Okonkwo, Onyema, 2 key Igbo players in aviation showcase competitor friendship

Kalu, Bianca Ojukwu, others extol businessmen


From Magnus Eze, Enugu Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja


• L-R Okonkwo, Kalu and Onyema

last week, Bianca Ojukwu, wife of the acclaimed Igbo leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, drew attention to the chummy relationship between two leading airline operators, Chief Allen Onyema of Air Peace and Prof. Obiora Okonkwo of United Nigeria Airline.

The two men should ordinarily be competitors, each battling for his company’s share of the domestic airline market. The bitter truth remains that building and maintaining good friendship with a business rival is no easy feat. It is only natural that envy and jealousy triggered by competition can easily soil the relationship. But that is not the case for Okonkwo and Onyema.

• Bianca Ojukwu


Ojukwu declared that in these times of cut-throat capitalism, corporate cannibalism and cloak and dagger intrigues, they have stood out as a shining example of the positive power of competitor friendship.

• Okonkwo, Onyema

The former Nigerian Ambassador to Spain said the mutually supportive friendship between these two Igbo businessmen evokes nostalgic memories of “People’s Club” of yesteryears, the premier and premium Igbo social club set up in 1971, after the war. The club always advocated collaboration as against outright competition among members, who were the biggest business moguls of that era.

This approach in no small measure, helped the Igbo to recover a huge portion of their pre-war economic status within two years: “It goes without saying that all over the world, supporting potential business rivals goes against traditional capital thinking, and even the famous economist Adam Smith was a staunch believer in the fact that success in business entails driving out your competitors.”

She added: “The lesson from the cooperation between the duo is that when competitors work together, they can combine their knowledge, resources and experience to create better products or services that meet the needs of their shared customers.”

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A public affairs commentator, Nnedinso Ogaziechi, hinged the development on the “Onye aghana nwanneya.” (Be your brother’s keeper) mantra of the Igbo. She urged South East governors to emulate such “functional brotherhood.”

The close relationship between the two airline owners actually came to the fore while United Nigeria Airlines marked its third anniversary in February. During a gala night at The Dome Centre, Abuja, Okonkwo poured encomiums on the Chairman of Air Peace. In fact, United Nigeria Airline presented an Award of Service 2023 to Air Peace as the “Foremost Collaborating Airline.” In a brief citation, the airline said: “Chief Allen Onyema instead of being a competitor has become a rare partner.”

Deputy Speaker of House of Representatives, Benjamin Kalu, who presented the award to Onyema, extolled the bond between the two airline chiefs, stressing that they exemplified the “brother’s keeper” philosophy of Ndigbo. He was particularly thrilled that Okonkwo and Onyema were actually living out the names of their respective companies, which border on unity and peace:

“When I saw two of you (Okonkwo and Allen, at launch of PISE-P), I saw unity of the United Nigeria Airline and Air Peace. I know that Nigeria will soon be there. And I have been seeing you together since then; not competing with each other in a wrong way. That is the spirit of the Igbo man. Onyeaghana Nwanneya. I am proud of you.

“Allen Onyema has been longer in the industry. He is not threatened by the presence of his brother in the industry. His brother, who is younger in the industry, is not afraid to play around his brother to tap from his knowledge, his experience. Keep it up. Congratulations for making us proud as a people from the Eastern zone. Congratulations for making Nigeria proud.

“I remember what you (Okonkwo) said that with your airline, you are going to make sure that the principles of unity in this country will be showcased.  Allen Onyema as well from 1999, he has always maintained that peace is what Nigeria needs. And with Air Peace Airline, I am sure the message of peace will keep ringing in the ears of Nigerians.

“The message you communicate non-verbally is massive. Keep doing the good job. We believe in peace. We believe in unity.”

It was indeed a celebration of friendship, loyalty and the uncommon resilience of the Chairman of United Nigeria Airline. Paying glowing tribute to his friend, Onyema noted that the integrity of his United Nigeria Airline counterpart stands him out: “Okonkwo is one you could reach an agreement with and go to bed with your two eyes closed, assured that he would keep his word.

“Today is one of my happiest days. One thing I want to assure everyone present is that United Nigeria Airline has come to stay. One thing is certain, when you see a good man, he doesn’t need to talk about himself.

“People see both of us in Lagos going to different places, attending occasions together every time and people are asking, are these guys not in competition? We don’t have to indulge in devilish competition. We don’t need it.

“One thing drew me near to Professor Obiora Okonkwo. And that thing is his integrity. He is somebody you can discuss anything with; go to bed and sleep, it will be as it was agreed. No wonder his airline is growing in leaps and bounds.”

For him, their relationship is symbiotic, and “it’s 50-50. I can’t do 60 per cent we help each other equally. Prof Okonkwo is my brother and he has shown that he can be trusted. Anybody who wants to pull Okonkwo down should also pull me too.

“Airline is not a lucrative business in Nigeria. Operators pay about 37 different charges to the government. Everyone should support this airline. How do you support them? They are doing domestic operations for the time being, you need to patronise them. He has offered jobs to thousands of Nigerians.

“God forbid, if anything happens to any Nigerian airline, families will suffer. It is not about Professor Obiora Okonkwo anymore. But it is about the platform he has created to give means of livelihood to indigent families. He has given them a platform to actualise their livelihood. He deserves everybody’s prayer. He deserves everybody’s applause.”

Setting the tone for the evening, Okonkwo recalled that he had started his airline project with the Nigerian Air Force, but the initiative did not fly. However, he returned with United Nigeria Airline, years later:

“Nigeria is one of the most difficult environments to operate an airline business in the world.” He lamented that they do not enjoy any form of support from the government: “Nevertheless, the essence of our being here is that no matter what is before us.

“We should be thinking about how to forge ahead. We’re here celebrating, to show our determination, our resolve and trusting God to help to do the best we can. This situation will not catch us laying down.”

Traditional ruler of Ogidi, where Okonkwo hails from, Igwe Alex Onyido (Ezechumuagha), also lauded the unity of purpose between Onyema and Okonkwo. He prayed that the two airlines would grow to be dominant airlines in the country.