By Tana Aiyejina
Air Peace boss Allen Onyema talks about his love and passion for sports, how he missed the chance to become a world champion, his humanitarian activities in the sports world and more, in this interview with ‘TANA AIYEJINA
You were footballer in your youthful days. Can you tell us how it all started?
I started playing football and engaging in sports right from primary school, going around the streets and in Government College, Ughelli mainly. I was also into athletics too, playing football and running. As a student I was posting 10 seconds in 100m. In 1984, I was the best athlete, the sportsman of the year. I carried on and played for University of Ibadan, I played football for the Nigerian Institute for Social Economic Research. During youth service, I was with Bendel Insurance, and that was in 1989. So, I have been in and around sports but I was not encouraged by my parents. In fact, I used to think I was being treated like a very unserious person because of my love for sports. So, each time I was playing a match I used to hide to do all that
Parents usually punished their children in a bid to step them from sports. Were you punished too?
Of course, my uncle and my parents were not happy that I was always engaged in sports. So, I did sports for leisure, even when I was in the University of Ibadan and playing for NISER, a state Division oyne league team then in Oyo State. We were doing very well. Sometimes the radio stations broadcasted the matches live and I never liked any radio station mentioning my name because my parents would not be happy with me. If anybody heard it and told my parents, I would be in trouble. I noticed then that most of the footballers around me were actually those from indigent families, they were actually playing for money, but I was not playing for money.
I was playing for the fun of it and that brought out the best in me. I loved the game. I would have been one of Nigeria’s best athletes when it comes to 100m, if I progressed. Now let me tell you, Moses Oyiki (a retired Nigerian hurdler) and I were in Government College, Ughelli. I was number one, Oyiki used to be number four, but Oyiki represented Nigeria in the Olympics. I was clocking under 11secs as a secondary school student without training in 100m. So, the coaches believed I was going to be the next Olympic champion. But I was not getting any encouragement from family. So, I just went on and studied law. When they were coming to U.I for the 1986 NUGA Games, everyone was saying, ‘Oh, Allen Onyema is there, Gaddafi, is there.’ They used to call me Gaddafi. But when they came, I didn’t compete; I think I had a knee injury during that period. So, I didn’t participate. But if I had gone into sports, especially athletics, I would have been the world champion, no doubt about that.
Who was your role model athlete while growing up?
I can’t really point at anybody, but I had so many I admired like Segun Odegbami, Muda Lawal, Christian Chukwu, Adokiye Amasiamaka, Shefiu Mohamed, Baba Otu Mohamed and others. And that is something we should do in this country. The kind of followership Nigerian sports and football clubs used to have in those days was equivalent to what you have with Manchester United, Chelsea today. Those days, if you had IICC Shooting Stars playing, it was a full stadium. People used to look forward to Saturdays; Enugu Rangers playing Vasco da Gama, Mighty Jets of Jos, Raccah Rovers of Kano, DIC Bees of Kaduna, and Stationary Stores of Lagos. They used to have very serious followership. And that was also providing food on the table for so many people.
But all of a sudden, all that died. If you go to the stadium, nobody there, just for miscreants. People are afraid to even go to the stadium to watch matches. So, we should revive the Nigerian league, corporate bodies should come in, let us revive it. Today, every Nigerian knows every player in Manchester United, but they don’t know the ones in Bayelsa United. We know everybody out there, so we should revive it, just like the days when Odegbami and the rest played. Those days used to be very tough. In fact, secondary school games in those days used to be tough. I remember when I played, they even killed one of our secondary school boys in Agbarho (Delta State). It used to be tough those days. Let me tell you, secondary school teams in the 70s will beat our national team of today. The present national team will be nowhere near secondary school teams of yesteryear. I’m not talking about clubs, those days, secondary school teams were unlike these days. Today, secondary schools are now in two-storey buildings, no compound, no playground. Everybody is protective of their child, nobody allows the child to go out again to experience the street life. So, we should use football to create jobs. I call on this government to look into sports, if they can invest in it and make the place safe for people to go and recreate on weekends. We will bring back that followership. It will still happen again.
You are a successful businessman now, but do you regret your truncated sports career?
Well, I cannot regret it. I believe that where I am now is what God wants for me, so, I cannot regret it, but somehow I feel that I should have been out there doing what I love. I still play these days, I play table tennis only and I play so wellthat you’ll think I’m a pro, I play so well. So, I can’t say I have regrets. God has blessed me, maybe God chose this way for me to do what I’m doing now, so I have no regrets.
What’s your impression about the Super Eagles performance in recent times?
Well, they are trying, but it could be better. I enjoin the footballers, and both the NFF and their managers and all to do more. They are doing okay but it could be better.
You’ve been massively supporting the Eagles, NFF and sportsmen financially. What’s the motivation behind this?
About what motivates me, I love this country. I keep on saying it, a country of 378 ethnic nationalities, that’s huge diversity, which should have been our strength. Now, it seems to be a curse, instead of a blessing to this country. It pains me that Nigeria has not been able to weave together its diversity and use it for our development. Many countries are envious of our diversity, which is supposed to be a sort of strength for us but we are using it the other way round because politicians will tell you, you are Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ibibio, you’re this, when it suits them. At the end of the day they come together to do what they know how to do best and this has been destroying this nation. The bane of our development as a nation can be traced to our holding on tight to issues of ethnicity and religion. They have used this to bring this nation down and it’s still continuing, so it pains me. And I discovered that when it comes to sports, football in particular, whenever Nigeria is playing, we all forget our ethnicities. It shows one thing, that the ordinary Nigerian would want to be a Nigerian, I mean, the people on the streets, they don’t care.
It’s only when politicians come up to start telling us our differences that we become alive to it. So, knowing fully well that sports is a veritable tool for nation building, for Nigeria in particular, I decided that I must be supporting it. That was why I once went into my aircraft at 2am. I woke up, I drove myself to the international airport, when the national team was going to play an AFCON qualifier. I went there, and pleaded with them to win that qualifier for the nation because anytime we are playing, nobody remembers ‘I’m Fulani, Hausa or Igbo.’ It’s all about Nigeria. So, if that is happening, then let me contribute by also supporting sports, maybe someday, one day, who knows, we might be able to get it right. America is the melting pot of all ethnicities in the world, but once they get that passport, all they profess is ‘I’m American.’ In Nigeria, it is the other way round. Here, I’m Igbo, I’m Hausa, I’m Ijaw, I’m Efik. It’s not helpful. In a multicultural nation like Nigeria, we shouldn’t be mouthing our ethnicities. What we have in Nigeria is ethnic and religious nationalism. We don’t have broad nationalism in Nigeria. So, what I’m trying to encourage with sports is to engender broad nationalism. That is why I come out most times to support sports, because I know it helps in nation building. That’s why I do this, nothing more.