Until a few days ago, I did not know Mr. Allen Onyema. But now, thanks to a single act of genuine goodness, I and millions of other Nigerians surely know the CEO of Air Peace. He it was who stood up in a time of national emergency and sent chartered flights to airlift beleaguered Nigerian victims of Xenophobia back home from South Africa – for free!
Many of us, I am sure, are now secretly wishing that they are Allen himself, bear his surname, or are somehow remotely connected to the man. Why not? The man has just been penciled down for national honors. So, soon, if malevolent spirits (a.k.a. bad belle people) don’t erase his name from the list, he’d be getting a proper title in capital letters after his name – not one of those ten-for-a-dime chieftaincy titles being hawked in villages across the country.
When I Googled him up in the course of writing this article, the search engine did not wait for me to finish typing before throwing up his name and news mentions. It was a heap. That’s how you know when a name is trending on the internet; Or, as we say in Nigeria nowadays, “When somebodi don blow.” That’s the power of a good deed.
On Wednesday, September 18, Mr. Allen Onyema was guest of the House of Representatives in Abuja where he was invited to appear for special recognition – not for a probe, investigation or tongue lash as we are more accustomed to. For the first time in years, I was proud of our green chamber and its members for recognizing a good deed and sincerely identifying with it across party and other lines. They rose in standing ovation for the man and poured encomiums on him for wiping shame from all our faces.
I was moved watching clips of that session on TV. I saw the power of good example. I began to wonder how much better Nigeria would be if we have only six such examples yearly from men and women in diverse fields, especially people in public positions of authority. I realized just how close (yet how far) we are to a national rebirth – if only we choose to live by time-tested principles like goodness to all – not the primitive injunctions of kindness to kin only or people from our own corner of the boxing ring called Nigeria.
Seizing the occasion with both hands, Allen Onyema made a speech which I am sure will go down in history as one of only few which accurately outline the way out of Nigeria’s failed nationhood challenges. He said, “In the last one week, this country has bonded. No more Hausa, no more Yoruba, no more Igbo. Let me use this opportunity to plead with all of you, the representatives of our people; as long as we fight against each other, we shall not have a nation. It is only when we start fighting for each other that we can have a nation.”
At that point, I began to hope that local TV signals are received in Aso Rock Villa and the 36 state government houses across Nigeria. Mr. Onyema hastened to add that there are over 300 ethnic nationalities in Nigeria (not 250 as commonly cited) and that such number is a recipe for strength, not division or weakness. Is anyone listening?
Allen Onyema is not the first to say these things. But he is probably the first to say it from a position of solid moral authority in recent times. His action of lifting fellow countrymen fleeing Xenophobia to safety gave him that authority. It confirms what most of us already know: Being a leader is one thing, being in office is another.
The truth in Onyema’s words is self-evident. But for generations, most Nigerians have chosen to believe otherwise. Fooled by the “wisdom” of founding fathers like Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Obafemi Awolowo who in their time clearly believed otherwise and said so in unmistakable terms, younger Nigerians have been trapped into living a lie that seems pragmatic – but leads nowhere.
Thanks to Allen Onyema and the power of good example, we now know for sure that our founding fathers were not exactly angels and saints. They were flawed and broken in certain respects – as all humans are. Some were even ignorant, misled, perverted or myopic. To the extent of their human failings therefore, their words and deeds should not be taken as gospel but must be tested against universal best practices and higher truths. A man should not aspire to be a murderer simply because his father was one.
In all of this, I am most intrigued by the role of the Federal Government and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. They have been less-than-inspiring so far. Of course, I do not expect show-boating or rash decisions by government officials especially in dealing with sister African countries like South Africa. But they have shown neither clarity nor patriotism nor courage nor resolve nor sufficient respect for the dignity of our countrymen in distress.
Governments in Nigeria have a habit of missing opportunities for greatness. That is not surprising, really. You cannot recognize greatness, or take its opportunities, if you do not have greatness in your DNA. We simply don’t elect, appoint or reward “leaders” here on the basis of such noble traits. So, it’s our fault, not theirs.
Now that our brothers and sisters under threat of Xenophobia abroad have been brought home to safety, we must return urgently to the task of uplifting millions of others who are under threat of insecurity, poverty, “Neighborphobia”, Ethno-phobia and other phobias at home.
I am almost sure that Mr. Onyema will not make the list of top 10,000 Nigerians, measured by the size of their bank balances, mansions or limousines. So where are the rest “successful” Nigerians? From this question, I guess we must excuse men like Femi Otedola, Tony Elumelu and Aliko Dangote who have in their own rights shown quality good examples also. Nevertheless, it is largely accurate to say that in these parts being successful is positively correlated with “chopping alone” and secretly wishing that others stay down-trodden. How sad!
What Mr. Onyema has done qualifies as a masterstroke in PR and brand building –though obviously not so intended. I have been flying Air Peace for years now, but only when it is the next available airline to my destination. Henceforth, I will fly it by choice and ask for it by name. Few spin doctors can deliver such mileage with one deft move.
Perhaps time has come to have a Nigerian version of the Biblical Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Once upon a time, in a faraway country, hundreds of our countrymen and women were attacked and left for dead by Xenophobes. A government official came and hurried past; Likewise a politician, civil servant, contractor, pastor and imam. Then came an airline operator who took pity on the stricken, bandaged their wounds, put them on his plane and flew them to safety… Who among these men is a good Nigerian?”
– Anazonwu is a journalist, historian and author