The man who weathered the storm to run Peace Airline, Nigeria’s fastest-growing carrier
Peace Airline, the carrier that has taken the Nigerian aviation industry by storm, became famous, ironically, benefitting from a very turbulent weather into which it flew shortly after takeoff, in form of a fog that hung over its ownership, which was purely a creation of mischief makers.
In public relations, a crisis, if well managed, could become an opportunity. That was the route through which Peace Airline took, albeit involuntarily, to become arguably one of the most trusted and patronized airlines in the country’s aviation sector in its barely three years of existence.
The phenomenal success of the airline in so short a time, which is evident in its ability to worm its way into the hearts of air travelers ahead of its older peers, is testimony of Onyema’s doggedness and determination to achieve the near impossible. Success for him meant, from the beginning, that he had to overcome the twin problem of the challenges that are associated with aviation business in Nigeria, which have seen many airlines before it disappear from the sky, and a wicked rumour that was meant to discourage air travelers from patronizing his new airline.
But he wasn’t a stranger to challenges. For someone who had earlier achieved the rare feat of taking out of the creeks of the Niger Delta armed militants who knew no other language than violence and turning them into peaceful, law abiding and highly successful citizens, no obstacle was going to be too big to overcome. Not stiff competition from bigger and well established competitors. Not the absence of the right infrastructure or the problem of multiple taxation. And certainly, not a well-coordinated campaign of calumny that was designed to ensure his airline crash-landed upon take-off.
Looking back today, Onyema can only thank God who gave him the grace and the heart of steel to carry on, even when he came close to quitting, not because he didn’t have what it takes to succeed in a highly unstable industry, but because of a campaign that could be traced to the doorstep of his competitors.
False rumour over ownership of Peace Airline
Peace Airline commenced operations at a time former president, Goodluck Jonathan, and his administration were becoming objects of odium and attack from some quarters, which helped in no small way to water the grounds for his ouster in the 2015 general elections.
Before this, Onyema, whose whole adult life has been spent promoting peace in Nigeria, but unknown to the vast majority of Nigerians, had made the word, peace, to reflect on all his endeavours. But when he named his carrier Peace Airline, the rumour mills roared into action with one tale after the other about its true ownership, all designed to paint a picture of a venture that was the brainchild of corrupt prominent public officials. The aim was to discourage air travelers from associating publicly with corrupt leaders by distancing themselves from their assumed airline. They tried to give a dog a bad name in order to hang it, the only snag being that in this case, it was the wrong dog.
Onyema was first alleged to act as front for Dame Patience Jonathan, the former first lady who was popularly called Mama Peace, after whom the new airline was supposedly named.
The story soon changed to the claim that Kingsley Kuku, Jonathan’s special adviser on Niger Delta affairs and head of the amnesty programme, had a hand in the venture, and that the decision to name it after Mrs. Jonathan was a way of showing appreciation to the then president for putting him in a gold mine. There was the story of the alleged involvement of Stella Oduah, then the aviation minister, as one of the airline’s promoters. There was yet another story linking Peter Obi, former governor of Anambra State, with the airline, perhaps because the man was at one time the chairman of Fidelity Bank, the airline’s main banker. Timi Alaibe, former presidential special adviser on the Amnesty Programme to the late president, Umar Musa yar’Adua, was also mentioned.
Onyema says the peddlers of the wicked rumours who were quite ignorant of operations in the aviation sector even went as far as alleging that the former president gave him a whopping one billion dollars to establish the airline, when the cost of all the aircraft in the fleet of the airlines operating in the country, put together, was not up to $700 million.
The rumour mongers also ignored, or perhaps were unaware, of the fact that Onyema went through a rigorous approval process that lasted more than two years to obtain final approval for a venture that was allegedly promoted by the powers that be in the country, when such approvals could easily have been obtained after directives issued by phone. They were also ignorant of the fact that Onyema had never met Jonathan or his wife in person, beyond seeing them on television and the pages of newspapers.
The rumours that attended the take-off of Peace Airlines were probably ignited by the big-bang fashion with which it commenced operations which, in the estimation of many, could not have been possible for an airline with a lean purse. There had to be an unseen and very powerful hand behind the mystery airline. What further confounded the doubting Thomases was the fact that the airline broke available records by operating 14 flights and opening five stations on its first day. It hadn’t been done before.
The truth, as Onyema laboured hard to explain, is that he is the sole owner of Peace Airline
Benefits of the crisis
The first benefit of the rumour concerning the true ownership of Peace Airline was that it drew public attention to it. That is what happens when negative publicity attracts attention to the object of the attack, which could sometimes turn out to be beneficial to it. Those who did not know that an airline by that name had entered the Nigerian aviation industry quickly became aware of its existence.
But rather than being discouraged from using the airline because of its alleged owners, air travelers became attracted to it by its excellent services and tendency to keep to schedule, to definite on-time departure. Air travelers were interested in the services rendered by the airline. They couldn’t be bothered about the identity of its owners.
The goodwill and patronage of air travelers, which are products of its excellent services, have seen Air Peace grow from an airline with seven aircraft in its fleet – four Boeing B737s and three Donnier 328 jets – to 22 – comprising 13 B737s; two Boeing 777s for international operations; six Embraer 145 regional jets and one Donnier 328 jet, within three years of operations. In terms of fleet size, the airline is the largest carrier in Nigeria today.
Onyema says he came to revolutionise scheduled flight operations in the country. He has been able to achieve that in so short a time. The airline’s services, inflight and on ground, coupled with its safety record, make it the airline of choice for many air travelers. The company has taken advantage of the myriad of problems that its competitors grapple with daily, which include constant grounding of aircraft, delays and outright flight cancellations, to win a sizeable share of the market.
He plans to extend the revolution to flight destinations across the country. For instance, the airline will, in the near future, go outside the traditional destinations that airlines scramble for, like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano and Kaduna, to make it possible for people to travel from Sokoto to Kano; Yola to Kano; Port Harcourt to Asaba; Calabar to Port Harcourt; Kebbi to Kano; Uyo to Sokoto; Kano to Enugu; Benin to Port Harcourt; Abuja to Benin, etc. This, he believes, would not only open up the country for air travel, but would also open up the economy for greater participation by Nigerians.
Founding of Peace Airline
Onyema’ entry into the turbulent sector of aviation is a study in determination, doggedness, focus, perseverance and hard work. If profit was the motivation to invest in a sector that has seen many fall by the way side, he would be the last investor to consider putting his hard-earned money there. His involvement in the sector is due largely to his commitment to helping the country in its quest to achieve economic growth and prosperity, borne solely out of his public spiritedness.
He thought about an area through which he could impact most on the economy by way of employment generation and provision of services, and also promote peace in the country and foster unity among Nigerians, and came up with a dream to float and airline. He would realize, in the process of seeking approval for his dream project, that he needed not only the cash, which he did not lack – about N45 billion in all – but, most importantly, the heart of a lion to actualize that dream.
The process of registering the airline could have discouraged the faint-hearted, not Onyema. He went through five rigorous phases that included audit and practical demonstration of ability and readiness to operate flights, the fifth stage. This stage involved operating flights for 50 hours carrying only the personnel of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority. And then there was the wicked rumour of the ownership of the airline to contend with.
He has not regretted the decision to establish and airline, not with the impact the company has made on the economy so far, in the area of employment generation, opening up the country and its economy, as well as payment of taxes.
Peace Airline has a lot going for it. From the perspective of services, the airline has, in line with the vowed commitment of its founder, distinguished itself. Air travelers have very little to complain about its services if, indeed, they have anything to complain about. If, for any reason, the airline cannot meet its on-time departure schedule, it demonstrates humility by explaining the cause of the delay to its customers and, in some cases, offering snacks free of charge to assuage them.
The company has also been able to meet its obligations to its bankers, mainly Fidelity Bank Plc. Onyema says the airline’s ability to service its loan obligations with the bank, as and when due, has attracted the interest of other financial institutions.
Onyema is a Nigerian of Igbo origin. But he has made it a policy to ensure the best hands are recruited from any part of the country for his airline. The interview process at Peace Airline does not include question about the state of origin of the prospective employee. Emphasis is on the candidate’s ability to deliver, not the part of the country he hails from. In fact, he has gone out of his way to ensure the staff structure of Peace Airline reflects the heterogeneous nature of the country, or the federal character principle of the government, in a bid to promote nationalism, against sectionalism.
The top echelon of the airline’s staff, including pilots, comprises people drawn from all over the country, including the South West, South South and South East. For instance, the company’s director of flight operations, director of safety and IT manager are of Yoruba stock, while the quality manager and director of maintenance and engineering are Igbo, with the chief pilot and chief accountant from the Niger Delta and the northern part of the country, respectively. The policy affects staff in all cadres.
Profit sharing with staff
Onyema has adopted the South West Airline of the United States model in running Air Peace. This model involves declaring periodic profits and making them trickle down to the lowest employee, as a way of making them see the business as their own. This, he believes, is what would spur them to put in their best, since the success of the company is their success, and its failure, their failure. That is the way he runs his other business.
His decision to adopt this model is informed by the desire to break the jinx of airline employees wallowing in pains from the problem of unpaid salaries and allowances, which leads to constant industrial crises. He follows the Biblical dictum that says the labourer is worthy of his wages.
Commitment to peace
In 2003, Onyema asked himself what he could do to stem the tide of ethnicity and its twin problem of ethnic crisis and violence that were threatening to tear the country apart, especially the restiveness in the Niger Delta.
He spent his resources travelling round the country to build peace initiatives and look for solutions to the various crises that he could address at the small level of an individual.
The search for solutions took him to the University of Rhode Island Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, in the United States, after making contact with the Martin Luther King Centre and Dr. Bernard Ladfayette Jr, who invited him to bring his staff to the centre for training on conflict resolution.
He returned to establish the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN) in 2004 and thus began the sole effort of bringing peace to the troubled Niger Delta region.
Onyema initiated the process of disarming and training Niger Delta militants long before Yar’Adua assumed office to set up the amnesty programme. In fact, the then president ordered the closure of his rehabilitation and training facilities in Obubra, Cross River State, due to the mistaken belief that he was training the militants to cause more havoc in the Niger Delta. Year’ Adua would later, upon learning about the true nature of the activities of FEHN, enlist Onyema’s services to train the militants on non-violence and peace – as a consultant to the government.
It was a venture that drew the attention of oil companies operating in the Niger Delta who sent militants to the center for training. The training had local and foreign components, which means that payment was made in both naira and hard currency. Needless to say, Onyema smiled to the bank.
Indeed, the bulk of the money that financed the birth of Peace Airline came from what he made consulting for the federal government and oil companies on conflict resolution and peace restoration in the volatile region, with the rest coming from his other businesses and, of course, bank loans.
Onyema is a native of Mbosi town in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State. The first of nine children, he grew up in the old Bendel State, where he had his primary education in Benin.
He attended several secondary schools, including Urhobo College, Effurun, Warri and Government College, Ughelli. He studied Law at the University of Ibadan, graduating in 1988 and called to the bar in 1989 after attending the Nigerian Law School.
His parents and uncle who was the head of crude oil export at the Forcados terminal of Shell Petroleum Development Company wanted him to join the company, but he had his plans. He wanted to work far away from home, where he would be his own man, free from parental control. He rebelled in the process and took the step of faith to move to Lagos, with no idea of how he was going to make it in a strange land.
After combing the streets for a job, he got a helping hand from Chief Vincent Amobi Nwizugbo, the owner of a law firm with five lawyers in his chambers on Martin Street, who hired him. He was initially not paid salary, but he was content to leaving the house every day. He began to earn a monthly salary of N500 naira when he won a case that saw him defeat a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in court. The feat also earned him headship of the chambers.
The big break for Onyema came when he was contracted to sell 300 plots of land in Lagos. He bought some of the plots, which included a large portion of the Lekki Peninsula, from the money he was paid, thus signaling his entry into real estate. He soon grew big enough to own properties in different parts of Lagos. He also set up his law firm, announcing his membership of the league of businessmen with fingers in many pies.
Onyema is married to Alice Ochodie Onyema, from Kogi State, with whom he has four lovely children, three males and one female. A committed family man, he has named his aircraft after his wife and children, and also his parents, leaving himself out as the only one “without an aircraft”.
He holds the traditional title of Ide of Ihiala
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