I wake up to pen my weekly contribution to national sports discourse, and I am confronted with very unpleasant reports of an event that took place in Owerri the day before, far from any sports field or sports event, but still totally impacting Nigerian sports.
In the past two weeks, I have been working on putting to bed a national project conceived by a man with an uncommon love for Nigerians, a man for whom I have developed tremendous respect and admiration since our chance-encounter on the staircase of Air Peace Airline aircraft in Abuja some three years ago.
Completely from the blue that evening, after hugs and kisses that we had not seen each other for ages, he dumped on me the idea of coming up with a social event to assemble the surviving members of the 1980 African Cup of Nations national football team, the Green Eagles. He wants to demonstrate his personal appreciation to all the members of that team for their achievement as Nigeria’s first African Champions, and particularly for fanning the embers of patriotism and nationalism across Nigeria through that historic victory. It was a critical time in the country’s political history when, ten years after the Civil War, a United Nigeria was a much-needed tonic and national clarion call.
I could immediately understand why he loved that particular national team with a passion. Since then, we have interacted more, and I have followed, even beyond his mandate to me, his several other critical interventions in matters concerning ordinary Nigerians, his silent philanthropic and humanitarian works.
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Several times, he had come out of his sequestered lifestyle to deploy his aircrafts, at no costs to anyone but himself, to help in the evacuation of Nigerians stranded in different flash points in the world. He did it during the xenophobic crisis in South Africa, ferrying Nigerians home. He did it during the Covid 19 pandemic, bringing back Nigerians from different parts of the world. At the start of the Russian/Ukraine War his aircrafts were deployed to bring back Nigerians. A few days ago, I happened to be around him and I observed how he marshalled resources and people in his Air Peace Airlines establishment, to head for some dangerous border towns in Egypt to bring home Nigerians stranded there as a result of the ongoing internecine war in the Sudan.
With all of that on his plate, plus servicing Nigeria with the largest private airline in the country, Allen Onyema has kept his covenant with his sports project. He continued to nudge me to coordinate and conclude the plans to honour and celebrate his football heroes.
In the past 6 months, he has embraced an additional new dimension.
He, now also, wants to honour the long-forgotten contingent of Nigerian athletes that went to represent the country at the 1976 Olympic Games but were forced to sacrifice their Olympic dreams and ambitions on the altar of international politics through a boycott of the Games called by the governments of 27 African countries, led by Nigeria. The 45 Nigerian athletes involved have been abandoned by history, never remembered since then, never honoured, never acknowledged, and never compensated.
Without that boycott of 1976 in Montreal, Canada, South Africa’s emancipation from the stranglehold of Apartheid would have been delayed by many more years; the late sage, Nelson Mandela, would have most likely spent more years behind bars; Mandela may not have become the first Black President of South Africa; and South Africa would definitely not have hosted the 2010 World Cup.
It takes a special ‘eye’ to see the connections between the sacrifice made by Nigerian athletes in 1976 and the fight for political freedom in Africa in that period, to see how Nigerian athletes were patriots, sacrificial lambs and victims, rolled into one.
Allen Onyema decided to ‘right’ that ‘wrong’ also, and to change that narrative in the story of Nigeria.
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Air Peace Airline that he owns is funding the construction of a monument, a giant ‘Wall of Fame’ with the names of these groups of young patriotic Nigerian athletes written permanently in Gold. The wall is to be located within the hallowed premises of the most important institution for the propagation of sports diplomacy and international relations through sports in Nigeria. The institution shall also honour these selected heroes not only for their sports exploits on the tracks and fields, but more importantly for their impact in shaping the nature of Nigeria’s international relations in the world at critical times in history.
Allen is a completely de-tribalised man, a humanitarian to the core, and a true Nigerian patriot. He should be accorded the highest respect, recognition and honours by all Nigerians and the federal government.
At the same time, such a person, or his airline, does not deserve the ugly treatment of the past few days. Why would anyone set out to do damage to his business, and brutalise the humanity of Allen Onyema? Unfortunately, that is what transpired two days ago.
The Nigerian Labour Congress mobilised and grounded Air Peace Airline’s flights and activities in Owerri, purportedly in protest against the Governor of Imo State, thereby affecting its flights across the country. What has a grievance with the government of Imo State got to do with the business of a private airline that is providing service to society and helping Nigerians in distress?
In football, when a goal is scored, it happens often that the scorer as well as fans go into a momentary state of ‘madness’, celebrating. I hope the Nigerian Labour Congress, as a result of the ‘good’ showing of the Labour Party (and they are not congruent) at the recent polls, is not taking that as license to go into a momentary fit of its own kind of ‘madness’?
To think that Air Peace Airline lost over N700 million Naira as a result of the grounding of their flights on a day that it was spending hundreds of millions of its own funds to bring Nigerians back home from their odyssey in a war-torn region in Africa. Haba, how can any group in Nigeria be this callous, particularly one that represents the poor Nigerian worker? This madness must be condemned and must stop!
I was going to wait until after the events of July 28, 2034, after the celebrations of Nigeria’s sports and diplomacy heroes, before paying my special tribute to a great Nigerian, indeed. But with the incident of a few days ago in Owerri, however, I am using my column today to give credit to a Nigerian that continues to demonstrate uncommon love for his country, a person who has earned his place in Nigerian history, and who deserves the highest national honours of the land.
For embarking on what no individual has done in the history of Nigerian sports, I humbly make Dr. Allen Onyema, my Sports and Diplomacy Hero of the Century. I hope Nigeria does too, very soon.
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