Wikki Tourist and Nigeria international Raymond Onyekachi Aja recounts his 21 year struggle with spinal cord injury. He shares his pains, shattered dreams, and optimism with Taiwo Alimi.
His story will make you cry. From infancy, Onyekachi Aja knew he would be a professional footballer. Football runs in his family but he was specially endowed. By the time he could kick football properly he began to turn heads at school football competition rising to captain his school within two years. Once he got into secondary school, the Anambra state academicals came after him to play for the U-13 team and from here there is no looking back. He became a regular in the team. For ‘Onyeka’ as he is commonly called, many fans would come to the stadium. He was energetic and fluid, bringing a new dynamism into left full back plays. The teenage Onyeka would dribble his way from defense to attack and scored his fair share, sometimes from difficult positions. He was sold to football soul and body.
Things were still looking up for Onyeka when he signed for University of Nsukka (UNN) Football team, a semi-professional side, upon leaving secondary school. Shortly after he moved to intercity FC, another semi-professional team, but he skill would only be good for the best-a professional team.
In 1996, Onyeka took his destiny in his hands. He left home for Bauchi for trial with Wikki Tourist FC, one of the biggest professional clubs till date. He mesmerized the coaching crew within a short time and got a contract. Onyeka did not spent much time on the bench. He got a regular shirt benching one of the oldest members of the team in the process.
His coming may have given Wikki Tourism a new lease of life as it proceeded from Division 3 to Division 2 in 1997. In 1998 Wikki gained promotion to Division 1 and won the FA Cup, beating Plateau United at the Ranchers Bees Stadium, Kaduna, 3-2 on penalty shootout. The win gave
Wikki ticket to represent Nigeria in the then African Cup Winners Cup now Confederations Cup.
By this time Onyeka had become a household name. Supporters’ club started using his name in their songs. “Onyebuchi muna de safi”, they sang, meaning “Onyebuchi is very hot.” He was having the time of his life. He was living his dream. He even got a national call from the Nigeria U-17 team under James Peters.
Like a golden fish that cannot be hidden, Onyeka was spotted by foreign scouts in far away Morocco when Wikki Tourist played Royal Armed Forces. He made an impression on many of them but one in particular, Monsieur Vercourter, a Belgian kept calling him, even in Nigeria.
One bright morning, Onyeka received a call from Vercourter that he had secured a contract for him with Belgian club, Genk FC. And that he had completed his travelling arrangement. He would be leaving in a week.
It was the news Onyeka had been waiting for all his life. He was over the moon. But he had to play one last time for his Nigeria club, one last time, he thought.
This last trip to Katsina became the beginning of his troubles. The salon car they were travelling in got into an accident and Onyeka was among the badly injured players. He sustained a spinal cord injury. He spent three years in and out of surgery tables. He forgot the use of his legs completely and for 20 years has been living in pain and penury.
The ebullient thoroughgoing player is now a shadow of himself. What would have been only come to him in dreams-in traumatized dreams, yet Onyeka thank God daily for sparing his life.
Speaking of his love for football, Onyeka said: “Football runs in my family. My dad was an athlete, he also played football. My mum played netball. So, I can say that I took after my dad. My brothers played football but I’m the only one that played professional football.
“My dad never wanted me to be a footballer. So, it was a personal decision because the more he flogged me the more I fell in love with football. To some point, football nearly cost me my education. In my secondary school days, I was called ‘Onwu ball’ he who would die where there is ball. Since my parents couldn’t stop me they started supporting me. So, I will say my family influenced me to go into football as a youngster.
“I started playing football when I was in Primary 3 at Central School, Onuiyi- Nsukka. We played street football and inter class matches. Sometimes, we played against classes above us. Those matches were keenly contested and winning gave us bragging rights for some weeks. In Primary 5, I was selected to represent Nsukka zone. I was made the vice captain of the team; I went on to become the captain of the team the next year in my Primary 6. We won the tournament and represented Nsukka LGA for the all secondary schools competition in Enugu.
“In my JSS 1, I was invited to play for the old Anambra State U-13 in the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) tournament at Ilorin. I started playing in the senior team of my secondary school in JSS 3 and was a key player in the team as small as I was. My school was a community school in a rural part of Nsukka but we punched above our weight, beating many so-called ‘elite schools’ to win laurels.
ON BIGGER THINGS
“With my eyes set on bigger things, I left home in 1996 for Bauchi. Luckily, Wikki Tourist was holding their screening exercise which has been going on for two months before my arrival. There were over 100 players for the screening. The first day I played, the coaches, management and fans fell in love with me. It was a rigorous exercise; players were dropped daily with those successful moving to the next stage. From the moment I joined, the screening lasted for three months. In the end, I was among the few that made it. After signing for the team, I broke into the main team, seizing the number three position from the team’s favourite player in that position. We gained promotion from the then Division 3 to Division 2 in 1997. Due to my work rate and dedication to the team, the management rewarded me by increasing my sign on fee. Then in 1998 came the big one. We gained promotion to Division 1 and won the FA Cup, beating Plateau United at the Ranchers Bees Stadium, Kaduna, 3-2 on penalty shootout.”
Onyeka spoke about exploits at Wikki Tourist with glee.
“Wikki represented Nigeria in the then African Cup Winners Cup now Confederations Cup. I gave my best to the team so much that the supporters club took to singing my praise. They would sing with the name of the Bauchi State Governor, Adamu M’uazu, Sanni Toro and my name. Though my name is Onyeka, they preferred calling me Onyebuchi. “Onyebuchi muna de safi”, they sang, meaning “Onyebuchi is very hot.” It was fun then.
Onyeka talked about the accident that took away his dream as if it never happened, in whisper, yet clearly. “The game against Katsina United was the last game I wanted to play for Wikki unfortunately we had the accident. Along Ningi-Bauchi-Kano Road, the 504 station wagon we were travelling with somersaulted. I landed on my back and sustained spinal cord injury with a team mate. I can’t forget the accident; if nothing else my condition is a constant reminder. Could you imagine a young man full of life with a lucrative contract in Europe at his finger tips become a cripple. Life is tough even for people who can walk how much more someone in my situation. Life has been difficult for me but I thank God for a few friends who have stood by me all this while.
“The then Governor, Adamu M’uazu, Alhaji Nuhu Wabi, Professor Ilyasu Mohammed, NFA secretary, Sanni Toro, Nurse Mahmoud, Patrick Paschal, Alhaji Issa Matori and other good people of Bauchi rallied behind us to see that we were taken care of. The state government undertook our medical bills at Bauchi State Specialist Hospital, Jos University Teaching Hospital and UCH Ibadan. The governor also directed the state government to build a house for us on any land of our choice and pay us salary for life.”
Onyeka never got any house. He was left alone to seek out payments for his medical operations and supplies. It is a daunting task given that the only income coming was his salary too meager to do anything. Even, that salary was stopped by Wikki Tourist management in 2018.
What kept him from going overboard was the life of Dosu Joseph, he said. The Olympic gold medalist also suffered spinal cord injury in 1997-a year after the Atlanta Olympic triumph. Joseph has rebounded to become a top player scout and manager.
“Psychologically, when the accident happened and the doctor broke the news that I had spinal cord injury, I was devastated. All dreams to play abroad gone up in smoke, the news was too much for me to take but a voice asked me; what if you were dead? I put away the trauma and took solace in Dosu Joseph. I read everything about him; how his faith built him up and he was able to walk. I prayed to God if Dosu could walk so would I. I thank God I have a fantastic family. My wife has been a pillar of support. It really has not been easy raising three children. I help them with school work as well as do other house chores but there’s a limit to which I can work and do things I would have loved to do with my kids because I can still feel pain where I was operated on the back.”
To make ends meet (he had to feed a wife and three children), he relied solely on family and friends. “I get financial assistance from friends; my class mates in secondary school and team mates at Nigercity Babes. A few of my team mates at Wikki have also come to my assistance.”
“Financially, it has not been rosy, especially since Wikki stopped my salary. I lost two of my brothers, one to accident and the other to cancer. They assisted me the much they could. Like I said earlier, I survive through the assistance of friends.”
Onyeka remained grateful to the former Bauchi governor M’uazu, who also gave him hope to live.
“The late Yakubu and I were discharged from UCH on May 27, 2000 still in wheel chair. I could recollect two ambulances sent by the Bauchi state Government to bring us back to Bauchi. I’m grateful to the state government for offsetting the hospital bills. They also provided the ambulance that took me home to Nsukka on September 15, 2000.”
Armed with hope and Joseph’s story, Onyeka was determined to walk again. He sought the medical assistance of a traditional bone setter at Nsukka, more out of desperation and fund. “The moment the bone setter, a woman, saw me, she told my family to take the wheel chair home that I will not sit on it until I stand on my feet. To the glory of God, after nine months I started standing up on my feet. Wikki Tourist players were there to see me after their game against Enugu Rangers. Their visit gave me more strength to fight for survival. I spent three years there and was discharged in 2003. I spent over N1.5 million; up till now I’ve not paid the money but promised to come back. I found favour with the owner of the home so she allowed me go home. So I still owe them. If you calculate the interest on the sum from then till now you’ll know how much I owe (laughs).
“That is why I’m begging Bauchi State government to pay me my two years salary arrears and pay me off so that I can go back and pay them because right now it looks as if I ran away. I will also start something meaningful to earn money so that I’ll not continue depending on friends to survive.”
Following years of neglect, Onyeka condition is now critical. “I can’t do anything for a living. My children have been sent out of school because of school fees. I’ve not gone for medical checkup since I was discharged from hospital in 2000. I had surgery on my back as I’m talking to you, I still have pains. I can’t sit down for long. I really need assistance that’s why I’m crying out to Bauchi state governor Sen. Bala Mohammed to use his good office to come to my aid. He is a good man who has solved problems that are bigger than mine. I served Wikki meritoriously so I’m optimistic that he will solve my problem.”
Onyeka is indeed an incurable optimist. Asked if he does not regret choosing football for a career, he replied calmly: “Football is my life; I can’t stop loving the game despite what happened. In fact, this is the time I love the game most. I’m always a happy man; what happened doesn’t affect my state of mind because nothing happens without God allowing it. God has let me focused on my healing not wallowing in self pity and regretting not travelling to Europe. In fact, He opened my eyes to see things differently. What if I had abandoned Wikki travelled to Europe and something worse happened what will I do? Would Wikki management have taken care of me? Of course not because I did not put the team that brought me to limelight first. In any condition one finds himself, give glory to God. I don’t regret anything. My name Onyekachi, ‘who is greater than God carries me on.’
He said he would support any of his children to play football on their count.
“I will allow my son to play for Wikki. I know by that time Wikki will be better than what it is now and when we were there. I have three kids, two girls and a boy. The boy is my second child he plays but the last girl plays too. In fact, she’s a fantastic left footer. If Wikki have a female team she will play for them and then go ahead to wear the green white green for Nigeria. I can’t wait for that day to come,” added Onyeka.