As City People Honours Him In LAGOS
Many people don’t know Allen Ifechukwu Onyema. He is the Chairman of Air Peace Airline. He is a lawyer, businessman and a Conflict resolution expert. One thing that gets this stylish entrepreneur angry all the time is when some people mischievously suggest that Air Peace airline is owned by former first lady, Patience Jonathan and that he (Onyeama) is only fronting for her, simple because the name of the airline is called PEACE and Patience Jonathan is often referred to as Mama Peace.
When City People first met him early this year he complained bitterly about it and he is still complaining. Recently, he complained about the misception to Aviators Africa, a specialised Aviation magazine.
Below are excerpts of his interview on how he set up Air Peace.
Tell us about your growing up?
I am Allen Ifechukwu Onyema, a proud native of Mbosi town in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, South East region of Nigeria. Proud Nigerian of Igbo descent. Born to fantastic parents who instilled a lot of discipline in us through the way they live and lived their lives respectively. My mother died at the age of 44 in 1991. I grew up in the old Bendel State, principally, Benin and Warri. I am the first out of nine children. I attended several primary schools. I also attended several secondary schools including St. Anthony’s Secondary School, Azia, Urhobo College Effurun and the prestigious Government College Ughelli. I am also blessed to have been privileged to attend Nigeria’s Premier
University, the Great University of Ibadan (UI) where I studied Law. I attended the Nigerian Law School between 1987/88 and was called to the bar in 1989. My parents and my uncle wanted me to work for Shell after Law school. My uncle, Capt. J.O.W. Onyema, a master marina, was the Head, Crude Oil Export Terminal, Forcados then. That meant that I was going to remain in Warri and, that, I never liked. I wanted to be free. I felt that working in Warri would still keep me under parental care and control but I wanted to be on my own. My mother was angry that I was considering a life of the unknown rather than working for Shell. But I was bent on going away. So I rebelled against my parents’ and my uncle’s decision.
I left for Lagos in 1990 in search of jobs. No money on me. I was squatting in Oshodi. I couldn’t afford taxis or buses; I was going to Lagos Island by rail. Going back to Oshodi, I would trek from Marina to Iddo to join the overcrowded trains. I wanted to practice my profession as a lawyer.
For two months, I was searching for a law firm to join to no avail. I became frustrated but came alive when the late Chief Vincent Amobi Nwizugbo gave me the opportunity to come to his chambers on Martins Street, Lagos Island to learn. He had 5 other lawyers working for him. I was very happy. At least, every morning, there would be a place I could go to, though I was not on salary. However, it was not long before he placed me on a monthly salary of N500 This he did because I surprised him by winning a high court case for the chambers; a case they had on their own regarded as a bad case for the law firm. It was my first case as a lawyer. And I was up against a SAN with three other lawyers in tow. He trusted my abilities so much that he made me head of chambers under two years. By this time, I had become big in real estate so I had to resign so as to avoid conflict of interest in my dealings. Though he didn’t want me to go, I had my way at last. I left and floated not only my own law firm but several other successful businesses. This was how it all began for me.
I got married in 1993. I married a beautiful Kogi State girl from the Igala tribe. I met her in Abuja at a time I never thought of marriage. I married at the age of 27! It actually started with my late mum. One morning in 1991, just few days to my immediate younger sister’s wedding, she told me that she and my dad would want to know the girl I would like to marry when the time comes. By this time, I had met my wife in Abuja but I didn’t know her names. I thought she was Hausa because of her attire and I told myself to go after “this Hausa girl”. She agreed to come for my younger sister’s wedding on my invitation. This was the first and last time she would be seeing my mum for she died a month after the wedding of kidney failure. Her death spurred me to early marriage. I fulfilled her wish. We have four children, a girl and three boys.
What informed your going into Commercial Aviation?
I have said it on several fora and occasions that I made this decision together with my wife just to create jobs for the people. If it was about profit, I would have kept the money in the banks and be getting double digit interests on my investments. By 2008, I was receiving about 18% interest on my deposits. I was building estates from interest alone. It was during my advent 0 floating Air Peace that I scattered all my deposits for the first time since 2004! I was told, in 2007, by a friend that one commercial Boeing 737 could give jobs to over 150 persons! So I told my wife that we should do it. I made a pact with God Almighty in 2003 that I would get involved in touching lives through massive job creation and that I have done by setting up Air Peace. God has been very faithful. To me and my family. Air Peace is for the welfare of mankind and not really for us. But do not think that we want to lose our investments, far from it I am happy when I see the faces of these young ones in Air Peace who, today, could boast of a means livelihood for themselves and their families. Our staff would tell you that I treat them like equals. I have no airs over my shoulders. I encourage every wealthy person in this country to invest in the country so as to create jobs for our people instead oftaking the money abroad.
Could you please tell us about the ownership structure of Air Peace and how it was financed?
I really do not want to talk about this again but if I don’t, it would give room for more senseless talks. I named my airline Air Peace because my other companies are also Peace this and Peace that. My life is all about peace building. I made substantial amount of my God given wealth through my peace building businesses. Little did I know that I was creating problems for myself as some mischief makers started linking it with the former First Lady, Mrs. Jonathan, who goes by the nickname MAMA PEACE! I have heard that Air Peace is owned by the former First Lady of Nigeria, with me as a front! This is highly irritating. I HAVE NEVER MET PATIENCE JONATHAN OR HER HUSBAND IN MY LIFE! Besides seeing them on TV or newspapers. How could they then own my Airline? Someone wrote in the blogs that Jonathan gave me $1 billion dollars to float Air Peace. I don’t know if the aircraft in all the airlines in Nigeria put together are up to $700m talk less of $1 billion. Yet Air Peace with just 7 airplanes is then claimed to cost this much. The names of other friends like Timi Alaibe and Kingsley Kuku have also been mentioned. Some also say it is owned by Peter Obi, a former governor of Anambra State, just because I bank with Fidelity Bank where he was once a chairman many years ago! This is just bizarre. Some have mentioned the former minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah. I have never met this woman. If all these powerful people had a hand in Air Peace, how then did it take me almost two years to get my Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) from the government? I was almost frustrated out. It took Engr. Benjamin Adeyileka, the then Acting DG of NCAA to save Air Peace. He saw potentials in the emerging airline and swore that no one could stop Air Peace from coming into being. God used this man to give Nigerians the airline of the moment. If all these touted owners of Air Peace were owners, how then did our request for this license get to the point of my almost closing down the airline? People are just wicked. Some airline owners were also pointed at this libelous and slanderous campaign. One actually masterminded the publication in a blog that Stella Oduah owns the airline. As I said earlier, I brought my finances into it while getting support from the banks too. When I had gone halfway with the acquisition of my aircraft, I discovered that it was more than I thought. So I borrowed money from the banks. Fidelity Bank is there for anyone who cares to see. I pay the bank daily from sales. It is automatic. I have integrity and every bank that knows my pedigree like Fidelity would readily do business with me. I equally borrowed from Zenith but not as much as I did with Fidelity. This is how I set up my airline. For the record, I own Air Peace 100 percent.
What names do you put on all your Planes?
I named all my 7 aircrafts after my family because I love family. The executive jet has Michael on it. That’s my dad. One Domier 328 jet has Helen on it. That’s my late mum. The other Domier 328 has Ojochide on it. That’s my wife. The first four B737 have on them names of my 4 children namely; Nnenna– after my first child and daughter, Chinonso– after my first son, Obinna – after my second son and Ugochukwu – after my last son.
Recently, we acquired 2 more Boeing 737 aircraft. One has already arrived. I recently sold my two Domier 328 Jets which had my mum’s and wife’s names on them to British Airways, so I named the two new acquisitions after my wife and my mum with their full names; HELEN EKWUSI ONYEMA and ALICE OJOCHIDE ONYEMA. I am the only one without an aircraft. There are many pointers to the fact of ownership. Why should you be fronting for someone and be naming your planes after members of your family? Who would allow you do that to his investment. If this is not enough, please let the whole world go to the Corporate Affairs Commission in Abuja to search for the real legal owners of the airline. At the time of incorporating the company years ago, the original shareholders were I and my wife because the children then we’re not up to the legally required age of 18 for them to become directors and shareholders. They are being incorporated as shareholders and directors as they attain the required age.
What makes Air Peace different from the rest?
Already, we have acquired two more Boeing planes. We increased our fleet from 7 to 9 planes in less than six months. We are also going to acquire more with the help of our banks. My integrity goes before me in all of these. We are not only increasing our capacity through acquisition of more planes but also in the areas of adequate human resources. We have about 400 staff in our employ for now. Our route expansion is on course. We shal1 resume Port Harcourt operations soon. Calabar, Uyo, Kano and Yola will soon join. We have the equipment for this expansion. It is just a matter of time. We wil1 soon also start regional flight to and from African countries. The actual dates shall soon be announced to our teeming customers.
On the launch date of this airline on October 24 last year, I promised the world that we shal1 change the status quo as it regards scheduled commercial flight operations in the country. We promised to bring about positive changes in the industry. We preached peace amongst the operators. There has been this devilish animosity and rivalry amongst the airlines in igeria. We don’t want to be part of that. This is where we are different. We wish all well. Secondly, our on-time departure is second to none in Nigeria. We can compete with the best airlines in the world on timely departures. When we fail to do this, we also have the humility to explain to the customers. In extreme cases, we serve them refreshments. Why other airlines may be rostering all duty free, the particular aircraft for which we were being persecuted for was still in Texas, United States But should that have happened at all?