By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
“Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria.”
– Section 33 (1) Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
Nigeria is grieving presently, on account of the painful exit of one of her bright minds, Flight Officer Tolulope Arotile, of the Nigerian Air Force, NAF. Her story is as inspiring as it is disheartening. What happened? How did it happen? Many Nigerians didn’t know her until last week when the news of her sudden demise hit the airwaves. It came through a terse press release from NAF that first said that she died in an auto accident. This suggested that she was driving a car and ran into a ditch or a stationary vehicle. Then Nigerians demanded more information, after some other revelations showed that NAF was being economical with the truth. Then another bombshell came from NAF, this time around, the blame had shifted to an excited secondary school mate that was reversing his car to greet her and in the process knocked her down! What fiction? Even James Hadley Chase will dash NAF some medal for surpassing his own unusually wild imaginations. Just like that. The first female combat helicopter pilot is gone.
Tolulope Oluwatoyin Sarah Arotile, from the bits and pieces that one can gather, was born on December 13, 1995, in Kaduna. She is from Iffe in Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State. She attended Air Force Primary School, Kaduna, from 2000-2005; Air Force Secondary School, Kaduna, from 2006-2011, before gaining admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, as a member of 64 Regular Course on September 22, 2012. She was commissioned into the Nigerian Air Force on September 16, 2017. She holds a commercial pilot licence after undergoing tactical flying training in Italy and South Africa. In October, 2019, she was decorated as the first female combat pilot in the 55 years history of NAF. In her short stay, she contributed greatly to the destruction of bandits in the North Central States, by flying several combat missions under Operation GAMA AIKI in Minna, Niger State. She was reported as diligent, brilliant, humble, God-fearing and dutiful. That is the star that Nigeria has lost.
Going through the media, I saw a photo of her in the air, in combat fashion, with her helicopter, with a dog by her legs and holding on to a rope, in the air, in very daring commando style. What a brave mind! The snippet of the story from her blood sister who was with her on the fateful day was that Tolulope received a telephone call that summoned her. She had just returned from a combat operation and was resting and should ordinarily not be subject to fresh rigours or errands. She left and never came back alive. The value placed on this bright life by NAF is very demeaning indeed, to say that an ‘excited old classmate ran her down’, as if in reference to some animal or worthless object. The press release from NAF came too casually, to bear. By all accounts, this is a national tragedy that should have been accorded its best attention by the relevant authorities. Perhaps it would have been better for NAF to have concluded its investigations before speaking to us, because now we have many questions begging for answers.
Who is this Adejoh friend or classmate that ran her down? How old is he? What is the exact scene of this painful event? The NAF base in Kaduna must be some well-built structure with good roads. So, let us look at the scenario properly. Tolulope was trekking on a motorized paved road within the NAF base. This Adejoh friend who was driving, drove past her, before reversing. So, Tolulope did not see the friend in the car. And then she suddenly became a static object or target that remained on the same spot, waiting for the car to just hit her and knock her down. She was motionless, waiting for the car, or was she backing the car? At what time exactly did this event happen? If it happened during daylight presumably, were they the only persons in the entire NAF base? Nobody could alert Tolulope of the death approaching her? And all the other occupants in the car that was allegedly reversing, they were all facing forward and not minding the destination of the car, for their own safety? And what is the speed of a car reversing, to be sufficiently potent to knock somebody down to the extent of death? And Tolulope herself could not see? Was she blindfolded? Is she deaf in any of her ears? Has she lately broken any of her legs not to be able to escape death? How did a combatant, who did not die in battle, who did not fall to the bullets of bandits and terrorists, lose her life to ‘an excited secondary school mate’, an unlicensed civilian driver, whose only duty was to reverse his car to knock down history in the making? How did he gain access into the NAF base, in the first place? Who are the other occupants of the car? Where is the car?
After facing series of bombardments from angry Nigerians, NAF finally released its interim investigation report on July 19, 2020 as follows:
“Upon recognizing her schoolmate, Arotile, after passing her, Mr Adejoh, who was driving, reversed the vehicle, ostensibly in an attempt to quickly meet up with the deceased, who was walking in the opposite direction. In the process, the vehicle struck Flying Officer Arotile from the rear, knocking her down with significant force and causing her to hit her head on the pavement. The vehicle then ran over parts of her body as it veered off the road beyond the kerb and onto the pavement, causing her further injuries.”
The first action to be taken by any driver who has suddenly recognized a supposed secondary school classmate is to hoot the horn for her attention, not to pass her and then suddenly attempt to reverse in her direction. And this press release says Tolulope was walking in the opposite direction of the passing car. So, to be able to hit her the way NAF wants us to believe, the said car must first of all veer off its own lane, with all other cars waiting for it to clear off, and then zoom straight into the opposite lane, where there will be other cars also passing, all of them waiting for this car to just go straight to hit the target! And the person who drove the car was able to hit her, he did not know that he had hit any object at all, until he had ran over her body onto the pavement.
Why do we ask these questions? Government has lost integrity, as trust has been broken over the years. When government officials tell us one thing, what we experience is totally different. Just go back to the recent drama involving the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
We were entertained with stories upon stories of supposed embezzlement, diversion of funds, ownership of foreign houses and mansions, by the government media, only for Mr Ibrahim Magu to come out with total denial of virtually all the allegations. And nobody has come out to defend those stories, such that we are all wondering now whether we ever read them in the first place.
It is the reason that the Coronavirus pandemic has not received due attention from the people. Many believe indeed that it is all part of the usual propaganda of the government. We should get to that level when anything coming officially from the government should be greeted with maximum attention and not paranoia. In this particular regime, we have been fed with lies, half-truths and outright falsehood, in the name of news and press briefings. That is why we find it so hard to believe the stories coming from NAF concerning Tolulope.
This event happened in Kaduna, the place of her birth. The laws regulating sudden and unnatural deaths demand that there should be a Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Tolulope, at least to help NAF and the government in preventing a recurrence.
Having released a hasty report that was greeted with much uproar, the general belief is that NAF will only work to justify its earlier statements, even if subsequent evidence suggests the contrary. The burial plan as announced by the government is too hasty. In the absence of a proper and an unbiased investigation that will unravel the mystery surrounding her death, in the absence of cogent and credible answers to the many questions being asked by Nigerians, a full national burial with whatever honours has no meaning to us as a nation that has lost one of our very best.
Peace without justice is a peace of the graveyard and so too ceremonies without the true facts. Pray, how do we celebrate in ignorance? How do we say bye to a superstar whose death remains a mystery? How do we console ourselves as a nation if we are not sure that this is not some deliberate hatchet job, or an attack by terrorists or plain murder?
It is not time for burial yet, unless there is something that needs to be covered up hurriedly. I have heard that some people fall in their bathroom and they die, some get hit by trucks right in front of their homes, while some others die from mere fever. This is true indeed, but it will not stop us from demanding for answers to the many questions being raised on this matter. Tolulope is not just ‘some people’, she is not just an ordinary Nigerian, but a role model, who became an inspiration to many young people, who was a ray of hope to the girl-child and who was an angel sent to quell the gender imbalance in the military especially. So, we cannot just sit and allow this to be swept under the dirty Nigerian carpet. I feel the pains that all Nigerians feel at this moment and the only way to douse the suspicions is to suspend all the burial plans for now, until proper investigation has been carried out. It is not the investigation from NAF, which has since compromised itself in the disjointed press releases issued since this unfortunate incident occurred. What is needed is an independent inquiry, led by a serving or retired judicial officer, including medical personnel nominated by the Nigerian Medical Association and other experts in the field. That is what the memory of Tolulope deserves, not a State burial that tends to cover the truth.
Tolulope dreamt big for her life and for Nigeria. She said:
“I was admitted into NDA on September 22, 2012, and I was commissioned into the NAF on September 16, 2017. Being a military personnel has been a long-time ambition. The carriage and what they stand for is simply exceptional.
I feel very privileged and very proud. I am happy that my success has brought me to this point. And I am very grateful to the Nigerian Air Force for the opportunity to have this title. And I am looking forward to giving my best to the service.”
Unfortunately, that ambition has been cut short. We demand more answers.