The country was thrown into mourning last Tuesday when the Air Force announced that Tolulope Arotile, Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot, died at the NAF Base in Kaduna. But who killed her? Asks Davidson Iriekpen
Who killed Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, Nigeria’s first female combat helicopter pilot? This is one question the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) needs to urgently unravel going by the interests a lot of Nigerians and groups have shown in unraveling the circumstances leading to her death. Before her demise, both social and conventional media were agog with reports on how she was leading a major onslaught against bandits and armed Islamic fundamentalists in the North.
It was believed that her sorties led to the deaths of several militants and bandits. It was also gathered that her last operation was in the North-central states tagged “Operation Gama Aiki in Minna, Niger State where despite rockets fired at her, she succeeded in killing many bandits and fundamentalists.
Then to the consternation of many Nigerians, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, the sad news broke that the 24-year-old combatant had died.
The initial information many Nigerians got when the said news broke was that Arotile died as a result of head injuries sustained from a road traffic accident at the NAF Base in Kaduna. While they were still wondering how the deceased could have deliberately driven herself to death in the base or who could have driven a car on top speed in the base to cause her death, a statement by NAF opened a floodgate of suspicions.
According to the statement signed by the NAF Director of Public Relations and Information, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, the events that resulted in the death of Arotile started when the 24-year-old was allegedly hit by a car driven by a former classmate who wanted to greet her at the NAF Base in Kaduna State. He said the unnamed ex-classmate was reportedly reversing the car when it hit Arotile who fell and hit her head on the tarmac. He added that the deceased subsequently died while receiving treatment at the hospital where she was taken to.
“Flying Officer Arotile died on July 14, 2020 at the age of 24, when she was inadvertently hit by the reversing vehicle of an excited former Air Force Secondary School classmate while trying to greet her. Before her untimely death, Flying Officer Arotile made significant and outstanding contributions to the war against terrorism, armed banditry and other forms of criminality in the country, flying several combat missions,” the statement read.
The circumstances of Arotile’s death have raises many questions: Who could have wanted her dead? Or who could have sneaked into the base and murdered her?
This is why many family members and observers and who read the NAF’s statement on the cause of death of the young officer, are not buying the statement. They feel that there is more to death than meet the eyes, adding that the air force certainly has more questions to answer concerning her death.
For instance, those familiar with the Air Force Base said with the number of speed breakers on the roads and their heights, it would be extremely difficult for a car to knock anyone down in the barracks. They wondered what happened to the driver of the car, his or her name and where the suspected killer is at the moment?
Many are wondering if the bandits or Boko Haram members she had seriously battled in combat operations or their agents in military uniform could have engineered the murder the 24-year-old officer who made significant and outstanding contributions to the war against terrorism, armed banditry and other forms of criminality in the country.
One of such persons who is not convinced by the statement from the NAF is her immediate elder sister, Damilola Adegboye. She is demanding a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death. First, she wondered how the reverse of a vehicle could kill a person in such manner.
“We in the family are not convinced that Tolu can just die like that in a freak accident. I know that the military is well trained in the art of investigation, we want them to carry out a thorough investigation that can convince us beyond all doubts that the incident that led to her death was real.”
She said on the day of the incident, Arotile and herself were in the room where she was sleeping
“a call came into her phone which she picked but from the way they spoke, I knew the caller must be a senior officer calling her to come to Air Force base. She felt reluctant and I offered to drop her off. One hour later, I read online that something serious had happened to her. I couldn’t believe that somebody I just dropped off is dead,” she explained.
Last Friday, the NAF released a statement saying that Arotile would be buried on July 23 in Abuja with full military compliment. But before that is done, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and human rights, lawyer, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, has appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to direct the suspension of all burial plans until the conclusion of the investigations into her death.
Adegboruwa posed 10 questions which the air force must answer due to its inconsistent stories that has not helped to douse the suspicions.
The SAN asked: “Who drove the car? Where did the accident happen? Where was Arotile going to? A reversing car means it had passed her, so was she trekking? Was she blindfolded not to see the reversing car to escape? Were her legs tied? What kind of medical treatment did she receive? In which hospital was she treated? Who called her out from her rest after a successful air combat on bandits? Why are there inconsistent statements from the Nigerian Air Force, being released in bits and pieces?”
Also, the Aare Onakakanfo of Yorubaland, Chief Gani Adams, the pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere and the World Yoruba Congress (WYC) have joined in calling on the federal government to thoroughly investigate the “gruesome murder” of Arotile, saying her death is suspicious.
Adams, in a statement by his Special Assistant on Media, Kehinde Aderemi, said he is taking lightly the NAF explanation that a reversing car killed combat pilot Arotile.
“The best we can do as a nation is to get to the root of the circumstances culminating in her death. As far as I am concerned, reports of her death remained suspicious to me because her death has raised many questions.
“How would such a promising, young girl be killed by a reversing car within the premises of the barrack? Who drove the car? What was his or her name? Where was the suspected killer at the moment? And what is the present situation? We will like to know, and that is why I am charging the international community to investigate and look into the circumstances surrounding her death.
Similarly, Afenifere while expressing shock over the death of Arotile, called for a coroner inquest into her death. In a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Yinka Odumakin, Afenifere said it was not satisfied with the explanation given for the cause of her death.
The statement read: “We do not accept that her death was an accident until the report of a coroner says how she died and how a supposed attempt to stop and greet could come with a deadly impact. We say this against what is known of the infiltration of the forces by sympathisers and agents of Boko Haram.”
On its part, the Yoruba World Congress (WYC) called for a thorough and transparent investigation of the accident. A statement by its President, Prof. Banji Akintoye, said: “The WYC calls for a thorough and transparent investigation of the accident.”
Another pro-Yoruba group, Apapo O’odua Koya (AOKOYA), has equally said the least it expects from Arotile’s death is an independent enquiry. It added that the theory that she died in a motor accident inside the Air Force Base is a cock and bull story and doubtful.
In a statement it released at the weekend and signed by Captain Abigo Oritsebugbemi (rtd) and its Middle Belt Coordinator, Akeem Meduna, the group said: “We want full investigation into this suspicious death. We find it difficult to believe the story based on the information at our disposal. How can she have died in a traffic accident right inside the Air Force Base in Kaduna?
“We have made preliminary findings and all officers who spoke to us could not understand how that could have happened. One officer, her colleague in Kaduna specifically said the case of murder was the strongest motive. There must be an independent enquiry for anyone to be convinced Tolulope Arotile was not murdered. We have been informed that their agents and supporters in the military marked her and only succeeded in setting a trap for her.”
Also, the Joint National Action Civil Society Coalition called on the federal government, the Nigerian Armed Forces, and the Nigerian Police, to undertake a thorough investigation, including commissioning a coroner’s inquest into her death. The group which is the umbrella body of 10 associations, said given the strategic importance of her position to national security, and the various versions of how her death occurred, it was not impossible that she was murdered.
“Given the strategic importance of her position to national security, and the various versions of how her death occurred that have emerged in the public domain, we call on the federal government, the Nigerian Armed Forces, and the Nigerian Police, to undertake a thorough investigation, including commissioning a coroner’s inquest into her death.
“Considering her crucial role in the fight against insecurity in Nigeria, it must be taken into consideration that the flying officer may have been a target of criminal elements for reasons best known to them. It must also be recalled that since Nigeria launched its war on terrorism, law enforcement officers have inadvertently become the counterstrike targets of organised criminal groups.
“Whilst reports from the Nigerian Armed Forces have alleged that the circumstances surrounding her death were purely accidental, it is important for all doubts to be cleared through an exhaustive inquest as to the cause of her death.
“The Joint National Action Civil Society Coalition respects and acknowledges the sacrifices of the Nigerian military and officers of law enforcement agencies who battle at the frontline against insecurity in our country, and urges the Government of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Armed Forces to ensure the security and welfare of all its security assets.”
It was not until after these outcries from individuals and groups that the Air Force at the weekend said it had arrested two persons in connection with Arotile’s death.
According to NAF’s spokesman, Commodore Daramola, “The two boys are in custody and the NAF will do a thorough investigation into the matter. It is a routine process – our own processes that are ongoing because it happened inside a NAF base.
“At the appropriate time, whatever information needs to go out will go out. But we cannot pre-empt that investigation process. Whatever needs to be known will be known; it is standard practice. So, we are investigating the circumstances leading to her death by a road traffic accident. It is an investigation because it may go beyond NAF.”
Many Nigerians are hoping and praying that this is not where that matter will end or be counted among unresolved murder cases in the country.