Allen Onyema, the Peaceful Man Behind Air Peace

“It takes one hunter to kill an elephant; and the whole village to bring back the meat” – Old African Proverb

Before I commence this piece, let me use this opportunity to first pay my due respects to  Chief Michael Onyema, the father of Mr. Allen Onyema, who passed on recently at the ripe old age of 86 and was laid to rest over the last weekend. We thank God for his fruitful life and longevity. I am aware of the personal efforts and sacrifices that Allen made to ensure that his father lived, including flying him to every part of the world where he was told could provide solution to his ailment. At the end of the day, God’s wish prevailed. May his soul find final rest in the bosom of the Lord. We must also give praise to the Almighty God for the gift Pa Onyema left the world, in the form of a son by name Allen, who without his doggedness and ingenuity, we might have been dealing with a more dastardly challenge of moving around in this country today.

My focus today is on Mr. Allen Onyema, a Nigerian that is hardly celebrated but whose contributions to the smooth running of the Nigerian economy cannot be overemphasised . I met Allen on April 26, 2016 on an Air Peace flight from Lagos to Owerri. Shortly before departure, the flight attendant, while welcoming passengers, had acknowledged the presence of the Chairman of the airline in very flowery words. I noticed that passengers, particularly in the Business Class cabin were naturally looking around their midst to know who among them was the Chairman. Behold, he was no where to be found! Not too long after, he came up from his seat in the economy cabin! His mission was to protest to the attendant and register his disapproval of the introduction at all, not to speak of the manner in which it was done. According to him, he was just like any other passenger and should not have been introduced the way the lady did it. The flight attendant then went into a very long narrative over why she chose to introduce him. According to the very articulate lady, on a previous flight, there was a passenger who had a phobia for flying and shortly after takeoff, had started losing her composure. She was holding on to virtually everything within her reach, including the man seated next to her, and to whom by the way, she did not say hello when they both got seated for the flight. The attendant had the unfortunate job of managing her for the entire duration of the flight. According to her, the job of keeping her calm was so difficult until she thought to use the presence of the Chairman of the airline in the flight as a factor and behold, it worked. The passenger then questioned why the flight attendant did not inform passengers that the Chairman was also on the flight. The passenger pointed out that she had never heard of any owner of an airline who was in an aircraft that crashed. Mr. Onyema dismissed the logic, insisting that the mere fact that the Pilot and even the crew were on the flight, should allay the fears of the passenger since none of them equally, would like to die.

As Allen was about to go back to his seat, he used the opportunity to say hello to the passengers in that cabin. That was how we formally met and exchanged cards, though I must confess that I had already known him long before then purely by reputation. Someone in the cabin had to query why he was seated at the back of the aircraft. His response was very apt. Mr. Onyema insisted that the front row belonged to those he described as paying the bills. I jokingly retorted that he was confusing the plane with a car where the owner usually sat at the back. We have remained friends since then and I have been a keen observer of his strides in the ever-challenging airline industry.

Allen is just an ordinary Nigerian like the rest of us and he makes efforts to remain ordinary and fights anytime anybody wants to make him look different. I am sure he would be surprised that some of us took note on that day. He graduated with a Law degree from the University Of Ibadan in 1987 and proceeded to the Law School from where he started practising, first as an apprentice lawyer, rising to head the chamber a few years later. He ultimately went on to set up his own Law Chambers in 1992. One thing that you cannot take away from someone from his part of the country is the business part of him. It is in the DNA of his people to own a business outfit or as more well-known;  ‘a shop’. In that true fashion, Allen owned and operated his own ‘shops’ on the side. He equally had also been interested in the field of conflict resolution, an activity which seats well within his profession as a lawyer. In response to this interest, he set up several organisations whose main purpose was peace making. As he travelled round the country helping in resolving conflicts, people began to refer to him as a ‘man of peace’. It may very well be that this was where the name of his signature business outfit, “Air Peace” came from.

There is no denying the fact that there have been numerous speculations as to who actually owns ‘Air Peace’. A former First Lady, whose nickname had allusion to ‘Peace’, has had her name mentioned as the brain and money behind Air Peace. Trust me not to pussyfoot when I met Allen that day. I asked him if that First Lady, who by the way, is joked to have refused to pack out of the state house after they lost election, telling the husband to go ahead and pack out while she was going to wait for election of First Lady which had not happened. Responding to my enquiry, Mr. Onyema told me point blank, that he had not met the lady in question, not to talk of doing business with her.

The airline business, from a risk management perspective in the banking industry, is indeed a loss leader. It is at best a pursuit that true practitioners engage in more for the love of it than for the pecuniary returns. Nevertheless, the aviation industry is undoubtedly critical to the growth and development of any modern economy. I believe that is the reason why British Airways, with all its capacity and spread, reports such paltry financial returns every year. There are a few budget airlines like Southwest that have done well. They are usually profitable because they run a tight business model, with no frills and brutal bottom line considerations.

On the other hand, most other airlines have either lost money and disappeared or are still losing money and struggling. There are some airlines that have been supported by government because they are usually the pride of a nation. Emirates and Qatar are in that category. This is always the case in countries where there is the realisation that without a vibrant aviation sector, the rest of the economy usually drags. This is why the government must of necessity give a package of incentives, if not overt support to ensure that it is not only kept alive, but thriving.  I believe, given the place of Air Peace today, and based on the evident self-effort already put in, the airline deserves all the support the government can give. Why talk of establishing a national carrier with the attendant risks, when we have one that has the important proof of concept that it can run a competent and competitive airline meeting the stringent international standards? I say it once again that in the case of Air Peace, it has already shown that it is possible to run a successful airline. Government should, therefore show up to support, if for nothing, let it be in the interest of national security and the traveling populace. This support may not necessarily be done the way the aviation intervention fund of the past was done. We must have learnt some lessons from that experience.

From very humble beginnings in 2014, Air Peace has continued to increase its fleet to the present 23, covering close to 20 locations including African and International destinations. Just think of what will happen to transportation in Nigeria, if not for the presence of an airline like ‘Air Peace’. In spite of the challenging and suffocating business environment, it recently acquired 3 Boeing 777 aircraft to boost its fleet for international operations and on the 5th of July, 2019, it launched its maiden flight to Sharja and Dubai. That was a good image booster for Nigeria in the global scene. Other locations being eyed by the airline include Johannesburg, Houston, Mumbai and Guangzhou. Beyond the Boeing orders that have been delivered are some new orders of the Boeing 737 Max. It is important to put it on record that to the best of my knowledge, that order has been technically suspended as Boeing and the US aviation authorities have suspended the production of the aircraft after two incidents involving that model in a space of 6 months.

On April 3, 2019, Air Peace also signed a $2.1b agreement in Mauritius for the delivery of 30 brand new Embraer 195-E2 aircraft with an order for initial supply of 10.

These, you will agree with me are bold and audacious moves that can only be made by a confident airline. To ensure proper maintenance of the fleet, Air Peace had secured the services of two of the best maintenance companies in the world. The BCC Aviation Ltd of the United Kingdom and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.

Corporate governance is a major problem that businesses face in Nigeria. When you take a look at many of the businesses that have failed, you will notice that most of them are traceable to the lack of robust corporate governance standards. Air Peace realised this early. While it is understandable that every business must have the driver and the visionary, there comes a time when the business becomes bigger than the visionary. It is at that time that a proper governance code must be put in place. In 2017, Air Peace set up a board comprising eminent group of professionals with diverse background to drive its business. Amongst the board members are Mr. Mutiu Sunmonu, a former Managing Director of Shell Petroleum Development Company and a thoroughbred professional as well as the current Chairman of Julius Berger and Mr. Emeka Ngige, a lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria.  Others are Ekaette Bassey Okoro; Engr Benedict Adeyileka, Rector of the International Aviation College (IAC), Ilorin, and former Director General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and Technical Director at Aero Contractors. Also on the board are Mohammed Danjuma; Mrs. Ejiro Eghagha an Executive Director and Chief of Administration; and Mrs Oluwatoyin Olajide, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer. Mrs Olajide is a First Class graduate of Chemical Engineering from the University of Lagos.

One interesting aspect of the constitution of the board is that, of the seven board members, two are executive while five are non-executive. This is a major plus for those who pay attention to corporate governance standards and ensures that there is a proper check on the activities of management. A weak board is a recipe for disaster if not death of any company. The appointments, particularly at the executive level, speak clearly to succession planning in the organisation and one must underscore the point that the two executive directors are women from different parts of the country. This says a lot about how the Chairman thinks.

In fact, in his own words after signing the deal in Mauritius mentioned above, Mr. Onyema had this to say, “Above all, I am over the moon with the prospects of the massive employment opportunities that would be generated by the 30 aircraft when they all finally come in. This particular order will create over 10,000 job opportunities in our country. We shall take a lot of Nigerians out of the streets and out of poverty; Nigerians of all creed, religion and ethnicity – without discrimination. In Air Peace, there is no Ibo, no Yoruba, no Hausa, no Fulani, etc, but one body of humanity”.

Just like any other business, this one has not been without challenges. Infrastructural deficit has been a major setback for the business. Many of the airports require upgrade, even though some have benefitted from the massive upgrade that has been going on at our airports in the last couple of years. Furthermore, many of the airports that are designated international, in actual fact, cease to operate by sunset. We believe that government needs to seriously address this anomaly as soon as possible.

Now it is not all bad news. We must acknowledge the waiver of duties and VAT on aircraft and spares introduced by government. That is a good step. We, however, think that the government can, and needs to do more. A more significant intervention package administered to the serious aviation industry players in the country will make life easier for companies like Air Peace that have shown capacity. We must also acknowledge the tenacity of people like Mr. Onyema who understand that this business cannot make money in the short run and is willing to ride the tide and do what is necessary to remain in business. We must realise the national security implications of not having a carrier flying Nigerian flag. We must extend support to Air Peace. On a final note, I must salute the courage and resilience of Mr. Allen Onyema and pray for the continued success of Air Peace. He represents all those who in their various endeavours have continued to quietly make their contributions towards the development of our society. This tribute is to all of them.

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