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One Burial and Six Funerals

23 Dec 2012

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Simon Kolawole Live!: Emailsimon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com


Life is nothing but unpredictable. As I arrived at the Port Harcourt airport on the morning of Saturday, December 15, 2012, I met the former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Mr. Timi Alaibe. Obviously, we were headed for the same place – Okoroba, Bayelsa State – for the burial of the father of presidential aide, Mr. Oronto Douglas. I asked Alaibe his plans. He said he was going to ride in a chopper with former National Security Adviser (NSA), Gen. Owoye Azazi, whom he was expecting to arrive “shortly”. I told him I was going with two of my friends and that we had arranged to get to Okoroba via Nembe by speedboat.

My friends and I eventually couldn’t make it to Okoroba as a result of a terrible mix-up in our plans. Around 4pm, I was back to the Port Harcourt airport waiting for my return flight to Lagos. Then the rumour filtered in that there had been an air tragedy involving Azazi and the governor of Kaduna State, Sir Patrick Ibrahim Yakowa. I began to make calls. My first instinct was to call Alaibe. His two phones were switched off. I panicked. I called Yakowa’s spokesman, Mr. Reuben Buhari, who was completely oblivious of what had happened. In fact, I was the one who broke the sad news to him. Even Yakowa’s aides, who were waiting in Port Harcourt and with whom Buhari had been communicating, were not yet aware of the disaster.

I finally got through to Alaibe, who told me the crash story was true, and said he eventually didn’t travel with Azazi. My mind began to spin in torment and sadness. I had just written an article, due for publication the following day, on road accidents in Nigeria. And now, another aircraft had dropped from the skies. When I began to get more information on the circumstances surrounding the crash, I became more saddened, not just by the deaths of Azazi, Yakowa and four other persons on board the Navy Augusta chopper, but also by certain inevitabilities in life. Life remains largely a mystery, no matter how much philosophy we bring into it.

The Douglas family, I was told, had made private arrangements for choppers to transport their guests from Port Harcourt to Okoroba. The Navy made its own chopper available, mainly for military VIPs coming for the event. Azazi and Yakowa went to Okoroba in private choppers, but when Azazi (a retired four-star general, former Chief of Defence Staff and former Chief of Army Staff) was offered a ride in the Navy Augusta helicopter back to Port Harcourt, he persuaded Yakowa to ride with him, saying there were still two places available. Perhaps unknown to Azazi, the spaces had actually been taken. But the original “allottees” could not complain as Yakowa and his aide took their slots and flew away.

I have listened to comments on this unfortunate incident, many of which I find bemusing. One, there are insinuations that the flight was sabotaged, either by Boko Haram or by some Northern enemies of Yakowa and Azazi, and by extension, haters of President Goodluck Jonathan. I know that anything can happen in Nigeria, but I don’t believe this speculation. It was, in my own opinion, an accident. The Navy chopper was not even part of the duo’s original commuting plans. Two, some Nigerians are rejoicing over the tragedy in the belief that “corrupt people” have died. This is sickening. All of us, clean or corrupt, will die some day. Every day, good people die, bad people die. And it is even ridiculous for anyone to believe that those of us outside government are the saints while those in government are the only sinners.

Three, someone said if a road had been constructed to Okoroba, the VIPs would not have taken choppers and, therefore, Azazi and Yakowa would not have died. Really? Statistics at my disposal show that people die in road accidents too! People die in boat mishaps! In fact, this year alone, more Nigerians have died in road accidents than in the history of air crashes in Nigeria! Accidents do happen. It doesn’t even matter if it is a military or commercial craft – crashes happen to all. In 2006, a Donnier 228 aircraft belonging to the Nigeria Air Force crashed in Benue State, killing top military officers. They were all on official duty. Last year, an OAS chopper crash killed Mrs. Josephine Damilola-Kuteyi, former CEO of Bacita Sugar Company. Tragedy does not discriminate. 

The most important issue being raised, however, is on the deployment of a military chopper for civilian use, as it happened at the burial of Pa Tamunoobebara Douglas. This is a very valid question. But I think it would be better asked by anyone who has never taken a free ride in an official vehicle before, either in the public or private sector. It is a point better made by those who have never used office stationery for personal correspondence, or allowed their spouses and children to use their official cars, or made personal calls with official lines, or printed personal documents with the office printer, or sent personal email using the office computer. We need this debate as we seek to clean up Nigeria, but we should give priority to commentators who have never been beneficiaries of these perks all their lives.

Dear God, how I feel for the bereaved families! I was told that the two pilots were among Nigerian military’s best. What a shame. I also sympathise with Oronto, a man I have known for close to 18 years. He is a fantastic Nigerian who harbours no ethnic or religious discrimination in his bones. He has been enjoying tremendous global goodwill right from his time as an environmental rights activist. It is unfortunate that this sort of tragedy would choose his father’s burial to strike – but this can happen to anybody. When we buried our grandfather last month, one prayer I kept praying was that all who came to the village would return to their stations in peace – no accidents, no robbery attacks, no police attacks, no kidnap. I must have prayed for journey mercies a million times!

My wish for those who are gloating and pontificating at this very difficult moment is simple: may life never humble them to the level that they will be forced to eat their words. Life could be very poetic and ironic, you know.

And Four Other Things...


INEC AGAIN
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is unrelenting in its effort to de-democratise freedom of association. The continuous deregistration of parties, because they are yet to win any election, remains unacceptable. For as long as the parties are not demanding funding from INEC, I don’t see why the body should continue on this wrong path, which I am very sure would be upturned by the courts. I would rather INEC devotes its energy to delivering electoral materials on time during elections. That is a major hindrance to credible elections, not the number of parties in the land.

AGAIN, BEWARE OF BOKO
May I repeat this warning? Beware of Boko Haram this season! It is very predictable that the militants will try to carry out attacks during this festive period. That is a no-brainer. However, I implore Nigerians to be more cautious about their security. Parties and church services will easily be targets. The attacks on telecoms companies’ offices in Kano yesterday are a timely reminder that these guys are still around and plotting every day. We should not be deceived into taking our security lightly and going to sleep with both eyes closed.

SACKING SEC
In order to get back at the DG of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms Arumna Oteh, over the N44 million bribery affair, the House of Representatives, in July, asked President Goodluck Jonathan to sack her. The president refused. Well, the return match is here. The House says it has barred the Federal Government from financing the activities of SEC in 2013 by refusing to pass the commission’s budget. “This means that the commission will not be able to pay salaries and embark on some expenditure as from January next year if Oteh remains the DG,” House Chief Whip Ishaka Mohammed Bawa gleefully announced. Are we about to cut our nose to spite our face?

BUHARI AT 70
Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) is one Nigerian who draws extreme passions. You either love or hate him. You cannot be indifferent to him. I was a young secondary school student when he became head of state on December 31, 1983. His government brought some sense of discipline and pride to being a Nigerian, but when he was overthrown in 1985, we rejoiced, saying he was too harsh. Today, many of us look back and conclude that it was a rare opportunity to change this country for good. We lost it. We will continue to pay for it. As he clocks 70, I wish him more beautiful years ahead.

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