Many must have missed that statement in the celebratory mood of the night. Some others who heard it may simply have waved it aside as an idle talk by an award recipient compelled by courtesy to say something to tickle the award organizers and the audience.
But the statement, Saturday, October 16, by Allen Onyema who bagged The Sun Exceptional Philanthropist Award on the night came from deep down his heart. He spoke on the subject of his life-long passion – peace and reconciliation – and apparently expected not just The Sun newspapers audience at Eko Hotels, Lagos, but also the entire country, particularly, the Nigerian government, to listen and act.
In his speech Onyema advocated the replication of the amnesty initiative of the Umaru Yar’Adua regime to address the current volatile security situation in the country. He called for a programme of reconciliation in which people like Nnamdi Kanu, Sunday Igboho as well as other agitators across the country could be granted amnesty by the federal government.
Onyema, the international businessman and entrepreneur who is better known as the owner of Air Peace, one of Nigeria’s frontline airlines, is apparently more passionate about prospecting for peace than for money. In fact, his pursuit of peace and reconciliation predates his foray into the business world as attested to by the name of his flagship business outfit, Air Peace.
“Yes,” he explained in a recent interview, “that is not where I derived the name of my company from. I decided to work for the cause of peace because I believe it is a calling for me. It is like working for God.” Undoubtedly, the same God has been faithful to him, for, over the years, he has had his fingers in the resolution of some of the seemingly intractable security challenges and visited some of the most dangerous militants’ dens in the country. And, each time, he emerged unscathed, clutching the peace and reconciliation he sought. Those who are familiar with the level and depth of Onyema’s contributions towards peace and stability in Nigeria in the last 20 years wonder why he has not, as yet, been recognized with National Honours. They cite the roles he played in bringing down tension in the Niger Delta during the Amnesty Programme of the late Umaru Yar’Adua administration and the occasional ethnic face-off between northern youths and the Igbo nationalist leaders of eastern Nigeria.
Born in Mbosi in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, Onyema attended several schools, including St. Anthony’s Secondary School, Azia; Urhobo College, Effurun and Government College, Ughelli, Delta State, and University of Ibadan, where he read Law. He graduated in 1987, attended Law School and was called to bar in 1989.
His flair for conflict resolution started
manifesting way back at the age of nine when he ingenuously capitalized on the natural feeling of love of parents for children to resolve a raging bitter feud between his father and his uncle. Little Allen went to stay with the uncle who lived in another village without his father’s knowledge and was declared missing. When word got his father that his little boy was with his estranged brother, he went for him. Onyema recalls: “I was the only son of my parents then. My father, who could have been scared that his brother would kill me being the only son, never asked for me to be brought back. My uncle, on the other hand, took me in not minding the feud he was having with my father and that was how I brought the family back together.”
Onyema’s streak for going the extra mile in search of peace reared its head in his school days. In secondary school, he discovered that something was not right with the leadership of the students’ union in his home town. As a 14-year-old Class 3 student, he engineered the overthrow of the students’ union leadership in the association which had university students and graduates as members. “But I did something even graduates could not do,” the lawyer–businessman said in an interview. “I went from house to house getting members to sign my petition for change of student’s leadership. That was how we overthrew them and restored peace. People still talk about it to date.”
He was in the university when Zaria was on the boil from religious and ethnic riots. “I led the delegation of other nine students from the University of Ibadan to help to restore peace there. I was in my late teens then.” Upon his return from Zaria, he spearheaded the formation of Eminent Friends’ Group with the objective of promoting ethnic harmony.
After his call to bar and National Youth Service, the young lawyer went into legal practice with a law firm in Lagos Island briefly before leaving for real estate business where had a breakthrough from land sales. The money he made from that business laid the foundation for both his current success as an entrepreneur and further incursion into conflict resolution and peace building activities at the national level and international levels. Since then, Onyema has made the pursuit of peace and reconciliation a key focus of his life and his mission on Earth.
From 2004, when he rolled out the First Nigeria Forever Project and began to traverse the length and breadth of Nigeria engaging Nigerians on the need to pursue peace with all men, there has been no looking back. Onyema’s crusade for peace and reconciliation began in Northern Nigeria, where he crisscrossed the North East, North West and North Central before eventually gaining steam and momentum in the Niger Delta at a time when the unrest in the Niger Delta had reached a peak and Nigeria’s oil production had fallen from 2.5 million barrels per day to a paltry 700,000 barrels per day.
Desperate for a lasting solution to the growing insecurity in the Niger Delta and its attendant consequence on the Nigerian economy, key Niger Delta stakeholders (oil multinationals, state governments, ministries, departments and agencies) under the Yar’Adua presidency reached out to Onyema’s organization Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN) which at the time, had a working partnership with the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Change of Atlanta, Georgia.
Initially, he and his partners were discouraged by many, but, driven by a deep resolve to chart uncommon ground, they took up the challenge.
Months later, Onyema and FEHN began to engage and train militants on the principles of Non-Violence and Nonviolent change. He modelled his approach after those of Mahatma Gandhi who used nonviolence to bring down British rule in India without recourse to violence; Martin Luther King who used the same method to abolish official segregation in America; and Lech Walesa who used his solidarity group, in 1981, to pull down the all-powerful communist regime down in Poland while enthroning democratic governance in that “All the above men succeeded in their respective quests without doing or encouraging violence. So, I decided that I must acquire this nonviolence education, go to the Niger Delta, teach and show them how they would use it to get what they wanted. I started this in 2003,” he explained.
Training programmes were arranged in both Nigeria and South Africa in partnership with the Martin Luther King Center of Atlanta, Georgia. Beneficiaries of these series of trainings returned to their bases in Nigeria and began to show a strong willingness to drop their arms and pursue the path of peace.
Not too long after, President Yar’Adua made the proclamation of Amnesty and Unconditional pardon of all repentant militants in the Niger Delta in June 2009, and in August, the Presidential Amnesty Programme was birthed.
Through FEHN, Onyema contributed a great deal to the gradual return of peace to the troubled Niger Delta and today Nigeria is better for it.
A similar intervention by Onyema and his Foundation saved Nigeria from what would have become a major ethnic crisis. They waded in when Arewa Youths gave the Igbo a notice to quit the north. He and his organization invited 65 youths comprising Arewa, OPC, and IPOB to Abuja where they were lodged for three days in a hotel. Follo his appeal to their consciences, the feuding parties agreed that something would be done before the October 1 deadline. He eventually succeeded in getting the Arewa boys and IPOB, led by its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, to meet, engage each other and arrive at common grounds on issues in dispute. The warring ethnic champions shared kola nuts after their marathon meeting. “It is very easy to bring this country together,” the trouble shooter observed after that incident. “The will to do that is the only problem.”
Onyema has committed a lot of personal resources to intervening in a number of other crises on behalf of Nigeria. Some of the more recent ones involved deployment of aircraft from Air Peace fleet to bring stranded Nigerians from trouble spots abroad back home. For instance, following the xenophobic attacks on Nigerian citizens in South Africa, he sent planes there to rescue those that wanted to return to Nigeria free of charge. When the crisis arose, according to him, “I immediately called on my other brother airlines for us to send a jet each to South Africa to evacuate Nigerians but my colleagues didn’t take me seriously. I said, ‘I’m going to do it’ and I did it.”
That was not all. He also deployed aircraft to London to evacuate Nigerians there in the heat of the COVID-19 crisis. The beneficiaries paid peanuts to Air Peace whereas other airlines were charging triple that amount. Onyema also went to India where a lot of Nigerians that went to India for medical treatments got stranded. He brought over 120 Nigerians home free of charge. Nigerians in Indonesia were destroying the embassy because they couldn’t come back, they didn’t have help.
No doubt, Onyema’s involvement in peace building, reconciliation and philanthropic activities have brought him fame, envy and trouble. But those who do not understand him insinuate that he engages in them to feed his assumed political ambition. He denies nursing any political ambition, saying he couldn’t have thought of such a thing from age 9 when his inclination towards conflict resolution began to manifest. He said he is driven by passion and patriotism. Hear him: “I went to Malaysia, Indonesia and China picking numerous Nigerians that couldn’t afford flight fares and bringing them home for free. So, it’s not about money or because I want to be president, no, I don’t think of that. I did it to save the image of the country. This is me; this is how I was created. So, which political ambition did I have as a nine-year-old because that’s when these things started?
“Now, anything I do because I have attained this age, people tend to read political meanings into it. I love this country, I love people, I love humanity and I don’t discriminate. That’s the thing about me. So, I do the things I do out of passion for my country. “