Allen Onyema: From a lawyer to founder of Nigeria’s leading airline

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If you think of a Nigerian of Igbo extraction with the typical zero-to-hero story and no history of politics attached, the name of Air Peace boss, Allen Onyema would come top on the list with the likes of Innocent Chukwuma of Innoson Motors.

For many, Onyema came to the fore in 2019 after he offered the use of his Boeing 777 aircraft free of charge to evacuate Nigerians from South Africa during the Xenophobic attacks. It was a rare act that highlighted not only his patriotism but his humanity, especially considering that over N280 million was set aside for this purpose.

This week’s profile focuses on how Onyema went from his days of jumping buses and trains in search of a job in 1990, to becoming a top employer of labour in Nigeria.

Birth and education

Though a native of Mbosi town in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra state, Allen Ifechukwu Onyema, was the first of nine children born to his parents in 1964, in Benin City (now Edo state). He had his early education in several parts of Midwestern Nigeria including St. Anthony’s Secondary School, Azia; Urhobo College, Effurun; and Government College, Ughelli (all in current day Delta state) where he obtained his Higher School Certificate in 1984.

In the same year, he gained admission to read law at the University of Ibadan. He combined academic works with social activism to engender national peace. Onyema graduated in 1987 and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1989.

With no naira to his name, he moved to Lagos in search of greener pastures and a better life. Onyema once recalled that he had to squat with a friend at Oshodi, and trek from Marina to Iddo to join the overcrowded trains back from his daily trips to Lagos Island in search of a chamber to practice his law profession.

He secured a chance with Nwizugbo & Co. Chambers and paved his way in by winning a case that had been labelled ‘a bad case’ in 1990. Within the next two years, he rose to become the Head of Chambers, but had to resign in 1992 to avoid a clash of interest with his real estate deals.

Discovering Allen the entrepreneur

As part of his ways to make ends meet, Onyema earned some commissions from referring and connecting some buyers to get land in Alagbado, and this gradually ushered him into the world of business. In an interview with Late Ubong King on Thinkation, he recounted the story;

“When I was squatting in Oshodi, I had these garage boys that were my friends and one happened to belong to a family that had this large expanse of land in Alagbado. He took me there, showed me their properties and I helped them to bring some buyers. A week later, after I got the employment, the entire family sent for me, and gave me about 400 plots of land in Alagbado to sell on their behalf at N5000 per plot.”

As against the previous arrangement, there would be no commission but Onyema was at liberty to sell the plots at whatever price he desired and keep the extra. He had some survey and valuations done, and decided to sell the plots at N10,000 each, giving him 100% profit. For someone on a monthly salary of N500, every plot of land sold would fetch him his 10-months’ salary. It was easy for Onyema to recognise this opportunity as his ticket to riches.

He sold the first 6 plots, ran series of adverts on National Concord Newspaper after which the sales went wild. By the time he turned 25, he had made his first N1 million. He took a friend’s advice and bought over 87 plots for himself which he sold for more than N30,000 per plot, years later when the value had appreciated. He also bought other plots of land at Lekki axis, as he progressed.

From squatting in Oshodi, Onyema moved to Airport Hotel Ikeja with the intention of staying for a couple of weeks till he got a suitable house, but ended up staying for two years before he moved out. It was one of those acts he described as “stupidity” resulting from youthful exuberance.

The real estate business progressed so fast that he then decided to float Allen Onyema & Company to handle his real estate concerns. When he resigned from the chambers in 1992, he also went ahead to float Onyema & Co. to continue his law practice. “I was making a lot of money but I was also working really hard,” he said.

Import and Trades

Another business which Onyema floated at the same time was the Continental Business Links Limited, an import trade outfit. He recalls that he set up the business to play the middleman role between traders in Nigeria who wished to import goods, and foreign manufacturers looking to get their goods into the Nigerian market.

He started with a trade exhibition where the Korean manufacturers met with local traders and established business connections. With both parties paying commissions to Continental Business Links for their trades and transactions, it did not take long to get the business off the ground.

Later again, he started Every Tide limited, an imports and trade business that imported electronics and sold in wholesale containers to traders. Since many traders were eager to avoid the hassles and risks of importing themselves, Onyema had a ready market waiting to lunge at his goods.

Starting Air Peace

For Onyema, starting an indigenous airline was not about making profit, but about creating jobs. A friend told him that one commercial Boeing 737 could give jobs to a thousand persons and he decided that commercial aviation was a much nobler venture than leaving his money to seat idle in the banks.

As he noted in an interview, “If it was about profit, I would have kept the money in the banks and be getting double digit interests on my investments. My businesses were making millions but they were not creating the kind of jobs I wanted them to create. There were people I gave money to start some business but they come back some months later with stories, so somebody suggested aviation to me.”

He first purchased three Domier jets in 2013, before realising that they could only be used for charters and even though they could fetch him a lot of money, only a few staff were needed.

“I had to go back to get Boeing 737 for commercial aviation, and that was how I started with 7 planes, the first time ever that a Nigerian airline would be starting with more than 2 airplanes.”

Despite a two-year delay resulting from the absence of an operating license, Air Peace has grown to become the largest indigenous airline in whole of West and Central Africa with competitive fares on both passenger and charter services.

Other activities

Onyema’s choice of the name ‘Air Peace’ stemmed from his interest in peace-engendering activities even back in his university days; and so it naturally adds up that most of his non-business activities are directly connected with this interest.

He initiated, organised and held the “1st Nigeria forever project” in 2005 – a project geared towards the promotion of broad nationalism as against ethnic nationalism.

In April 2007, Allen Onyema became the second African ever to be appointed to the Executive Board of The Global Nonviolence Conference Series Inc. USA, alongside notable world leaders like Hon. Dr. Andrew Young and Suarez Ramos. As a member of this board, he won for Nigeria, the hosting rights for Global Conference on Nonviolence and Peace in Abuja from December 3-5, 2007.

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