The House of Representatives on Wednesday held a session in honour of the Chairman of Air Peace, Mr Allen Onyema, for the free air services offered by his airline to the Federal Government for the evacuation of Nigerians in South Africa.
The Nigerians were evacuated from South Africa over xenophobic attacks in that country.
Also, the House passed a resolution asking President Muhammadu Buhari to give a national award to Onyema in recognition of his patriotism, which the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, asked the Clerk to the House, Patrick Giwa, to transmit to Buhari immediately.
The lawmakers also vowed to give the first priority to Air Peace when flying to any part of the country.
The Speaker, shortly after saying the opening prayers, asked that the Order Paper for Wednesday’s plenary be temporarily suspended to allow the lawmakers to receive Onyema for recognition.
Gbajabiamila asked the Majority Leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, to move that Onyema be allowed into the chamber.
As the Chief Whip, Mohammed Monguno, ushered the Air Peace boss into the chamber, several lawmakers embraced and shook hands with him.
The Speaker hailed Onyema for his patriotism, saying the lawmakers had recommended the Air Peace boss for Federal Government’s recognition.
Gbajabiamila said, “I believe that we are all witnesses to what he has done for our brothers and sisters in the last couple of weeks. We watched the scenes of Nigerians on TV being reunited with their families and friends; the emotional scenes was brought about or made possible by only one man among many men; a businessman who is into business like every other businessman to make money, but who sacrificed his wealth and business, and at no cost – and I dare say at a loss – deployed his aircraft to bring back our brothers and sisters who were facing danger in South Africa.
“This is a feat that should be commended. And we hereby commend Mr Allen Onyema and recommend you to the Federal Government for higher honour in Nigeria.”
The lawmakers gave Onyema a standing ovation when called upon to address them.
“You have brought tears to my eyes again. I have never been so honoured in my life,” Onyema said in the opening of his speech.
The Air Peace boss told the House that the evacuation of Nigerians from South Africa has brought respect to Nigeria across the world. He also stated that South Africa was suffering dearly for the attacks by its citizens on non-citizens. He said flights were now going to South Africa empty and while stocks in the country were falling.
“That singular act has brought so much respect for Nigeria worldwide,” he said.
The Air Peace boss said the pressure on South Africa forced the country to apologise to Nigeria and other African countries.
“It wouldn’t have happened if the evacuation hadn’t take place,” he said.
According to him, xenophobia will die a natural death in South Africa.
The Air Peace boss noted that he had been previously involved in national projects, urging other wealthy Nigerians to be philanthropic.
He said, “The kind of support we have got from Nigerians through commendations and everything gladden our hearts to the extent that my pilot and cabin crew stood for 24 hours because they (South African authorities) tried to frustrate us. They didn’t want us to evacuate, they pleaded with the Nigerian High Commission not to do it. But they (the commission) told them that they (South African authorities) could not stop the private citizens. They delayed us for 15 hours before allowing us to do the first evacuation.
“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 here, 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 can we have a nation.”
‘I was a militant before I met Onyema’
Among those who spoke was a member from Delta State, Julius Pondi, who was a Niger Delta militant.
Pondi noted that Onyema had extended his philanthropy to other parts of the country long before the Air Peace evacuation.
The lawmaker said, “I came in contact with Onyema in 2005 when he was operating a non-governmental organisation, Foundation for Ethnic Harmony. Then, the struggle and agitation for the Niger Delta was at its peak. On his own, he brought out young men from the creeks to embrace peace. I was in the creeks; but I am now a law-making militant.”
Pondi recalled that Onyema used the NGO to train the militants in Lagos, in affiliation with the University of Rhodes Island.
“I attended the first batch of it and the second was in South Afria. I was trained in South Africa along with others.
“When in 2010, the then President (Umaru) Yar’Adua proclaimed the amnesty, about 79 to 80 per cent of all the 30,000 militants that were granted amnesty were all trained by the same NGO.
“I want to join everybody in this House to thank Mr Onyema that ‘you have done well.’ I am a living testimony of all the good things you have done. Today, I am a ranking member of this green chamber because at some point, you were part of the formation stage in my life and I thank you for that.”
Pondi decried that clerics who own private jets had failed to offer their aircraft for the rescue mission.
I’ll be flying Air Peace, say lawmaker
The Majority Leader said Onyema had prevented an imminent war between Nigeria and South Africa.
He urged the lawmakers to patronise Air Peace.
Ado-Doguwa said, “What he did was an exhibition of selflessness, risking his business interest to save the lives of Nigerians in the face of war; because these xenophobic attacks in South Africa are like a war.
“Onyema, you saved Nigerians from war, you saved Nigerian from embarrassment and I think what we are doing today, we are doing it on behalf of the 360 constituencies of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to say thank you.
“On behalf of all the members of the House of Representatives and the Federal Government led by President Buhari, I want to say a big thank you. I want to give him my commitment that for this reason, from today, when I have cause to fly, Air Peace will be my priority. I hope all other members here will keep that as a commitment. Air Peace will be our first priority.”
The Chairman, House Committee on Army, Abdulrazak Namdas, moved a motion that the lawmakers should recommend the Air Peace boss for national honour to encourage other Nigerians to work in the interest of the country.
When the motion was put to a voice vote, the lawmakers unanimously granted the prayer.
315 Nigerians arrive in second batch of evacuation
The second batch of 315 Nigerians being evacuated from South Africa returned on Wednesday.
They landed around 7.22pm at the cargo wing of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.
The evacuation, which should have taken place on Tuesday, was stalled due to the delayed issuance of landing permit to the Air Peace aircraft by the South African authority.
About 320 people were expected but a few passengers were said to have been dropped over documentation issues.
The Nigerians had departed the O. R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, for the Murtala Muhammed International Airport around 1pm.
The first flight had brought back 187 Nigerians out of the 313 scheduled for evacuation last Wednesday.
The Consul-General, Nigerian High Commission in South Africa, Godwin Adama, had said the number of Nigerians willing to leave had risen to 1,004.
The Chairman of Air Peace, also said the plane left a few minutes after noon local time (1pm Nigerian time).
Onyema said some Nigerians had been stranded in South Africa for over four years.
He said, “I felt our country was being insulted and it was unacceptable to me. Accusing Nigerians is like saying we are all criminals.
“While I’m not supporting crime, I feel the earlier we start addressing the stereotyping of Nigerians as criminals, the better for us.”
Onyema said the airline’s crew for the evacuation refused to take allowances for the trips as their way of showing patriotism.
He said the airline was carrying out the evacuation without expecting any payment from the Federal Government.
The Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said the returnees would be profiled according to their states of origin and their governors would complement the Federal Government’s efforts towards integrating them into the society.
“When they settle down, their governors will get involved,” she added.
Dabiri-Erewa said the Nigerian High Commission in South Africa was working to ensure that the hitches in the evacuation were removed.
She, however, stated that the date for the next evacuation was still unknown.
The Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who sent delegates to receive the returnees, gave each of them N20,000.
Unlike the first evacuation, journalists were barred from covering the arrival at the tarmac as security officials were deployed with sniffer dogs to stop them from reaching the area.
One of the returnees, Chukwuekwu Okom, from Delta State, said Nigerians were constantly being harassed by South African police.
Okom said he was lucky to have survived and returned to Nigeria.
He said, “I will never go back. I spent six years in South Africa and came back with nothing, but I thank God that I survived.
“Things were so tough that I couldn’t pay my rent, I lived on the street for many months. I am back now, I will rather die here than go back.”
Olanrewaju Wasiu from Ikorodu, Lagos State, simply said he was happy to be back home.
‘Onyeama did not snub NASS’
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied allegations by Gbajabiamila, that the Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, failed to appear before the House plenary and Committee on Foreign Affairs to brief them on his efforts to address the plight of Nigerians in South Africa.
The ministry spokesman, Ferdinand Nwonye, in a statement in Abuja on Wednesday, said the minister could not appear before the House because he was otherwise engaged in the Federal Executive Council meeting at the Presidential Villa.
“The minister and the ministry respect the institution of the National Assembly,” the statement read in part.