Tolulope Arotile

Ayo Oyoze Baje pays tribute to Nigeria’s first female fighter pilot killed in a freaky accident

“Out, out, brief candle.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing”. -William Shakespeare(Macbeth)

The pain runs deep, beyond wishful words, beyond tears of tragedy! No doubt about it, death is our constant companion, a shadowy hunter that wields its cudgel at its whims. That explains why in a tribute to a loved one years ago I described death as a ‘cruel coward’. It triggers terror, anguish, agony and oftentimes torrents of tears. But mortals must die, at one time or the other. It is the debt we all must pay for having lived. Yes, citizens rejoice when their tyrants and oppressors die, for the living to understand that earthly power is transient.

The pain, however, is when death stalks the young and the innocent, the good-hearted and the care-givers, the brightest and the best amongst us, and rips them off the bosoms of their beloved ones. So we grieve especially when such happens in preventable circumstances. That perhaps, explains the wave of shock that has so far trailed the recent sudden death of Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile. She was only 24 years old but she had made history as Nigeria’s first female fighter pilot back in October 2019. That was less than one year ago.

“Damn! We lost her before we even had her!” So stated ageless Angela Agoawike, Nigeria’ renowned veteran journalist. And that grieves us the more. Tolulope was poised to do exploits; to make not only members of her family, Kogi State, Nigeria, the African continent but the world proud of her courage to dare in a male-dominated profession. But all that is gone – her brilliance, her efforts, her toils, her sacrifices, all gone like a candle in the wind!

The fact that she did not die in the course of duty, up there in a fighter-plane or manoeuvering against the turbulence of the cloudy sky, but down here as a voiceless victim of a car accident in Kaduna makes it all the more heart-rending.

According to Chiemelie Ezeobi, writing for one of the dailies, Tolulope’s dastardly death has defied logic. “She was targeted by the bandits who shot repeatedly at her aircraft but the dogged fighter engaged her combat skills and evaded them, while successfully carrying out what she was deployed for. She had successfully evaded death only to die in a freak accident inside the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Base in Kaduna on Tuesday, July 14, 2020”.

According to recent media reports, she had just returned from ‘Operation GAMA AIKI’ in Minna, Niger State when an excited former Air Force Secondary School classmate saw her strolling and reversed his car to greet her. That move proved fatal as his car pushed her down and crushed part of her head! How tragic!

What matters now are the lessons to glean from her short but illustrious life and what measures to put in place to prevent similar accident in the future. The Nigerian Air Force will certainly miss her. For instance, the NAF Director of Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola said: “During her short but impactful stay in the service, late Arotile, who hails from Iffe in Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State, contributed significantly to the efforts to rid the North Central States of armed bandits and other criminal elements by flying several combat missions under Operation GAMA AIKI in Minna, Niger State”.

Aside her gruesome death, there have been several reported cases of carnage on our highways, especially along Abuja-Lokoja-Okene highway that have claimed the lives of some young Nigerians. For instance, on 3 August, 2011, residents woke up to behold the crushed bodies of over 50 victims of armed robbery at the Zariagi end of the Abuja/Okene highway. The victims reportedly were said to be passengers of an Abuja-bound luxury bus, marked XI 300 ABC, belonging to a popular transport company. They were ordered to lie face down on the highway before they were dispossessed of their belongings. Soon after, an unsuspecting truck was said to have run over the victims and later escaped the scene of the accident!

And in early April, 2011 virtually all the national dailies ran the scary news of how over 80 passengers perished in separate auto-accidents, specifically in Edo and Anambra States. According to those who offered graphic accounts of the horrifying tragedy, a trailer with a burst tyre rammed into a petrol tanker and a fully loaded luxury bus.

The implications are grave for thousands of homes, communities and countries. Such accidents deny them of the active labour force, while rendering not a few children as helpless orphans.

Amongst the several factors fingered as responsible for the sheer wanton waste of human lives on our roads are, the use of dilapidated, non-roadworthy contraptions called commuter buses, recklessness on the part of the drivers, outright disregard and disrespect for traffic rules and regulations and of course, pothole-riddled roads.

Drivers who engage in drunk-driving, over speeding, over-taking other vehicles at dangerously sharp bends, over-loading vehicles with both passengers and goods and driving at night, even when fatigued have led to the loss of several lives. The pain in all of this is that most of these accidents were clearly preventable.

The FRSC has to be empowered to carry out its core functions of ensuring that we return to our homes safe and sound after our journeys. The same policy should be extended to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and Vehicle Inspection Services. The National Assembly should make an enabling law for the establishment of well-equipped and staffed hospitals within some stipulated kilometers along the highways. The frequency of the patrol teams of both FRSC and NEMA should be increased.

Beyond these, public office holders found to have embezzled billions of naira meant for road construction should be brought to speedy justice, instead of being treated as untouchables. Enough of this culture of impunity that has killed millions of innocent souls.

Let the younger generation read this from Tolulope as food-for-thought: “My advice to younger ones out there is that they should keep doing their best, they should keep running the race until they finish and they should not set limit for themselves because the only limit they have is the one they set for themselves.”