…It hit South Africa below the belt
…I’m ready to evacuate more Nigerians
…I shed tears when I saw returning Nigeria unite in love
By Clifford Ndujihe
CHAIRMAN of Air Peace Airlines, Chief Allen Onyema, has urged Nigerians to cement the bonding being experienced in the last 10 days on account of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and evacuation of Nigerians to deepen the country’s unity.
In a two-batch operation, Air Peace evacuated 503 Nigerians from South Africa.
For a country that has been on the precipice of socio-ethnic and religious tensions, Chief Onyema said he shed tears when he saw the Nigerians being evacuated bonding in love and unity and singing the National Anthem with passion.
In a 59-minute interview with Saturday Vanguard, Chief Onyema, who said the end of xenophobia in South Africa has started with the evacuation of Nigerians, thanked President Muhammadu Buhari for giving Air Peace Airlines the opportunity to airlift the returnees.
His words: ‘’I commend President Buhari for the mature manner he handled the issue in the face of aggravated provocation. He showed maturity and diplomatic finesse. Some people were expecting him to be tough and hard. I also thank him for allowing Air Peace to do what we did. If he said no, we would not have evacuated our people.
He made sure the Nigeria High Commission worked round the clock. The people who came back are also singing the praise of the president not just Air Peace. Nigeria has bonded more in the last 10 days than in many years. Countries are commending Nigeria. We have restored Nigeria’s dignity. It should be continued and sustained.’’
Noting that he is surprised by the outpouring of commendations, Onyema, who ruled out pecuniary motives for the evacuation, declared his readiness to evacuate more people.
He also dismissed comments that he may be testing ground for his proposed flight operations to South Africa, saying that to the contrary the evacuation might jeopardise the permit Air Peace has to fly to Johannesburg
His take on xenophobic attacks in South Africa
Asked his take on the xenophobic attacks, he said: ‘’I thank God for using one to achieve what we just achieved. The evacuation we undertook has brought about the beginning of the end of xenophobia in South Africa. The evacuation hit South Africa below the belt. If not for the evacuation, which is a non-violence act, South Africans would have continued to attack Black Africans; Government of South Africa would have continued to look the other way while its citizens attack other Africans.
‘’Air Peace has helped in stopping xenophobia, which started with the tacit support of the South African Government because they were not arresting the attackers. They are now having a re-think because their economy has started getting a hit.
‘’I know that the evacuation will bring South Africans to their senses. What we did with the evacuation is called Direct Action in non-violence approach, it is legal and legitimate. Without it South Africa would not have begged Nigeria and other countries. They had no option because their stocks started going down, new tourists and investors have become wary of South Africa and people were asking questions. When one South African Minister said there was no evacuation, they told her that a Nigerian airline evacuated Nigerians and showed her videos.’’
How S/Africa tried to stop evacuation
Indeed, on realising the implications and effects of the evacuation, Onyema said the South African government wanted to stop it and pleaded with the Nigerian High Commission not to allow it ‘’but President Buhari had told them that whoever wanted to go should be allowed.
They went to the Airport and threatened those who wanted to go with 10 years ban. Some Nigerians have properties and businesses in Africa. They wanted to sell the properties and it would be easier for them to do so while the owners are far away in Nigeria.
Therefore, some Nigerians who wanted to return withdrew because they were forced. So, we were able to evacuate 188 people in the first batch and in the second 315, making 503 people. Some other countries have started evacuating their people. Malawi sent two buses to evacuate her people.’’
Nigerians don’t have to retaliate with violence
The non-violence advocate said Nigerians did not have to attack South Africa businesses in Nigeria to fight xenophobia because it is not the best approach.
‘’I don’t subscribe to Nigerians destroying Shoprite, MTN, etc, or anything that belongs to South Africa and other foreigners because violence be-gets violence. Non-violence is the best weapon,’’ he said
Motivation for evacuating Nigerians
Asked what motivated him to undertake the task of evacuating his compatriots, Onyema, who noted that he had done bigger things in the past, saving lives and strengthening national unity among others where the major factors.
According to him, some of the things he did in the past include training and transforming no fewer than 3,000 ex-militants with personal resources before the oil companies and later Federal Government bought into the amnesty project, returning peace to the Niger Delta region and boosting oil production, which at a point fell to 800 barrels per day, and restoring Shell to the multi-billion naira Afam project it abandoned for years among others.
His words: I have done bigger things in Nigeria in the past but people started knowing me with Air Peace because it is an airline. I am not doing it for anything material. My motivation is to achieve the unity of this country, save lives, help indigent Nigerians in South Africa, and help the growth and progress of all peoples in Nigeria. I see Nigeria as a country with a great potential. Between 2005 and 2010, I used to take ex-militants to South Africa for training. I noticed that many Nigerians in South Africa were begging for food. Some were stranded and had no means of coming back. Some were gainfully employed.’’
Evacuation of more Nigerians
Asked what would happen to other Nigerians in South Africa, who want to return home, he said: ‘’I have never been so honoured in my life. Air Peace will go for another evacuation so long as there is one Nigeria waiting to be evacuated. I shed tears when they were being evacuated. I saw Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa holding hands, feeling a sense of belonging and singing the National Anthem.
So many nationals of other countries were affected but nobody came for them. The evacuation has esteemed Nigeria in the eyes of the world. South Africans see Nigeria as the giant of Africa, touch their people and they will come for them.’’
Evacuation may jeopardise Air Peace flights to S/Africa
Asked if the evacuation was a test ground for launching Air Peace operations in South Africa, Onyema said: ‘’I love this country and from my university days I have been appealing to Nigerians to be united. We did Hajj operations and Umrah, this year. We got a contract of $10,000 per hour from a foreign entity but we turned it down to help our brothers in the North for half the price. We did it for national interest. Imagine what we would have gained from flying 2,000 hours at $10,000 per hour. I was not testing ground. Rather, what we have done may jeopardise our daily flight to Johannesburg because Nigeria and South Africa gave us permit since two months now. I know that the evacuation might jeopardise that permit but I place the well-being of every Nigerian above personal wealth and wallet.