In this interview with TRIBUNE, CEO of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, speaks on his life and guiding philosophy.
HOW was childhood for you?
Growing up was beautiful. I was born into a God-fearing family and had a very humble background. My father was a businessman, while I grew up in the Niger-Delta, from Benin to Warri and now in Lagos. I attended Government College in Ugheli and the University of Ibadan where I studied Law.
What do you do to unwind?
I don’t have time for unwinding. The aviation business takes more than 24 hours from me in a day because I work round the clock into the next day. I go to bed most times around 4a.m and by 6:30. I will be awake and start listening to the news. Even if I want to sleep, people will be calling from the airport. Some people will get to the airport with 25kg of luggage and they want to board without checking it and once a staff refuses them, they start calling me. You know every Nigerian is a big man. They call and start saying: “Allen, can you imagine your staff not allowing me to take my luggage in? I have travelled from Miami to Brazil and to South Africa and from there to India and nobody has ever asked me not to take 25kg with me” and start using foul words. In the process, they wake you up. Sometime, some will even call to complain that my cabin crew is not as beautiful as they expected and that I have to do something about it. So, in this business, you have to attend to so many issues. It has so many challenges. You really need to be on your toes in order to be more effective. So, I don’t go to parties and clubs; I spend my time in my office. My life has been from home to the office, from office back home. I don’t really have time. Even on Saturdays, I just sit down; sometime, I watch football. I am a [Borrusia] Dortmund [FC] fan and I hope Arsenal fans will still continue to fly Air Peace (laughter).
There must be things not known about you…
I am a proud Nigerian from the South-East and the national Chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN). I love humanity. I do not discriminate. I love God. That is why I’m trying to do things for the sake of God. About the secret that I have, when I was in primary school, I would abscond from school to go and do street dancing for medicine sellers who put on music to attract buyers on the street without my parents knowing. The man would engage me and I would be dancing to attract customers. Some people reported me to my father. When my father saw me performing, he almost rammed his car into everyone there. I don’t think it’s a secret because a lot of people know about it.
You have a thing for Niger Delta militancy and its struggles…
In my life, I have been a peacemaker from childhood. I have told the story of how I reconciled my father with his elder brother when I was nine years old. I saw both of them fighting and I never liked it. Weeks after, both families stopped talking to each. It went on for almost a year. One day I ran after my uncle, my father’s brother; both families were not in good terms with each other. I ran away from house; I ran to my father’s brother in a remote village in Anambra State. They were looking for me. The brother called my father and told him; look, we saw your son. I had told them at the motor park that I missed my way and that I was living in a town around Awka where I knew my Uncle lived. So, the motor park people took me there without the knowledge of my parents. I was the only son then. Now I have seven sisters and a brother. My father never asked me to be brought back. So I began to live with his brother, his number one enemy. At the end, they had no choice but to come together
And the Niger Delta amnesty story?
I went to the University of Rhode, Rhode Island, USA, to study Peace Building because I was disturbed by the carnage that was going on in Nigeria. The incidence of violence was on the high around 2004 when the Sharia issue, ethnic riots were common. So, I started my peace initiative from the North. I was the one that designed and executed the project called First Nigeria Forever Project. The programme was to encourage and promote nationalism. It took me to the 36 states preaching peace. All the emirs in the North, including the late President Shehu Shagari, Sultan Maccido, the late Emir Ado Bayero of Kano and all of them, applauded what I was doing. I was spending my money. In 2004, I submitted a proposal to the then Ministry of Information. The Federal Government liked what I was doing. I was to be paid almost N200 million to take the projects to the 36 states they paid only N350,000. Another person that gave me money was former Kaduna State governor, Ahmed Makarfi who, after seeing what I was doing, gave us N250,000 which was not enough to fly my followers all over the country in a single flight. I was selling my estate, spending my money to preach peace in my country and nobody asked where I got the money from. But years after, I decided to float Air Peace Airline and they started asking where I got money from; ‘he must be corrupt’. I have never worked for government and I’m not a politician, but nobody asked the question about where I got money to preach peace around Nigeria. Anywhere there was problem in Nigeria, I would go there. Nobody in Nigeria, including the security agencies, asked me then where I got the money I was using to push the peace programmes. Sincerely I was not doing this for money. It was when I felt I had done enough in the North that I decided to move to address the Niger Delta militancy.
Deciding on strategies must have been a different thing for you
Initially, I did not know how to go about it. Just as the country was losing revenues, so my search took me to the U.S. I wrote them that I wanted them to train me, train my staff so that we could go to Niger Delta and educate them, but the American Embassy would not give us visa. Thrice we were denied visas. I wrote to Dr Bernard Lafayette and begged him to come to Nigeria to set up a facility here to train us. He came to undertake the programme here. I trained about 50 of my staff and we held another programme, which was attended by about 200 people. After that, we entered Niger Delta and worked on how to confront the militants. If we were not trained, we would not have been able to handle them because it was a dangerous assignment. That was my first assignment. For a year, I couldn’t see my family. My wife even thought I was going mental. I remain Nigeria’s greatest unsung hero for what I did. Without me, the militants would not have given up. Without me, Niger Delta would have been worse and Nigeria would have been worst for it because at the time I went in, oil production had gone down to about 500,000 barrels per day. Businesses were taking flights out of the region; foreigners were leaving the country; oil installations were attacked, while kidnapping became rampant. It was not an easy battle for anyone, including the military, until I introduced a non-violent style which changed the world of individuals doing this violence. I trained and transformed over 3,000 of the militants with America’s support until amnesty was granted. I was training them in Nigeria and taking them to South Africa to deepen their transformation and before I knew it, America started attending the programme and later started supporting us. Shell came in and started bankrolling me heavily. Shell was even keeping me in different hotels to protect me. Different groups and people joined to support me to do it. At a point, Chevron joined me and Akwa Ibom State government under Obong Victor Attah. At a point, I was no longer spending my money. When the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took over, he called Timi Alaibe and asked him if he knew me because he had a security report that I was doing well with the Niger Delta militants. Timi said yes and also said that some of those I had transformed had been employed by the NNDC. The president told Timi to get me to get the leaders of the militant groups such as Tompolo, Ateke Tom and others if I could train them so that they could be in the state of mind when they come and discuss with him. Timi went to them, but they refused to attend out of fear of being arrested. However, they decided to send their commanders, the worst of their boys. It was the transformation of those ones that informed Yar’Adua’s decision to grant amnesty to the militants. That is my story.
CULLED FROM TRIBUNE
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