Between September 1 and 5, 2019, the South African city of Johannesburg experienced a series of xenophobic riots that claimed the lives of at least seven people. The riots, which were specifically directed at foreign nationals from other African countries, resulted in significant property damage and destruction targeted at these nationals. The destruction wrought by this unrest triggered retaliatory actions by rioters in other African nations against South African brands. It was déjà vu for the Rainbow Nation as evidenced by the report of the South African Institute of Race Relations which stated that the riots shared similarities in nature and origin with the 2008 xenophobic riots that also occurred in Johannesburg.
After what seemed like a brief lull, the riots resumed in Johannesburg on September 8. This time, rioters marched on the central business district, looted shops and called for foreigners to leave the country. It was given an even more sinister effect by the violence which had a significant impact on the local economy and further strained diplomatic relations between South Africa and other African countries.
While the attacks targeted foreign nationals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi, among others, Nigerian-owned businesses and individuals appeared to bear the brunt of the violence, with much of the looting and destruction of property aimed at Nigerian business interests.
The reasons behind the specific targeting of Nigerian businesses were not entirely clear, but it was likely due to several factors. One of these factors was the long-standing tension between Nigerians and South Africans over issues such as immigration policies and competition for jobs and resources.
There was the perception that the Nigerians were relatively wealthy and successful, compared to other African migrants in South Africa. This perception may have fueled resentment among some South Africans who feel left behind by the country’s economic progress.
The truth was that not all South Africans supported the xenophobic violence nor held negative views of Nigerians or other African migrants and many of them spoke out against xenophobia, calling for greater unity and tolerance among all Africans.
Yet, it was clear that Nigerians in the line of fire had to be lifted out of the fray. With the Nigerian government handicapped without a national carrier, the bill to rescue fellow citizens was voluntarily picked up by a private citizen: Allen Onyema, the Chairman of Air Peace. The flag carrier and largest airline in Nigeria responded by offering a free evacuation service to Nigerian nationals who were willing to return home. The evacuation plan, however, was initially delayed due to a lack of proper documentation for beneficiaries.
The Nigerian authorities in South Africa intervened and arranged temporary travel certificates for most of those who had offered to return home. In addition to Air Peace’s offer, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced that his government had made arrangements for the immediate voluntary evacuation of all Nigerians.
Following the successful issuance of travel certificates, scores of Nigerian nationals, numbering about 300, flew out of South Africa on Air Peace’s aircraft. Some of the evacuees expressed relief at being able to return home alive, while others bemoaned the incidents that led to the xenophobic attacks.
The response of the Air Peace chairman to the crisis exemplifies the type of leadership that we need to cultivate in Nigeria. Onyema, a private citizen, recognised the urgent need to evacuate Nigerian citizens caught in the crossfire of the xenophobic violence. He stepped up to the plate, put his business in action and offered a free evacuation service to Nigerian nationals who were willing to return home.
This selfless act of kindness underscores the importance of unity and solidarity in the face of crisis. It shows that we can rise above ethnic, religious and socio-economic differences to support each other as a nation.
As a nation, we must encourage and support more of these initiatives from the private sector, particularly among the wealthy and influential members of society.
Nigeria had its share of ethnic profiling and xenophobia recently in and around the period of the last general election between February and March.
It was evidenced by the promotion of a pure Lagos that excludes non-Yorubas and attempted to further polarise and exclude a perceived “other” in the state, with the tendency of reprisals in other parts of the country.
The candidacy of Mr Gbadegbo Rhodes-Vivour was one of the issues that some people had against non-indigenes in Lagos. It was so disgustingly toxic that some actors in the xenophobic acts went as far as throwing his Igbo name, Chinedu, at him as if it were an accusation of wrongdoing. It was as if that meant he was the “other”, an outcast, an infection that ought to be cut off, as if it deleted a history of excellence of the Rhodes-Vivour name that went back generations in Lagos State.
It is an alarming example of how some Nigerians support disenfranchisement of non-indigenes in Lagos. It is a dangerous and divisive rhetoric. It was also principally targeted at those of South Eastern extraction, many of whom were victims of the election violence that the state witnessed.
Still, it was worth knowing that, as pronounced as it seemed to be online, only a small section of the state pursued this profiling and xenophobia. The good people of the state, for the most part, remained welcoming of the diversity and embracing nature of Lagos.
No doubt, the government also has a crucial role to play in fostering national unity, but national cohesion through citizen action sends a clear message of support and solidarity to Nigerian citizens and can help to ease tensions and build trust in one another. It helps to negate ethnic divisions and focuses attention on our common identity as Nigerians.
The actions of Onyema in response to the 2019 crisis, which provided an excellent example of what can be achieved when we take responsibility as capable citizens, was not a one-off as recent events demonstrated.
Last month, an armed conflict erupted between rival factions of the military government of Sudan. By April 15, clashes had broken out in western Sudan, the capital city of Khartoum, and in the Darfur region. Within 10 days, at least 559 people have been reported killed and over 4,000 others injured.
The fighting began with attacks by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on key government sites, leading to airstrikes, artillery, and gunfire across Sudan, including in Khartoum. Both the RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo and Sudan’s de facto leader and army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the principal characters in the conflict, claimed control of several key government sites, including the general military headquarters, the Presidential Palace, Khartoum International Airport, Burhan’s official residence, and the SNBC headquarters.
The conflict between the two generals has pushed Sudan to the brink of renewed civil war and has been described as a “burgeoning civil war.” Once again, Nigerians were caught in the centre of a conflict they had no part in and were desperately in need of evacuation assistance.
As he had done in 2019, Onyema again stood up to be the citizen of exemplary conduct, offering his services for any Nigerian, who had made the arduous journey from Sudan to Egypt by bus, wishing to return to the safety of their country.
On May 5, Air Peace successfully evacuated 277 Nigerians from Egypt. For their comforts, the airline utilised one of its wide-body Boeing 777 aircraft, with registration number 5N-BVE, to operate the evacuation flight which arrived at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, at approximately 23:00 hrs on May 4. The aircraft had departed from Murtala Muhammed International Airport Lagos at 15:10 hrs on May 2, 2023 to reach Egypt in time for the evacuation exercise.
Onyema, who could have been put off by the ethnic profiling of his group, instead demonstrated his altruism and patriotism by offering to airlift Nigerians from Sudan, a country in the midst of war, for free. He requested that the Federal Government assist in getting them to a neighbouring country since the Sudanese airspace is temporarily closed for civil aviation, which necessitated the bus ride to Egypt.
Onyema stated that he felt compelled to help, since Nigeria could not afford to lose her citizens in that country. He reiterated that urgent action was necessary and that everything should not be left for the government alone. This is the behaviour I want to commend and uphold as exemplary for the rest of the country.
While these two examples of coming to the aid of fellow countrymen and women in need of evacuation from troubled spots across international boundaries stand out, Onyema has also displayed such uncommon sense of patriotic reasonability in other instances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of his aircraft were employed for the repatriation of Nigerians from various countries. The airline had also operated evacuation flights during the Ukraine-Russia crisis in 2022. He has shown to be a Nigerian devoid of tribalistic sentiments and patriotic to the core, even at his own expense, without counting the cost.
It was painful to read on Friday last week that the actions of the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, which disrupted the airline’s operations on Wednesday, while it was in the thick of airlifting Nigerians evacuated from Sudan, cost the company over N700 million. Whatever their grievances, I suggest they find an amicable resolution that will not make the airline incur further losses given the philanthropic antecedents of the Chairman.
Allen Onyema is indeed a true Nigerian patriot with a large heart who has demonstrated his love for fellow citizens and the country