…From tackling militancy in Niger Delta to evacuation of Nigerians in SA
•At age 9, I settled a rift between my father and his elder brother
•My pilots, cabin crew refused their $40,000 allowance as their evacuation contribution
•How my actions attracted Shell, Chevron and money started ‘flowing’
•Let’s bond and build a bigger ONE NIGERIA
By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features
Chairman of Air Peace and National Chairman for the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria, Mr Allen Onyema has been in the news since he pledged to bring home stranded Nigerians in South Africa during recent Xenophobic attacks in South Africa and made good his pledge. So far, he had made two flights to South Africa using his airline, Air Peace and brought back hundreds of Nigerians stranded in that country. The gesture cost him millions of Dollars but he was not deterred.
In this encounter, Onyema said he is not new to philanthropy which he said began since he was in the University. He also revealed certain things about his background and what prompted him to do what he did.
When you go through social media, some people think there is an ulterior motive behind your kind gesture but we want to hear from you. Why are you doing what you’re doing?
It is very saddening and very hurtful for anyone to say there may be an ulterior motive to what I’ve done in South Africa. What kind of ulterior motive will make a man lay out hundreds of millions of naira to go and rescue people? What kind of motive? I could put that money in other ventures and become richer, so what do I gain personally? What exactly could the ulterior motive be? Some people should be careful with the way they show their wickedness outside. Anybody who says that is only displaying the wickedness of his heart and that person should seek God’s forgiveness. Those who know me will tell you that this is very natural with Allen.
Even on the floor of the House of Representatives, a representative from Kano who I never met stood up there and gave my life history and he said he was wondering why people were jumping all over the place celebrating Allen because he just evacuated Nigerians from South Africa and that if they knew Allen Onyema right from the beginning, they would know that he has been living a life of philanthropy, a life of absolute kindness, a life of selflessness. Then he went down the lane to reel out things I have done in the past that were far bigger than this evacuation and since then, has anyone been asking whether there is any political position in view or self promotion? The motivation there is to be at peace with my God. God created everybody for one thing or the other. What I have just done is what I have been doing all my life even right from childhood. So everything graduates. It depends on the level.
I used to share my pocket money, given to me by my parents, when I was in secondary school. I was in the boarding house all my life in school. I used to share my pocket money with other indigent students. I used to share the provisions given to me by my parents with other indigent students, right from school. People should go around and find out who really is Allen Onyema. Some people also wrote that this is in his character. I live for people. I live for God Almighty. I saw pictures of hopelessness in South Africa. I saw pictures of helplessness too. I saw pictures of pity. Nigeria was being lampooned. We were being called criminals by no less people than the government of South Africa and that really hurt me. You cannot, because of the inadequacies of a few Nigerians, put all Nigerians in one basket and label them criminals. I refused to take that so it motivated me. It was a spontaneous decision. There and then, I decided to evacuate our people and restore dignity to our name and respect to this country free of charge because if you start talking about money, then of course this will never happen. It is not something that started today.
In 2005, I went to the Niger Delta to try to tackle the violent militancy. I was the one who single-handedly brought in the University of Rhodes Island center for Non-Violent and Peace studies into Nigeria. I brought the entire faculty here to help me, train me and train my staff so I could go into the creeks to use that knowledge to confront militants, to start transforming them. I spent hundreds of millions as far back as 2005. I wasn’t doing it because I expected anything. That was me. I was doing it for my country. I wasn’t doing this because I expected anything.
The motivation for everything I was doing was my love for humanity. I love God’s people and I don’t discriminate. And look at what has happened in the last 10 days, Nigeria has bonded. Those who wouldn’t touch the Nigerian anthem with a long spoon started singing the Nigerian anthem. That was what brought tears to my eyes on that aircraft. I did this purely for humanity not for any personal gain. I want Nigeria to be one. I want a bigger Nigeria and not a fragmented Nigeria.
That means you don’t support IPOB and Biafra agitators
I won’t answer that question because whichever way I go, there is bound to be unpleasant consequences. I don’t want to discuss such issues. All I know is that I don’t discriminate against anybody.
Did you experience a horrible situation, any hopelessness while you were growing up that influenced your love for humanity?
Well, I’ve not personally experienced such but you do not need to go far to see hopelessness. There is hopelessness all over the place. You don’t need to go far to see people on the streets who go about not knowing where the next meal will come from. There was poverty in the beginning from the year 1960 to date. So you don’t need to go far, and if you are privileged to have 3 square meals a day, you should think about the other person. It is my belief that unless my brothers and sisters (and when I say my brothers and sisters, I mean everybody) are invited to my table of prosperity, then my own happiness is a ruse. You must remember that you cannot die with money. One must remember that one day, someone will go to the grave and when one is going to the grave, and he must remember that he is not going with money. You’re not going with your houses. You’re not going with all the billions in your bank accounts. No way. You’re not going with them but you can happily go to your grave, sleep peacefully and join your maker knowing full well that you’ve left a good legacy. So, that is the drive. There is a lot of hopelessness everywhere and we must be our brother’s keeper. Money is not everything.
When I was nine years old, I settled a rift between my father and his elder brother. They were not on speaking terms and I’m the only son of my father. Their failed relationship made me feel bad and I thought out a plan to reconcile them. I moved out of my father’s house and moved in with my uncle, my father’s elder brother with whom he was keeping malice. My father looked for me everywhere and reported to the police that I was missing. His elder brother didn’t know what to do and since I refused to go back to my father, he had to call him to tell him I was in his house, that I was not missing and that was how they started relating again.
I have seen and heard people say Allen Onyema for Anambra Governor 2022 or Allen Onyema for President 2023, what do you have to tell them?
Well, people are expressing their emotions because this is the first time an individual is evacuating nationals of a country on his own, free of charge. Evacuations are usually done by UN agencies or by governments and the citizens rose up to the occasion. It is just an out-pour of emotions. I thank them but those are not the reasons I did what I did. The reasons I did what I did had no political undertone. At the same time, I still thank them as it shows that people are appreciative of what I did. So many people are saying so many things. Some people are saying they want me to be traditional ruler of their towns. I heard another one where someone said “if only Allen Onyema will agree to be my elder brother”. Some have said Allen Onyema should be the head of their family. And then one man said he’d like to adopt me as his first son, that he has discussed with this children and they have agreed that I should be his first son.
Someone also said all African countries should be merged together and Allen Onyema should be made the President. So, people are just expressing their emotions. I don’t want people to read too much meanings into those comments because what I did, I did for God. Even, I am overwhelmed by the out-pouring of gratitude all over the world not just in Nigeria. My happiness is that I allowed God Almighty to use me. What happened wasn’t ordinary. That decision wasn’t ordinary. I didn’t think about the financial layout. When I mentioned this, I called my Chief Operating Officer and told her. Unlike her, she would have criticized it but she didn’t say a word against it. She just said “okay”.
I called my Chief Financial Officer and when I called Ejiro, who would have said no, no, the accounts cannot carry it. Do you know what you’re talking about sir? We are going to expend and we don’t know how many times we’ll go. We’re talking about 300 million, but it’s going to be more than 300 million, she didn’t raise an eyebrow. Everybody was in support. I called my wife who said the decision was good because of the number of people who were dying out there. So, there was no opposition from within which shows that God was acting. God shut everybody up and asked me to go ahead and then the outpouring of emotions and gratitude all over the world is our reward. They are happy that God is happy with us for what we did. See, God has a way of stopping nonsense. The evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa has spelt the beginning of the end of xenophobia in South Africa.
The truth is that without the evacuation, those crises would have still continued. All these apologies coming now were because of the evacuation we undertook. Evacuation is not a good thing for any country. It sends a very wrong signal about the security of lives and properties in any country. The moment we announced the evacuation, the South African government made contact with our High Commissioner and begged that it shouldn’t happen. They didn’t believe it would happen but when they saw it coming, they begged and then the High Commissioner told them that it wasn’t the Nigerian Government and that it was a private individual that would want to do the evacuation. So, they saw there was no way of stopping Air Peace and they went to the airport and started frustrating us. They didn’t want them to go because it would send a wrong signal. The South African government gave tacit support to the xenophobic attacks.
Their Deputy Head of Police said certain things
Yes, their Deputy Head of Police was lampooning foreigners. The same person that was supposed to protect lives was busy saying that the people were in their rights and that foreigners should go. The South African government supported xenophobic attacks . Their Foreign Minister talked about Nigerians being drug pushers. Also, what were the campaign promises of their President when he was campaigning? The videos are there. So, you can see what happened. That was why I went in there and I saw danger coming. There would not have been any stop to what the South Africans are doing if I didn’t do what I did. The evacuation hit them below the belt. The evacuation alerted the whole world. Governments from different countries were calling the South African government to know what was happening. That was why one of their ministers now addressed the entire press to say that there was no evacuation even when I had evacuated 187 Nigerians. She actually said there was no evacuation and when she was confronted that Nigeria had taken out 187 Nigerians, she then included that it was a private Nigerian citizen who owns an airline that did it and that the Nigerian government never contacted them about the evacuation. She was fooling herself.
When we did what is called direct action, we didn’t hurt them. We went in there and moved our people. It sent a signal to the world and it started affecting their economy. Stocks started crashing, investors started thinking twice so they saw the dangers and they kept begging. So this is the beginning of the end of xenophobic attacks.
These are the things that make me happy, not for any other thing. I believe I have done the work of God, what God wanted me to do and I’m happy doing it. Air Peace is not complaining about the capital outlay. If it comes, the God that allowed us to do it will take care of us. The most important thing is that my country has bonded seriously in the last 10 days and we must keep that bond in this country. I saw Hausas, Fulanis on that flight. I saw Yorubas. I saw Igbos. All were holding hands and singing Nigeria’s national anthem. A new Nigeria is about to be born. We have 378 ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria. If only we can bond together. This is what we need. My pilots and cabin crew that went on that rescue mission, for 25 hours, were standing, because they were being frustrated there. They were bent on bringing back Nigerians, not bringing back Igbos, not bringing back Hausas, not bringing back the Yorubas. They were bringing back Nigerians. They had about 40,000 dollar allowance for the trip to South Africa. They refused to take the money and said their efforts were their own contribution to the unity of this country. So, a new Nigeria is about to be born. I’ve never seen such love shown by anybody. These are the things we need and don’t forget I’m the National Chairman for the Foundation of Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria. It is called FEHN in short. It is with that organization that I went into Niger Delta to stop violent militancy which led to amnesty eventually. So, Nigerians should know the things I have done before. I have supported so many causes in this country running into several millions so this is not the first.
But sir, don’t you think that what was done to Nigerians in South Africa is karma for what Nigeria did to Ghana sometime in the past?
What is bad is bad, whether Nigeria did it before or not. We should also remember that Ghana first did it to Nigeria. But in Nigeria and in Ghana, were there killings? They once did it to Nigerians.
Yes. They did it to Nigeria but they were not killing people or destroying them. Nigerians and Ghanaians were not destroying people’s properties or killing people. Those ones were only protesting that there were too many foreigners. Nigeria never killed, Ghana never killed. There was no destruction of properties. They were not violent in whatever they did. This is a different ball game entirely and the Nigerian or Ghanaian government never instigated or did anything to hurt any citizen or foreign national.
But will you consider a political position in future?
I don’t really want to answer these kinds of questions; I don’t want to discuss politics. I just want to be Allen Onyema.
What advice will you give Nigerians who are building ethnic walls?
There is no doubt that ethnicity has always been a thing in the growth of our nation. Nigeria should imbibe broad nationalism as against ethnic nationalism. When you meet Nigerians anywhere, the first thing they tell you is that “I am Igbo, Yoruba, Fulani, Nupe, Ijaw or Urhobo”. We have 378 ethnic groups that make up Nigeria and this is a sure source of strength. Our diversity should be our strength, however our diversity has become our albatross and this shouldn’t be. People should understand that America is also seeking more diversity. Every ethnic nationality in this world is in America. You have Hausa American, you have Yoruba American, you have Russia American, and you have Franco Americans from France. You also have Americans from England. You have everything ethnicity in America and yet, once they handle their passport, they are proud to be called Americans and what they tell you first is that they are Americans.
Yes, in Nigeria, we come from somewhere but let us begin to say I’m a Nigerian first and that is the only way we can succeed. You cannot continue to mast ethnicity in a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria. You’ll cause problems. So let us begin to understand that our strength lies in our diversity. Let us celebrate those things that unite us. The values we share are in the majority than the values we don’t share. Let us celebrate those values we share together. It will be better for this country.
So you won’t pay attention to those trying to drag you into politics.
I don’t want to have any discussion on politics because whichever way I go, it may end up not being pleasant. So I don’t need anything to distract me from a noble cause.
This issue that happened is a lesson to our country as Nigerians are too quick to run to another country when there is a little problem
Let me tell Nigerians this. I’m giving them a secret they can work with and if it pays off, and then let them give another person this advice. This is a virgin country. Americans, the British, Germans, the whole world would be wishing they have Nigeria as their country. We have immense resources here which have never been tapped. For our youths, you don’t need to run out. Yes, we may have economic problems but in that economic situation, you can emerge. What does it take to become somebody? In all these challenges, going to Europe or America or other places is good, no problem but we have nothing to offer those places. Those places are already saturated but you have a lot to offer in Nigeria.
Look around you and the problems we have, all they need to do is to proffer a solution to any of the challenges that are around you whether in your community or in your city or in your state or in your whole country. Seek and proffer a solution to any challenge. Pick any of the challenges and seek a solution to it and you may just become the first person to solve that problem. You can become a millionaire or a billionaire. Look for something that you can provide. It is very easy. You can go to some cities, there are refuse dumps everywhere. You can decide to get yourself and some people together and look for ways to get some streets cleaned and the government will even be paying. There are so many things to be done in this country, so many, for the youths to make money from. You don’t even need money to start some ideas. You can even start some youth programs and companies will key in. I did so.
In 2004, I did the first Nigerian Forever Project that took me 36 days. Then, I decided to go into the Niger Delta to fight the incidence of militancy when I realized that military force could not stop them. I then started thinking of solutions on what to do. Then, I remembered that Non-Violence Education is very powerful.
In my research, I discovered that government is bombing the militants as a way of stopping them but that was not achieving results. My research was on how do I stop future recruitment of people into militancy? If they were not getting people recruited, that would deplete their strength. I then brought in the Non-Violence Education because I remembered that was how Mahatma Gandhi solved the problems in India and brought down the British rule in India without encouraging his people to take to violence.
In America, Martin Luther-King brought down official segregation without encouraging violence. In Poland, Lech Walesa with his solidarity group brought down the all powerful communist regime without encouraging violence. Non-Violence is a very powerful tool and that was what I used to bring South Africa to its knees to be begging now.. We just went there and did not hurt anybody so it’s solving a problem and as we were taking them away, the country felt its impact.
I did it in Niger Delta. The people complained and they did not get any response from the authorities, they took to arms. But I brought a new approach to them, that they did not need to take arms because in that process, you destroy yourselves too. Because of the Non Violence education I used, oil companies started bankrolling me in millions. So, first of all, ask what you can do for your country and not what your country can do for you. That was what I did and that paid off.
When I started in Niger Delta, I was spending my own money but when oil companies realized that what I was doing was bringing so many dividends, Shell was the first to start bankrolling. Money started flowing all over the place and that was what happened at the height of militancy in 2005. Chevron joined as well and started bankrolling my programs. When Yar’adua came into power, he asked Timi Alaibe to bring me and that reports showed that I was the one that succeeded in bringing ideas that would end militancy. That was what gave a rise to amnesty. Today, my country is producing over 2 million barrels of crude oil. People thought that I started with the evacuation of Nigerians but it isn’t so. I support causes all over Nigeria.
So, my happiness with this is that it has bonded Nigeria and I plead with Nigerians to never let it slip by. Let us use this momentum to build our country.