In the wake of the latest, dastardly, xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the first batch of Nigerian evacuees arrived Lagos, on 11th September 2019, i.e, a week or so after native South Africans burnt and looted shops and properties belonging to several African immigrants.

Although, initially, well over 600 Nigerians, indicated their desire to return home, unfortunately, however, as a result of the unexpected bottlenecks, deliberately created by South African Officials to prevent the evacuation, only 187 caught the first flight to Lagos. According to reports, “the South Africans did not want us to evacuate and pleaded with the Nigerian High Commission, not to do it;” but, the Consulate, apparently, responded that “they do not have the power to stop private citizens from expressing their wish to return home.” The contrived bottlenecks, invariably led to over 15 hours delay.

Another batch of 314 Nigerians arrived in Nigeria on 18th September 2019, however, the number of evacuees, may, exceed 800 Nigerians citizens, many of whom are stranded at the Airport and the Nigerian Consulate, in Johannesburg. 

Notably, if, perchance, free evacuation was not available, we may wonder what the fate of such hapless Nigerians would be! Notably, prior to the evacuation, the Nigeria Ambassador was recalled, while the Nigerian Consulate, in Johannesburg, was already under siege by hundreds of distressed Nigerians. Furthermore, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama and other Government Officials, seemed to be merely huffing and puffing in the unfolding drama of blame trading with various Officials of the South African Government.

Incidentally, all returnees interviewed in Lagos, vowed, never, to return to South Africa, even when some of their spouses, still remained behind to see how things pan out. Arguably, however, Air Peace’s offer to evacuate these desperate Nigerians for free, was probably the silver lining in the xenophobic attacks on beleaguered Nigerian immigrants. Notably, the usual in-your-face and stupendously wealthy political thieves and opulently successful Nigerian businessmen, most of whom made their wealth from Government patronage, simply kept mute, while the trauma and inter-governmental acrimony lasted.

Expectedly, also, the recall of Nigeria’s representative and the visit by South Africa’s delegation to Abuja, did not really help to guarantee the safety of Nigerians and other African immigrants in South Africa; furthermore, there is still no, reported discussion, on compensation for those Nigerians who lost properties in the wake of the September xenophobic attacks. It is improbable that S.African Authorities will ultimately pay any meaningful compensation, especially if Nigeria’s Government is not, also, directly involved in determining the value of total loss by Nigerian victims of xenophobia. Arguably, the cost also incurred by the Airline, Air Peace, to evacuate these Nigerians should be factored into the total compensation. 

It is indeed distressing that there was no Nigerian National Airline, which could promptly step in, to perform the noble role, as Air Peace did, in this matter. In retrospect, we recall former President Obasanjo’s lamentation, years back, that the almost 30 strong Nigeria Airways fleet that were operational in 1979, when he handed over government, as a Military Ruler, had incredibly, all disappeared, by the time he returned to power in 1999 as Civilian President!

As usual, there has been no serious postmortem of the collapse of Nigerian Airways, and regrettably, also, no account of the substantial properties owned by the Nigerian flag carrier, in choice locations, in several cities in West Africa and Overseas. Ultimately, Foreign Airlines have continued to dominate the aviation sub-sector; worse still, the African Free Trade Agreement, with its open skies policy, will predictably, create serious hurdles that may thwart the growth of indigenous entrepreneurs in Nigeria’s Aviation sector. 

Furthermore, despite over N50bn reported annual revenue, from out-bound passengers from Nigeria’s airports, existing infrastructure and services still remain archaic, and passenger-unfriendly, while commissioning of the new Murtala Muhammed International Terminal also remains uncertain. Thus, in view of the shambolic state of Nigeria’s Aviation subsector, it is a source of pride and relief that we still have a “Human Savior,” in the person of Allen Onyema of Air Peace, to minimize the pains and douse the national disgrace that would have belittled our claim as the Giant of Africa, if almost 1000 beleaguered Nigerians, had remained stranded in S.Africa. 

Clearly, the 18-man Air Crew of Air Peace, who also unanimously agreed to forego their out-of-station allowances, as their own sacrifice to their Fatherland, were certainly, in locked step, with the charitable inclination of their Chairman; these patriots surely deserve our commendation. Indeed, on September 18, 2019, Allen Onyema responded to the invitation of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, so that Honourable Members could express their gratitude, to the Air Peace Chairman! Notwithstanding, Onyema affirmed that, “we are still ready to go into South Africa as long as there is one single Nigerian remaining in that country to be evacuated for free”. 

Meanwhile, in his commendation, House Majority Leader, Addo Dogwua, (APC-Kano) “noted that what he (Onyema) did was “an exhibition of selflessness, risking his business interest to save the lives of Nigerians in the face of war”. Dogwua concluded that Onyema saved Nigeria from embarrassment and “our gratitude today, is on behalf of 360 constituencies of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to say thank you.” Ultimately, the House, unanimously, recommended that Allen Onyema should be given an important National Award. 

However, in his own response, Onyema, advised that “if Nigerians continue to fight one another as against fighting for one another, there will be no nation,” Onyema further declared that “I believe in nationalism as against sectionalism” and also observed that “Nigeria was blessed with 370 ethnic nationalities which should actually be a recipe for strength.”

Curiously, despite the steady expansion of his airline services, locally and on some prime International routes, Allen Onyema had never really captured the public space, until the recent evacuation of Nigerian immigrants, from South Africa. Onyema reveals that his foray into the airline business, was driven by his desire to create increasing job opportunities, after he learnt that a single 140-seater aircraft, on regular schedule could create jobs for upto 1000 people.

The Air Peace fleet, which, reportedly, commenced operations with 3 Aircrafts in 2012, presently, boasts 7 aircrafts, while orders are confirmed for 30 more aircrafts in a $2.1bn (N756.5bn) deal with Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, Embraer.

Although, the Air Peace Chairman had earlier suggested that, the airlift from South Africa would erode corporate revenue by about N300m ($830,000), however, the unexpected, extended, delays and the related disruptions to the airlines commercial schedule, should support a substantial increase in any compensation, ultimately demanded from the South African Government.  

Onyema’s quest for PEACE is certainly not superficial, as he has been deeply engaged in transforming lives of restive youths in the Niger Delta, and has also extended his charity to Almajiris in the North. Furthermore, he has received both national and international honours and recognition for such social interventions. Allen Onyema is a Lawyer by training, but with interest in diverse ventures. In response to suggestions that he is a beneficiary of the largesse, of a former First Lady, this unusual Nigerian responded that he had never, ever, met his alleged benefactor!

Incidentally, one of those who spoke in favour of Onyema’s quest for peace, in his appearance at the House, was Julius Pondi, a present House Member,  who over a decade or so ago was a militant, who later became a beneficiary of Allen Onyema’s Social Programmes; evidently, Onyema’s quest for Peace, is a lifelong commitment.

Arguably, the Race of noble Nigerians, is certainly not extinct. Allen Onyema is eminently qualified for a National Award, but Nigeria would probably be better served with someone like Onyema as Aviation Minister; what a far-fetched dream in a country that cripples and devours its best!

NB: The above article was published in Punch as “ONYEMA, NIGERIA’S PRIDE AND APOSTLE OF PEACE”