aim has been to build Nigeria and improve wellbeing. As the press statement clearly stated, these are indictment that only contains charges. I am innocent of all charges and the US government will find NO dirt on me because I have never conducted business with any illegalities.
“Be rest assured that I also have my lawyers on this and these mere allegations will be refuted. I never laundered money in my life, neither have I committed bank fraud anywhere in the world. Every Kobo I transferred to the US for aircraft purchase went through the Central Bank of Nigeria LC regime and all were used for the same purpose. The American companies that received the funds are still in business. I never took a penny from any US bank or Nigerian bank. I am willing to defend my innocence in the US courts.”
Patriot, Philanthropist with Air of Peace
Driven by a passion to help in dire human situations, Onyema has made several and remarkable interventions within and outside the Nigerian space. It could be recalled that Onyema made available an Air Peace plane to evacuate Nigerians in South Africa, who had indicated interest to return home as a result of xenophobic attacks.
An appreciative Federal House of Representatives had held a session in honour of Onyema. The House passed a resolution asking President Muhammadu Buhari to give a National Award to the Anambra State native in recognition of his patriotism, which the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, asked the Clerk of the House, Patrick Giwa, to transmit to the President immediately. The lawmakers also vowed to give the first priority to Air Peace when flying to any part of the country.
Today, Onyema is not only the National Chairman of Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN), he has also been appointed into the Executive Board of The Global Nonviolence Conference Series Inc. USA, with notable world leaders as Hon. Dr. Andrew Young and Suarez Ramos as members. By this appointment, which was confirmed in April 2007, he became the second African ever to be so appointed to the Global Board.