Two significant events will take place on July 28 in Lagos. The first will be the unveiling of the historic Sports Diplomacy Wall of Fame at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA); the other will be a gathering of great sportsmen and women who would shine like a million stars at a gala evening at Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.
The backstory of these two events revolves around Segun Odegbami, the famous footballer with the sobriquet, “Mathematical”, in view of his brilliant moves and scoring prowess when he played in the far right position with his No 7 jersey for the national football team, the Green Eagles.
It was in 1980 that Nigeria lifted the Africa Cup of Nations Cup for the first time inside the mainbowl of the National Stadium in Lagos after beating the Desert Warriors of Algeria 3 – 0. Odegbami – an incisive columnist and analyst, also known as “Big Seg” – was a member of that historic conquering team.
The other players were Christian “Chairman” Chukwu (captain), Felix “Owoblo” Owolabi, Henry Nwosu, Adokiye “Chief Justice” Amasiemeka, Mudashiru Lawal, Best Ogedengbe, Tunde Bamidele, Godwin Odiye, Alloysius Atuegbu and Okey Isima.
But four years earlier in 1976, a Nigerian contingent of athletes had landed in Montreal, Canada for the Olympic Games, and they looked forward to winning laurels and becoming famous. The Olympic Games can catapult an athlete to unbelievable heights with mouth-watering endorsements in equal measure.
After the Nigerian athletes had spent a week in camp preparing for the games, the military government at the time decided to boycott the games to protest the apartheid regime and racism in South Africa.
The announcement was made on the eve of the opening of the games; so, you could imagine the shock and disbelief in the camp. To send a strong message to the rest of the world that Nigeria was not joking, 27 other African countries joined Nigeria to boycott the games and all the athletes returned home.
Nigeria’s voice was strong and respected in global affairs, and sports was used as an instrument of international diplomacy. Nigeria invested heavily to support South Africa in the fight against apartheid. Will these sports heroes be forgotten forever? That would not be a good idea. Odegbami, convinced that he had a brilliant idea of recognising and celebrating these great Nigerians, spoke to Allen Onyema, the Chairman/CEO of Air Peace.
Onyema, who is quick to spot a brilliant initiative when he sees one, told Odegbami that he would sponsor the twin events of July 28. A press conference followed and we now have less than two weeks to the momentous events.
Apart from being the convener of the events, Odegbami would also be a recipient of the prizes as one of the sports heroes that should not be forgotten. Those to be honoured are the Olympic contingent to the Montreal Games and the 1980 Green Eagles players.
These great sports heroes – the list includes Charlton Ehizuelen, Davidson Andeh, Obisia Nwakpa, Dele Udoh, Godwin Obasogie – made a huge sacrifice that was unprecedented in Olympic history. Nigeria’s move to champion an African boycott of the games led to the end of apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela – the symbol of the struggle – from prison after 27 years.
Mandela became the first black president of South Africa after the clutches of apartheid were dismantled and FIFA granted the country the rights to host the World Cup in 2010.
At the Wall of Fame at NIIA, all the sports heroes would have their names written in gold. Under the leadership of Professor Eghosa Osaghae as director general, NIIA embraced the initiative and agreed to collaborate with Air Peace that funded the construction of the Wall of Fame – a laudable and historic monument.
However, about half of the 1976 Montreal Olympics contingent from Nigeria, according to Odegbami, have passed on, while six of the 1980 Green Eagles team have also died. About 10 of the honourees will be flying into Lagos from their base in the United States.
After 47 years in the limbo, recognition has come through Segun Odegbami’s initiative that Air Peace has proudly identified with as sponsor. According to Onyema, the Chairman of Air Peace, these athletes who are still alive would not only be honoured and celebrated, they would also be named “Air Peace Ambassadors” and enjoy the airline’s 12 complimentary return tickets on domestic routes annually and one international flight to any of the airline’s foreign destinations until they pass away, in addition to a special cash reward that would be announced at the gala event holding on July 28.
“These athletes were already in Montreal before their dreams were cut short,” Odegbami reminded me in a telephone conversation. “History will be kind to Onyema for his generosity and kindness,” the former Green Eagles player added.
Onyema feels strongly that the national team that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980 were patriotic and worked together as a team. “The victory over Algeria was the best balm at the time to unite Nigerians after the civil war,” Onyema remarked at the press conference.
As a patriotic Nigerian who is committed to the task of nation-building and a Nigeria that works for everyone, Onyema enjoys supporting impactful humanitarian gestures. He set new standards in philanthropy when he airlifted Nigerians who were stranded in different parts of the world back home free-of-charge.
During Covid-19 outbreak, Xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa and the war of attrition in Sudan, Air Peace evacuated Nigerians from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, UK, South Africa and Sudan, and brought them home safely.
Long before former president, late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, established the Amnesty Programme to bring about peace in the troubled Niger Delta region, Onyema was already in the creeks working with the militants through a self-funding humanitarian gesture to prevent further attacks on our oil facilities.
Rather than thank Allen Onyema, a detribalised Nigerian for that matter, for his kindness and humanity, former aviation minister, Hadi Sirika, using the free airtime he was given by Arise News to explain the stories swirling around Nigeria Air, told the world that Air Peace was a debtor-airline that “lacked capacity.”
What is his problem with Air Peace? Sirika knew he was not telling the truth and he played aviation politics of the virulent kind on national television. He struggled hard to denigrate Air Peace which is easily Nigeria’s leading airline.
From available records, Air Peace has over 30 aircraft in its existing fleet and the airline placed an order for 13 brand new E2-195 aircraft, and another firm order of 15 Boeing 737 Max 8 and 10.
Onyema had his chance on the same TV station to hit back at Sirika, saying that Nigeria Air was a charade and that President Bola Tinubu should discontinue the project.
In an earlier press statement, Air Peace refuted the claims by Sirika, describing them as “spurious.” The statement indicated that Air Peace has three Boeing 777 aircraft which were not leased or rented but purchased outrightly by the airline.
Air Peace, the statement further explained, also did not stop flying to Dubai because of “lack of capacity.” Air Peace has been flying into the UAE since 2019, but in October 2022, the UAE government announced a total visa ban on Nigerians which has not been lifted.
According to the Air Peace statement, neither Emirates nor Air Peace is operating the Nigerian-UAE route since the ban. “The persisting non-issuance of visas and the accompanying inconveniences necessitated the suspension of our Dubai operations from November 22, till date,” the statement said.
Sirika knows that running an airline is not a child’s play in the kind of turbulent environment that exists in the industry. So many airlines were launched with fanfare but they have literally dropped out of the skies. It is a long list and Sirika can name them.
It was on October 24, 2014 that the inaugural flight of Air Peace took off from the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos. Air Peace launched its operations eight years ago with a fleet of seven aircraft – that was a record. The airline operated 14 flights between Lagos and four destinations, including Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Owerri, carried over 300 passengers on its first day of operations.
Now that we don’t have a national carrier, Air Peace has conveniently filled that vacuum, in spite of the challenging business environment. Nigerian airlines struggle with multiple taxation, unfavourable government policies, scarce foreign exchange, rising cost of importation, and dilapidated airport infrastructure while regulatory agencies politicise their oversight responsibilities.
Apart from flying many domestic routes and carrying more passengers than any other airline, Air Peace has expanded its regional and international routes and it prioritises passenger safety.
The airline remains resolute and, in my view, it will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the aviation industry in the years ahead.
-Braimah is a global public relations and marketing strategist. He is also the publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://ntm.ng) and Lagos Post (https://lagospost.ng), and can be reached via email@example.com.