Allen Onyema of Air Peace tells his peace-making story
Eulogises Yar’Adua, says ‘militants still cry about him’
Why Kanu didn’t denounce Biafra
What happened when I took Arewa leader to Kanu
By Onochie Anibeze and Charles Kumolu
Today, the name Allen Onyema is synonymous with Peace Airline.
But that’s not just all about his involvement in Nigeria’s development. In this interview, he reveals his peace-building roles at critical junctures in Nigeria’s history with emphasis on the Presidential Amnesty Programme and resolving the acrimony that arose from the quit notice given to Igbo by Arewa youths last year
Before now, you were involved in some critical national assignments which were self-sponsored. What motivated you into engaging in such activities?
Without being boastful I am a good example of the saying that people should talk about what they can do for their country and not what their country can do for them. I have always loved to work for the peace, unity, and progress of this country. I have not stopped because I am passionate about this country and about peace. That was why I floated the Commission for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria while I was in the university. With a few friends, I was able to say that Nigeria should not be a place for ethnic disharmony. I was able to make those, who didn’t like me to love the platform. Some thought I was stupid but others saw it working. I am an open-minded person, who accepts people no matter where they come from. I was able to touch the lives of my friends, who didn’t have the same zeal like myself. During the riots in Kaduna then, I visited the place to make peace. I used to be part of the peace committees of some ethnic riots that had happened in Nigeria. I have been in peace-building all my life.
Working for peace
At the age of eight, I saw my dad fighting with his elder brother. Each of them was looking for the biggest club to hit the other person. Two weeks later, I visited my uncle. He was a Headmaster in one of the remotest places in Anambra State at the time. But I had to leave the city to visit my uncle, who was fighting my father. I went to live with him in Oba Ofemili. It was a riverine community that was only accessible with a boat at the time. My parents were looking for me since they did not know where I went to. When my father discovered that I was living with his brother, that was the end of their feud. I have been working for peace since my childhood.
Was that the reason you named your airline, Air Peace?
Yes, that is 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. In 2003, I told Joy Emeli that the incidence of violence all over Nigeria needed to be addressed. I had to develop a programme called, the First Nigeria Project. It took me to all the 36 states of this country. I visited many traditional institutions to preach peace. I also worked with youth leaders, who I used in promoting peace and oneness. What I did was on record because the Department of State Security Services, DSS, was following me, because what I was doing was gathering momentum. I spent hundreds of millions and no one asked me where I got the money from. But when I floated the airline, all manner of accusations came up. People thought I never existed. I have always been there but my humility kept me low. I don’t believe in being boastful of material things. I cannot go to my grave with material things. That is why I am always involved in selfless activities for mankind. All the first class emirs in the north know me. Even the late Sultan Maccido hosted me in Sokoto. Former President Shagari invited me to his house to thank me for what I was doing in the north. I remember the day I entered Jigawa at 2 am because of my belief in peace and unity. It is only the DSS that might know this because I was not loud.
How true is that you marketed the Amnesty Programme to the late President Umar Yar’Adua?
At a point, I decided to engender peace in the Niger Delta region. But I was not trained for that. However, I remembered that Mahatma Gandhi used non-violence approach to stop British rule in India without resorting to violence. What was happening in the Niger Delta at the time was that the people felt cheated and felt that they were not being heard. They had to take to arms. In the process, criminality became part of the struggle. A lot of people, who had no business with the struggle, penetrated the system. Even armed robbers from other states became militants and started causing problems in the name of militancy. They felt that armed robbers were not respected and had to acquire the name, militants. Things were so bad that crude oil production in the country dropped to 400,000 barrels per day. Even the international community could not do more for the country. It was a losing battle. Businesses were taking flights out of Nigeria. The only thing I could do then was to use non-violent education to solve it. Apart from Mahatma Gandhi, the late Lech Walesa of Poland stopped communism with his Solidarity Movement. Martin Luther King Jnr also did that in America. It is a very powerful tool. I wrote to the University of Rhode Island Centre, Kingston, in the United States to train some Nigerians, who I selected. They gave us admission but the American Embassy didn’t give us visas. We tried three times but were denied visas. I later remembered that the institution was headed by one of Dr. King’s aides, Dr. Bernard Lafayette jnr. He was the Director of Non-Violence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. I wrote to him, pleading that he should bring his faculty to Nigeria. I wrote repeatedly. After three months he responded, saying that he was coming to Nigeria to see me. He said my persistence made him see another Dr. King in me. He said he was bringing his faculty to come and train our people in Nigeria. I celebrated it because I knew Nigeria would not be the same again. He came and I sponsored the training. We were about 200 people. We later went to South Africa at the King Luthuli Transformation Centre to deepen our training. When I came back, we spread ourselves across the creeks. We went there to bring other people out. We started talking to them against the ills of violence. We made them realise that anyone, who tells them to engage in violence does not respect their humanity. We told them that the person sees them as animals because the persons will not arm his own child to go and kill. Therefore, if any politician is using them to cause a problem in the country, the person is not looking at them as human beings.
That was how we started training them. I paid Americans to train them. We were training the militants and transforming them at the same time. It was a matter of time before everyone in the Niger Delta knew what we were doing. I was the one who made it possible for Shell to go back to Afam for project they were executing. I held a community project there because I trained the leaders of militants in the communities around Afam. I used them to bring about peace so that Shell would go back and continue its operation. I didn’t ask anyone to sponsor it because I was only doing it for my country. I trained and transform thousands of Niger Delta youths. It was a matter of time for militancy to drop. Shell recognised what I was doing. In fairness to Shell, it wanted to solve the matter peacefully. They bought over the peaceful resolution angle. They started bankrolling my project. They started sponsoring the militants for training in Nigeria and South Africa. After a short while, the American Embassy started giving us visas. They even started attending our programmes. At a point, Chevron joined, Afrim Oil joined and Akwa Ibom State government under Chief Victor Attah sent for me. I had not met him before. He said that my story was being discussed at the highest level of government. He asked how I was achieving results. I told him that Nigerians had a wrong perception about militants. I told him that the militants were intelligent people who knew those who were sincere to them. The problem they had over time was distrust. They saw the sincerity in what I was doing and embraced it. He asked if I could train 100 people. I agreed and told him to send them but he said he didn’t know them. I had to call the leaders , who we had trained and they went to the creeks to bring the militants out. Akwa Ibom State bankrolled the project heavily in 2006 and 2007. When I trained and transformed some, I used the transformed people for future training.
Anyone engaged in violence wants to be out of violence. But the person does not know how to do it. But the non-violence training provides the route to liberation for them. They prefer it to all the millions that can be given to them. I had also trained some students in American universities. While doing that, I took Nigerians, who had been transformed in Nigeria along, so that they would see that it worked in Nigeria. I was doing that until President Yar’Ádua invited me. One day, I was traveling to Abuja. It was in 2007 when Virgin Nigeria was still flying. Somebody tapped me at the back and asked why I didn’t want to help her husband. She said that her husband had been looking for me. When I demanded to know the identity of her husband, she said Timi Alaibe, the Managing Director of Niger Delta Development Commission,NDDC, at the time. I told her that I didn’t like wasting my time with governments. I told her that I was doing it on my own. I also explained that it would become a problem for me if the government got involved in it because the oil companies were bankrolling it. I just told her my fears. She said Alaibe was coming to the airport that I must see her husband. She said President YarÁdua wanted her husband to bring me to the Villa. Yar’Adua meant well for the country. In fact, the militants used to cry whenever they discussed Yar’Ádua. That shows that Nigeria can be one. Even though he was a northerner, they loved him and felt that he would have done more for them than their own brother. Till, date, they still hold Yar’Ádua in high esteem. When Timi Alaibe came, he said the President wanted me to train the leaders of the militants so that they could change and have a good mindset to come for a meeting with him. He said the President felt that the kind of mindset the leaders had was not the type that could yield a fruitful discussion with him. The aim was to disabuse their mindset first. He invited me to make a presentation to the management and board of NDDC. Immediately, he started making calls in respect to that. I had to travel to Port Harcourt and show them how it works. They were all marveled. Before then, Yar’Adua had asked Alaibe about me because he had a security report on me. Alaibe told him that I had even transformed someone, who wanted to kill him years ago in Asari Dokubo’s camp. He also told him that he had given jobs to the person in NDDC. When Alaibe held a meeting with the militant leaders, they didn’t want to attend the training because they thought it was a ploy to get all of them arrested. After much pressure from Alaibe, they decided to send their commanders. They picked the worst of their boys, who they wanted to do away with. It was the training and transformation of that 600 that proved to the government that the boys should be granted amnesty. That was how the Niger Delta militants were granted amnesty by President Yar’Ádua.
First seven months
When the amnesty came, nothing happened in the first seven months. Some people started going back to the creeks, though they were not the ones I trained. They were the ones who had agreed to accept amnesty but had not been trained. They started going back because nothing was happening given the fact that there were bureaucratic practices over who should train them. The militant leaders also said they would not report at any camp without me. That was how I was brought in. And I held the best Demobilisation, and Reintegration , DDR, programme ever in the whole world. It took place at Obubra. It is impossible to camp rival ex-combatants in one place without having casualties. It had never been achieved before our programme. In most places the United Nations handled, there were daily casualties. About five people usually die daily as a result of rivalry. But in Obubra where we had more than 60 rival groups, we didn’t record casualties. I managed Obubra for almost one year and no single shot was fired. This country owes me a lot because they would have spent billions on the military. I saved my country trillions of dollars. Yet, the country has never deemed it fit to honour me even with the lowest of the national honours. I used the militants I transformed before amnesty came to transform the 30,000 that registered for amnesty. There was no way there would have been any killings because those, who had been transformed were like role models to those under amnesty. Many people thought it was only amnesty that solved the militancy crisis, but all the oil companies in the country came together to set up a Special Purpose Vehicle, SPV. It was to support the Presidential Amnesty Programme. They had their separate programmes. They invited a Canadian firm to work with me. But I didn’t want to work with the company because I didn’t know why I was subjected to work with people who do not know what it took to get to where we were. I tendered my resignation. It was not about money because the money was millions of dollars. The people could not go into the creeks. At that point, I was re-invited. It took me 24 hours to enter Bori. I brought out Osama, who was the leader of the militants in Bori. We led a procession of more than 7000 people in Bori. That was what the oil companies wanted. The major oil companies contacted me to do a community outreach programme. I even did a message to school programme, which involved using militants to teach school children about non-violence. It was important to teach the young people at the time. I have done enough to be honoured by this country. That was why Alaibe was always calling me anytime they were reading the names of national awardees on television. He would call to know if I was among those honoured.
On Kanu, Arewa, OPC
My organisation, FEHN, is still active. We waded in when Arewa Youths gave the Igbo a notice to quit the north. I brought 65 youths comprising Arewa, OPC, and IPOB to Abuja. I called Shettima on phone to tell him that I was surprised to see him at the place Abdulazeez was reading out the notice to quit to the Igbo. He said he was there to ensure that things did not go out of hand. I invited the President of Arewa Transformation Empowerment Initiative. I lodged them for three days in a hotel in Abuja and pleaded to their consciences. They agreed that something would be done. They told me that they felt so bad about what Nnamdi Kanu was doing. Before bringing them to Abuja, I wrote to the DSS asking them to give me the permission to engage the Arewa boys and IPOB. I wrote twice without getting any response and I felt that this country was going to boil. The October 1, notice could have gone out of hand. When I wrote to the DSS, I said that no one should pay me, adding that I could handle the situation myself. I wrote to the Office of the Vice President and I was immediately invited. When I got there, I told them that I would like to engage Nnamdi Kanu in the East. I also told them that I would like to engage the Arewa boys. But when I wrote the DSS and they didn’t respond, I decided to engage the Arewa boys first. Being a southeasterner, I didn’t want to engage Nnamdi Kanu without official permission so that some people would not use it against me. The Arewa boys told me they were ready to meet with Nnamdi Kanu. It is very easy to bring this country together. The will to do that is the only problem. All the boys who announced the quit notice were nationalists, they were only pained by the fact that Kanu was insulting their people. The way they responded to Kanu may not be good but they were ready to meet with Kanu. They were ready for peace. The Office of the Vice President gave me the letter to engage Kanu. I took Mohammed Danjuma, who is the President of Arewa Transformation Empowerment Initiative, ATEI. On the day we were going to see Kanu, Mohammed wore his native attire. Kanu told us to come at 8 pm but we saw Kanu at 1 am. We needed to pass through all sorts of security. When we were going, my father said I should not allow them to touch Mohammed. He said if they were going to kill Mohammed, I should sacrifice myself for his sake. I told my police escorts, who are northerners to drop their guns in the event that we were attacked. I told them to be ready to sacrifice their lives for the project. I instructed that they should not shoot any IPOB person.
After spending four hours with Kanu, he embraced Mohammed and offered kola to us. Kanu told Mohammed that northerners were also marginalised. He said there are even more poor people in the north, adding that the struggle was no longer about the Southeast. The Arewa boys told him that they wanted him to denounce Biafra. They also told him that he was ostracizing men of goodwill, who would have helped his cause. Kanu raised fears that if he denounced Biafra, his lieutenants would think that he had taken money and we would have splinter groups that might even cause problems. That was how the issue of training IPOB, Arewa youths and herdsmen came up. I told them that I was going to do a non-violence programme for their followers. I also advised them not to denounce Biafra until I do the transformation. I said I was going to bring them together and post Arewa boys to the east, while the IPOB boys will be posted to the north to become pseudo governors. I said I was going to make Abdulaziz, who gave the notice the pseudo governor of Abia State. The intention was to make him look out for those things he didn’t like about how the easterners are governed. It is only when we begin to fight for each other that we will begin to have real unity. If an Igbo man begins to fight for the challenges facing northern farmers, the Hausa man will reciprocate by fighting an Igbo cause. The Hausa man should also take the plight of the Niger Delta people as his plight. I wrote to Americans to train the boys and the American Embassy agreed. I gave Kanu 10 slots but he begged for 20. We brought them.
- To be continued