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RUGA, HERDSMEN CRISIS: Situation at hand calls for emergency attention — Onyema

• Without optimism we are doomed as a nation
• How govt agencies ‘re killing airlines in Nigeria
• Flights delay hurt airlines more than passengers
• NCAA over-regulating airlines to avert mishap

DR Allen Ifechukwu Onyema, 55, is a man of many parts. He is a -lawyer, real estate guru, businessman, conflict resolution expert and  an aviator. The Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of Air Peace Airline, and chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria, FEHN, who played key roles in getting Niger-Delta militants to embrace the amnesty programme, wants the prevailing herdsmen and farmers’ crisis treated as an emergency to save the polity.

DR Allen Ifechukwu Onyema
DR Allen Ifechukwu Onyema

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In a chat with Vanguard, he urged wealthy Nigerians to assist the country wriggle out of the problem. He also spoke on the inclement weather airlines operate in the country, how effective regulation of airlines by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, has helped to keep our skies safe in recent time, why passengers should reason with airlines over flight delays and what he is doing to make Air Peace aircraft super-airworthy among others.

By Clifford Ndujihe

Five years after, how has it been with Air Peace Airline?

We give God Almighty all the glory for what we have been able to achieve within a short while that we started operations. However, the business environment is tough.

On what government should do to make the business environment conducive.

One of the things is providing a good environment for airlines to grow. Multiple charges and taxation should be looked into. Airlines should be given tax holidays. Aviation is a capital intensive business. Our interest on loans is double-digit, sometimes 26 per cent and people will sit out there and say airlines in Nigeria are not doing well. They don’t know what these airlines go through to fly from one point to the other.

There are monumental odds stacked against airlines in Nigeria. We need encouragement from government aviation agencies and not the other way round. There should be a conscious effort on the part of government agencies to make airlines in Nigeria succeed, and not fighting airlines indirectly or constituting a stumbling block to the success of airlines. Government aviation agencies should be a catalyst for the success of airlines in Nigeria. First, they have to reduce the charges and stop using bureaucratic powers to underline the airlines.

On the number of aircraft Air Peace has now

By the time all our planes arrive, we should be having about 46 planes. The ones flying now are 26, we are expecting 20 brand new planes.

Including the controversial and malfunctioning Boeing Max 8?

Yes. We paid for Max 8. Boeing is addressing the issues and we trust that Boeing has the capacity to do so. Most new planes have their teething problems. It will take a long time before our orders will be delivered.

One thing we will assure Nigerians is that we are not going to do anything that will endanger their safety.

On recurring problem of delayed flights, which Air Peace is also guilty

I want to apologise to our teeming passengers for some of the unpleasant times they spent with us. Talking about delays, I throw my hands up and apologise.

However, I want our teeming passengers to understand that these delays are not borne out of incompetence on our side. The delays are 95 per cent of the time borne out of act of God, which is beyond our control.

This is rainy season. Between January and when the rains started nobody was criticising us like this. Now, the rains have started, it will not be the same. If I promise you that there won’t be delays, I am lying to myself.

Nigerians should understand that if heavy rains start falling in the morning in Lagos every part of the country will be affected because most of the flights originate from Lagos. Like what happened penultimate week when it started raining heavily in the morning in Lagos, flights were delayed for several hours. When it happens like that by the time you start flying you may never recover. Any minute lost in Aviation is lost. We don’t delay flights for the fun of it. It is for safety. There are bound to be massive delays during this rainy season.

We are in the tropical rainforest zone where rains come with lightening and thunderstorms. So we delay flights where weathers catches us. Sometimes because of our zero tolerance for unsafe practices we delay flights for passengers’ safety.

For example, recently, our plane that was to take passengers from Abuja to Benin, on landing in Abuja was hit by a bird. That was not the fault of the airline. It has nothing to do with the airworthiness of the aircraft. In fact, it showed that our plane was airworthy and the proficiency of our pilots because despite the bird strike, it was able to land successfully.

A bird strike brought down an American aircraft in America-the Hudson River air crash. We have had more than 20 bird strikes. In the last six months we have had about 10 bird strikes without any incident.

When you have bird strike, you examine the engine, it won’t be safe to fly immediately. So, that caused a delay in Abuja. When they examined the engine, they discovered that five blades were damaged. There was no way the plane could fly.

To fly Benin passengers to Benin and the ones in Benin to Abuja we re-routed to Benin the flight that was supposed to go to Abuja from Calabar. We even lost because we had to stop selling tickets for the Calabar to Abuja flight to accommodate the passengers in Benin. Even the aircraft that was supposed to come from Calabar was delayed because of weather.

So, when bird strikes or weather calls there must be delay but some passengers don’t understand and will start beating our staff or bad-mouthing the airline.

It is only in Nigeria that we advertise ourselves in a very wrong way. It is only in Nigeria that people will crowd themselves and run to the tarmac to stop a moving plane. One of these days, the engine may suck-in somebody.

On the House of Representatives’ charge to aviation authorities to ensure planes are airworthy before they fly on account of the air Peace plane that skidded off the runway on landing in water in Port Harcourt

If the person is relating what happened in Port Harcourt to the airworthiness of Air Peace plane, I would say without apology that the person was advertising his monumental ignorance of the situation and circumstance of that incident.

The incident had nothing to do with the airworthiness of the aircraft. The plane landed in a pool of water on the runway and aqua-planed out of the runway. How can that be about the airworthiness of the aircraft? It would have been worse if the aircraft was not airworthy. If you move your car in a pool of water on the road you will lose control, not to talk of an air plane.

The pilot controlled the situation. The aircraft was not damaged. No injury was recorded. How could anybody say it has to do with airworthiness of the aircraft?

NCAA on top of its game

The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, is really doing a good job in this country. In fact, the NCAA is over-regulating the airlines to make sure there is no mishap. That is the reason we have not had any mishap in recent time. I give the NCAA 95 per cent on regulation of airlines.

Let me tell, the first day we started our Kano flight, when we landed in Kano, we had bird strike. We flew in our British engineers to recover the air plane.

Normally, in Air Peace, when anything happens, we like doing a test flight before boarding passengers in our plane. When we finished, and the pilot was to do the test flight, an NCAA official insisted on being on the flight to make sure everything was working well.

That is the current NCAA for you. So, if anybody is telling you that the NCAA is not doing its work that person has an ulterior motive.

The NCAA is doing what it should do and that is why we have never had an incident. The Port Harcourt incident had nothing to do with airworthiness. What Air Peace is spending on maintenance of its planes, legacies airlines of the the world don’t spend half of it. When Air Peace planes go for C-Check, we spend nothing less than 2.5million US Dollars.

It hurts me for people to sit in their comfort zone and spew out things they have no grasp of.

You seem to have abandoned conflict resolution and the campaign for ethnic harmony and peace in Nigeria. What is happening?

I have not abandoned my core passion, which is the unity and progress of this country. I have not abandoned it at all, I am still pursuing it with vigour as I did in the past.

In Air Peace, I try to use the airline to promote national cohesion and peace. I try to do things differently in Air Peace. It is part of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony project. I try to bring in people from various ethnic groups and give them sensitive and important positions irrespective of where they come from or religion.

On the state of the nation

There are difficulties, insecurity and economic difficulties. Every country at one time or the other passes through difficulties. I am asking Nigerians to come together as a family and address our issues in a brotherly and lovely way instead of allowing the difficulties we are facing to tear us apart. We must handle the issue at stake with optimism. We must be optimistic as a nation, if we lose that we are doomed.

There must be the will – political and economic will to get these things going rightly. This is not the time for blame games and sentiments. It is time for us to face realities and find ways of solving our national problems.

We must believe in the oneness of this country and remember that we are blessed. Our diversity should be our strength and not curse. We have about 378 ethnic nationalities. That is a huge strength. At all times we should see how we can make this strength work positively for us. I still have hope in Nigeria

On the disquiet over proposed Ruga settlement for herders

We must look at every issue objectively without sentiments. Ruga or no Ruga, we must remove suspicion and mistrust in our national life. If we had so much mistrust in the system even good intentions might be perceived as bad intentions.

We must have an open mind in whatever we are doing in the country. Without an open mind you might not be disposed to doing things the right way.

Before condemnation or commendation of the Ruga project, every stakeholder must appraise the situation, the circumstances that brought the entire thing and see where it falls. We are a country, everything should be done to get a win-win result for everybody.

What I can see is that there is a problem already unless we don’t want to tell ourselves the truth. There is a problem that has turned violent. This is something that can consume everybody if allowed to continue festering. This is an issue of security. Without security there is no development. We have a situation at hand that calls for emergency attention.

On perceived distrust of the Fulani by other ethnic groups in the country

I don’t have the statistics and I don’t want to base my judgement on social media and press reports.

However, it calls for caution. I hate hate-speech with passion. Hate-speech can inflame passion and lead to something you cannot control.

If some herdsmen had done anything violent, it is not enough for every herdsman to be condemned.

Criminality is criminality everywhere.

Like what happened in the Niger Delta, the militants were not wholly Niger Deltans. When we were trailing them, we discovered that some armed robbers who were not from the region had joined because it was fashionable to be called a militant than an armed robber.

The same thing may be applicable to the herdsmen issue. I don’t subscribe to a situation where the entire country is bad-mouthing the Fulani because it is not every Fulani that is a violent person and it is not every herdsman that is a violent herdsman.

I have met the leader of the Miyetti Allah Al-Hatore. Their Secretary General, Sali Kuba, is a fantastic and intelligent young man. He was one of the people we trained. We trained some IPOB, Arewa and Niger Delta militants and took them to America to train them to get a new sense of leadership. I am going to do that again on a larger scale in order to seek peace.

Sali Kuba was one of them. Mohammed Danjuma was also there. In Sali Kuba I find a very intelligent person this country can use to bring about peace between the herders and farmers.

So, it is not enough to go out there condemning and condemning. People should ask: Is there any way we can help? Has anybody asked the president of the country: Is there anything I can do?

I did that myself. In 2017, during the October 1 quit notice issue issued by Arewa youth groups, I went to the presidency to interface. That was what culminated in my training 80 people.

So, businessmen and those with means should come out and help the government. I don’t think any government will want to pride itself with what is happening now and say it presided over the killing of people.

Way out of the herdsmen issue, insecurity

We must start real orientation programmes. Where is the National Orientation Agency, NOA? This is the time to start working on the minds of Nigerians. The Army is fighting Boko Haram, you need to provide programmes that will make recruitment of future Boko Haram members impossible or difficult. You can only achieve that through non-violence awareness education to make people understand that if anybody is asking you to be violent that person is looking at you as someone who is less than a human.

I advice the government not to overlook the power embedded in non-violence public awareness.

 

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