The year began with penury inflicted on ordinary Nigerians by President Goodluck Jonathan through the astronomical rise in fuel prices which drastically reduced purchasing power and standard of living downwards. Instantly prospected as tough times ahead, the year became more debilitating amidst untimely deaths from both sides of the Boko Haram insurgency and government’s statutory duty to restore security.
Even at that, nobody bargained for the stories of national tragedies which we all wrongly thought (had) climaxed the year. Like the first three weeks of November during which up to ten prominent Nigerians from various sectors died one after another. By that time, it was enough to wish the year 2012 instant goodbye.
Yet, last Saturday, with 17 days to the end of the year, another frightening and disgusting tragedy befell Nigeria, such that it is now more of pleading with 2012 to just pack and go, leaving the vacuum for the new year to roll in on a note of some hope. At least, unlike January, Nigerians have been promised that there will not be fuel price hike throughout next year.
That is if you can believe labour union leadership, notorious traitors of Nigerian workers. How do we react to last week’s tragic helicopter crash at Okolobo community, Tombia, in Nembe Local Government Area of Bayelsa State in which ex-National Security Adviser, General Andrew Azazi and till that day, Kaduna State governor, Patrick Yakowa died? Incidentally, four other less known Nigerians on national duty, also died in the tragedy. They were Yakowa’s political associate, Dauda Tsoho, Warrant Officer Mohammed Kanal, as well as the pilots, Commander Murtala Mohammed Daba and Lt. Adeyemi Sowole. Understandably, relatives of these four have been disturbed by the seeming complete eclipse, which reports of and comments on the death of General Azazi and Governor Yakowa imposed on the fellow victims of the crash.
The concern of the deceased’s probable dependants is natural human behaviour but Horace (courtesy Vanguard’s book of quotations) offers them a well-deserved consolation: “The gale shakes most the lofty pine; tall towers fall with the louder crash; and the highest peaks most often are struck by lightning.” There can never be adequate consolation for the bereaved families.
Indeed, it would be better if their departed ones were alive. Yet, in death, the deceased attracted national and international mention. General Azazi’s death was very unfortunate.
He was a rare distinction in attaining the leadership of the army as Chief of Army Staff, the supreme of the armed forces as Chief of Defence Staff and later as National Security Adviser. The late Kaduna State governor, Patrick Yakowa, in his own way also had the distinction as God’s choice to tranquillize the ever prevailing religious tension/divide in Kaduna State. It was not enough that he was a Christian but a particular Christian who, on his sudden death, is now generally acknowledged even by rival Muslims to have reached out to both religious groups without fear or favour. Not surprisingly, the deaths of these six Nigerians in a tragic helicopter crash has generated posers from clearly vested interests.
Depending on who they are, the critics are either querying the moral of General Azazi traveling in a Navy helicopter to a social function, as if the disaster might not have occurred if he were traveling to a military function, or raising conspiracy theories to eliminate the late ex-National Security Adviser.
The posers are all baseless and unnecessary. In the past, military aircraft on even professional missions had crashed with heavy fatal casualties. In 1992, a C-130 military aircraft carrying at least 100 middle-rank officers crashed at Ejigbo, Lagos killing all of them. Also in 2005, a military helicopter carrying about 15 army generals to Obudu, Cross River State, for a retreat crashed and killed all of them. What is more, even commercial planes crash every year in different parts of the world, Nigeria included. The lesson? Occasional crash is part of everyday flying world.
Making allowance for their grief, the reaction of General Azazi’s local community was particularly disturbing, if not distasteful. Elders of Peretorugbene community in Ekperemor Local Government, General Azazi’s area in Bayelsa State reportedly suspected foul play. The secretary of the Council of Chiefs of the community, Chief Orume Okoyen’s immediate reaction was that they “… are suspecting the circumstances of his (Azazi’s) death. Azazi’s death is suspicious. We want proper investigation of his death. He was an Army General and not a Naval Officer. Why was he flown in a Navy helicopter? Why was he flown in plane? What is the experience or competence level and (most worrisome) what were the ethnic origins of the pilots?”
All these are dangerous insinuations. In the armed forces (I served a military regime for eight consecutive years) posting on duty has nothing to do with your ethnic origin. In the case of a retired national security adviser in particular, if he were from the farthest South, his ADC or Chief Security Officer may be from the farthest North or the farthest East. No consideration is given to ethnic origin even though such seeming nationalism may not be sacrosanct in some cases. Identical ethnic origin of an officer with his details may also not necessarily guarantee loyalty. The flight officers of the fateful naval helicopter in which General Azazi and Governor Yakowa died were a Yoruba and a Northerner, each with his family, in fact dependants.
Would such responsible men volunteer a suicide mission? Very unlikely, especially the Yoruba co-pilot. It is therefore untenable to be inquiring about their ethnic origin. And in an air crash, even if the pilots were of the same ethnic origin with their boss, that is no guarantee against flight accident. Afterall, only two months ago, Taraba State governor, Dambaba Suntai, flew himself in a private jet and crash-landed in Yola with his aides. Could the Taraba State governor have wanted to kill himself? Governor Suntai is till today reported to be fighting for his life at a German hospital.
It is therefore clear that an aircraft accident is what it is in any part of the world. We were all in this country when newly promoted Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Haruna John died in a police helicopter crash in Jos early this year. What is clear from that accident is that when such is to occur, it is immaterial whether the helicopter is police, Navy, Army or Air Force.
If General Azazi had flown in Army helicopter as critics are now suggesting, it was still possible that the helicopter could crash. Neither could safe landing be guaranteed in a civilian/commercial flight. Some 15 years ago under General Sani Abach’s regime, the then military governor of Kano State, Colonel Ibrahim Wase was killed in a chattered private jet in Jos. Nobody suspected or blamed the flight. There have also been critical comments on why a Navy helicopter should have been used in flying General Azazi to a social function.
The ex-National Security Adviser could have flown in an aircraft belonging to any of the services – Army, Navy or Air-Force. General Azazi was once the Chief of Army Staff. As a former officer of that rank, he would always be obliged by his subordinates the use of Army aircraft. When General Azazi rose to become Chief of Defence Staff, that supervisory post also earned him the facilities of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. It is a privilege which had been in practice over many years. If there seems to be a point in querying the use of official aircraft for attending social functions as happened in General Azazi’s and Governor Yakowa’s case, it is all hypocrisy.
Presidential jets had been used by public office holders – led by the President of Federal Republic of Nigeria – for political campaigns. Indeed, all key public office holders in Nigeria use official aircraft, including presidential jet and para-military aircraft, to attend social functions, without being surcharged. We cannot therefore single out General Azazi, (on his way to his grave) for callous blame.
Instead, we must show some sympathy for his family members who are in grief. There has also been the grandstanding that if the roads in that area had been maintained or re-constructed, General Azazi and Yakowa might not have flown and therefore might have not been involved in the air crash. Without opposing the necessary repairs of such roads, the same critics would turn round to accuse Goodluck Jonathan of turning the roads to Bayelsa into first class grade as in London or Washington; United States.
And who says fatal accidents do not occur on roads? Former secretary to the government of the federation, Aliyu Mohammamed, was traveling by road from somewhere in Benue State to his Jamane house in Zango Kataf, Kaduna State, when he was involved in a motor accident. So threatening to life were his injuries, that he was hurriedly flown from the accident spot in a helicopter to Abuja to be treated at the National Hospital. Either before or on arrival at Abuja, Aliyu Mohammed died. There was also the tragic case of a secretary to Ogun State government who returned by flight to Lagos from an official engagement in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. On safe arrival in Lagos, the deceased then traveled by road in his official car hopefully to Abeokuta, the state capital.
Meandering through the notorious Lagos-Ibadan express way up to Sagamu interchange to his location, less than ten miles to Abeokuta, the state capital, the car in which the man was being driven somersaulted and he died on the spot. That was not an air crash. While others were grandstanding and trying to position themselves as the conscience of the nation on the circumstances of the deaths of General Azazi and Governor Yakowa of Kaduna State, one man stood tall in a display of statesmanship and respect for the deceased as well as genuine feelings for their bereaved families. That was General Muhammadu Buhari, former Head of State who cancelled all engagements hitherto planned to mark his 70th birthday.
It is the spirit with which General Azazi and Governor Yakowa should be allowed to rest in peace. As usual, every agency is out to probe the helicopter tragedy that killed Azazi and Yakowa. The federal government is to probe. The Senate is to probe. The Army/Navy is to probe. Is that how a country is governed? It can only be hoped that one report will not contradict another, if ever any report comes out at all.