Hours after evacuating 187 Nigerians caught up in the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Chief Allen Onyema, the Chairman of Air Peace, the airline carrying out the evacuation free of charge, has said that his pilots are ready to fly back to evacuate as many Nigerians willing to leave South Africa.
Recall that the Air Peace Boeing 777 aircraft landed at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos at about 9:45pm with 187 adults and children.
Onyema who was in tears as he welcomed the returnees inside the aircraft last night, says that all he needs is for the Nigerian High Commission to play their part by getting the people ready and for the government to ensure that the South African government stops the harassment of those who want to leave.
Speaking on a news programme on Arise TV on Thursday, Onyema confirmed that South African authorities frustrated the evacuation process. According to him, the airline arrived Johannesburg around 4am and was ready to leave with its passengers by 8am. But the authorities brought up all manner of baseless documentation issues to frustrate the process.
His words: “At the last count as of yesterday, about 700 people were registered and we were to lift 320 of them out of Johannesburg. However, the South African government started playing tricks on us. The aircraft arrived South Africa about 4:00 am in the morning; it was to depart by 8:00am. But that aircraft never departed until about 3:30pm in the afternoon about 12 hours of delay and burning fuel.”
Onyema said: “So many of the people that came back told us stories about people being kidnapped on their way to the airport and even on their way to the mission because they did not want them to leave. At the airport, they checked in 20 passengers and stopped claiming that the system was bad, the system has gone done and all kind of things. They could do manual checking but they just wanted to frustrate us, they did not want them to go because of the implication of the evacuation.
“The other challenge was that they claimed they have no documents but the High Commission of Nigerian gave them travel documents. Now, they said they want to know how they even entered their country. For goodness sake if you get a foreign national you do not want to be in your country, the next thing is to deport them. When you are deporting you are spending from your national treasury. But we are here with our aircraft helping both Nigerians and South Africa to solve their problems. You said our people are criminals, fine thank you. We are coming to move them out so allow us to take them out.”
Why Air Peace offered to undertake the “rescue mission”
Onyema, who is being commended across the country, revealed that he made the offer to bring his compatriots back after realizing that many of them had been stranded in South Africa for as long as seven years, lacking the financial means to return.
He said: “I am ready to support the government of the day to do what it is doing. Do not forget that is very difficult for any government to go in there and start doing the evacuation because of the implications. So, I am a private person, so I decided to do it. I do it because I cannot go to my grave with my wallet, neither will I go to my grave with the number of houses that I have, or the size of my bank account. But I can go to my grave peacefully and happily with the kind of legacies I leave behind.”
Chief Onyema revealed that the decision to embark on the evacuation was a spontaneous one similar to the actions he had carried out in the past in the national interest.
His words: “I was not forced into doing this. In fact in the first place, nobody told me to do this. It was my own spontaneous decision because it is in my character to do things like this. Besides, it is not my first time. I remember the Niger Delta doing the military days; what I did, how I went back to arrest the issues of militancy, for and on behalf of my country. A lot of people always think that I just came from nowhere because of Air peace. Air peace is just a small part of me.
“So, am not expecting anything from anybody. I saw the gory pictures of people dying, I saw the pictures of helplessness. I saw the picture of hopelessness too, and I saw picture of pity from my own country. So I decided to do what I have to do. I contacted the federal government I said look I am ready to go and evacuate Nigeria free of charge because when you start talking about money, you start wasting time. I needed to save lives; I needed the lives of my compatriots to be saved on the immediate. So I told the government I want evacuation now and I want to do it free of charge as many as there are Nigerians there who are ready to come back. Air peace is ready to go and bring them back.”
The financial implication
He said the operations would cost between N280million and N300 million “but that money means nothing compared to the lives that will be saved.”
He said: “When you take up an empty triple seven, to do a six hours flight empty, you spend like N34million already on fuel and other flight charges and so many others charges. The you can understand what we are in for. So we projected it to cost us about 280 to 300million.
“But it is not about the amount of money. I have always been motivated by seeking Gods face. I am doing it for God not for anybody not for any publicity. I agreed to do some publicity because I want other people to do the same thing.
What I want from Federal Government, other Nigerians – Onyema
“When it comes to evacuating them with what I have got, I do not need anybody,” Onyema said. “The only assistance I need is not financial; is the assistance of the High Commission for processing of their documents.
“So I encourage everybody of means in this country, let us start thinking of investing here in other to curb some of the things that drove these guys to South African in the first place. I want public servants to support indigenous investments whole heartedly so that when things like this happen, the private sector should be able to do corporate social responsibility. A lot of people don’t want to do it because they are not been supported by public servants. Public servants should stop seeing us as enemies but as collaborators to move the country forward.”
The airline boss commended the plan by the Federal Government to support the returnees with soft loans from the Bank of Industry (BOI), saying a lot of them had lost everything they worked for in the crisis.
“I heard yesterday that the government is making plan to contact the Bank of Industry to get some soft loan for them and that is very laudable. I thank Mr. President for thinking in that line. There are many Nigerians who are stranded in South Africa, who are willing to come back home in the last seven year but they could not afford flight tickets. We should not allow them to go back to where they are coming from. The government should follow the Bank of Industry and get the loan.”
“What I wanted to prove to South Africa”
Onyema, who swore that the evacuation hit the South Africans “below the belt” stated that he wanted to prove to South Africa that “you do not toil with Nigeria”.
“We may have our differences in this country. We may have things that tear us apart but we sent our signal out there that we are one nation and nobody can bend our resolve when we are determined to do something as Nigeria.”